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Environmental sensitivity in design


THE color “green” has many connotations. Apart from being associated to plants, trees and all forms of fauna for obvious reasons, it has also been used to suggest jokes with sexual innuendos or refer to a type of tea that is good for the health. In color psychology, green has been associated with tranquility, which leads us back to its connections with fauna and the refreshing calmness of nature.

In design, green is used to describe an approach, solution or strategy that is sensitive to the dynamics of the natural environment. Yet, there are various entities in society who style or think of themselves as promoters of green technology from hardware companies, material producers and even local government units, whose leaders think that putting potted plants inside their offices is already enough to brand themselves as green advocates. Green design characteristics is not only manifested through what is tangibly seen on the finished output, but also on the processes involved in coming up with it. This allows designers and planners to think about each strategy, especially in developing urban environments and assess their impact on the environment, from upstream to downstream.

Going green and sustainable inspired this year’s theme of the Green Initiatives Week Conference, which is “From Ridge to Reef,” held last March in Cebu. This was the final edition of annual conferences, which were held in different countries such as Japan and Indonesia to promote environmentally-oriented or inspired approaches in design. Co-organized by the University of San Carlos, Archi-Depot of Japan and the Japan Foundation, the conference focused on the developmental implications on the watershed and coastal environments.


Green architecture was the highlight of the intellectual exchange among Japanese, Indonesian as well as Filipino speakers, composed mostly of design professionals like architects and planners, and even architecture students. The presentations were focused on the value of using wood and bamboo as a building material that has long been considered throughout history as a material closest to the Earth. Typical of their tradition in building and construction, the Japanese speakers showcased their research and applications of wooden materials to designs incorporating nature-inspired concepts.

One Japanese speaker presented an actual project, a roadside station, which infused inspiration from the natural landscape of the locality. It made use of engineered wood that produced a structural frame that allowed large, flexible spaces as well as framed beautiful natural sceneries from the outside. A professor from Indonesia complemented it with his own study of coming up with reciprocal frames of bamboo, underscoring the material’s role in construction as not just mere cladding or decoration, but also as a main structural component. Similar presentations, which showcased wood and bamboo, added relevance since these materials are considered as the most sustainable in terms of production and are abundant in many regions in Asia, including the Philippines.

Local architects had their share of the limelight during the conference proper through presentations that emphasized on their efforts in promoting green and sustainable practices. Speaking on the efforts of the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP) in promoting sustainable architectural practice, UAP National President Benjamin Panganiban Jr., presented the various efforts of UAP chapters in not just acting as exemplars of green practices, but also extending their knowledge on sustainable design to their respective communities. It is good to see these design professionals helping the members of their community not just uplift their lives, but also making them aware of environment-friendly practices that they can do in their own households.

Closing out the four-day conference was a tour of the Bojo River in Cebu’s southwestern town of Aloguinsan, a three-hour drive away from Cebu City. In that quiet town, the speakers and visitors were immersed in a truly tranquil side of nature. The river itself was considered as among the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations in the World back in 2016 by Green Destinations and it is just inspiring how the local government and its residents cooperate to make sure it lives up to its prestigious title. Wading through the river lined with different species of mangroves, the experience reminded everyone the value of thinking, planning and designing green. This time, the design professionals were learning from the locals on how they applied sustainability principles into their everyday living. The conference delegates were particularly amazed by one of the residents, who finished high school but never went to college, who explained how protecting their environment has been deeply inculcated into the psyche of their community. They do not use any materials made of plastic. Everything is organic, including the food they served us during our visit. We sipped fresh buko (coconut) juice on metal straws inside their shells.

The nature-tripping experience in Aloguinsan underscores the role of people, not just architects, urban planners and other design professionals, in elevating building design and city planning into a level that would make the Mother Earth proud. It proves that there has to be a significant effort for every member in the community to initiate specific activities that would ensure the protection of the environment. Sustainable features of a building or a municipality will be for naught when its people just disregard the value of being sensitive to nature and preserving it.

Part of the numerous tasks and responsibilities of the architect is to ensure that his design and planning of a building is respectful of the environment. This is usually done not just through the building features that are directly seen or installed, but also in the manner of which the building was conceptualized and constructed. Are the materials involved in building construction sustainable? How were they made? Did these materials entail a considerable amount of fuel or energy during its manufacturing and transportation from the shop to the construction site? How about the techniques in construction? How minimal is the disturbance made on the site to make it ready for the building project? These are just a few of the questions that must be considered and answered.

Of course, the environment-friendly advocacy in design would not be complete without the transfer of these sensitivities to the client and the building users. They should be able to understand how the building operates and why certain features are placed there. They should appreciate the architecture as something that would lead them to value the building and how it respects the site and the environment.

Karl Aries Emerson Cabilao is an architect and a faculty member at the University of San Carlos School of Architecture, Fine Arts and Design (USC SAFAD), where he teaches subjects on history of architecture, theory of architecture and architectural design. He currently heads the USC SAFAD Research Committee.

He completed his Master in Architecture degree with a major in urban design in USC in April 2017. He is also a contributing writer for SunStar Cebu Publications, where he usually writes articles on architecture and design for its lifestyle pages. As a member and past president of the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP) Sugbu Chapter, he has served in various capacities in the UAP both in the chapter and national levels since 2004. In April 2017, he was elevated to the prestigious UAP College of Fellows for notable contributions in architecture education and outstanding service to the professional organization.


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