These days, students entering architecture and design programs are more than likely to gain some exposure to sustainable building techniques or cradle-to-cradle strategies, whether their focus is theory or practice. But what about the working designer whose formal education never tackled such subjects? To address a growing appetite among mid-career practitioners for first-hand experience with the materials and processes of tomorrow, entrepreneurial programmers from Bali to Bologna are stepping up to the plate. Here are three unorthodox centres of learning putting the special in specialization.
A course on the island of Bali offers intensive in-situ primers on a promising material
Sometimes, the best technology isn’t a technology at all. At one training centre hid- den in the forests of Bali in Indonesia, students are learning how to work with one of humanity’s oldest building materials: bamboo.
Established in 2015, Bamboo U aims to inspire people about the fast-growing grass’ potential for green construction. “We’re at the cutting edge of a Stone Age technology,” says Orin Hardy, who co-founded the school with his wife, Maria Farrugia. Participants in the 11-day “build and design” course use hand tools to make and design products from handicrafts and furniture to housing. For Hardy, the main purpose of the course is to inspire.
“I wanted to create a space for people to come together, to empower themselves to approach issues of sustainability,” he says. The hands-on nature of the course is an essential part of that objective: Participants visit bamboo factories, harvest their own poles and learn how to plan and execute their own designs.
The results are impressive. Students have helped to construct buildings for the school campus, while alumni have gone on to teach construction workshops, create architecture installations, build bamboo kitchens and set up new bamboo plantations around the world.
Bamboo U courses are provided collaboratively with the famous Green School, a bamboo training academy built by Hardy’s father, the acclaimed jeweller John Hardy, who has been based in Bali since the 1970s. Throughout the course, participants get the chance to work alongside some of the architects and Balinese craftspeople who built the Green School. Ultimately, Hardy wants Bamboo U to turn people onto the possibilities of green construction generally.
“Building the future,” he says, “really requires us to think outside the box and to do things in a new way. It’s not necessarily going to be easy, but it’s going to be a whole lot of fun.”
For first-hand expertise in natural building, professionals from around the world are flocking to Ontario
Canada’s Endeavour Sustainable Building School, a hands-on eco-design centre directed by long-time sustainability expert Chris Magwood in Peterborough, Ontario, claims to occupy a unique position in the green-building world. “We provide experiential education at the intersection of high-performance and natural building,” says the school, which offers both full-time programs and short workshops. “Our students get their hands dirty and their minds engaged while learning from knowledgeable practitioners on real-world projects.”
Those claims are backed by action. Just about every year, Endeavour augments its core curriculum (which includes everything from one-day introductions to permaculture to month-long deep dives into natural building systems) with an ambitious signature project realized from the ground up by a small team of hand-picked students. The end results have been stellar enough to be featured at design shows.
In 2017, that year’s showpiece project – a zero-carbon residential design co-developed with Ryerson University called Zero House (pictured above) – was displayed at Toronto’s Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology, a.k.a. EDIT. This year, the class of 2019 aimed to build Canada’s greenest summer cabin, complete with hempcrete walls; the site was Geneva Park, home of the famous Couchiching Conference.
But while these showstoppers attract the most attention, Endeavour’s greatest strengths are its nuts-and-bolts courses, designed to give practising designers and builders real know-how. According to one participant, from Miami, the school taught him how to think comprehensively “about sustainable building, which has proven far more valuable than learning solely about the methods themselves.” That knowledge is imparted, says another former student, by a dynamic teaching staff that she describes as “the hardest-working I know.”
At Italy’s School of Sustainability, subjects include pollution-fighting surfaces and post-carbon architecture
The Italian architect Mario Cucinella has a thriving practice designing buildings that perform like green machines. Among its projects are the One Airport Square mixed-use development in Ghana and the Centre for Sustainable Energy Technologies at Nottingham University’s campus in China. Overall, though, Cucinella began noting a “disconnect between aspirations and outcomes when it comes to sustainability,” so in 2015 he founded SOS: School of Sustainability, which provides grad students with experience-building educations in everything from product to urban design.
Cucinella’s renown and the school’s location in cultural hub Bologna mean that studying at SOS can bring considerable international exposure. In a 10-month full-time course running from October to July, enrollees work on their own thesis projects while also creating Milan Design Week installations with industry leaders and submitting to international competitions. In 2019, SOS co-created MateriAttiva, an immersive setting (above) that explored air pollution–neutralizing surfaces, with Iris Ceramica Group; the school also won first prize at the World Architecture Festival in the category of Climate, Energy & Carbon for a green office-building proposal for Changzhou, China.
Last year, the school made Design for the Circular Economy, covering design for disassembly, cradle-to-cradle and other green strategies, a core subject. Its architecture courses include Architecture as a Social Business, Post-Carbon Architecture and The Right to (Quality) Shelter. Most recently, a team of students in the latter course developed a thesis project investigating 3D-printed shelters. Boasting envelopes made with locally sourced earth and tested against four different climates, these futuristic abodes are indicative of the school’s focus on combining context- driven design with emerging technologies.
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How Bali’s Bamboo U, Ontario’s Endeavour and Bologna’s SOS are providing a higher form of architecture and design education.