Common Sense in Sustainable Architecture

There are very few sceptics who would question the importance of increasing sustainability in architecture. The enhanced social value through better living conditions, physical value in a healthier and less-polluted environment, long-term monetary value via reduced operating and maintenance costs, and ethical value through fairness to future generations are self-evident.

But despite this agreement, the inertia of decision makers in finance and politics who are preoccupied with short-term cycles has slowed the pace of change, and distracts architects and engineers from focussing upon ways to integrate greater sustainable performance into their designs and projects.

The work of leading Chilean architects Elemental, led by Alejandro Aravena, on the implementation of the Holcim Awards-winning “Sustainable post-tsunami reconstruction master plan” for Constitución illustrates how the rigorous use of mere common sense can lead to significantly improved outcomes without generating higher costs. The city of more than 45,000 people is located 400km south of Santiago on the Pacific coast, with fishing and forestry as the principal industries. Constitución was almost completely destroyed by a tsunami in 2010. The tsunami first hit at the northernmost point of the city, with twelve-meter waves, then kept moving upstream through the river bed and hit the rest of the city with six-meter waves.

Fast-track masterplan with community backing

After the catastrophe, Elemental took on the challenge to develop a masterplan within only 100 days that included plans for almost every possible building in the city - mindful that the time allocated was a very short period for the designers, but was an eternity for those displaced by the natural disaster. In addition to considering how to mitigate and protect the city against future threats, the process also needed to be participatory so that the needs of residents could be precisely defined and priorities clearly established. Community engagement also ensured political momentum would continue so that future administrations would continue to implement the plan.

Community engagement to understand needs was key: Elemental redefined quality and social benefit by designing housing units with the capacity to gain value over time. Photo: Elemental.

Although recommendations to prohibit living in the area under threat from future tsunamis or building walls were advanced, Elemental’s strategy was to try to dissipate the energy of nature by establishing a forested buffer zone: a geographical answer to a geographical threat. The residents saw three advantages in this approach. Firstly; the public forest would increase access to the river which had been a long and contentious issue with private ownership of the riparian zone making the river inaccessible to most people. Secondly; the forest would increase the amount of public space per person from 2.2 square meters to 6.6 square meters. Finally, the forest also addressed the issue of winter flooding which would have been exacerbated by building a wall, and was considered an issue with more immediate and recurring impact.

The third proposal of the forest buffer zone had the greatest initial cost of USD 48 million, but also had the greatest value: disaster mitigation, flood prevention, provision of public space, and opening up access to the river. But, through further investigation it was discovered that the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism had a project for a highway along the river, the Water Department had a project for the rain canals, and the Harbor Department had a project for the river embankment and short protection. Through coordination, existing projects were able to be implemented in a more sustainable manner, at USD 4 million less than solving each problem separately.

The forest buffer zone mitigates the impact of the tsunami, but has many more recurring benefits to the local community. Image: Elemental.

Built-in potential for growth

Elemental also proposed combining the funds available for temporary emergency shelters and social housing to provide better-quality shelters with a higher initial cost that could then be dismantled and reused in an incremental social-housing scheme. The architects designed the social housing units as half of a good house instead of a complete but small one: building-in the possibility for residents to double the floor area of the house to 80 square meters. Next to each built section of the row house is an open space of the same size into which residents can expand their house. Higher quality social housing eventually increases in value and provides families with capital growth where the collateral can be used to guarantee a loan for a small business, or pay for higher education for children.

Innovation in the built environment in this project did not come from new materials, new techniques or new systems: it came from having the courage to follow common sense ideas, to understand the needs of the people of Constitución, and by viewing the problem in terms of both the micro- and macro-environments.

“Sustainability is nothing but the rigorous use of common sense,” assures Alejandro Aravena, Principal of Elemental and Member of the Board of the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction.

Reconstruction in an integrated plan

The Sustainable post-tsunami reconstruction master plan for Constitución won the Holcim Award Silver prize for Latin America in 2011. The independent jury praised the project for its thoughtful approach of proposing a long-term strategy of upgrading the built environment rather than implementing an ad hoc action plan to reconstruct that which had been destroyed by the tsunami and earthquake. Furthermore, the project’s effective establishment in the social community through citizen participation was recognized, demonstrating the contextual and social sensitivity of the master plan.

Since winning the Holcim Awards prize, Alejandro Aravena presented a keynote speech at the Holcim Forum on “Economy of Sustainable Construction” and was appointed to the Board of the Holcim Foundation. The Board frames the architectural, scientific, cultural, and policy concerns of the Foundation’s initiatives including the USD 2 million Holcim Awards competition.

Holcim Awards competition now open for entries

Every three years, the Holcim Awards competition seeks projects that demonstrate an ability to stretch conventional notions about sustainable building and also balance environmental, social and economic performance – while also exemplifying architectural excellence and a high degree of transferability. Images and details of all 153 former Holcim Awards winning projects can be viewed at

The 4th International Holcim Awards competition is open for entries now. Registration is free using an online entry form, and closes on March 24, 2014. More information about how to participate at

About this author
Cite: Sebastian Jordana. "Common Sense in Sustainable Architecture" 23 Jan 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.