While starchitects grab headlines with multimillion-dollar ego-structures, Sergio Palleroni has been quietly changing the world at the other end of the spectrum. This cofounder of the University of Washington's Building Sustainable Communities Initiative-known as BASIC-has been fomenting a below-the-radar revolution in socially conscious architecture for the past two decades. Thanks to a confluence of socioeconomic and ecological crises and the advent of new technologies and construction strategies, the unglamorous though gratifying work of sustainable humanitarian design is making a global impact far beyond the disadvantaged populations immediately served, and Palleroni is leading the way.
"We work in places that lack decent housing, community facilities, and the ability to help themselves," the native Argentine modestly explains in his book Studio at Large: Architecture in Service of Global Communities, which chronicles about half of the 47 projects BASIC has designed and built from Mexico to Montana, India to Louisiana. In a typical campaign of 10 weeks, a platoon of students and faculty from a variety of disciplines, not just architecture, engages community members in an intense charette delving into their culture and needs, then enlists those same locals to design and build the clinic or cistern in question.
All bear out Norman Foster's definition of sustainable architecture, "doing the most with the least means," by incorporating indigenous materials and, due to limited infrastructure, off-the-grid technologies. As Palleroni puts it, "Ecological design is the most exciting place to be these days. It's beautiful to look at-and also speaks to our values." Portfolio highlights include a solar-powered kitchen for a school in a Mexican squatter community, a straw-bale adult-education center for Native Americans in South Dakota, and a Seattle public garden accessible to the elderly. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a 24,000-square-foot pavilion for foreign students is 100 percent sustainable.
Currently a visiting professor and research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, Palleroni continues to take on initiatives far and wide. In Taiwan, his group is turning an eight-lane boulevard into a "bio-swale," an ecological urban corridor that reduces the heat-island effect. Closer to home, another team is reclaiming the abandoned alleys of impoverished East Austin, building cottages and creating landscaped medians. "The city government gave up on this area a decade ago," he says. "Can you imagine? All this leftover fabric!"
One of his most ambitious undertakings has been the Katrina Furniture Project to salvage and reuse the destroyed building stock of New Orleans. Working at studios around the city, starting in the Ninth Ward, students and faculty are designing prototypes for simple furniture and building it with old-growth cypress, long-leaf pine, and other materials previously destined for the landfill. The team will also train local residents how to make each piece-a table, a stool, and pews so far-and teach the fundamentals of operating a workshop safely, according to a viable business model.
"When you offer a good idea, it catches on. But the community has to feel like it's their own," he says. "If they participate, they teach you a lot, too, and that influences your solutions. You build the most incredible design relationships." Going into the field, literally, to expand architecture beyond its elitist ranks, Palleroni has created a body of work as environmentally responsible as it is poetic.
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