This last October, I was talking with one of my wife’s colleagues at the Department of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington. I was describing how in my architecture practice, for the last 10 years, I’ve worked in dialogue with biologists and scientists to apply lessons from nature to buildings and communities. I was discussing a current project I’ve been working on: designing an orphanage, clinic, and administrative center in Haiti. The center will be an island of resilience in Port-au-Prince, providing more energy and water than it uses, while serving as a place of refuge during crisis. I paused for a moment, and my wife’s colleague said, “So what you are doing is modeling the future.”
We know global warming is happening faster than our ability to react. Nature has areas of climate refugia: locations where biodiversity can retreat, persist, and possibly even thrive under changing climate conditions, and projects such as the Yale Data Basin are trying to identify and preserve them. At the same time, we humans will also need to create our own refuges. After all, cities are human-made ecosystems — complex, rooted, yet changing. Everything we do should integrate thinking deeply about modeling the future for a rapidly changing world.
The design for the new building for Fondation Enfant Jesus, which lost an orphanage in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, was initiated by the US Green Building Council. I had been leading the pro bono design work for the project at HOK and am now doing so at my new firm. The William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center is finally under construction, wholly funded through donations.
Our first priority was to provide a safe, nurturing place, as the youngest and most vulnerable infants begin life there. But we also wanted to design a model that gives hope.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE AND THE PAST
When we began designing, earthquake resiliency was foremost in our minds, followed by creating a safe haven during other disasters, such as hurricanes. It raised the question: How do we do this simply, durably?
We used an approach that prioritizes the principles of passive design and pushes them into a new context informed by nature, leading to innovations. In the past I’ve worked with Biomimicry 3.8 (cofounded by Janine Benyus), and the frequent goal of our collaborations was to understand complex systems and translate them to human-made problems.
In addition, we looked for patterns in the country’s landscape and culture that could inform us. For instance, ecologically and culturally, trees are highly valued within Haitian culture. The kapok tree is revered, representing the intersection of the horizontal (the physical) and the vertical (the spiritual). Also, the historic wooden “gingerbread houses” in Haiti fared better in the 2010 earthquake than buildings made from concrete. Unfortunately, Haiti has been heavily deforested, and importing wood for building is not generally feasible. I thought trees — and thus wood — somehow needed to be part of this building’s resiliency story, even as we built with concrete, as Haitians typically do today. While Haiti was once the richest nation in the Caribbean, it’s now the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, and the plight of trees and the human condition seem intertwined.
Also, as we continued our research, we learned that 98% of the rubble from the 2010 earthquake had still not been cleared away. We thought it would be practical and responsible to incorporate this into our new concrete mix as a building material.
RESILIENCY WITH FEW MOVING PARTS
Infrastructure in Haiti ranges from brittle to none. The more independent and easy to maintain we could make the building, the more financial resources the foundation could focus on children and families.
Human comfort was paramount. Keeping the orphanage’s concrete cool was critical. We arranged rooms over three levels along an exterior corridor facing the area’s prevalent trade winds. These rooms embrace the two-story training and administration wing. Wood louvers, most of which are fixed for durability and predictable daylighting, provide ventilation through all rooms. At the vision line, they open for views and close for privacy. The deep-corridor approach, where living spaces unfold onto galleries facing a garden, enjoys a rich tradition.
In a disaster, the entire ground floor can be shuttered, supporting 50 people, with battery storage for three days and an emergency water mode that can provide drinking water to the larger community. Through a system designed by scientists at the Global Water Center, rainwater mixes with groundwater, reducing hardness and treatments required.
INSPIRATION FROM NATURE
In December 2011 I was home for the holidays, and an NPR story on the 26th featured the resiliency of trees in hurricanes. The story described how trees do well in hurricanes by virtue of mother-daughter branching, in which the tree’s mass is distributed vertically through a bifurcation at each branch, providing the tree with flexibly as it reaches upward. Regarding the orphanage, mother-daughter branching seemed powerful symbolically and functionally — why not architecturally?
I brought this inspiration back to our team, and we explored how this simple empirical formula might unfold. The result — an architectural structure around the courtyard which draws inspiration from the mother-daughter pattern of mass distribution — symbolically represents what Fondation Enfant Jesus does in the rebuilding of children’s and families’ lives, with a strong cultural tie-in to trees.
Other things also started to come together. Weeks before, the database AskNature provided insights into how tree bark selectively admits a beneficial spectrum of heat while rejecting the rest. We decided our goal was to reject heat and instead admit air. We translated this simply: low mass horizontal wood rods that reject high sun angles are spaced to allow airflow through. A rush of creativity resulted.
In the end, the building’s design emerged from many sources, some from within the traditional domain of design and others from without. Fewer moving parts, more simplicity, and a building that tells a story were the results.
NOT FAST ENOUGH, YET
“So what you are doing is modeling the future.”
Reflecting on the words of my wife’s colleague makes me hopeful. They help me remember that even as scientists are also modeling the future — one in which climate change creates more and more damaging conditions — designers must work towards solutions to meet these challenges.
But as I write this, it’s mid-October. Last week, Hurricane Matthew stormed through. The death toll in Haiti is 1,000 and rising. The aftermath from loss of crops, illness due to flooding, and unsanitary conditions will worsen. Our building wasn’t finished soon enough to help.
We in Seattle live in a place where technology (Amazon/Microsoft); research (some of the world’s greatest universities); global health, cultural, and environmental organizations (the Gates, Allen, and Bullitt Foundations); and the design fields have a rare opportunity to converge. Can the Puget Sound region become a place of climate refuge? If so, what would our buildings, landscapes, and communities look like? I think, and hope, a lot more like nature.