In the UK, as in most affluent countries, sustainable architecture is defined by factors like carbon footprint, energy performance, waste management, daylighting and the occasional bat-box, to score that last BREEAM point.
Regulation and ratings are critical in a £90Billion industry where commercial viability and climate adaptation don’t yet mesh and developments are pock-marked with eco-bling. Love it or hate it, the system does make achieving a greener city easier, much the way bumpers steer a pinball through its noisy course.
So what happens when you strip that guidance away? Architect Nick Willson and colleagues found out when they were engaged to build an education centre in Sierra Leone – and discovered first-hand that sustainability means very different things in the eighth-poorest country in the world. One of the biggest shocks was the casual disregard for personal safety: Willson said people shouldering timbers to the site would suddenly veer across the road in front of his vehicle; he said the average life-expectancy of 48 perhaps made recklessness understandable, but getting used to it was something else.
Willson described the project during a session at Open City’s Green Sky Thinking week, where sustainability practitioners of all stripes share case studies and debate possible ways forward. The session was called The Influence of Nature in Buildings, and while there wasn’t much on biomimicry, there was lively discussion about adaptation – to different climates, to working contexts and to the ethics around eco-lodges.
For the education centre, Willson and his team had to jettison much of their green vision – one similarity with working…well, anywhere, really. Low materials quality and construction skills meant no easy-care metal roof; energy self-sufficiency was required as much by regular cable theft as by sustainability targets, and theft also meant high fences, nixing an open-campus plan. Even weaning the contractor off mahogany as a framing material was a challenge, because the hardwood – scarce and expensive for us – was easy to find, and didn’t have to be dried for six months like the timber Willson’s team sourced.
The whole project was very much defined by location, economic conditions and community – again, similar to developed countries, although community involvement in Sierra Leone meant adjusting to people’s daily realities more than setting up formal charettes and public consultations.
There were some satisfying successes – Willson said installing rainwater-harvesting tanks encouraged locals to start using water butts; the team found area metalworkers who ultimately made all the building’s shutters; and a closed-loop waste, rainwater and gardening system has spread to resident allotments. There’s more on the Equiano Centre here.
There’s a fine line to developing-country projects, though. They offer excellent lessons about getting back to basics, being resourceful, listening to users and operating in new conditions. They provide assets, skills and training at no or low cost to communities, as most are funded by governments, NGOs and at least partly by the practices themselves.
But what about the ethics of dropping in then disappearing? The Open Architecture Network lists 385 projects in Africa, and a scan of the project outlines shows most of them being designed and/or delivered by European or North American practices. Clearly they can’t all be properly followed up – the travel costs alone would preclude it. How do host communities enforce contracts or punch-lists on [well-meaning] people who’ve left the continent?
What about imposing personal aesthetics on people who just need a functioning hospital or sports facility? Poor, unregulated countries may be excellent places to try out a utopian design, but is it what they need? More and more designers like Australian Lucinda Hartley are working to turn the process on its head, by starting with a conversation with local users and letting the building take shape from there. It’s a promising direction, and one that Willson and others are trying to follow.
It’s also true that extremely useful products have come from creative people working for struggling populations, but even those can be subverted. The award-winning concrete-cloth tent, nominally designed for natural disasters and refugees, appears – at least from this video – to have found its niche as a military asset, complete with “force protection capability.” Land Rover not included.
Finally, there’s the unspoiled wilderness issue. Consider a lake like the one below, with no power and bad roads but a stunning setting close to a major city. No real development, some subsistence fishing on a rainwater-filled crater lake — and massive potential.
Do you sign on to build an ecological conference centre at its edge? Create that carbon footprint then fly in thousands of guests to use the water, create waste, consume energy and cause the widening of the road? Sounds bad when you put it that way. On the other hand, the argument goes that SOMEone will start to build there, and it’s better to set a good example at the outset than to battle an array of resort owners. Right? Tough call.
Personally, if I knew the project was already going ahead, I’d love to go work on it and/or to stay there. If not, the most sustainable action would probably be to support the area’s designation as an ecological reserve. What would you do?