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Home truths: habitats for a changing planet

Home truths: habitats for a changing planet
22 Dec
Why a changing climate is forcing us to rethink our notion of home

How often have you stopped to consider why your home was built the way it is? For most of us in the developed world, our notion of home can be all too transitional. As our lives develop, we swap one pre-built environment for another, living in an architect’s exercise in societally-appropriate design cues, taking for granted the bricks, mortar, wood and glass that make up the building.

Habitat book cover webClick here to order Habitat via Amazon

But for a great many others, the nature of their homes are dictated by the very environments they live in. From the materials used for construction, to the very design of the building, homes in climate zones undergoing dramatic changes are often as much cases in function over form.

‘It’s about living in equilibrium with natural resources,’ says Dr Sandra Piesik, architect and author of the exhaustive and staggeringly huge book, Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet. ‘When it comes to ecology, I personally think we should try to figure out what the land had there before – what the natural environment would have offered in its indigenous form. For example, I specialise in desert regions and the most viable form of vegetation in the desert is date palms. They have been there for thousands of years, they give you all the systems – the microclimate, the agriculture. Why would you plant something else if that’s what works there?’

Pg 98 Cape Coast Beach West AfricaCape Coast Beach, West Africa: modern buildings of sand-cement blocks, glass and corrugated metal coverings are slowly superseding vernacular predecents (Image: Raquel Carbonell)

Habitat is an impressive five-years-in-the-making tome that sets out to deliver the message that the climates of the world have changed so rapidly, and so radically, that we simply cannot ignore the methods employed by builders from around the world when constructing new environments, that we need to find that aforementioned ‘equilibrium’ and work with the planet’s ecosystems rather than in spite of them.

‘I wanted to communicate – initially to architects but now the scope has changed – that there are different climate zones to the world, that you have to take into account different atmospheric phenomenon when we design cities or buildings,’ explains Piesik. ‘That has to be a fundamental thing. When I started five years ago, I had this infra-red thermometer and I would measure temperatures. In my lectures I would say, this is the temperature of the sand, it’s 80ºC, while in Europe in winter you can get to -35ºC. Huge differences. You just can’t think the same way about these different places.’

Initially Piesik felt that we were beginning to turn our back on nature when it came to mass construction. ‘In the 1970s, we started to embrace modernisation,’ she says. ‘People just completely threw away the ways of the past. The story of Habitat is that there are resources we used to use, but we left them because of modernisation. The planet still produces resources that could be utilised and we need to get back to those.’

Bangladesh DESI Anna HeringerThe Dipshikha Electrical Skill Improvement centre in Bangladesh uses local materials for its construction (Image: Anna Heringer)

Piesik initially set up the research group 3Ideas to explore this notion while working in Dubai in the early 2000s: ‘I was working on commercial projects as an architect. Obviously it was really hot and as a European I’d never experienced that level of heat in the summer. I became curious as to what the Arab people did before we in the West arrived. What did they build, how did they build, what sort of cities were there before we arrived during the big economic boom? 3Ideas was set up to facilitate that research. It took a few years to review the entire country, but I mainly learned that people were building from palm leaf for 8,000 years.’

The research led to a book on palm leaf as a natural resource, an exhibition at the RGS-IBG and an eventual approach by Thames & Hudson to expand the research to a global level. The result was Habitat, a gargantuan collection of images and data of dwellings – mostly of everyday people – from around the world. Crucially, rather than divided by any geopolitical or topographical boundaries, Habitat is divided across five climate zones – tropical, dry, temperate, continental and polar – with the result being that you begin to see connections between disparate locations whose only link is the ways they adapt to the environmental conditions each has to face.

Tibet Jianamani Visitor Centre Li Brian ZhangThe Jianamani Visitor Centre in Tibet utilises Mani stones, rocks inscribed with Buddhist prayers (Image: Li Brian Zhang)

‘Adaptation to resources is certainly a fundamental issue,’ says Piesik, ‘but the element of adaptation that I feel is also important is national identity. With all the troubles that we are facing today, many are of course environmental. But socially there are also issues around where we belong to, especially with migration and other national issues.’

She describes Habitat as being not only a call for recognition that the world looks different in different climate zones, but to find a way to adapt to that in realistic, meaningful ways. ‘That’s what the Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – particularly the final one, SDG 17: Global Partnerships – are all doing too,’ she says. ‘They realised quite early on that you need to pull in the people on the ground.

Today, the most successful environmental projects are happening in Europe, in Scandinavia, where you have communities, local governments, big government all coming together and driving it with a bottom-up approach. This multi-disciplinary aspect is phenomenally important. Solutions need to be holistic to be effective.’

Yanomami village seen from the air Catrimani Valley northern BrazilA distinctive circular Yanomami village seen from the air Catrimani Valley northern Brazil (Image: William Milliken/RBG Kew)

In the not-too distant past it would have been easy to feel somewhat removed from the kinds of projects that would have been needed to live ‘alongside an environment’. Flash flooding in Southeast Asia, desertification in sub-Saharan Africa – horrible images on the evening news, but the most we had to deal with was some occasionally strong seasonal winds and rain. But the West is no longer as isolated from extreme weather effects as it used to be and we are all feeling different effects of climate change on a far more frequent, and personal basis.

Piesik feels that this makes it a crucial time for getting people to become more engaged with the notions of working with their local ecosystems: ‘Embarking on projects that are relevant to local people and tackling issues that are relevant to them is good. It not always necessary to talk to local people about global contexts. One can never underestimate the intelligence of the general public, but you have to make things relevant to local people. For example, in Florida right now it would all be about hurricanes – how do you build after hurricanes have hit, do you change the building environment to take into account future events? Where we have homes being flooded in Bangladesh, it would be a different story.’

Equally crucial is to make the economic argument. What stops the book, and the associated series of global panel discussions that have sprung up around it, from simply becoming a nostalgia-filled love letter to ‘traditional ways’ is that Piesik has a firm rooting in the realities of modern needs. ‘Quite often we have 19th century legislation to deal with 21st century problems,’ she says. ‘I feel we need to find a balance not just between the planet and humanity, but we need to find a balance with commercial drivers. You often need to bring the government or local authority with you on a journey, because maybe that will change a law or policy.’

At Habitat’s most recent event in Milan, Piesik found herself talking with city mayors and ministers of the environment all asking how they can implement such policies and what needs to change. She sees this as being both hopeful that things are moving in the right direction, and as a motivator to get people at all levels thinking differently about how they work with their environments. About learning lessons from others in the same climate zones that have a more rooted connection to what their ecosystems offer.

‘The legislation that comes from events such as COP empowers us,’ she says. ‘It’s really up to you and me and all of us to get our acts together and do what we can. We all have different roles. It would be great to see the world in its richness and diversity and recognise its ingenuity. The world is quite over-specialised and sometimes there can be really simple, logical solutions. It would be great if we could find a way to translate these traditional wisdoms to contemporary use.’

The Habitat Coalition will be hosting a series of panel discussions and events throughout 2018. Visit www.3ideasme.com for details.

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