Sustainability in Central America

March 17, 2006 · by Andr's Prera

When did we stop our sustainable practices? If we examine the history of architecture, many of the designs already presented effective environmental solutions.

The word sustainable now leaves its imprint in almost every field of human activity. At its core is the sense of stewardship and the responsibility of this generation “meeting the needs of the present” toward future generations “meet[ing] their own needs,” (Brundtland Report), a concept scantly mentioned, and which should also address the myriad social, economic, and ecological considerations, and their successful interphase.

Sustainability is hardly a “new” trend – the Brundtland Report itself is nearly two decades old – and, despite it having been practiced by many great cultures throughout history, the practice seems to have been largely forgotten (or ignored).

When did we stop our sustainable practices? If we examine the history of architecture, many of the designs already presented effective environmental solutions. The absence of systems and technology obligated people to be more creative in solving environmental problems, understanding nature, using it as an asset, and creating functional vernacular solutions.

Architects will constantly continue to rethink the way they design, construct, maintain, operate projects, and do business. We all should take a step back and try to solve issues such as: cultural diversity, ways of expressing ethnicity, use of materials, mandates of tradition, and the wealth of countries. Equally important, is effectively communicating the urgency of adopting a new modus operandi, modes which would take into consideration, in their design, environmental limits, in order to offer a better quality of life, respect, justice, rights for the cultural variety of the planet, and the safeguarding of ethnicities.

The firm _ambiente arquitectura (environment architecture studio) is a small sustainable architecture firm in Guatemala City founded by Julio Alvarado and myself in 2004; both LEED accredited professionals, pursuing sustainability as a way of life. “To sustain”…our services, our work; to make them last; to prolong their life. We work in the tropical environments of a developing country, one of the most ecologically rich countries in the world, and one of the most diverse in geography, climate, resources, and culture.

Our first consideration is to acknowledge the global cultural equilibrium and treat it with respect. This respect filters to the design resources that are inherent to the realities of tropical architecture.

The capital city of Guatemala itself is undergoing rapid urban growth and suffering the same difficulties of most burgeoning Latin-American cities: overpopulation, pollution, traffic, slums, illegal settlements, poor waste management, and poor water management. There is a major need for impactful, sustainable, long-lasting solutions, at a social and cultural level, which will improve and strengthen the marginal societies and cultures, initiate a universal dialogue raising everyone’s awareness, and increase ecological sensibility.

The concept of sustainability is a fairly new idea in our contemporary context, so the main challenges are still the negative mindset of the people and the envisioning of long term goals for ourselves and our society. In some ways, however, developing countries are more sustainable than others, in their consumption patterns and inherent potential.

Our sustainable architecture practice has been, to date, a rewarding experience, often proving extremely challenging and arduous, but, as a young firm, we anticipate many promising years to come. We were the sustainable design consultants for the first LEED registered project in Guatemala and Central America, a project fraught with numerous difficulties and variables which is still under development. Surprisingly, many of the LEED credits were achievable in our context, but it is apparent that we will need to be more flexible in a ways that make contextual sense.

LEED standards need to be adapted to different countries or regions as each country has its own building industry and (more distinctly) traditions. These standards encompass many important elements but in many ways they are detached from the surroundings. This detachment is clearly both positive, and negative, but there has to be a regional bond or adaptability.

Sustainability to a developing country is not only about green design or marketing, it is about socio-economic development, a better quality of life, and preservation of an ecological identity. Sustainability starts by being a moral perspective, but it must be affirmed through good governance so that it continues to be an every day activity in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Sustainability begs interaction, the definition of which is: action that occurs as two or more objects have an effect upon one another. The idea of a two-way positive effect is essential in the concept of sustainability. The relationship with nature, human and the built environment must be harmonious. Remind yourselves that sustainability and the will to prolong the existence of earth’s natural resources starts with your heart, follows with your mind, and gets done with your hands.

Andrés Prera is a design educator and managing principal of 1/2ambiente, an architectural design firm Guatemala City, Guatemala. A LEED AP, he is living a commitment to sustainability in a developing nation.

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