rendering of housing designed to rise and fall with water levels

Future100: Student Designers Explore Radical Sustainability

In an era of ecological collapse, design students move beyond easy notions of “green building.”

Ranging from small, site-specific interventions to speculative visions of a future characterized by ecological collapse, the portfolios of today’s design students are redefining the concept of sustainability for an era of unraveling. The earth’s biosphere is experiencing unprecedented losses as worldwide climate change threatens to make entire regions uninhabitable in less than a generation. Emerging architects face a daunting question: How will they design for an unknown future? 

Against a global backdrop of profound environmental and social instability, this year’s Future100 cohort is moving past easy notions of “green building” to design responsive architecture that engages issues of history, environmental justice, and the politics of nature. 

Denice Guillermo, a graduate architecture student at the University at Buffalo, developed Vario Vitae, a housing project that addresses both embodied carbon and social cohesion—an overlooked aspect of resilience. It provides for the unique and changing needs of New York’s health-care workers, who increasingly come from abroad with the promise of applying for citizenship. Through the use of partitions and movable walls, the building’s hyper-flexible units can expand or contract to accommodate single occupants, cohabiting groups, or intergenerational families, extending the useful life span of the building and avoiding carbon emissions associated with renovation or demolition. Elsewhere, Guillermo looks to the unique characteristics of the American featherfoil, a unique aquatic wildflower whose spongy stalks feature air-filled pockets, for inspiration for a floating research center. 

A drawing of a research station modelled after a floating seed pod
Denice Guillermo, a graduate architecture student at the University at Buffalo, drew inspiration for the structure of this buoyant research center from the American featherfoil, a rare aquatic plant. Working in collaboration with classmate Hunter Perez, Guillermo designed a scheme to use air sacs inflated by the wind to provide tensile and compressive strength, formalizing the architecture’s relationship to the natural world. COURTESY DENICE GUILLERMO
rammed earth tiles in three colors
Developed by Weizi Song, an architecture undergraduate at ArtCenter College of Design, Grounded is more than a simple material study. COURTESY WEIZI SONG
chair in front of rammed earth tile wall
Inspired by traditional mud construction common around the world, Song developed and prototyped a line of tiles made from rammed earth, an economical and sustainable material; she also applied her product to several interior design schemes, exploring the material across multiple scales and typologies. COURTESY WEIZI SONG

Buoyancy is also at the root of Boston Architectural College architecture graduate Sophie Clapperton’s proposal for a climate-adapted Kashechewan, a remotely located Cree First Nations community in the far north of Ontario, Canada. Informed by direct engagement with community members and extensive research into the centuries of cultural and physical violence visited upon Canada’s First Nations people by the Canadian government, Clapperton’s scheme seeks to interrupt a traumatic cycle of major flood events followed by emergency evacuation through a system of canals, constructed wetlands, and flexible amphibious dwellings. Fixed in place with mooring posts, the so-called Flex Pods feature exterior wooden panels that can be raised to form bridges between the units, alleviating the social isolation that accompanies flood events. 

Mass extinction has made clear that architects also must begin to design for the needs of the nonhuman. David Rico-Gomez, an architecture undergraduate at California College of the Arts, embraces this imperative in campGROUND(s), an undulating mega-landform designed to serve as a new gateway to Alameda Creek in the East Bay. Constructed from offcuts and leftover dimensional lumber, the lattice structure provides gathering spaces for people as well as modules of burrowing owl habitat. Over time, the landform is colonized by pioneering plant species, blurring the line between building and landscape. 

rendering of a deer in an artificial natural landscape
David Rico-Gomez proposes something unusual—architecture whose primary users are nonhuman. His artificial landforms are to be built of scrap dimensional lumber and serve as habitat for endangered burrowing owls and other wildlife in the East Bay area along Alameda Creek. There’s an upside for humans as well: outdoor recreation in a formerly suburban neighborhood. COURTESY DAVID RICO-GOMEZ

Bringing nature inside, Weizi Song, an architecture undergraduate at ArtCenter College of Design, draws on the unique characteristics of rammed-earth architecture for Grounded, a line of biodegradable tiles that expresses humans’ innate and “timeless connection to land.” Inspired by traditional building methods in southern China, Song preserves rammed earth’s aesthetic and performance qualities while advancing the material for interior uses through the addition of polyvinyl acetate, a binder that is 100 percent biodegradable. 

Embedded in these students’ work is a determined optimism, as they acknowledge that to engage a world in turmoil, architecture must prove itself capable of adapting to new and existential challenges. Other-wise, even climate-adaptive design will only perpetuate the injustices of the past. 

rendering of housing designed to rise and fall with water levels
Sophie Clapperton, a recent graduate of Boston Architectural College, undertook a thesis project to research flooding in the Kashechewan First Nations community, a band of Cree people living along the western coast of James Bay in Ontario, Canada. She ultimately proposed architectural solutions to live with fluctuating water levels. The canal-side homes she designed rest on buoyant foundations and are connected to public promenades via self-adjusting ramps. COURTESY SOPHIE CLAPPERTON

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