Constructing Contemporary Sustainability Out of Ancient Ingenuity

How Sustainability Has Been Shaped by the Past

Emma Menebroker

10/10/20234 min read

Constructing Contemporary Sustainability Out of Ancient Ingenuity:

How Sustainability Has Been Shaped by the Past

This week we will be embarking on a journey into the annals of history to unearth the remarkable contributions of ancient technology that continue to steer our modern quest for a sustainable world.

In our contemporary age, we find ourselves increasingly drawn to the wisdom of ancient civilizations, seeking both inspiration and sustainable solutions rooted in their experiences. These resourceful societies, often confronted with scarcity, created technologies that resonate profoundly with the challenges we are facing today. Our drive to live more sustainably has led many to explore innovations of the past and adopt them to fix the problems of the future.

  1. Reinstating the malqaf

One of the largest energy consumers in the summer heat are the air conditioners we use to cool our homes. A solution, thought to have been invented in Egypt or Iran over three thousand years ago, is the malqaf. This architectural design consists of a large rectangular or cylindrical building, on the top of a connected building, with many large windows that funnel the prevailing wind down into the common space below. This design has been phased out in recent years due to its downsides, including the collection of animals and debris through the windows (1). While we are unlikely to compromise on the cleanliness of spaces in the near future, there are most definitely designs that can account for these obstacles, allowing a shift away from harmful fossil fuels and refrigerants.

  1. Reviving a Chic Cooling Design

In the same vein as the malqaf, Israeli designer Yael Issacharov has developed an innovative method for cooling one’s house without electricity. Inspired by the traditional practice of suspending a Palestinian ‘jarrah’, clay pot, from the ceiling to cool a room through evaporation, she has developed an aesthetically pleasing wall-mounted piece of pottery that is also functional. Called Nave AC, this system is composed of hollow clay tubes with a large amount of surface area that, when evaporation occurs, cools the walls of the room (2). While this system requires an input of water, there is no need for electricity, saving users money and promoting sustainability.

  1. Sustainable Materials Hidden in Plain Sight

A recent discovery that has caused much excitement in the field of sustainability is the discovery of why ancient Roman concrete structures have lasted thousands of years, and yet our modern-day concrete lasts only a matter of decades. Researchers have discovered that the ancient Romans incorporated lime clasts into their concrete, which they then heated to form the more durable compound quicklime. The real genius of this design came into play when cracks formed in the concrete. These cracks would become filled when water which reacted with the lime to create a calcium carbonate patch. This made the concrete more resilient against earthquakes and erosion (3). This new discovery has exciting implications for sustainability, ensuring that structures made of concrete, from buildings to bridges and sidewalks, last longer and are more resilient against natural wear and tear.

  1. Irrigation to Save Water

Irrigation typically takes place above ground in the United States, being shot out of sprinklers onto the surrounding crops. Scientists and farmers are finding though that the most effective methods of irrigation are underground. One ancient method, still practiced in many parts of the world, is clay pot irrigation. With evidence dating back four thousand years in China, this form of irrigation consists of a clay pot, called an ‘olla’, planted adjacent to crops, allowing plant roots to grow towards the pot and take water as needed when it diffuses through the clay membrane (4). While the clay pot method is harder to implement on a larger scale and would require farmers to reconcile with a non-tilling practice, there are many drip irrigation systems that are being implemented on large scales that are effective at combating the high level of evaporation and water loss that comes with sprinkler use.

  1. Water Wheels: Pioneers of Hydroelectric Power

Continuing with the theme of water, the concept of a power-generative water wheel was birthed in ancient Rome and has become instrumental for modern-day hydropower solutions. First referenced in 4000 BCE., the vertical water wheel, more efficient than its horizontal counterpart, was created by Roman civil engineer, Vitruvius. This design, powered by water and gravity, provided many services throughout history including the powering of irrigation systems, sawmills, textile mills, and the grinding of grain (5). This technological advancement that has served humanity in a multitude of ways is now being adopted for sustainability purposes, backing a shift towards hydropower. The hydrologic turbine has been tailored to maximize the power generated, taking many forms depending on both flow and water abundance. Hydropower today accounts for approximately 29% of total renewable energy generated in the United States (6).

Bridging Ancient Wisdom and Sustainable Tomorrow

From time-tested windmills to homes carved out of the earth, there are a plethora of other ancient technologies that are just waiting to be analyzed for modern sustainable significance.

In the spirit of Circular Stream Engineering's dedication to sustainable solutions, we urge you to embrace the wisdom of our ancestors. By seamlessly weaving their ingenious approaches into modern technology, we can create a more sustainable world—one that cherishes our environment, conserves limited resources, and guarantees a brighter future for future generations.


  1. Shokoohi, Kimiya. “The ancient Persian way to keep cool.” BBC: Future Planet, Accessed 10 October 2023.

  2. Diaz, Jesus. “This ancient AC system will cool your house without electricity.” Fast Company, Accessed 10 October 2023.

  3. Chandler, David. “Riddle solved: Why was Roman concrete so durable?.” MIT News, Accessed 10 October 2023.

  4. Carnevale, Tino. “Olla Watering Pots.” ABC: Gardening Australia, Accessed 10 October 2023.

  5. Bellis, Mary. “The History of the Water Wheel.” Thought Co., Accessed 10 October 2023.

  6. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Accessed 10 October 2023.