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The future is fabricated plywood houses and cities made of bamboo – and I like it

To celebrate #IAD2016, Creative Edinburgh board member Carrie Maginn talks us through the future of sustainable architecture

I’ve always been fascinated by how something is made; not necessarily what it looks like finished or hung up on a wall, but rather that bit in the middle, the process (I soon realised this after working in an art gallery for so many years). I’m much more appreciative of a thing when I fully understand how it’s made, even more so if I’ve had a go at making it myself. Take basic tiling or even the slightly more advanced skill in repointing masonry – both not nearly as easy as they make it look in YouTube “how to” videos. Let’s have it be known, I have a massive respect for the trades.

A passion for production

I bought my first property back in 2008. I now realise that purchase rekindled a passion for production, and most importantly the process, that’s been stirring in me since graduating from art school some 20 years ago. It wasn’t in major need of renovation, but I owned it – so I could rip up the floor to see what was underneath and could knock down a wall to see how it was put up.

So, when I returned to further education earlier this year to indulge my passions and take up a year’s study in Interior Design and Architecture, I discovered an acute interest in the negative environmental impact of buildings and what was being done about it. It’s sparked a curiosity in sustainable architecture, or green architecture, and those bigger questions being asked by architects and designers. Once such architect is Alastair Parvin, who raises the thought-provoking question: what if regular citizens could design and build their own houses, rather than architects creating buildings for those who can afford to commission them? Cue WikiHouse, an open source construction kit that means pretty much anyone can build a house - anywhere. How unbelievably amazing is that!?

“The idea of sustainability, or ecological design, is to ensure that our actions and decisions today do not inhibit the opportunities of future generations” Wikipedia states, in describing sustainable architecture. Yes! Who can argue with that?

Norman Foster claims in his TEDtalk, “problems of sustainability cannot be separated from the nature of the cities of which the buildings are a part.” I agree, I agree!

Then, there’s the pioneering radical, Buckminster Fuller - the father of sustainability. Driven by his intention “to make the world work for 100% humanity, in the shortest period of time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone” he inspired architects and designers to think green, back during the same time man first set foot on the moon! That’s forward thinking.

Sustainable solutions

During my research, I came across a more recent project by Penda, a Chinese and Austrian design firm, who claim that by 2023, a city could be built entirely from their modular bamboo construction system. Not only could it house up to 20,000 people, but it would be able to grow in any direction, depending on the needs of its inhabitants. Imagine a city sprouting from a bamboo forest! A city that uses no concrete, no steel; just bamboo tied together with ropes. According to Penda’s press release, “the project describes a true ecological approach of growth, which leaves no harm on the surrounding environment nor on the building material itself and is, therefore, a counter-movement to a conventional way of the present construction process.”

Comparable to WikiHouse, whose design kits require only basic DIY tools and a box of screws to construct, Penda’s bamboo city takes its construction materials from the bamboo forest where it lies. Both projects, both concepts seek to redefine who’s in charge and challenge conventional methods of architectural production with sustainability at the heart.

“The factory is everywhere. The design team is everyone”, Alastair exclaims in his TEDtalk, breaking from the pigeonholed assumption that an architect is someone who just builds buildings for rich people. He reminds us that architects are strategic thinkers, problem solvers and that the solution may indeed not always be a building, as we know it.

What’s next?

Do we have a real industrial revolution on our hands? Our 21st century is witnessing the democratisation of production and technologies are radically changing the playing field. Going green is no longer fashionable; it’s about survival and a world where every person has the right to build.

What do you think? Send me a tweet @maginncarrie

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