AIAS FORUM Day One: Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor O’Hare…

Paul Polak at FORUM

With a horrible mix of wintery weather and cancelled flights a common sight, for 650 architecture students to arrive on Denver was perhaps a greater function of passion than luck. Beginning yesterday, architecture students from across the United States, Canada and Australia came to Denver for FORUM—the annual gathering-cum—conference of the American Institute of Architecture Students. With the theme of energy, the conference is exploring not just issues related to sustainable design but also the “energy” of students, as for many FORUM is a ritual reunion of old friends as much as it is about exploring architecture.

While green-tinged Denver may have been the perfect city to explore sustainable issues, a second theme emerged as the economic downturn was on the minds of many as the prospects of architectural employment is bleak. Keynote speaker Paul Polak, founder of Colorado-based non-profit International Development Enterprises, however, saw this time as an opportunity rather than a time to worry.

His work has used design to produce low-cost, income generating products for poor farmers around the world who live on less than a dollar a day. In his words, “for poor farmers, for rich farmers, for farmers in Zimbabwe and for farmers in Colorado, design is creative problem solving” and there is enormous potential (and profit) in designing “for the other 90%” at a large scale.

Polak’s work is not that of a charity. Products from his organization are not given but purchased at affordable prices. The Treadle Pump, a device resembling a mix of a Stairmaster and water pump, could be installed for $25 but yield an additional $300-$600 a year for a farmer. New jobs are created in these communities for people to sell, repair and install the Pump thus creating a micro-economy and means for self-empowerment.

Since its creation, over 1.7 million Treadle Pumps have been sold, generating $1.4 billion in net income for Bangladeshi farmers alone.

For the future architects in audience, Polak challenged to conceive of the $100 house. With the global need for housing so great, an affordable home could be a boon for a young, socially conscious, entrepreneur. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper echoed the same sentiment in his address to the audience as “[the public] will look to you to provide these bright ideas.”

Perhaps the most touching story of FORUM happened in the first 24-hours of the event. With the cancellation and delays of flights out of Chicago’s busy airports, many members were facing the chance that they would spend FORUM at the airport rather than in Denver. Students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee adopted the stranded students from O’Hare International Airport into their caravan. Eighteen hour later, a bus arrived at the Denver Hyatt Regency full of Midwesterners and Southerners.

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