Vernon Collis has successfully developed and employed an alternative approach to development which parallels that of natural ecology. Here the design and construction is informed by the available material, technology and skills.
This differs significantly from contemporary architectural and engineering practice where designs most often precede the identification of the specific local palette of materials to be used for construction. The materials and technologies are adapted to fit the design and not the converse. Similarly in many buildings the inhabitants are also required to adapt to fit the design and not the other way round.
By transferring the methodology used in nature to buildings, the practice changes. And by inverting the conventional sequence of activities in the design and material procurement processes for developments – materials first, design second – the particular climatic, economic and social environment informs the design. The structure is therefore conceived following the identification of the specific locality and palette of sustainable materials. This was society’s traditional approach before the industrial revolution; however, when practiced with the benefit of post-industrial scientific knowledge, the results can be revolutionary.
Step One in his approach would involve an in-depth analysis of the particular situation and conditions in and around the proposed development site. This analysis, otherwise referred to as ‘resource mapping’, clarifies the current status of the availability of naturally occurring materials, waste materials, local skills and technologies, socio/economic conditions, existing infrastructure, what generates and depletes the local economy, NGO & Government programs as well as the conventional environmental assessments.
The resource mapping informs how to strategize and design the scheme to meet the needs of the local community while simultaneously rectifying any discrepancies in the overall health of this total system. An initial understanding of the total measurable and non-measurable inputs informs all building operations to remedy practical and social imbalances.
Step Two starts with an evaluation of the resource mapping to determine the direction of the project. The evaluation considers the existing, intermediate and ideal system scenarios.
Existing: determine the current status of the entire local system, including what enters and exits the system – building materials, governance, energy/water, waste, poverty, disease etc.
Intermediate: practical steps needed to move towards the ideal scenario and an evaluation of how a new development can positively influence the local system as well as reduce dependencies.
Ideal: the long-term incremental steps towards a healthy, robust, resilient and self-sufficient system
The built environment development becomes instrumental in healing nature and the community; addressing not only the client’s needs but a host of other related issues. These benefits are illustrated by the following considerations and examples which are demonstrated in all the projects and case studies:
Materials: extensive use of renewable materials as well as recycled materials including demolition waste, industrial waste, construction waste (mostly excavations) resulting in a reduction of resource depletion, reducing transport requirements and pressure on landfills. This equals a zero waste to landfill building operation and reduction to carbon footprint.
Labour: training locals, larger employment via labour intense and appropriate use of technology and gender equality on-site.
Socio/economic conditions: unskilled and unemployed gain entry into economy, use of transferable technologies and culturally appropriate and dignified building.
Infrastructure: reduction of bulk service requirement through self-sufficiency and low-energy construction methods and building systems
Economy: income retained within local economy also providing small business opportunities
Environment: climate responsive buildings including passive heating/cooling, design for deconstruction/reuse and enhancement of indigenous fauna and flora etc.
Education: every building site is a school, partnering with local authorities and NGO’s, talks at universities and colleges, student research on sustainable technologies etc.
Step Three involves a process similar to the conventional engineering and architectural ones BUT with a constant feedback system allowing the buildings to evolve and adapt as the project develops. This implies that the design and construction processes themselves are designed to adapt and improve the outset which is very different to the contemporary more rigid approach to construction where construction continues even though the building process on site exposes inadequacies and shortfalls in the design.