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Sustainability meets social justice

How fair is the construction industry?

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Sustainability and social justice are issues that concern us all. In almost every area of society, there is an urgent need to take action and make up ground. The architecture and construction industry is no exception, being driven by progress and the ambition to create ever larger and more impressive buildings. Not only does this put a strain on the environment, but local social structures also often suffer as a result of price wars in the building industry. More and more architects and movements are pushing back against this trend and standing up for a more sustainable and fair approach to construction.

Rendering of Kéré’s design for the Benin National Assembly.

The planned National Assembly building in Benin. The design is meant to be reminiscent of a palaver tree – a West African tradition that sees important community decisions made under a large tree. (Image: Kéré Architecture)

Social justice and sustainability in architecture

Skyrocketing rents and land prices, exploitative and environmentally harmful building materials, unfair working conditions. Social justice and sustainable construction are not always high on the agenda when it comes to constructing new buildings. At the end of the day, it is not without reason that social housing and the expropriation of large housing companies are regular hot topics in Germany, or that the construction and maintenance of buildings cause almost 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions

The Architects for Future is one movement that is attempting to counterbalance the “business as usual” attitude in the building industry. According to its own statement, the group stands in solidarity with the Fridays for Future movement and campaigns, among other things, for fewer buildings to be demolished and replaced with new ones, advocating instead that more emphasis should be placed on renovation and conversion. In a total of seven statements on sustainable building, they call on everyone involved to take a more considered and eco-friendly approach to their use of resources. To further their cause, they appeal to important decision makers from the industry and the government. “Research [has been] carried out on all fronts in recent years, with the result that a great deal can already be done today to save energy and resources. We founded Architects for Future to highlight the building industry’s enormous impact so that all those involved finally take responsibility,” the movement’s website explains.

Nature and architecture combined. Left: grandstand fits perfectly into the green surroundings of a park. Right: a lone tree enclosed by concrete and paving blocks.

Nature and architecture do not have to oppose each other. The results are often most impressive when the two are combined. (Photos: left: Patrick Müller, Unsplash; right: José Duarte, Unsplash)

The creative vision of Diébédo Francis Kéré

Diébédo Francis Kéré is an example of someone who exercises sustainable responsibility in all his projects while also advocating social justice in architecture. This year, the Berlin-based architect from Burkina Faso was honoured with the most prestigious award in the architecture world – the Pritzker Prize. “His cultural sensitivity not only delivers social and environmental justice, but guides his entire process, in the awareness that it is the path towards the legitimacy of a building in a community,” said the jury, explaining why they chose Kéré. Their statement went on to add that “Francis Kéré’s entire body of work shows us the power of materiality rooted in place. His buildings, for and with communities, are directly of those communities – in their making, their materials, their programs and their unique characters. They are tied to the ground on which they sit and to the people who sit within them.” And this is precisely what sets Kéré’s work apart. No matter where in the world he constructs his beautiful buildings, he always places great emphasis on locality and the cultural connectedness of the place. As well as using materials from the surrounding area, he also employs local labour.

“Ultimately, I don’t think [the sustainability of a project] is dependent on its size, but rather on the client. Sustainable building comes at a cost, but often delivers savings in the long term. Of course, there are uncertainties involved when you look for local craftsmen and try new things. I’m a pragmatist. I say that what I design isn’t just good for the climate, it also supports the local economy. If you want an air conditioning unit, you have to buy it from China. But you can build a passive cooling system with bricks,” Kéré explained in an interview with Der Spiegel.

When asked what the Western architectural world could learn from African construction methods, Kéré replied: “In Africa, you can learn how to manage with fewer resources , without exploiting other continents. At my school in Gando, there is no air conditioning. The roof is slightly elevated, allowing air to circulate and provide cooling. That is enough. Often, it’s little things. If everyone built like the West, the planet would be a wreck tomorrow.”

“Look at Stuttgart 21. Why was there so much opposition? People didn’t object to the [rail] project because they didn’t like the architect. They were against it because they were ignored and old trees were felled. People don’t want a white elephant any more, they want to be consulted. When in doubt, architecture should be put to a vote,” asserted Kéré.

Kéré has received praise for his working methods from other quarters, too. For instance, Stefan Höglmaier, founder of Munich-based property development company Euroboden, knows Kéré well and has worked with him before. He said in an interview that “Kéré can teach us what can be accomplished by using our hands. Craftsmanship. Simplicity. In the past, we established complex standards in Germany that, from a global perspective, we do not have the resources to sustain.”

The Pritzker Architecture Prize website quotes this year’s laureate as saying: “I hope to change the paradigm, to inspire people to dream and to take risks. You shouldn’t waste material just because you’re rich. You shouldn’t have to give up striving for quality just because you’re poor.” In Diébédo Francis Kéré’s words, “Everyone deserves quality, everyone deserves luxury, and everyone deserves comfort. We are interconnected, and concerns about climate, democracy and scarcity affect us all.”

Portrait photograph of Pritzker Prize laureate Diébédo Francis Kéré and two of his projects.

Two characteristic examples of Kéré’s work; rooted in tradition and featuring simple but ingenious solutions. (Photos: pritzkerprize.com)

Moving towards a more equitable kind of architecture

We still have a long way to go before we achieve true social justice. Circumspect, fair and sustainable practices have yet to be widely adopted in the construction industry. On the other hand, there are people like Diébédo Francis Kéré who are shining a ray of hope that’s encouraging others in this field and beyond, and awards like the Pritzker Prize that can make a vital difference. In fact, three previous Pritzker laureates are renowned for taking a socially responsible and sustainable approach to their work as well. It’s a step that applauds not only progress but also a more mindful relationship with the natural world and society – and it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Ready for another step in the right direction? Apply now for your own trade fair stand at the next imm cologne!