Friday, December 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Roofs (part 1 of 3)

or, Lessons in Resource Conservation from a Post-Disaster, Developing-Nation Context
…And How to Reconcile them with One’s Experience in Design, Energy-Efficiency, Urban Agriculture, and Living Systems

A 'temporary' home built around a tree near the Villa Rosa neighborhood, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2011.

Returning to the United States recently after nearly two years in the much-beleaguered Caribbean nation of Haiti is quite a startling change, both personally and professionally.

The question, as I’ve explored in previous posts, is not only “what do I do next” but also “what does my profession do next?”

In October 2010, I took a position as a Design Fellow with Architecture for Humanity in Port-au-Prince, and was seconded, or as I like to refer to it ‘embedded’ (literally) as staff architect for a relief organization started by actor/director Sean Penn immediately following the January 12, 2010 earthquake to assume the management of a camp that arose informally on the grounds of a working country club.
55,000 internally displaced people had made temporary homes in the middle of Haiti’s largest city on a golf course, without existing infrastructure more significant than a few drainage canals, paths, lights, and the occasional ball-washer.

As J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) began to move from much-needed medical services-focused disaster response into redevelopment to encourage the voluntary return of locals to the neighborhoods surrounding the camp, I helped create the Redevelopment Program and was responsible for enlisting and managing a growing team of architects, engineers, and builders. We planned, designed, and built new homes, retrofitted existing homes and a school, and did adaptive reuse of existing buildings into clinics and a community center, all to earthquake-resistant standards.

Communication and coordination across Haiti were still poor even nearly a year after the quake, and government, NGOs, funding agencies, and private enterprise - when they managed to speak to each other - often had conflicting agendas. J/P HRO, which its CEO himself described as “a plane that built itself after takeoff”, was still learning how to communicate better internally and get increasingly complex projects done.
The pressure was constant to work quickly and effectively. Some projects worked better than others, and lessons to learn abounded.

Many lessons have stayed with me.

The ones I still ponder the most involved decisions not taken which, in Haiti, seemed like luxuries at the time. Fundamentally, however, those decisions ultimately about how we work with, and sometimes against, our environment.

Working From Underground to the Rooftops

The Rooftop Victory Garden at True Nature Foods, Chicago, IL, 2009.

Prior to Haiti, my experience included 15 years of working in architecture firms, ranging from small and community-based to large and corporate, on projects from a children’s group home in the Blue Ridge mountains to a 180,000 square foot underground museum storage and research facility next to Lake Michigan.
After the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, I was inspired to re-examine life a bit, and start my own small practice, Echo Studio, which focused on ‘sustainable’ projects, paying particular attention to energy-efficiency and resource conservation.

I helped found and run Urban Habitat Chicago, a nonprofit that promoted sustainable concepts and practices, specifically urban agriculture. One project involved our salvaging building materials from a 1958 Modernist home slated to fall to the bulldozer within 5 days. This led me to research a great alternative to demolition: building deconstruction, and I did all that I could to help bring that growing industry to Chicago, along with encouraging materials reuse. I eventually partnered with the Delta Institute and joined the board of the Rebuilding Exchange, which takes surplus reclaimed materials and sells them at reduced cost, as well as producing valued-added items such as furniture and special objects.

I also began to fill gaps I felt I had in my training with continuing education, taking classes at the Chicago Center for Green Technology, becoming LEED certified, and finally a certified consultant for Passive House, one of the highest-efficiency design standards in the world.
My volunteer and professional experiences led me to some more off-the-beaten path projects, such as making a small building with 85% reclaimed material, advocating for better use of urban roofs along transit corridors, and designing and building living walls and rooftop gardens.

In a nutshell, most everything I was doing had become about the conscious conservation of resources through design, in order to work – and live –better with our environment.

Then came Haiti.

Related posts

A Tale of Two Roofs (part 2 of 3) 
A Tale of Two Roofs (part 3 of 3)  

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