Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sustainability in the Developing World

In the architecture community today, sustainability is one of the biggest buzzwords you will hear. Both designers and clients are obsessed with making buildings Green, LEED compliant, and Sustainable. So I started reading Sustainability and Scarcity: A handbook for green design and construction in developing countries. Not three paragraphs into Chapter 1 did I realize an answer to a question many have asked about EMI's designs in the developing world: Why do we give ministries such basic designs when we have the ability to design much more complex, interesting, or stunning structures? The following is what I gathered from this book and my knowledge of EMI to answer this question.

The definition of Sustainability consists of three dimensions: environmental, economic, and social. However, the architecture industry is most often concerned only with the environmental and economic aspects. Sustainable design usually focuses on money-saving energy techniques or the size of footprint on the environment. However, for EMI to go into a foreign context and try to offer a sustainable solution for these ministries, it must also address social sustainability. One definition of sustainability is "to maximize human well-being in the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" (OECD). Addressing human well-being in the present can look like so many different things: water quality, education levels, health, security, jobs, energy availability, and endemic poverty.

We acknowledge that it is impossible for us to affect wide-reaching change on all of these areas. But, it brings up the question, how can building design and construction have a social impact?

First, EMI works for Christian non-profits who are invested in the growth and success of their community. The clients may be needing a hospital, orphanage, school, clean water project, or countless other project types that work to directly improve human well-being in the present. EMI brings expertise of how spaces can be designed to work most efficiently, while the client provides input for how their particular community functions. Together, a building is designed that will hopefully improve the people for the present and into the future.

Second, EMI is growing in numbers of local design professionals. In all of our field offices there are volunteers and employees from that country, as well as on many of the project trips. We recognize that Westerners cannot be, and are not desired to be, a "savior" for developing communities. Rather, we hope to train and encourage architects and engineers from underdeveloped countries to carry out the design principles that we know will help their communities flourish. The most sustainable way is to help people help themselves.

Lastly, it is important to keep buildings local and keep them simple.  In this way a building becomes sustainable and accountable to local people. EMI always goes to the project site to develop an initial design, in order to understand the local cultures, building histories, social values, security concerns, and so much more. It is imperative that architects understand how the buildings will be constructed and maintained so as not to provide something outside of the capabilities of the client. Although I love the Rural Studio, its use of odd materials and confusing shapes often make it hard for the client to maintain and sustain. EMI strives to use local building techniques and materials, with an increased level of design to help the clients, not experiment on them.

With all of this being said, environmental and economic sustainability are also crucial to EMI designs… but I'll save those thoughts for another day :)