Q&A: Design Turns Green, Part 2

10 May, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

In anticipation of an upcoming PBS series, Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, tells us sustainability is a matter of survival

Tsunami in South Asia, hurricane in the Gulf Coast, earthquake in Iran -- wherever a major disaster strikes, Cameron Sinclair will likely be on the next plane out to the devastated area. Through his charitable organization Architecture for Humanity, Sinclair brings self-sustaining schools, health clinics and portable shelters to Sri Lanka, Africa, New Orleans and beyond. He comes in contact with the harsh realities of the developing world every day, so he's no Utopian idealist.

Sinclair is one of the notable individuals featured in the Autodesk-sponsored PBS series "design: e2, the economies of being environmentally conscious," scheduled to air in June. (Check local PBS listings for dates and times.) He says he hopes his involvement gives the series a "reality check." In this interview with Cadalyst, he explains why sustainability is more than a fashionable practice. For some, it's a matter of survival.

What's the role of technology in sustainability?

Cameron Sinclair: Technology is essentially the tool to create a better future. I'm more pragmatic than some people you might talk to. For me it's about using appropriate technology. Sure, we use CAD software, rendering software to visualize some things, but there's limitation. You can't impose

Cameron Sinclair, director and cofounder of Architecture for Humanity, speaking at the Art Center Design Conference in 2004. (Image courtesy of Architecture for Humanity.)
technology. It's a very delicate balance.

Architecture for Humanity is working on the other 98% of the world -- people who don't have computers, don't have access to the Internet or don't have CAD software. We're focusing on simple technologies like rainwater collection systems. We might not do a glass-encased, solar-paneled community center. That kind of building is not so great if the community can't sustain it. If you really involve the community during the design process, then they'll look after it and take ownership of it. They won't let it fall apart afterward.

Is there a relationship between sustainability and infrastructure? Does a lack of infrastructure in developing countries prohibit adoption of sustainable building methods?

Sinclair: It's the opposite, actually. I've noticed a change in the last five years. People are talking about sustainability as a means of survival. For us, it's luxury. We joke about it. We make light of it. In places like the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, under the scorching heat, if there's a three-degree temperature rise and there's not enough rain for the season, people start to die. So integrating renewable resources is really important.

Here, we joke about the rising gas prices -- well, perhaps not so much anymore. In the developing world, the cost of fossil fuel is astronomical. They're left with no option; people are using kerosene lamps, so kids get sick, get lung disease from the smoke. The West is actually much more cautious in adopting technology. In the developing world, if the technology is affordable and it makes sense, they'll adopt it. Take a look at what Sheila Kennedy is doing with sonar panels in South America.

[Sheila Kennedy, principal of Kennedy & Violich Architecture and director of Design and Applied Research: MATx, launched the Portable Light initiative, an interdisciplinary design, architecture and research project to create more energy-efficient lighting models. One of the prototypes is a luminous reading mat. It contains no breakable glass parts, weighs less than 8oz, can be folded and carried just like an article of clothing and is powered by flexible photovoltaic panels. It brings together ancient textile weaving techniques and renewable, decentralized lighting technology.]

I travel a lot around the country. Certainly in the construction industry, people are beginning to talk about [sustainability]. In the Gulf Coast, people learned first-hand what happens when nature becomes hostile. We spent a lot of time eating crawfish and talking about reconstruction. They know they're looking at a rough summer. There's so much sun around there, so can they generate their own energy from this? People are already living on the edge. If they move into houses that cost astronomical amounts to build and can't be easily maintained, then the houses will be repossessed, and there'll be a second disaster.

Is there increased awareness of sustainable architecture in the U.S.?

Sinclair: If you go somewhere like Scandinavia, the Netherlands or England, architects go on TV and debate about issues. There's a wealth of knowledge available to the general public. Once you get public support for doing sustainable or green building, then you can do it, but here [in the United States], we're challenged by our own political system, which questions whether there's even global warming.

Is sustainability a pursuit in architecture education in the United States?

Sinclair: I think in our education system, there're some universities that have fully adopted sustainability. University of Oregon, for example, has hosted conferences on sustainability and holistic living and so on for the last 11 years. Others still see it as an extracurricular element. When I hire an architect for a project, I look at that. If he or she has had just one elective course on sustainability, and then another person has done a core competency course, I'll go for the latter.

[For more about the University of Oregon's projects, visit its Sustainable Development Web site.]

Does sustainability have a higher upfront cost?

Sinclair: It's true, because you're dealing with new technology. But if it reaches critical mass, if it gets to the point where you can buy supplies for sustainable building at, say, Home Depot, then it won't be any more. Then it becomes a part of life. The benefits for the home over the next five or ten years will outweigh the cost, but it's a little bit of a gamble right now. We need early adopters. Otherwise, we won't reach critical mass.

Any memorable experience you'd like to share with us?

Sinclair: We were working in East Sri Lanka. We were working on a community school. We were trying to figure out a way to be independent from the electrical grid, because there's no good infrastructure. Then somebody in the community mentioned that a local farmer had an ancient contraption that was very helpful in his daily routines. It turned out to be a windmill. 'Why can't we have that?' they asked. So we now have a windmill farm to power the school and other buildings.

Click here to read "Q&A: Design Turns Green, Part 1," an interview with Phil Bernstein, vice-president of Autodesk's Building Solutions Division, which offers a glimpse of that company's green philosophies and initiatives.

For more about a past project sponsored by Architecture for Humanity, read "Tech Trends: Form, Function and Hope come together in KwaZulu-Natal," August 05.