"Green for All," follows architect and activist Sergio Palleroni as he continues his mission to provide architectural and design solutions to regions in social and humanitarian crisis. Palleroni already has four global initiatives underway aimed at providing architecture students with hands-on field experience building housing for the poor. This episode finds him in East Austin, Texas and in Mexico, where he and his student team are helping threatened communities build thousands of homes while teaching residents to be resourceful in cutting costs and using local materials.
Executive Director, Architecture for Humanity
Sinclair is the Founder and Executive Director of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit organization founded in 1999 to provide architectural and design solutions for threatened communities. From 1996 to 2002, Sinclair worked on projects in more than 20 countries, including: Siyathemba Sports & HIV/AIDS Outreach Center in South Africa; Tsunami reconstruction in India and Sri Lanka; and transitional shelters in Grenada, a country ravaged by Hurricane Ivan. In addition to his work for Architecture for Humanity, he is an adjunct professor at the Montana State University School of Architecture and is the author of "Design Like You Give A Damn". He is the recipient of the ASID Design for Humanity Award and the Lewis Mumford Award for Peace. In August 2004, Fortune Magazine named him as one of the "Aspen Seven," seven people changing the world for the better.
Principal, Michael McDonough Architect
McDonough is an award-winning architect and industrial designer and consults world-wide on corporate futurism, personal environments and product development. His design philosophy is rooted in synthesizing traditional and modern design and emphasizing new materials and sustainable technologies. Two featured projects include the bamboo bridge and e-house. He is a faculty member at the Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York, where he has taught since 1984, and is a faculty member at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, Germany.
Architect and Founder of BaSIC Initiative
Palleroni was a professor at the University of Washington for 12 years and founded the BaSIC Initiative (Building Sustainable Communities), a multidisciplinary fieldwork program in which students apply their education to problems facing marginalized communities throughout the world. He has worked on housing and community projects in the developing world since the 1970's for nonprofit, governmental and international agencies such as UNESCO and the World Bank. In the last two decades, he has applied this experience to establishing programs in housing and development at the University of Texas at Austin and Penn State University, as well as the University of Washington. Palleroni is the co-author of "Studio at Large: Architecture in Service of Global Communities".
Architect and activist Sergio Palleroni rolls up his sleeves, quite literally, and dives deep into the problem of regions wrought with inadequate housing. Applying a grant from the Luce Foundation, Palleroni chose to explore the community-partnership approach in two projects: East Austin, Texas and Valle del Yaqui in the Sonoran Desert, Mexico.
East Austin Project. The East Austin population is predominately Hispanic and African American, consisting of generations of families whose marginalized community is being further threatened by increasing gentrification. Palleroni, along with the University of Texas at Austin students, developed the idea to build secondary units (or "granny flats") in the vacant alley space of these neighborhoods that can be rented out, serving as a secondary source of income. With added income, the residents can stay in East Austin and keep their homes, their families and way of life intact. With 800 units in development, Palleroni is working closely with residents, local leaders, community organizations and state government to build sustainably--using natural ventilation, natural light, ecological finishes, and local materials--and to become "environmental citizens."
BEGIN e2 INTRODUCTION
They use 40% of the world's energy, emit 50% of its greenhouse gases.
"They" are not the cars we drive. "They" are the buildings where we work, live, and grow. Buildings designed with an unconscious disregard for nature.
Adopting sustainable alternatives is not only a matter of progress, it's a matter of survival.
Design: e2, the economies of being environmentally conscious.
TITLE: e2, THE ECONOMICS OF BEING ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS
For the majority of the world's population, what does green design mean? Is it just a luxury? Unattainable and elitist?
Or can smart design work for the greater good? Can it strengthen communities?.. Allow for health care? Help provide sufficient food, and adequate water supplies?
Should design, after all, have a greater purpose?
Right now there's a split in the design profession. And it's the idea that design is about aesthetics and the idea that design can be about ethics.
For a whole school of architects, there is the social mission that has to deal with people in difficult circumstances, people in the developing world. This is the sort of architectural equivalent of Doctors Without Borders.
In the end, it's not so important what we think because that just takes place, you know, between your temples, right? What really does matter however is what it is that we can figure out that we can do together.
If you think about 1 in 7 people are currently in what we call inadequate housing, informal settlements, slums, refugees, internally displaced camps. 1 in 7 people in the world. In 30 years, it's gonna be 1 in 3. So, we have this new global baby boom happening that are the poorest of the poor and that is going to affect the environment far more than driving a Hummer around. And I think although it's important that the United States and the West show an example of what a sustainable world can look like, we also need to be proactive in the rest of the world.
What does it mean to be proactive? Is it about changing minds set in their ways? Or perhaps planting new seeds of socially sustainable design in more fertile grounds?
We got to be part of the visionaries that make the connection between ecological housing and sustaining their culture and their place in the community. I tell my students that the responsibility of an architect is to be inclusive. To include all things about this world and that means all communities. The future, the vision of the future you guys have, the community bought into, so that's good.
There is a sense among architects like Sergio, that something very fundamental has been lost in the training of architects.
OK so there's a challenge, we have to think about grey water cycle.
His idea and it's important to emphasize that it is not unique to one person. It is sort of much in the style of the 60's a kind of collective notion, and there are a lot of different manifestations of it, that students in particular need to get out into the world, the developing world, and they need to do hands on projects.
Sergio Palleroni has been involved with building sustainable, low-income housing for 20 years. Recruiting hands, but more importantly, minds, in helping poor communities.
Sergio has created a way of working with communities and bringing together young designers to work alongside with that community to build. And that means that the buildings may not be sexy or glamorous or on the front cover of magazines, but there's a level of honesty in the buildings.
He's doing about four different things. Any one of them alone would make his practice remarkable. First, he's bringing design students into communities to build buildings. That just isn't done very often. There's, only a small number of architecture schools have programs like that. Secondly, he's doing it in underserved communities so he's reinforcing that social responsibility among architects and architecture students to serve communities. Thirdly, he's doing it in a sustainable way and so he's using local materials and not wasting energy or polluting. And fourthly, they're cool buildings. They look neat. And they actually are meaningful within the context of design being interesting and innovative.
Building sustainable communities. That's the basic thing we should be doing. And that's both a physical environmental issue and a cultural environmental issue.
The Yaqui Indians, a nomadic tribe who roamed the North-Central and Western deserts of Mexico, have gradually seen their lives diminished by the expanding ranches and farms of the region.
The Yaqui are just interesting because they're in a sense one of Mexico's forgotten people. They survived all the way to the 20th century the way they did because they lived on a piece of land nobody wanted. It was desert. They couldn't really even raise cattle here. The Yaqui are, well in terms, in economic terms probably the poorest residents of North America. Their income is somewhere a little less than $600 a year, so it's, very poor people. They need houses and they need houses which are inexpensive and that they can afford on under a $1000 a year.
And the Mexican government did respond; with thousands of low-income houses, unfortunately with no thought to the sustainability of the region's environment or its culture.
You know you just look at those streets and you think, did that person ever look at how the people live? I mean, would they live in the building they're designing for others? You know, there's no humanity to those streets. Every single box is the same as the other and you see people's efforts to make them individual, to make them their own and yet you see how much they're working against. The boxes are un-ecological. They're made of concrete block, they heat up, they don't treat the water, they have all sorts of drainage problems. They have the wrong type of solar exposure, they have no natural ventilation, you know they, and people walk outside and it's a no man's land. And then within that no man's land they're trying to create a community.
So that's why the houses that we're attempting to make are houses that are truly economical and economical in the long term. Their heating costs, cooling costs, maintenance costs are cheap so in ten years their family is not driven out by the costs of maintaining the house.
There are still close to 20,000 homes needed. The Yaqui housing shortage united business leaders, residents, and politicians, who together developed a micro loan system enabling a lucky few, for five thousand U.S. dollars, to afford a home of their dreams.
MONICA ESCOBEDO FUENTES (in Spanish):
SUBTITLE: We listened to the families. We never thought we would hear the same problems. Like health problems with families that had children with chronic respiratory illnesses, because they lived in unhealthy and cold houses. And when they get a house like this one, not only do the children get better, but the family has money to spend on other things because they're not spending money on medicine. So in a way we didn't realize we were investing in their health as well.
INTERPRETER (in Spanish):
SUBTITLE: Do you like your house?
MARIA ESTRELLA CAMARGO (in Spanish):
SUBTITLE: I'm happy, very happy because it is my own house.
INTERPRETER (in Spanish):
SUBTITLE: What comforts does this house have?
MARIA ESTRELLA CAMARGO (in Spanish):
SUBTITLE: I like everything, especially the bathrooms. Here we had no plumbing, that's what bothered me. That was why I was not so sure about building the house here, because what about the bathrooms? Then they told me they were going to build a septic tank, and that was it. We made the tanks and then we didn't have to have outhouses.
This early prototype was designed and constructed using local materials such as river reeds, recycled boxes and adobe.
MONICA ESCOBEDO FUENTES (in Spanish):
SUBTITLE: It's very beneficial because the materials we're using are available right here. And they've been using these materials in construction for many years. But the idea of commercialism which we have access to through the media leads the families feel that materials are disposable. The market provides access to products that are more destructive to the earth. When the families see that with the local materials they can build houses that are safe and more durable and that are more suitable to their environment, then they make them their own and pass them down to their children and neighbors. So we're helping the environment a lot.
The University of Texas students understood these important economic and cultural factors. Working directly with residents they came up with two models. The first incorporates an open courtyard, a major part of the Yaqui life.
We have this space, it's been created by this, one of the schemes in this and it's an extraordinary space. It's such a simple move you know it's just a parting of two buildings. On one side we have the bedrooms and on the other side we have the bathroom and kitchen and a small dining area. And we've created a kind of living room in the middle. And the center space is protected from radiation by this thatched roof which is actually made from the rush bamboo which is found in the riverbeds. The trusses are made from found material in the dump, from pallets for shipping to the United States. Here's a very simple building, $5,000, has exquisite light. And the light is being celebrated in the shared common room of the house. The most complex, most beautiful piece of light is in the shared space where everybody can share it.
Socially responsible architecture is as much about sharing knowledge as it is about constructing houses and when Sergio Palleroni took his classroom to the Yaqui Indian building site; it is debatable who learned more.
We brought 40 students from UT and 5, you know, 3 or 4 instructors and volunteers and students from their university locally were out here working with us.
The first 24 hours were, were exciting because this wasn't originally where the houses were supposed to go, they were supposed to go on another site. So we had a lot of changes.
You know reality intervened, you know, kind of like life. They went back and found out well one of their clients had fallen behind in her commitment to the community and so one of the clients had to be switched. The other thing that was discovered is that the soil conditions at the second site were not as anticipated so that the footing design had to be changed.
The original foundation for the house in Estacion Corral was this deep. And this one is 90 centimeters, up in here. So that, I mean, most of the, a lot of the money for these houses had to do into the foundations just cause the soil was so soft.
What students are learning to do is to think on their feet, to understand that there's an inter-relationship between social and political and economic and environmental variables that are always in flux. So rather than design a pretty object, they're designing this process that's always in flux. Kind of like the world, right?
You know, we only teach them half the process, in my mind. We only teach them about what happens here on the table. Which is wonderful, I mean, it's dynamic and it's full of stuff, you know and full of the creative process. What we don't teach them about much is how do you make that creative process valued in the community? How do you take that creative process out on the street and engage the real problems of the world with it?
The students tend to work in indigenous technologies, vernacular technologies and that's very important to the education of an architect. I think an architect who's done a straw bale house, for example, may in fact do a better high-rise.
When you're coming into this, you know, I didn't know anything about construction really, I mean besides sort of around the house kind of stuff or an occasional weekend with a group at Habitat.
I think what these students are learning is a different kind of approach to problem solving. Right? Because when you're simply going through the American Institute of Architect's handbook of professional practice and following the rules, I'm not sure that you're learning how to build a better building or a better world.
Part of being sustainable, um, is not just the materials you use but also the fact that there's a level of ownership by the community cause they're a part of the whole process. He doesn't finish the complete building; he sets up the system to allow the community to finish it. And by finishing that building, the community owns that building.
The problem that he has is that he's out of material money. He's got 7 bags of concrete and that's it. And then all the concrete money went into the foundation.
But he's got the sand and gravel outside.
He needs 17 bags of cement, in order to do it the old way.
Well, he'll probably need 17 bags even if he does ferro cement.
SERGIO PALLERONI (in Spanish):
SUBTITLE: In the meantime we're going to design, something, Jay, Ann and I, we'll make design a cement cap that works well.
You know I can't, with my students, come and build a thousand houses that might be needed by a community. But we might build just a few pilot ones but in those pilot ones, we'll reclaim the community's sense of ownership over their political and social process. So, design can act not just to create new possibilities for how to live in the world. But it also can act, and create possibilities of your political and social rights in this world.
ANN TUCKER - TRANSLATING FOR JESUS ENRIQUE:
For his neighbors, it's really an admiration. They really admire it.
Because we built it with a material that now nobody uses.
He said that they're used to brick and concrete and they all say what's this crazy guy going to do with all this adobe?
And now they say hey what a pretty color. The blue is great.
For us what's sustainable about this, or what we're trying to achieve in sustainability, or what we call sustainability, is that the idea that it's both the physical and cultural environment that we're trying to sustain. Like strong, communities, you know it's been pointed out, sustain themselves because they engage the world, they engage each other, they have the capacity to do things for themselves. And so, what we're doing here in Mexico, is helping this community, not only to have cheap energy and cooler houses and make better use of their land, but it's also the idea that the house reflects their use, reflects their, the way they live, reflects their traditional relationships. Reassures them that the way they live is good, you know.
My dream of dreams would be that someday we would sit down with the government and the government would say "you know, we think what you're doing is really good." And they're doing that in the sense that they're supporting this project among all the experiments that are going on in the country, this is the one they have agreed to support. That's extraordinary. But then the next step might be for them to say "we not only want to support that but we want to take the ideas that you're introducing and introduce them to the hundreds of thousands of houses we're building in Mexico and I think that those ideas can make a change in the way we do housing." And I think that that would be extraordinary.
There's no doubt that change must happen. But when we think of poverty we must also think about it in the so-called "First World." In Sergio Palleroni's case, right in his own backyard at the University of Texas.
The whole region from 35, which divides the city East to West, all the way to the airport is an area which is predominately Hispanic and African American and um it's a community that's, that earns a fraction of the income of the other side of the tracks. This is an immediate issue here that has a lot of parallels with Mexico. Here is a community that is marginalized. One of the things that it has working for it is that they have this ground that they consider their own. But, which is in, potentially gonna be lost to economic development and higher taxes. So, can we do anything to maintain them here?
With the Guadalupe Project, Sergio challenged his students to not only design houses, but to develop strategies that strengthen the community.
I think that sustainability is about kind of crossing political and social boundaries so my idea of the Guadalupe Project is that, is getting students to understand that unknown neighbor, that distant neighbors, as it was once put, that is, we share so much political and social boundaries with but yet we so misunderstand.
They began by simply cleaning up one of the neighborhood alleys as a way of reaching out to the residents.
The reason that we chose the alley project is cause we could actually, like we could actually come here and do something that is noticeable in terms of cleaning it up and sort of saying this is possible. There were ideas of taking some of the branches that we clean up and making compost piles out of them so that you could sort of suggest that the more that you use the alley the less the crime will be there. The more you're facing it and incorporating it into your life, the less it's something its something that somebody else can come in and abuse.
LORI C. RENTERIA:
What's important, what I've seen in my 25 years in trying to organize my neighborhood is these little small action projects lead to bigger changes in the neighborhood and it gives people hope.
A volunteer came up to me yesterday in the alley and said, well what are you doing? And I said well, we wanna make the alley a more pleasant place because if you notice right over there, there's a house under construction that faces the alley. So it becomes a new kind of pedestrian street. And if you look at the mapping information that we have, this alley and the one next over it, each have six backyard lots that could have "mother in law" or "granny" flats in it. Which means that we would almost be able to double the density of the neighborhood, which is certainly something that's good for the city. But you know it would also be a good thing for the people in the neighborhood because if they had access to something like a revolving fund and could borrow the money to build a granny flat here, it means that they could rent it out and instead of being pushed out of the neighborhood because of increasing taxes, they would actually have additional income.
The student housing designs, at their core, utilized systems to reduce running costs and minimize waste. By incorporating social, cultural and environmental aspects into their designs, green and sustainable choices were not seen as luxuries, but basic building blocks.
This time next year we'll be building two houses in the alleys. So next year you'll see the same kind of thing but in kind of kind of like 12-15 weeks of being out here building 2 houses, engaging the community, teaching them skills and how to build. At that point we'll actually be building maybe the entire alleys you know, natural fencing because what we imagine these fences to become eventually are like vertical gardens which kind of help cool the alley and bring moisture into the alley and help people raise tomatoes or other fruits or plants and that they would actually be fed from the rooftops. And the long-term impact would be that the alleys would become this kind of product of the natural environment. The water cycle, the houses, things like that. They would be representative of the ecological potential.
What we're hoping to get is some residents to actually come out. I mean we did a lot of surveying, canvassing, and it would be really nice to see some people come out. We got a piñata, trying to make it a fiesta kind of thing to say, come on out and join us and see what we're doing.
Austin is the kind of community that has the kind of political and social awareness to make it happen but maybe all the pieces, all the small solutions that have existed haven't been pooled together. So we're gonna be part of the kind of, one of the weavers that's gonna try to bring this together. And so, it's a great opportunity to teach students to kind of learn to be not just architects but to realize where the money might come from and how do you give them political rights and how do you find possibilities. How can you be a visionary that's inclusive of all issues and of all people.
So what is design's purpose? Is it responsible for great buildings, or possibly, responsible for the greater good? . Allowing for the potential of all living things.
Who doesn't want clean alleys? And who doesn't want a place where every human being has a decent place to live? I don't think that anybody is ideologically opposed to those things. The issue is how do we get there?
These global issues will only be solved by small solutions. Small local solutions. So, everyone says what's the big answer? There is no big answer, there's millions of little ones.
It's nice that I can try to help a couple of families live in a nicer house or a better house, that improves their quality of life but much more importantly to me is that, you know that forever, it will change the way that I and 40 other students view the world and the way that they're gonna practice architecture in the world.
If, one out of every 100 architects did what Sergio did, um there'd be a lot less suffering in the world, a lot less poverty and a lot less you know people who are underserved in their communities. So you know, I think he inspires all of us to think about how we might turn our skills to more altruistic ends.
Knowledge is a resource and there's need for that resource you know a mile away, ½ a mile away from us. That knowledge can make a difference in people's lives. And that's all we're saying. You know walk across the tracks, take your knowledge and the things you're learning, just apply it. Just walk 5 minutes and you can make a difference.
END OF EPISODE
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