Autonomy Revisited

How Latin America Can Lead the Way Towards Sustainable Design

by | May 5, 2010


The bamboo skin performs collaboratively with the wood for framing for an ultra-light structural solution. Photo by Esteban Cadena.


Not so long ago settlements and dwellings throughout the globe were altogether autonomous, dependent only on nature’s shifting generosity and relying on effectively and intelligently making the most out of that generosity. Then progress came and, with it, an elaborate circuitry that promised to make our lives better if only we could pay for it. We know now this resulted in a bio-network challenged to address increasing demands with diminishing resources. Ultimately, the planet had to pay.

And so we are trying to fix the situation.

As far as sustainability is concerned, Latin America stands in a privileged position amidst the global context. Its potential for renewable energy sources —hydraulic, biomass, and solar—is enormous. More than 90% of its land falls within the region known as the solar belt (between latitudes 40ºN and 40ºS). Its hydraulic potential is excellent, and Latin America is by far the most promising biomass productive region, with more than 50% of productive forest area, and an average annual fuel-wood production of almost 0.5 metric tons per capita, according to the World Energy Council’s Survey of Energy Resources (Elsevier, Oxford 2004).

Over the last decade, environmental issues have, timidly but steadily, become part of diverse agendas. However, the lack of necessary resources, strong political will and technical expertise have made development in this arena extremely lethargic and public awareness and engagement scarce. Efforts to implement green technologies, renewable energy sources, or sustainable design practices are not coming from governments motivated by concern for global warming, ecology and the future of our planet. Interest in these areas is generally aroused by energetic dependencies and their geopolitical implications. Other motivating factors are the region’s endemic social debt represented by millions underserved, as well as the increasing regard for cultural values, native traditions and autonomy in every sense and at every scale.

These ideals will most likely push forward the agenda in the years to come, and Latin America may first see its crystallization steered by the following driving forces.



Many of today’s programs, publicly subsidized or sponsored by NGOs and non-profits, specifically involve infrastructure by sustainable means, targeted at underserved communities. By implementing autonomous systems, namely power generation, storm-water collection, desalination, wastewater treatment and waste management, entire communities are given adequate up-to-date standards. Moreover, they are also enabled to preserve both their physical and economic autonomy, not afflicting the built environment with the stress of urban infrastructure nor burdening their finances with a high price tag for these services.

This also means that entire marginal communities and settlements will become adequately served by leapfrogging, namely skipping traditional, less efficient, more polluting technologies and jumping directly to state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly ones.

In sites of natural preservation, cultural and/or traditional value, the merits of off-grid solutions are self-evident. This trend should rapidly accelerate as the technologies are currently in the threshold of significant production cost reductions. As expertise becomes widespread and prices lower, we will see these solutions applied extensively, both planned and spontaneous, from rural and suburban settlements to the slums and favelas, encouraging independence, cultural preservation and social opportunity.

A substantial example of this is Tunquén in Casablanca, an isolated rustic ocean strip in central Chile, where a spontaneously off-grid community has been settling for the last 15 years, using photovoltaic panels for electricity, wells and water treatment systems, and gas-powered appliances. Once regarded as a disadvantage, it is now a matter of informed choice and environmental awareness and preservation of the natural world; once a critical mass was reached making it appealing to electrical companies to arrive, this same community has systematically refused to become “connected”, leaving the natural landscape untouched and using renewable energy and autonomous infrastructure.



The region’s vernacular architecture and construction methods are embedded in tradition. They are widespread throughout Latin America, entangled with its folklore, heritage and culture. These construction methods remain very region-specific mainly because they are passed on through oral tradition from one generation to another without a writing system or formal documentation.

However ethereal, these techniques have arisen great interest especially for their potential as sustainable practices. Adobe construction, thatched roofs, natural shading devices, use of bamboo, patio architecture, stilt villages, passive cooling strategies and use of organic materials, among others, are all part of this informal collection of resources highly in touch with location, climate, and available natural resources.

Academia, along with public and private organizations, has been collecting and documenting this information; the challenge now is to turn this information into knowledge and furthermore, this knowledge into hard science available for planners, engineers and designers throughout the region in an attempt to professionalize and describe this oral architecture.

We should soon expect to have all these efforts and interpretations merge into straightforward, applicable and replicable science and techniques with quantifiable data and results, available for all.

The design work of Al Borde Studio, based in Ecuador, and led by architects David Barragán and Pascual Gangotena, shows how this integration of traditional practices with current concerns, such as use of local materials, energy efficiency and low carbon footprint, results in innovative and solid architectural solutions; their delicate use of bamboo, straw and adobe, among other traditional materials, shine in their exploration for adaptation, efficiency and ecological balance. This reinterpretation of vernacular schemes and practices can be found in several of their projects.



Like Al Borde Studio, an entire generation of professional designers and architects is partially responsible for the emphasis on the issue of Latin America’s sustainability. The region’s pre-crisis economic drive, along with its expanding cities, a comparatively cheaper labor and lighter regulatory framework, and the lack of predefined standards and paralyzing liabilities translate into a fertile ground for exploration within a wide scope. These professionals have capitalized on these factors with outstanding results.

Currently the world looks attentively at Latin American high-end design and the professionals responsible for it. Their work, with particular emphasis on single and multi-family housing, educational facilities and public buildings, often leads the way to innovative solutions, use of alternative materials, and the reinterpretation of traditional practices by current design strategies.

These endeavors have also awakened the interest of large-scale corporations involved in engineering, design and architectural products. By developing custom solutions and materials for specific projects and architects, they utilize these initiatives as research and field-testing methods for potential product lines. This encounter of high-end technology, native practices and innovative design holds great promise for the extensive reach of these sustainable technologies in the future, eventually incorporating them into mass markets both within the region and throughout the world.

By and large, Latin America is certainly going on the right direction and has already acquired significant momentum. Conditions are quite exceptional considering there are not only relevant and consistent approaches but also, as we have seen, an enhanced environment for exploration. We stand today at a tipping point and we will most likely see an important shift towards autonomy and reliance on nature’s erratic generosity. We will strongly depend on our capacity to sustainably and prudently make the most of it.

Spring | Summer 2010Volume IX, Number 2

Eduardo Berlin Razmilic is a Chilean architect. He graduated from Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile in 2000 and established his architectural studio in 2001 with strong emphasis in sustainability issues. He is currently a Master in Design Studies Candidate within the Advanced Studies Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

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