Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Roofs (part 3 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

Rooftop Agriculture in Port-au-Prince: Creative? Crazy? Or Common Sense?

An underused rooftop overlooks the dense urban neighborhood of Delmas, Port-au-Prince

Another roof example (funny enough) reflects the years I and my colleagues spent bashing our heads in Chicago against entrenched views of how people thought of their buildings and their environment.

In the United States, we’ve gotten used to roofs being places where one punches a lot of holes, puts all the things one doesn’t want to see (HVAC units, extractor fans, and vents), hooks them up to the things we do want inside like washing machines and air conditioning, spreads a litany of petrochemical-based products in the form of roofing, and prays the whole damned thing doesn’t leak until the building changes hands.
That’s about it.

When promoting the Red Line Green Roofs Initiative in 2008-2009, my colleagues and I argued that roofs were the ‘fifth façade’ of our buildings, and that they could, and should, do more than simply be inactive spaces devoid of human interaction which depreciate in value quickly.

In developing countries, they get it.

Roofs in developing countries are also critical tools in water conservation.

Typical Haitian rural home with simple rainwater capture and storage: pitched roof directs water to above-ground cistern (at center of photo).

In rural Haiti, the average rural home has a pitched roof which directs rainwater to gutters, downspouts, and finally into above- or below-ground cisterns, from which water may be drawn. In urban areas such as Port-au-Prince, a (nearly) flat roof serves the same purpose, with the bonus of becoming places where people sit, bathe, wash and dry clothes, and even ride a bike!

Because multi-story/multi-family buildings in urban areas of Haiti are common, flat roofs of steel-reinforced concrete are prevalent. For reasons of ease of construction, fire-resistance, and building integrity during earthquakes, they are also ideal, especially with better design, detailing, materials, and construction practices.

Back in Chicago, we used to dream of such roofs.
While doing feasibility studies for potential rooftop agriculture projects, we primarily came across lightweight steel joists or simple wood joists supporting roofs which had very little additional available dead load or live load to give. Simply put, having extra dead load allows one to put more stuff (maybe a green roof?), and extra dead load might allow the roof to be used by people.

We did have some successes, however (see below).

Rooftop garden installation in Chicago, IL, 2009-2010. Architect: Dave Hampton, Echo Studio; Designer: Michael Repkin, Repkin Biosystems; Contractor: Derek Ottens, Green Cross.

 A truly sad missed opportunity, however, is when a new building is planned without accounting for a rooftop to be not only green, by useable by people!
It was sad in Chicago, and even sadder in Haiti.

In urban areas of Haiti, the difference between a roof which is capable of holding people safely – or not – is negligible. And, coupled with the prevalence of rooftop water storage tanks, to which water is traditionally pumped using a small electrical pump from cisterns, a ready source for water-conscious irrigation is readily available by attaching simple, flexible drip emitters.

To quickly sum up the benefits of rooftop agriculture:
·      Beautiful places added to urban environments sorely lacking views of, and access to, living things
·      Reduction of the Urban Heat Island Effect by active cooling through evapotranspiration
·      Reduction of local roof temperatures by as much as 60 degrees F
·      Deflection of heat-causing UV rays to reduce roof overheating, extending the life of roof membranes
·      Creation of local jobs
·      Reduction of ‘food miles.’
·      Fresh, hyper-local produce to create food independence

I wanted to put a caveat and say that some of the above are ‘truer’ in developed countries than in places like Haiti, but when one works through the ramifications of each… they seem doubly true.
For example, fresh produce is brought to the city of Port-au-Prince on the heads of villagers from the mountainous Kenscoff region, an 8-hour trek. Would some of these people like to consider being urban farmers? Crazy, but not as crazy as a population of 100,000 in the dense Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Delmas 32 without significant space for urban agriculture.

And the interlocking considerations concerning that one design decision have only just begun.

Again, the values that drove me before I left for Haiti, namely the conscious conservation of resources through design in order to work – and live – better with our environment, did not need to be forgotten.

Quite the opposite: they needed to be reinforced.

What Next?

Haiti was an incredible opportunity to serve, personally and professionally, despite my having focused here on those things which could have been rather the good things which did happen. Nonetheless, the frustrations I experienced when the winning arguments were ‘too crazy’ or ‘we don’t have the budget for that’ are with me still.

Given this, maybe the next logical step is to be in a position of power that the architect is usually too low down in the food chain to affect.
In other words, maybe it would be rewarding to be working with a government body or a funding agency and be the one to say things like:
‘not “crazy” enough’
‘we don’t have the budget for you to build badly’
‘would you put your kid in that?’
‘working with the environment is not an option… it’s the answer.’
The lessons learned before, and after, Haiti can thankfully begin to merge.
And, as I seek what is next for me, I may find that the questions that arose in each place may very well have the same answers.


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