Texas students use sustainable architecture to strengthen communities

Taylor Hilsabeck

The buildings of the world are responsible for 40 percent of the world’s energy and emit 50 percent of greenhouse gases.  This is not a problem in which we can simply butt out the source, but one in which the source must be modified by those who design and construct them. In the eyes of some architects, the adoption of sustainable alternatives is not only a matter of progress, it’s a matter of survival.

“Right now there is a split in the design profession, it’s the idea that design is about aesthetics and the idea that design can be about ethics,” said Cameron Sinclair, executive director of Architecture for Humanity.

Professor Sergio Palleroni from the University of Texas is an architect and founder of architecture firm BaSiC Initiative.  Palleroni has been involved with building sustainable, low-income housing for 20 years, helping poor communities by recruiting hands and, more importantly, minds.

Palleroni brings design students into underserved communities to build homes in a sustainable way, using local materials and not wasting energy or polluting, and meanwhile, encompassing the context of design by remaining interesting and innovative. His idea is that students in particular need to get out into the world, the developing world, and do hands-on projects.

“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. … We have got to be part of the missonaries that make that connection between ecological housing, and sustaining their culture and that place in their community.”

One community that has been visited by Palleroni and his students are the Yaqui Indians, a nomadic tribe who roam the north central and western deserts of Mexico. They have gradually seen their lives diminished by the expanding ranches and farms of the region. Living on a piece of land with such harsh conditions, they can’t even raise cattle. The Yaqui, in economic terms, are probably the poorest residents of North America with their average income being a little less than $600 a year. They desperately need inexpensive homes. The Mexican government responded with thousands of low-income houses, none were built to be sustainable for the climate and their way of life.  Many problems resulted, including drainage problems, no natural ventilation and no sense of community.

With 20,000 homes still needed, the Yaqui business leaders, residents and politicians created a micro loan system, enabling a few to be able to afford a home for $5,000.

The University of Texas students, led by Palleroni, came up with a model that incorporated an open courtyard, a major part of the Yaqui life. They used the money to utilize local materials more suitable to the environment, such as river reeds, recycled boxes, and adobe. One side of the house has bedrooms and the other side has a bathroom, kitchen and a small dining area, creating a living room in the center. The center space is covered by thatch roof, protecting it from radiation, of rush bamboo from the riverbed. Their goal was trying to design houses that are truly economical in the long term. The heating, cooling and maintenance costs of these houses are cheap, therefore families are not driven out of their home by the costs to maintain the house.

A Yaqui resident, Maria Teresa Estrella Camargo said she is very happy because it is a house she can call her own. “I like everything, but especially the bathroom. Here, we had no plumbing, that’s what bothered me. … We made septic tanks, and then we didn’t have to have outhouses.”

In order to promote community ownership, Palleroni and his team do not finish the buildings. Instead, they set up a system to allow the community to finish it.  By finishing that building themselves the community can call them their own.

“Part of being sustainable is not just the materials you use,” Palleroni said, “but also the fact that there is a level of ownership by the community, because they are part of the whole process.”

Palleroni believes that when we think of poverty, we must also think about it in the “first world.” In Palleroni’s case this means right in his own backyard in Austin, Texas, where community members earn a fraction of the income compared to other Texas residents. The conditions parallel Mexico. Their community could potentially be lost to economic development and higher taxes, so Sergio asked, “Can we do anything to maintain them here?”

They began by simply cleaning up neighborhood alleys as a way of reaching out to the residents and called it the Alley Flat Initiative.  With this initiative, Palleroni challenged students to not only design houses but to develop strategies that strengthen the community.

The student housing designs, at their core, aim to utilize systems that reduce running costs and minimize waste. By incorporating social, cultural and environmental aspects in their designs, green and sustainable choices were not seen as luxuries but basic building blocks.

The students also created vertical gardens, which can help bring moisture and cool the alley. This also gives the people an opportunity to raise tomatoes or other fruits and plants.

Palleroni and his students aim to sustain communities both close to home and abroad. According to Palleroni, “Design can act not just to create new possibilities and how to live in the world, but it can also create possibilities of political and social rights in this world.”