Architecture, sustainability, travel and this blog

Six and a half years ago, when I decided to move to Sweden to study a double degree program called Architecture and Engineering, I really had no idea what I was getting into. This decision has changed how I view the world around me and my role in it. This decision has also lead to the creation of this blog, and in my first blog post I want to share how I’ve gotten to this point and where I’m heading next.

My path to architecture and sustainable development

Many people have a hard time deciding what to study after high school, and I was certainly one of them. I was interested in too many things and limiting myself to one subject seemed like an impossible task to do. I wanted to do something that would require many skills, something that required creative problem solving and the knowledge of different subjects. Somehow this desire for variety got me to consider architecture and civil engineering. When I eventually found out about a program in Sweden that would allow me to study both subjects at the same time, it was an easy decision to pack my bags and brush up my Swedish for a new chapter in my neighboring country.

When I started my bachelor’s degree, I had some vague idea of how this program would bring together my interests in science and art. In my mind the subject that would bring these two together was structural design, and I could already imagine myself designing complex structures that created sensational architecture. However, it only took one course in solid mechanics to realize that I actually wasn’t at all interested in structures. But before I had time to develop a personal crisis over whether I had chosen the right field or not, I discovered a completely different subject, a subject called building physics, and was instantly in love.

Traditional buildings in Iran create a comfortable indoor climate using the principles of building physics. The basement in the picture was kept cool enough to store food during the scorching summers before refrigerators.

Building physics is the study of air, heat and moisture movement in buildings, and it is all about understanding how buildings interact with their local climate. Buildings designed with building physics in mind require less energy for heating and cooling and are more comfortable for the users. Combining knowledge of building physics with architectural design makes it possible to minimize the environmental impact of buildings and also to build in a way that fits any type of climate in a comfortable and healthy way. I realized that with the help of this combined knowledge I could design buildings that would both mitigate and adapt to the big challenge humanity is facing today – climate change.

And so, my interest in sustainable development was born, not because I wanted to save the world but because I found it an interesting challenge. The challenge was to reconcile the man-made and the natural environment by reconciling design and science. It was certainly a challenge that would require creative problem solving and the knowledge of many subjects – exactly what I had originally wanted to find.

The challenge of sustainable development

Climate change and environmental degradation are without a doubt a huge problems. Over thousands of years people have learned how to live in different climates around the world but now these climates are no longer reliable or predictable. Floods, droughts, desertification, extreme temperatures, storms and other natural disasters are becoming more common and severe, and they are making it harder and harder for people to live their day-to-day lives. Availability of basic resources, like food and water, is becoming less and less guaranteed and poor management of natural resources is exacerbating the problems caused by climate change. Extracting resources and turning them into waste is just not an equation that works in the long run. Combine all this with overpopulation and unequal distribution of wealth and power, and the problem gets even more complex. Climate change is not hitting equally everywhere, but in this global world problems are not isolated to one part of the world – as current events and the refugee crisis in Europe show, and climate change has the potential to create far more refugees and civil unrest in already vulnerable regions.

Fields in Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world – and also one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

Buildings in particular are a huge burden on the environment in terms of energy and resource use, accounting for around 40-50 % of carbon dioxide emissions and heaps of waste. By building in a way that fits the local climate, we could substantially reduce this burden and help mitigate climate change. But is this enough? At the moment I am extremely doubtful. Basically everything we build makes the situation worse, even though there is certainly a wide range of how much worse. On top of this there are the huge issues of economics and politics which make it difficult to build anything different, meaning that good ideas are often left as just ideas. This is already frustrating when working with student projects, and frankly, I’m afraid of finding out how it is with real-life projects.

When I decided to make sustainability the focus of my master’s studies, I was optimistic that by understanding both architecture and engineering I could help in solving the climate change challenge. And now that I’m close to graduating, I feel extremely pessimistic about the future and my role in it. I have started to hate the word “sustainability” because of its vagueness, and yet I still use it – as does everyone else and this is part of the problem. There’s a lot of talk but too much greenwashing and “business as usual”. Meanwhile, practices that are actually sustainable are viewed as some sort of alternative, hippie lifestyle, which really doesn’t help. I have started to realize that humanity has a much bigger problem than climate change, and that problem is not understanding how big a problem climate change is. And we’re running out of time.

Travel as a tool for change

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to travel. But where does traveling fit in with buildings or climate change?

The climate change pessimist in me is afraid of what will happen in the next few decades, and just has a selfish desire to see the world before it changes too much. The pessimist also feels frustrated and wants to escape. The challenge seems too big to solve because not enough people care, and it feels like just by living in this society I’m making things worse. I feel like a more radical change in society and people’s mindset is needed before anything I do can really make a difference.

But the optimist in me sees travel as a tool for change. Traveling makes you more aware of the world and the problems that people in different countries are facing, and this awareness is needed for more people to act on solving these problems. Moreover, travel teaches you different ways of living and new perspectives that are needed to make this world a more sustainable place. And when travel includes the right kind of contact with the locals, for example through grassroots volunteering, it becomes a platform for knowledge sharing that has the possibility to benefit not just the traveler but also the locals. Not all travel is beneficial of course, and there are plenty of aspects to travel that actually harm the local people and culture, not to mention the environment, but that’s really a topic for another time.

This spring I traveled to Kenya with a group of other students from my university, and a few of us ended up doing a project on a small farm owned by a local NGO. The project started out with tree planting and practical construction, but ended up being more about knowledge sharing between us and the locals.

The travel blog that’s not a travel blog

And finally comes the creation of this blog. In the beginning I wrote that my studies have changed how I view the world, and this is most visible when I travel. To me traveling is a form of studying, field study, and this blog is an attempt to document the observations I have made about the built environment and sustainability while traveling. So it is a travel blog but not a blog about travel.

I’m graduating in June 2016 and my plan after that is to travel around Latin America for an unknown period of time. My original plan was to start this blog then, but I have already traveled a lot and have even done some actual field studies, so I realized it would be better to start now and to document my previous travels as well. For example, there will be several posts about Pakistan, Iran and Kenya, where I traveled earlier this year and did field studies that were part of my master’s studies.

What will I write about? Basically, I want to write about projects that are in one way or another making this world more resilient to climate change and improving people’s lives. I want to write about systems that work with nature and not against it. I want to write about traditional buildings and techniques that can be an inspiration for energy and resource efficiency today. I want to write about inspirational people who know how to live using the resources around them. When I’m feeling pessimistic I will probably also write about some bad examples. The goal is partly to inform (and hopefully to inspire) those who work with or are particularly interested in these issues, and partly to raise awareness about these issues. The goal is to share knowledge for a common good.

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