New ideas for sustainable architecture in the Americas

From Rio to Cupertino, cities across the Americas are waking up to the benefits of sustainable design

sustainable design

Cities across the Americas, such as Rio, are realising the benefits of sustainable design. Photograph: Felipe Dana/AP

Curitiba is southern Brazil’s largest city and has long been heavily industrialised. This city of 3.1 million people is also marked by bountiful green space, crisp urban planning, and sustainable architecture, all of which are now catching on throughout Brazil in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. While city planning had a strong role in maintaining Curitiba’s reputation as one of the most livable cities in Brazil, citizens both poor and wealthy had critical roles in ensuring that their homes and communities were clean, comfortable, and efficient.

Thousands of miles away in Cupertino, CA, Apple Inc co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs recently promised the city council that a newheadquarters would transform offices from how society now knows them. Most office parks in this town, a 45 minute drive from San Francisco, are 80% asphalt and the rest buildings and landscaping. Jobs not only insisted that 80% of the 150-acre site would be green space, but clean energy would fuel the halo-shaped ring in which 13,000 employees would work by 2015. Furthermore, the site would be brimming with apricot trees, once omnipresent when agriculture, not Apple, ruled Silicon Valley.

Countless cities besides Curitiba and Cupertino are on the verge of transforming how they plan and build the communities in which their citizens live and work. Technology pushed by some of the world’s best known companies will be one driver behind this change. But local citizens’ activism and creativity will also have a role as the rising cost in building materials, spike in energy prices, and the decrease in the availability of affordable land will force people to rethink how we build, work, and live.

Jaime Lerner took his skills as an accomplished architect and used them to affect change in Curitiba, where he served as mayor for three terms. Building a subway was too expensive, so locals commute by buses that roam effortlessly along dedicated lanes. Citizens who live along streets and alleys too narrow to allow garbage trucks to collect waste instead are paid to bag their trash and haul it to trucks. Housing programmes have not only included a consultation on how to build as sustainably as possible, but at times new homeowners were given trees to plant on their property.

Lerner’s approach towards urban planning and building has taken off across Brazil. The NGO Earth Curators (Curadores da Terra) mixes discarded plastics with organic resins to create durable and affordable construction materials for middle- and low-income families. Plastic bottles, once tossed into streams and fields, are now a building material of choice. In mega-city Sao Paulo, the site of a former garbage incinerator is now home to a 130,000 square foot eco-park that contains features built from reclaimed wood and solar-powered lighting fixtures. The park also has exhibit space that educates visitors on sustainable design while they find refuge from Sao Paulo’s concrete jungle.

Farther north in Rio de Janeiro, city officials are working with architects to integrate the notorious favelas with the rest of the city by new cable car lines and a walkway designed by famed architect Oscar Niemeyer. Rio’s government and business community are also funding the Morar Carioca architectural competition that will hire 30 architects to build healthy homes, schools, and clinics for the city’s poorest 200,000 residents. Projects will include such features as micro collection centres for waste and recycling to keep streets clean while providing composting for gardens and yards.

America may have lost bids for future Olympic and World Cup competition, but technology companies think big when it comes to green building. To firms like IBM and GE, however, green meets smart, and therein lie opportunities as most buildings are wasteful and inefficient. Firms and architects are realising that a promise to cut a structure’s energy consumption by 20 to 50% is not enough; buildings must be as close to a net-zero energy consumption rate if lofty goals to meet carbon emissions reduction goals will occur. IBM’s Smarter Building initiativepromises to integrate building management systems, sensors, and digital networks. GE currently partners with the German firm EnOcean to create networks that can manage energy use in homes and offices, especially historic structures where the installation of wires or battery systems are not feasible.

The push towards smarter building is occurring feverishly at the grass roots level, too. More architects are embracing the concept of humanitarian design, the convergence of cutting-edge architecture, sustainable or recycled materials, and mass scale that together allow the building of homes and community centers at an affordable price. In Dallas, bcWorkshop, an architect firm, rebuilt a neighborhood, Congo Street, by deconstructing homes and with the salvaged materials, built new homes that maximized space while including energy-efficient features like solar panels.

Other architects have embraced what the Brazilian Lerner and some peers describe as «urban acupuncture,» the view that architects should look at cities as living organisms with sustainable architecture serving as needles. Rather than petition financially stressed governments to turn an unsightly corner into a park or community center, residents, with architects’ assistance, take matters into their own hands. Vacant lots have turned into «micro-parks» or «urban lounges» in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Municipalities have responded by opening up offices solely devoted to assisting citizens who want to rebuild old and abandoned urban space.

Now the US federal government has taken notice. A recent initiative between America’s housing, transportation, and environmental agencies helps cities plan communities with goals beyond greener and healthier homes. Such neighborhoods must have access to transit hubs and green space that offer a better quality of life than what is available in many inner cities and their far-flung suburbs. So in a decade, even if most workers cannot walk to their office, ideally more will have seamless public transportation access to the office. And that office will be in a smart building operated by automated lighting and cooling systems, powered by clean energy, and feature furniture and fixtures made from salvaged wood and recycled plastic.

Leon Kaye is founder and editor of

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Author / Autor: Leon Kaye

 Date / Fecha: 07/07/11

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