For the first time the Environmental Protection Agency has named an architect to be part of the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology– and he is a Latino.
Dr. Fernando Abruña is the only Puerto Rican and the only architect serving in the council, which was set up by the EPA in 1988 in order to provide independent advice to the EPA administrator on a broad range of environmental policies, technology and management issues. The way his addition to the group came to be makes for a peculiar story.
“The EPA organized a symposium about global warming, and we were invited for a presentation about our experiences in terms of construction and climate change,” Abruña told VOXXI. “One of the attendees was the director of EPA’s region two, Judith Enck. In my presentation I spoke about progress in Puerto Rico, buildings that had just been LEED certified… At the end of the presentation, I spoke about all the things I thought the EPA was doing wrong in the process to achieving buildings that were sustainable.”
“One of the things I talked about was how, in the housing system, the Energy Star system in the United States did not match Puerto Rico’s needs … To my surprise, when the Q&A session began, the director for region two stood up, and I thought she was about to scold me, but no! She walked up to the microphone and said, ‘Abruña, we will take your recommendations and we will do something about them.’”
Abruña was surprised and about a month later he was invited to join the council, which will have a meeting in July in Washington. One of the things the council is working on is helping the EPA to develop a national system to certify green buildings.
“It’s an interesting experience,” Abruña said of the council. “There is a very diverse membership — from the executive vice president of Siemens to representatives from Native American tribes and inner city communities.”
Abruña: Father of green architecture in PR
Abruña is one of the most prominent architects in Puerto Rico and is considered to be the father of green architecture on the island.
Ironically, Abruña didn’t know he wanted to be an architect when he started college back in 1969 — he was set to study psychology.
“I thought psychology would be more rigorous and scientific, but it wasn’t,” Abruña told VOXXI. After two years, he changed tracks and focused on fine arts. This time, he switched from the University of Puerto Rico to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he got a bachelor’s degree in architecture before heading to Pratt Institute for his master’s degree. He wrote his bachelor’s thesis on how to use nature to acclimatize buildings. It was the only thesis among the ones presented that had an environmental angle.
“My bachelor’s was focused a lot on natural ventilation, the use of vegetation to provide shade over buildings, collecting rainwater…” Abruña said. He has certainly put all that knowledge to good use.
In what was one of his most ambitious projects, Abruña designed the Ecological School of Culebra back in 2002, after the Puerto Rico Department of Education and the Public Building Authority commissioned it. Work on the school was completed in 2006, and Abruña said working on the island municipality of Culebra had great challenges, given that materials and workers had to be brought in from the mainland.
The Culebra school — an elementary school — includes natural ventilation and day lighting of all spaces, it reuses gray waters and 30 percent of its energy needs are fulfilled thanks to solar power. The curriculum has also a special focus in order to educate students about the importance of protecting the environment.
Now, he’s about to finish the second ecological public school in the island, this time in the coastal town of Dorado. Abruña said he expects it will be ready to receive students when the school year begins in August.
However, the project he is mostly known for is probably The Absent House, in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico.
In 2000, Abruña and his team built that eco-friendly house, a house that was developed in order to show that an environmentally-friendly house can also be affordable.
“We called it ‘absent’ because, when it comes to gasses that cause climate change, the house produces no CO2 emissions. It’s a house that has been disconnected from Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewage Authority and Electric Energy Authority for about 12 years,” Abruña said.
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The house counts on a photovoltaic system for solar power and an aerogenerator to harness wind power, not to mention countless other features that reduce the house’s carbon footprint.
“All that you can imagine, we put in that house,” Abruña laughed. In its 12 years, the house has been visited by thousands.
Abruña admitted that, when he started in architecture, the interest in eco friendly projects was minimal, and said that the first 20 years of his career were extremely hard.
“My professional practice flowered, started a significant stage with important projects, with the construction of the Absent House,” he said. “Out of 35 years of professional practice, it has been during the last 12 years that we have made the most important contributions in terms of architectural projects.”
Abruña’s dedication to environmental architecture grew out of a love for efficiency.
“I’ve always had a fascination with things being efficient — how to get the greatest effect with the least resources,” Abruña said. He added that this is most likely due to influence from his father, who was an agronomist that worked with the federal government in projects that included how to make coffee harvesting more efficient. His motto is to be so efficient that he can do almost everything with almost nothing.
His appointment to the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology is not the first time the EPA recognizes his commitment to environmental architecture and advocacy. In 2006 they awarded him the Environmental Quality Award, namely for his work on the Absent House and his efforts to preserve the last 400 acres of forest in the San Juan metropolitan area.
It is worth mentioning that early in Abruña’s career, the environmental architect spent a year working in the office of historical monuments of the Puerto Rican Culture Institute. In his career, he has restored about 40 buildings in the colonial area of Old San Juan.
Creating sustainable housing
His latest project involves proving that it is possible to create sustainable housing at an accessible cost.
“There is always this perception, which, in my opinion, is erroneous, that in order to have a sustainable building one has to either be a millionaire or have a lot of money,” Abruña said. “The idea here is that it is possible [to have sustainable and affordable housing], and we are building two houses — I would say they should be ready by the end of August.”
These houses will be small houses with a small carbon footprint, but according to Abruña it should have all the benefits of a sustainable house.
It isn’t the first time he focuses on small spaces — Abruña previously developed a tiny house called Ecobito, which is a micro-eco-house that can operate without being connected to electric power or water companies and can accommodate three people in 215 square feet.
In the case of the new houses being developed, they are being prefabricated, so that construction does not significantly affect the areas where the houses will be set.
“We can’t look at [green building and green architecture] as another design option,” Abruña said, talking about the ways environmental construction has evolved.
“It is “the option.” It’s not something voluntary or optional. If we don’t construct all buildings as green buildings we are destined to kill our big house, the planet.”