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Updated: October 12, 2012 17:01 IST

Build in sustainability...

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Aaron Schwarz: Need to fix urban infrastructure.
Aaron Schwarz: Need to fix urban infrastructure.

Aaron Schwarz acclaimed architect and managing director of Perkins Eastman, a leading international architecture, urban design, and interior design company, was in Chennai to participate in Design Tour, organised by United Technologies. He speaks to Hema Vijay about the architect’s role in environmental sustainability

How can an architect ensure environmental sustainability?

Sustainability is not an all or nothing proposition.  Every step the architect takes to improve a building’s performance and decrease its potential negative environmental impact is a sustainable step.  As architects, we can ensure sustainability by realistically considering how our designs will interface with users and the environmental context.  Many, many sustainable decisions are made just in how we orient the position of a building on a site and what material we choose to use.  There are several designs that claim the use of sustainable concepts, when actually, those sustainable measures were put in place to mitigate the impact of not locating the building appropriately and/or using inappropriate material.

Will sustainability compromise the scope of the building’s design?

Sustainability should not compromise design. Sustainability is an integral part of design.  I believe the mistake we make is in thinking of it as an additive ingredient. 

What sustainability concepts can we draw from traditional Indian architecture?

Traditional Indian architecture utilised many sustainable techniques which can and should be used today, techniques that can be easily applied to contemporary structures.  Some of these include: any configuration that improves natural ventilation, large overhangs or other designs that shade solar gain, rain water collection and harvesting, capturing daylight to reduce reliance on artificial lighting, etc.  There are also more sophisticated traditional techniques such as wind towers and air tunnels.

You are noted for the design of educational buildings. What architectural facets are unique to an educational environment?

Education design is an exciting field and has many unique aspects.  But it is best to first understand what is common and not unique.  A university campus has all the same components as a small village or city.  Every function is present, whether work, play, residences, health, entertainment, or retail.  All circulation systems are there:  vehicular, service, and pedestrian.  There are built areas and open spaces.  The uniqueness is that here, real estate and physical features are not bought and sold.  Therefore, we design to an institutional quality. Priorities are on how the users best experience and function in the spaces we design, how easily and effectively the spaces can be maintained, how operations can be more effective, and how can the buildings can be made to last longer. 

In urban architecture, what is the most crucial aspect to focus and improve upon?

Huge migration to cities is happening in many areas of the world and India is no exception.  Living in cities in higher densities is a more sensible and sustainable idea than spreading our footprint further out.  We need to take full advantage of this phenomenon by pooling our resources, improving public transportation to reduce and eventually eliminate cars in our cities.  We need to improve our existing infrastructure in urban core areas first, and then expand in a carefully planned manner.  Let us first fix what’s broken.

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