Sustainability: as old as the hills of Rome

28 November 2017 • 3 min reading time

Climate adaptation, sustainability, the circular economy: many of the issues we are working on today have echoed down the ages. I realized this last summer, while holidaying in Italy.

Picture the scene: it’s 30°C or thereabouts, and the Italian sun is beating down on your back as you wander down a dusty marble path in Pompeii. It strikes you that the pavements are very high and that the surface of the street is set very deep into the ground. You also notice that a few raised blocks have been placed on the street, between the pavement on one side and the pavement on the other. The guide proudly informed you that, as far back as 2000 years ago, when this street was designed, the planners here were already allowing for extreme weather conditions and climate change. The raised pavement ensured that, after a heavy downpour, the rainwater drained off into the street rather than flowing into the houses. The raised blocks helped pedestrians to keep their feet dry when crossing the street. Sufficient space was left between the blocks to let carriages pass along the street. Nowadays, we design structures to be climate-proof and we try to manage water flows by changing the layout of cities. Sounds familiar, right? Smart cookies those Romans!

Imagine you’re back in the Middle Ages

Now imagine that, after a long day of wandering through the streets of Pompeii, you return to your holiday accommodation. Knowing Italy, that is bound to be a beautiful spot where you can easily imagine that you have travelled back through time, to the Middle Ages. Now take a closer look at the construction of the building in which you are staying. I often do that too, as I’m still a bit nerdy when it comes to technology. Take a long hard look at the heavy wooden beams in particular. They have endured a great deal over the years. You see the tell-tale signs of everything that has happened to the beams in the course of time. The original chisel marks are still visible in the surface of the wood, together with saw cuts, colour differences, nails, etc.

“In the middle ages, when a ship had outlived its usefulness, its timbers were reused to build houses. In this way, the material retained its value and is still working just fine today”

From ship to house

This sort of thing always makes me wonder how much carpentry work is involved in a building like that. Now I am fortunate that my partner is an archaeologist, who just happens to know something about the history of architecture. She told me that, in the Middle Ages, old ship’s timbers were often reused in buildings. When a ship had outlived its usefulness, its timbers were reused to build houses. In this way, the material retained its value and is still working just fine today.

A foundation of hull planks

That item of information immediately solved another question. Last summer, I joined a guided tour of the St.-Bavokerk church, which is located at Haarlem's main marketplace, the Grote Markt. I thought the Dutch guide said that the church’s foundations are made of huiden (hides). I remember thinking that it was a bit odd to construct a foundation from animal skins. Then I realized that he meant scheepshuiden (hull planks), not dierenhuiden (animal hides). Indeed, a ship’s hull planks could function perfectly well as a foundation...

Learning from the past

But lets return to today’s world, a time at which our consumption of raw materials conflicts with our desire to produce less CO2 and when we can see with our own eyes that extreme weather poses a risk to the viability of the living environment in cities. When seeking solutions, we might be well advised to pay a little more heed to our ancestors. Because it seems we can learn a great deal from the past; sustainability and circular thinking are themes that echo down through the ages.

So, travel a lot, live life to the full and prepare to be constantly amazed. Because, who knows, our ancestors’ technology might just give us the edge we need!


Fred Hartendorf


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