Forms of Energy #6

A good competition. A good project. An obstacle course towards its construction.

In the summer of 2008, Ancab Legacoop and Legambiente - in collaboration with the cities of Perugia, Pesaro and Lecce and the cooperatives of residents that will build the projects - launched the AbitarECOstruire competition. The stated goal was to promote a culture of sustainability through the implementation of exemplary projects that would combine goals of environmental sustainability with those of urban and architectural quality. In particular, these aspects were defined as follows: morphological and typological quality, energy quality and use of local resources, technological innovation and use of ecological materials. In the jury, among others, were Mario Cucinella, Carmen Andriani as well as representatives from the respective municipal and regional governments.
In Pesaro, the first prize went to 2Tr Architettura with NOOS Architetti. Their project was based on some simple proposals having great innovative (and ecological) potential: the use of wood as the principal construction material (for a 5-storey building with 20 dwelling units); the use of groundwater for heating and photovoltaic panels for electricity as the local and renewable sources of energy; the articulation of the single dwellings around a large central void, or rather a system of common spaces, functionally generated but enhanced by clear spatial added value (size, brightness, orientation) to create potential cohousing spaces. That is, places to meet, play, socialize, live. In architectural and spatial terms, the conceptual and formal heart of the project was the construction of a building in which individual spaces derive their value from being shared; from being able to extend the 56 square meter (two rooms) or 90 square meter (3 bedrooms) "nuclear family" dwelling into part of shared, common space that can be either public or private but which mediates dwelling and urban space. This transition space was also envisioned as a sort of bioclimatic atrium with a greenhouse entrance and a crown of chimney-like forms that could be opened during the summer. The proposal was thus both spatially simple but rich and varied, evidenced by the project's sections and plans (different for each floor) and its essentially "silent" technological elements (meaning that they are not immediately visible, such as the use of groundwater and the photovoltaic system placed on the flat roof).
The project is still not under construction, but during the two years since the prize was awarded, the dialogue between the designers and those responsible for its planning and authorization has proven to be incredibly complicated. This is one of the difficulties which is not easily understood, since it is an ongoing process and which, however, unlike many Italian competitions, already appears to be a happy situation if only due to the mere fact that the implementation process has been initiated. Yet important issues emerge from this very difficult dialogue or process; so it is interesting to point them out. In fact, starting with the choice of materials and continuing with the proposals for the heating system, "chimneys" and greenhouses and, again, its very spatial definition, each aspect of the project was gradually challenged by simple prejudice (and the habits of building in a certain way) or by codes (local building regulations, earthquake resistance codes, legislation regarding social housing). That is how wood became concrete, the use of ground water was abandoned (simply because the river basin authorities that would authorize the use had never done it before), the chimneys were leveled, the greenhouse became a glazed entrance. The spaces for social activity on the different levels (instead of the usual communal room) will be constructed even if they are considered to be a folly because, "Who wants to have children playing next door?".
Once again, from the point of view of the implementation process, from this experience – which, of course, we hope will conclude as soon as possible in the best way - emerges the need to unite theoretical and design thinking about sustainability with important political commitment supporting a new quality of building and living. Indeed, beyond the necessary technological support (such as photovoltaics), it is also necessary to create widespread conditions that allow us to renew our way of making architecture: new regulations that take into account, for example, the use of innovative materials (like wood); continuing education/training courses for those who must interpret the law or to enable municipal technicians to address the new problems posed by the issue of sustainability; new regional cost parameters that take into account innovation, perhaps by creating reference pricing for different projects which have the goal of ensuring specific environmental standards. And finally, it does not seem out of place to think that "innovative" projects (results of competitions that have innovation as their goal) should also have equally innovative approval processes as well as economic and construction parameters. Creating the conditions to open up a new ecology of building and living should be the first point of a political agenda that truly seeks to sustain life.

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