Zaha Hadid had to leave Iraq to become one of the great architects of the globalized age. But that’s not the only path for aspiring designers. “I was talking to an accelerator recently,” says Basima Abdulrahman, the founder of Kesk, one of the country’s first sustainable architecture consultancies, based in the northern city of Erbil. “One of their requirements [for funding] was that you had to be in Europe. I really emphasised that no, I wasn’t going to leave. If I was going to do anything, it was going to be here. What’s the point of going to do it in Europe? Europe doesn’t need people like me. I am most needed here. So I lost that opportunity, but that’s fine.”
The 31-year-old has before her the challenge of building sustainable buildings – efficient in energy and water usage, minimising waste – in a region with almost no history of green thinking. Introduced to the sustainable-building concept while studying in the US, she was drawn to it as a nature-lover. But she was intimidated by the thought of putting it into action. “I doubted for a long time that I could do it myself, and I really wanted to do it under someone else’s initiative,” she says.
Then an inspirational phrase in a book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg opened her eyes. “It said, if you really want to do something, you will learn by doing it. At that moment I had this paradigm shift: I could learn just by doing it.”
In that respect Iraq’s status as an ecological blank slate is perfect for her new company (named after the Kurdish for “green”). The nearest such architectural and design practices are in Dubai, says Abdulrahman. Sustainable architecture is a pressing need worldwide, with buildings accounting for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to some studies. But the need in Kurdistan is especially acute, with seasonal extremes of hot and cold making energy conservation even more important.
Even so, she is currently struggling to raise awareness of sustainable practices. “It takes a lot of effort on my part,” she says. She’s begun with seminars for university students more open to new thinking. She also launched a design competition this month, in collaboration with Ishik University.
Kesk currently consults with business owners on retro-fitting existing buildings to meet sustainability criteria. Spelling things out in financial terms remains a necessity, says Abdulrahman. “I have to put it in numbers: how much it’s going to save them per month or per year. If I say: ‘It’s really good for the environment’, they’re like [unimpressed face], ‘Yeah, OK.’ So I have to make it sound more appealing: it’ll pay for itself in three to five years, and then you’ll make a profit afterwards.”
It’s this attitude – more than any prejudice towards her as a young woman – that’s slowing Kesk’s progress (the company has yet to construct a building). The current standoff between Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities in Erbil has also halted construction and investment in the city for the time being. Particularly galling for Abdulrahman as she grew up in Baghdad, raised by parents who had emigrated from southern Turkey, and insists that she wants to work across the country, not just in Kurdistan.
Basima, who is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, is aiming to have her first green building up in Erbil within two or three years, then a green city in the region within 10 – which sounds like a Hadid-sized ambition. But first she must wait and finish the slow work of pouring the philosophical foundations. “Making the environment a priority is difficult for people here. They think the most important thing is the security situation, then the economy. But they don’t consider the environment as a serious issue. They don’t realise it’s as big, if not bigger, than those other things.”