Arch alum on sustainable building

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Photo by Natasha Thondavadi.

In October, the National Organization of Minority Architects recognized architecture firm Marshall Moya Design with two of their five annual awards, the Professional Design Excellence Award and Visionary Honor Award. Principal architect Michael Marshall ARC ’84 spoke with the News about their two award-winning projects, one a sustainable housing project for internally displaced people in Cartagena, Colombia.

Q. It seems like a lot of your designs emphasize sustainability. Why is sustainability so important for contemporary architects?

A. I think architects have been interested in making buildings more sustainable for a long time, but the general public is just now catching up. It’s significant that for the [UDC] student center, the client, university President Allen Sessoms GRD ’72, reached out to us and supported our goal of designing the building so that it meets platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards … Usually, even though architects care about sustainability, clients don’t want it because a sustainable building costs 10 to 20 percent more than a similar, unsustainable building. Developers are now interested because they realize their clients want this. Homeowners want the cost savings that occur over time because of sustainable architecture. It’s true that the cost of the technology is high, but it’s coming down from what it was 15 years go. Eventually the technology will catch up and the industry will begin to understand how to make this all happen in a cost-effective way.

Q. What does sustainability mean in the context of architecture?

A. Well, a lot of it has to do with incorporating sustainable features into the design … [For the student center], we’re adding features like a green roof [with plants growing on top] and geothermal heating, which draws energy from the earth for conventional heating uses. We’re also going to incorporate a rain garden, which will collect all the water that comes off the roof and will naturally channel it back into the earth … This will apply even to the public sector’s sidewalks, since even in the public space [adjacent to the student center] we will collect water that would normally enter the sewage system and end up in Rock Creek Park or the Potomac River.

Q. You said that clients are now realizing that sustainable design can save them money. Could you give me an example?

A. We are installing shading windows in the student center. These will cut down on the heating and cooling bills, particularly cooling, since the windows will control the amount of direct sunlight that comes into the building. Shading the sun before it comes into the building keeps it at a cooler temperature while filtering the light. The windows can reflect light inside so you can use daylight [to] cut down on the amount of electrified light [used] by having more ambient light reflected or bounced into the building. We also have an atrium space that will allow daylight to get deeper into the building. It’s really quite an interesting dance to use the sun in effective ways and cut down on the amount of sun when you don’t want it. These are things we do with architecture that might cost more due to their configuration and technology, but in the long run the tradeoff is the overall performance over time. You’re not going to have the utility bill you could have so it’s really an investment, so if you or your client has a long-term view in mind it’s the best thing to do.

Q. What was challenging about designing a university building? How will the design facilitate student life?

A. This is the major public university of the city so it was important to come up with a new space and a new gateway and a new iconic symbol of the university and the city … [The building site] is facing one of the commercial nodes of Connecticut Ave., which is one of the major transit hubs of the area — there is a metro stop right there. Right now there is a group of buildings with brutalist architecture there. It’s very off-putting. This [student center] gives the university the ability to rebrand its environment.

Q. Could you talk about the Cartagena Project in Colombia? What makes this project so unique? So how will it facilitate social reintegration?

A. We don’t have all the funding or a specific site for this — it’s more of an idea based on my partner’s master’s program thesis. It deals with people who are internally displaced because of civil war or development, and occasionally the government deals with it. For example in Colombia, the government will build settlements outside of the major cities, but they aren’t that economically sustainable and there isn’t the best education available. So the idea behind the project is to have a partnership between the public and private sectors. The government should buy property nearer to the city and issue proposals to have private developers develop it to the extent that there is both mixed-income housing and [facilities for] ecotourism. There would be hotels, cultural events and urban gardens in a horizontal and vertical landscape. This way, the displaced people are part of a community that is supported by education and employment ­— there is a relationship between the displaced people and opportunities. This type of structure would eventually become part of the city’s normal economic structure.

We have another project in Washington, D.C. where government land was developed by the private sector, but 20 percent of it had to be affordable and workplace housing for firemen, teachers and police officers. But this should happen in Africa, Asia or South America where ecotourism is now developing and there is a demand from the market economy for places like this. [NOMA] recognized that this idea could be a prototype to help people all over the world.

Q. How will this allow for farming and food production?

A. Imagine a tall building in which there are six apartments per floor. Imagine taking out the two apartments that face south on every floor and using them to have hydroponic farming. This would bring density to a site vertically so you’re not using as much land for the development and allows people who normally live in rural areas to live in urban areas. They could grow things to sell in the markets or to use themselves. There will also be rooftop gardens and aquafarming with fisheries and things so there would be a variety of the type of farming that could occur in the site.

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