BUILDING FOR THE POOR
The Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy, classifies countries depending on how well they perform on high-priority environmental issues in two areas: protection of human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems.
By analyzing the country rankings year by year, it becomes evident that: not only are there very few emerging countries in the top positions, but those few have started to fall even further down in the rankings. In the year 2010, only two developing countries, Costa Rica and Mauritius, were among the top 10 performers, and Cuba, Colombia, and Chile appeared in the top 20.
In their latest publication released in 2014, we can notice the complete absence of emerging countries in the top positions. Chile is the emerging country with the highest ranking on the list, and it occupies the 29th position. This fact should be enough to make it clear that, for these developing countries, sustainability is not among their priorities. In such countries, where economies are struggling to stay afloat, sustainability, most of the times, is not even considered in the list of issues to be addressed and resolved.
Governments, especially in Neoliberal countries, place economic prosperity at the top of their political goals list, and corporations are all about profit. But, if we manage to convince the aforementioned 1.4 billion people to embrace sustainability by offering realistic low-cost options to their current building problems and, on the way, create solutions that could also promote global environmental health and wellness, governments and large corporations might start thinking about sustainability as a competitive business advantage. Maybe then, they would be willing to start adapting or developing new technologies and low-cost building materials for architects to use when designing with an environmental consciousness.
For most emerging and developing countries, environmental sustainability is a dream. But what if, by finding a different way to approach the subject through small inexpensive interventions framed in the field of innovative building technologies and materials, we could make this dream a reality?
By understanding that environmental sustainability is a social, economic, and political challenge, and approaching the issue in terms of human behavior and consumption patterns, we could change our strategy: forget about state regulations and corporate responsibilities, and start focusing on small innovative interventions that attract individual decision-making. If we concentrate our efforts on people and their needs, and offer them solutions to their problems, we could end up attracting developing countries and emerging economies to the sustainability movement, and this could allow the evolvement of such a complex issue into new and better possibilities.
A recently created biotechnology start-up manufacturing company named bioMASON has developed a method of growing bricks employing bacteria and naturally abundant materials. By the combination of natural microorganisms through chemical processes, they are able to manufacture biological cement-based masonry building materials. Their concept emerged from a study of coral structure, which is a very hard natural cementitious material created using low energy and material inputs. Their intention is to produce sustainable building materials with high performance and low production costs.
In the field of building techniques, there have also been some discoveries, such as the one made by a company in China, which has started to produce 3D printed sustainable homes that can be built in 24 hours. This modular building method is similar to concrete wall system but does offer the potential of complete onsite construction methods for the assembly of sustainable and affordable homes. As a result, the company creates houses that cost $4,800 each. This process could ease housing crises in many developing countries that are in desperate need of quick assembly, low-cost housing.
These inventions take us closer to a better reality and let us know that some research companies are leading the way towards a healthier world, but we cannot forget about struggling economies. We have to remember their priorities, and, unless these types of materials are able to be manufactured locally, they could end up being limited to the construction industry in developed countries. The same happens with the aforementioned inventive building technique developed in China: since it could depend on the economic involvement of the governments, it could be left aside in developing countries.
Acknowledging this reality could help us analyze sustainability from a deep perspective instead of doing it through a naive view. It could lead us to start looking for solutions that do not have to rely on government support, and it could be a simpler and more straightforward way to help mankind move towards a more sustainable world.
A LOOK INTO THE PAST
If we look back in time, it becomes evident that there are many materials and building techniques once used in construction that were more environmentally friendly than the ones we are currently using, but they were gradually displaced by more innovative resources. One of the many problems we are facing now is that, in most developing countries, these innovative materials are not produced locally; therefore, they must be imported from developed countries, thereby increasing the costs of construction. Hence, it is important to understand the urgency of making an intelligent use of local sustainable building materials. Adobe, which has been used for years, could become an excellent choice as a building material, and it is already being analyzed in order to overcome the challenges that limit their use and effectiveness in construction. Its low tensile strength, poor seismic behavior, or the fact that it has less moisture resistance, among others, are keeping builders away from this natural, energy efficient material; but if research companies continue to devote time and effort to adobe’s improvement and development, I strongly believe it could become a great asset to construction. Nevertheless, research must continue through a journey to the past in order to find viable options that could lead the world towards a better life.
Our planet is clamoring for a return to its origins and to a back-to-basics approach. However, this statement does not imply we should go back in time and remove centuries
of evolution and progress. It means that, thanks to all those years of experience, and the knowledge we have accumulated during that time, we have now more and better capabilities to turn the basics into something more integral, effective, and sustainable. By comprehending where we come from, we could open up to more human, easy to reach, and sustainable options for the people in the world.
Each country must find its own path, and they must lay the excuses aside and start moving towards the point of convergence between the simplicity of the past and the innovation of the future.