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Creating Sustainable Solutions in Central America

01/10/2013

RISD students have been traveling to Earth U's La Flor campus in Costa Rica to explore sustainable solutions to global problems.

For many children who grow up in developing countries in Central America, their classrooms are little more than cement buildings. Indoor plumbing doesn't exist, clean drinking water is scarce during the dry season and on sunny days, schoolhouses can turn into sweltering sweatboxes due to poor ventilation. Given these conditions, it's common for students to become distracted – even dizzy – while attempting to concentrate.

To help tackle this ongoing problem, RISD students enrolled in the interdisciplinary Innovation Studio: A High-Tech, Low-Tech School, a studio that's offered by the Industrial Design and Landscape Architecture departments, have developed a prototype off-the-grid schoolhouse for rural Costa Rica in collaboration with Earth University – the world's foremost research institute for sustainable agriculture. Since 2008 RISD students have been traveling to Earth U's La Flor campus in Costa Rica's Guanacaste Province to explore sustainable solutions to complex global problems such as poverty, food production and waste management.

“As the world becomes more connected, problems that affect human life become more complicated,” notes Associate Professor Charlie Cannon, who taught the fall 2012 studio and has been involved in RISD's ongoing collaborations with Earth University. “It was incredibly valuable for students to learn how to develop comprehensive solutions to critical issues. I believe these challenges will truly define the 21st century.”

As part of their preliminary research, students were introduced to the local environment through a brief trip to Earth University's tropical campus, which is situated in the midst of a banana plantation. During their visit in October, they started work on theoretical projects for potential incorporation into the prototype design. Students explored eco-progressive concepts for rooftop gardens, tree latrines and clever plumbing configurations, among other ideas hatched in the design studio.

Mickey Rockafellar MLA 13 quickly focused on the issue of water. “There isn't a problem with water availability during the rainy season,” he explains. “But it becomes scarce during the dry months.” So, after returning to RISD, the landscape architect designed an ingenious water collection system that makes use of discarded water bottles, which are both cheap and easy to find in Costa Rica. The design also includes a sand filtration system that rids water of bacteria. He envisions that the structure can be attached to a schoolhouse – or any other type of building – in order to provide clean drinking water.

“It's efficient and cost effective,” Rockafellar notes. “Plus, community members can easily build this themselves.”

This month, during Wintersession, Professor Colgate Searle BLA 71 is leading a small team of adventuresome students who are building a prototype of the schoolhouse in Costa Rica – using a blueprint developed from selected student designs proposed during the fall studio which was funded by the Fund for Sustainable Education. It will be unveiled at an international climate change conference Earth University is hosting in April.

The project is a noble one. According to Searle, the participating students are part of a larger philanthropic effort lead by Earth University that attempts to radically improve academic facilities throughout Costa Rica. The hope, says Searle, is that the prototype will inspire local populations to build their own low-cost schoolhouses to support active learning.

“Students actually have the potential to change a community's standard of living,” notes Searle, adding: “Now that's a real reason to design.”

Among the key features of the prototype is a roof designed to collect rainwater that will be processed by an on-site filtration system. The rainwater collected will be used for hand washing and to flush indoor toilets. And to make sure students aren't sweating at their desks during the warm months, the building will offer an open ventilation system.

Sturdy materials that are indigenous to the area – including teak and bamboo – are being used for the building's frame and roof. “We want to make sure that the community is able to replicate this building using the resources available to them,” Searle explains.

Abigail Foster 13 ID, one of the students helping to build the prototype in Costa Rica, was asked to photograph the process. The materials will then be added to a book she's creating with Rawan Alsaffar MArch 13 that chronicles the students' final projects and offers instruction in sustainable design. The publication will eventually be turned into an online document available to everyone.

“The book is a means of communication,” Foster explains. “We want the knowledge we cultivated in the Innovation Studio can be shared with people in many different locations. It's about making connections and then building from there” –Abigail Crocker

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tags: academic collaborations, local/regional, faculty, global, Industrial Design, social responsibility, wintersession

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A figure modeling class from 1916.