How do we go beyond purely theoretical sustainable architecture? TU’s solution: Go out and build it.

What can architects, and especially architecture students, do to respond to global issues such as informal urbanisation, carbon emissions or refugee settlement conditions? From sketches to real-work implementation, CODE architecture students design but also construct themselves climate-oriented, resource-saving and affordable projects in Bolivia, Iraq, Chile and Europe. Their strategy — make the most of space natural properties, culture and climate; in other words: find local solutions to global issues. Professor Ralf Pasel, head of CODE Institute, just came back from the latest project in Bolivia.

Words

Caroline Sorbier

Hi Ralf, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Can you first introduce us to CODE?
CODE — CONstruction & Design is an institute at the Technical University of Berlin, which spans a bridge between theoretical education and practical work. What it actually does is combine three things: teaching, research and practice. The projects are proper professional works but they are also case studies throughout which students research issues such as carbon emissions. Then…we build them.

What comes into consideration before you decided “let’s build an agriculture school in Bolivia”?
First of all, we set quite strict criteria, which means that we have a sort of CODE X through which we choose projects. We try to be very careful about not being competitive to avoid any market or monetary dimension. The most important are the social and the environmental relevance; they are the driving forces behind these projects.

How is it possible to implement environment friendly designs in poor areas? Does it not require expensive technologies that make these projects difficult to reproduce locally?
Not really, our challenge is really to develop strategies that promotes climate orientated buildings that do not rely on high tech, standardised and costly processes. Our challenge really is to think in term of design rather than techniques, consider what is already offered by the location, orientation and climate rather than what we need to bring or to buy.

How did you apply this idea to your project in Bolivia?
For the project in Bolivia, which was to build an agriculture school in the Cordillera, we were at more than 3,000 metres above the sea level, with a difference of temperature between day and night time of almost 30 degrees, and winds blowing in all different directions because of the surrounding mountains. So we asked ourselves ‘how can we deal with these such extremes thermic conditions?’ Well, for instance, the school was built with a closed facade, only windows to internal patios so that we can harvest the heat gain in the evening. We also built a double ventilated roof to make sure the heat does not accumulate in the daytime. Then, there should be no need for radiators or ventilators anymore. We also benefit from an incredible solar radiation, so we oriented the roof to make sure the solar panel get the most of it, and we implemented dry toilets to reduce the use of water and generate compost for the agriculture school.

Does your project address environmental issues or does it simply adjust to its environment?
I would rather say that it is an ‘environment induced project’ because the design is made in such a way that it uses the potential of nature and climate. So rather than fighting extreme weather conditions we just try to ‘sail the boat’. We analyse the impact of sun to orientate the solar panels roof or the direction of the wind to create efficient ventilation systems. We can do that by learning to read the direction of the wind on the grass or by looking at the flight of the birds to see the different thermic winds

Further to the environmental impacts, which other positive impacts did you achieved?
What we do is that we very quickly integrate local partners in the process. For instance, we worked with a women bricklayers cooperative, helping them set up their business and provided them with proper security uniforms. We focused on material and tools that do not require being dependant from suppliers so that they can reuse these techniques for their own houses. Meanwhile, this same women’s cooperative trained the next group of students coming to Bolivia, so we have a sort of circular education movement. We also involve local universities or the students of the agriculture school to come to help and learn about sustainable construction methods.

What’s next on your plate?
At the moment we are trying to transfer the experience we had in South America into the European context. Because of the refugee situation in Germany we need a lot of social housing projects. We are currently developing two projects for these ‘urban newcomers’ through the initiative Home Not Shelter.

This interview was published in The Beam #6 — Subscribe now for more