A New DNA

My background prepared me for the Solar Decathlon competition.  But I wasn’t sure how to apply my interest in sustainability and architecture in a meaningful way until the Solar Decathlon challenged our class at RISD to build  a house that produces all its energy needs. For us as students, this was an unparalleled opportunity to use architecture and design to address global energy issues, environmental concerns, and learn essential practical skills to address them. It also showed me that it takes leadership and collaboration to understand and engage the world around me. It changed my DNA as a designer.

Growing up in a South American country where petro-politics shaped the culture and the economy, I was acutely aware of energy issues. The country’s abundance of oil fueled its development for the past century. It has also, unfortunately, become a political weapon that’s led to regional instability, corruption, and many social ills. Our dependence on fossil fuels has restricted our ability to advance in many other areas. Tom Friedman refers to this condition as a “resource curse.” For me petro-politics generate social issues that translate to an architecture of dependence.

Started in 2000, and every other year subsequently, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon challenges collegiate teams from around the world to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that consume only the energy they produce. These net zero-energy homes need to have all the modern conveniences for our everyday lives while incorporating the latest technology. And, of course, we must make these homes beautiful, engaging, and relevant.

The Decathlon involves ten contests, each managed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Through these contests, NREL monitors all aspects of energy production and consumption, as well as subjective grading for architectural design, marketability, and the teams’ communication skills. Though the competition occurs in the United States, it has spread to Europe and China. It is one of my favorite U.S. exports.

Photo: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

It was in the fall of my third year of architecture school at RISD that I learned about the Solar Decathlon. The project was presented to us as a studio to design and build solar powered, modular, sustainable homes that would be displayed on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and put us in competition with universities from around the U.S. and the world. It sounded amazing.

Participation in the competition was broken down into a series of studios and summer programs to design and build our entry and lasted for two full years. I dove in. It consumed my life. I loved it. I spent nearly two years fund raising, designing, and building our entry. I worked with a team of 30 people from RISD and Brown University–every one of us was similarly absorbed by the same mission. It was very, very challenging. Not just to design. Not just to build. Not just to build on campus, disassemble, transport, and rebuild in Washington DC.  Not just to market and raise $500,000 for a college project. It was all to transform the way we think about and understand our built environment. With the singular goal of building a truly sustainable structure, we were asked to pursue architecture that was empowering instead of dependent.

Cristina Zancani talking to students from the CornellTeam 2009. Perkins+Will was a sponsor of the Solar Decathlon 2009Cristina talking to students from the Cornell Team in 2009.  Photo: Perkins + Will

The Decathlon gave me a real understanding of the practicality and importance of design. I learned how every single component of a structure and its configuration has an impact on energy consumption and performance, how every material choice designers make impacts resources. I learned how everything is interconnected and the importance of understanding the systems at play at every scale.

This learning didn’t come easy, we faced many design challenges. We had to be strategic since we only had limited and very specific real estate for the energy generating photovoltaic panels and the solar hot water system. We had to balance out our needs. The idea is not to sacrifice, as we still want to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. It is all about strategy: find the best solution to the problem by being innovative.

Phil Harrison, the CEO at Perkins+Will, has a unique vision for the firm and for attracting the best talent. When I asked him about architecture careers at Perkins+Will, he said that having a real passion for sustainable design is critically important to his recruits. Specifically, Phil told me, “Sustainability is in our firm’s DNA. It is not only in every building concept we design, it is a quality ingrained in our people, their passion and commitment to honoring the broader goals of society.”

This is how I knew that Perkins+Will would be the right fit for me. As architects and designers we need to search for integrity in our profession and bring to light what really matters. We need to understand the issues that affect our standard of living as a society and bring in real, practical solutions. Competing in the Solar Decathlon was a profound experience that gave me the opportunity to work on a project I cared about and also to translate a concern into an ability to address it. It inspired me to pursue an architecture career, and now a career in urban design, that has allowed me to have a significant impact: to make sustainable buildings, systems, communities, cities, societies.  This is my path. Ideas+Buildings that honor the greater goals of society, this is why I work at Perkins+Will.

Cristina Zancani is an urban designer and a champion of sustainability for Perkins+Will’s New York Office. She is also passionate about contributing her vision to the broader society. She continues to have an active role in the Solar Decathlon as one of the founders of the SDAA Solar Decathlon Alumni Association. She also acted as the liaison for Perkins+Will’s sponsorship for 2009 and 2011. One of Cristina’s current projects is the Newtown Creek Brownfield Opportunity Area, an industrial area between Brooklyn and Queens that has over the years been exposed to extensive contamination. Her responsibilities are to develop a visionary framework that will balance  the development and regeneration of industry in a sustainable environment. Cristina’s work for Newtown Creek ties in with her core interest of achieving sustainably of complex systems within the urban environment.

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