As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to riddle the world with uncertainty and interrupting day-to-day interactions, Puerto Rico’s architects are looking into tropical architecture as a means to safeguard public health -and business flow- in the event of another mass-scale health emergency.
Eugenio Ramírez, president of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-PR), told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL that tropical architecture - which focuses on creating ventilated spaces while integrating the climate and natural resources - could have a resurgence as a form of resilient design.
“We are seeing how [the pandemic] changes future developments, the impact that it will have regarding needs in future design… What lessons we can learn from this to improve how to design safe, hygienic environments where people maintain physical distancing within the desire of collaborative work, which is the present model of production. Everything is collaborative or in teamwork. We are looking into what this will represent in terms of possible changes in design,” he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that, combined with best practices endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies, increasing ventilation can protect people indoors from contaminants, such as the coronavirus.
“An important approach to lowering the concentrations of indoor air pollutants or contaminants including any viruses that may be in the air is to increase ventilation – the amount of outdoor air coming indoors. Ensuring proper ventilation with outside air can help reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants, including viruses, indoors,” the EPA informed.
According to the AIA-PR president, tropical architecture is intrinsically designed to fit those needs.
“A space that ventilates and has good breeze is a space that is free of germs and that has been proven. We have to look again at those roots that we have of concepts of cross-ventilation, appropriate solar orientation to protect ourselves from the sun, with good shadows in these spaces, and look again at our architecture as a tropical architecture. The issue of looking at tropical architecture again is important and is part of the solution to the changes we have to make,” Ramírez said.
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THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked if the business interruption that affected his industry during the first months of the pandemic and the current health needs have already motivated architects to reconceptualize projects that were put on hold to fit with these design parameters.
“That’s a process that takes time, but I understand that there have always been architects in Puerto Rico with traditions of maintaining this type of tropical architecture alive and strong, and we have noticed that it is not only a matter of style and aesthetics, but a health issue as well. Therefore, I cannot say that I am certain, but it is my understanding that there is a focus once more toward what is essential in terms of tropical design, and I hope that in upcoming years we will start seeing better examples of architecture designed for the tropics,” he replied.
Resilience Through Natural Resources
Beyond offering proper ventilation and assessing space needs during events such as the current health emergency, Ramírez highlighted that tropical design also optimizes the use of readily available resources to prevent the interruption of services that are pivotal amid health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, such as water and energy.
Up until Sunday, July 26, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa) warned that clients in San Juan, Carolina, Canóvanas and Bayamón who receive their supply from the Carraízo reservoir would have service interruptions due to a drought. Although heavy rainfall experienced over the past week ended that interruption plan, an unsound water supply system is not defensible, given the island’s geography and pluvial climate.
The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners (ECP) released the “Keep Safe Guide for Resilient Housing Design in Island Communities,” in which the entity explains that Puerto Rico has enough precipitation to supply uninterrupted water service, but is lacking in infrastructure.
“Puerto Rico has some of the most abundant water resources on earth, with 1,200 freshwater bodies irrigating it from mountain to coast, and an average of 30 to 170 inches of rainwater annually, depending on the area. However, there is not yet enough water treatment infrastructure to purify or distribute this water. This can leave homes and housing vulnerable to interruptions in potable water supply,” the ECP states.
To offset this discrepancy, Ramírez proposes regulations paired with a conscious architectural design that provides residential and commercial buildings the tools to collect their own rainwater, so that all residents can be assured that they will have that essential service available even during a drought such as the one experienced in recent months.
“Regularly harvesting rainwater makes your home resilient by reducing the dependency on the system, minimizing stormwater runoff, and preventing the septic system from overloading,” the ECP concurs, adding that the collected rainwater must be treated and filtered so that it meets local health regulations and codes.
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Along this line, both Ramírez and the ECP urge harvesting natural energy, particularly considering the island’s deficient infrastructure and proneness to storms and other natural disasters that affect electric energy supply.
A building designed with the concepts of tropical architecture would also provide enough ventilation to alleviate high temperatures in the event of a power outage, like the islandwide blackout experienced for months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017.
Ramírez argued that tropical architecture combined with green architecture is an intelligent asset because, while initially more expensive, the reduced energy costs plus the resources reserved through rainwater containers and/or power batteries make for an “extraordinary” return on investment while providing resiliency. He added that this design mindset is trending among young architects, whom he said are more eco-conscious and interested in tropical architecture elements.
With Puerto Rico being one of the U.S. jurisdictions with the strictest COVID-19 containment protocols, including temporary closures and reduced tourism, your correspondent inquired if these policies would have a negative effect on investments, but Ramírez assured that this is not the case at present.
The AIA-PR president said that the pandemic would not have a long-term impact on the island’s desirability as an investment destination, thanks to benefits offered through commonwealth and federal legislation, such as Acts 20/22 and the Opportunity Zones laws, plus funds disbursed through the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR).
“It is possible that there are people who decided to postpone their investments as the situation goes back to normal, but I have been working personally in projects with foreign investors and the projects have continued,” he said.
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However, more so than with the coronavirus emergency, Ramírez expressed concern over what he opined was an anti-tourism sentiment, particularly because a number of investors are interested in developing projects that are directly affected by the tourism industry’s performance.
“I do worry about what is happening now with a message that is being carried out that Puerto Rico is closed for business, closed for tourism. This does worry me because that message is being carried out clearer and stronger. It is one thing to say that we have limitations, and another thing to say ‘do not come,’” he warned.
Just last Saturday, July 25, a group of protesters summoned by the Socialist Movement of Puerto Rico Workers (MSTPR by its Spanish initials) convened in the outskirts of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) in Carolina to demand a closure on air travel.
Likewise, some social media users have expressed resentment toward tourists who refuse to follow government-issued measures to wear masks and curtail the spread of the virus, with some encounters between tourists and locals turning violent.
Meanwhile, Gov. Wanda Vázquez stepped back on the official tourism reopening phase that began on July 15 and postponed it for August 15. Moreover, last week the governor's medical task force recommended imposing a tax on visitors to offset tourism interest.
“I believe that we have to deliver the message that we are taking all necessary precautions and protocols, that we are being responsible with this, and that we are doing it safely to protect ourselves. But I do not think that it is healthy from an economic and fiscal health point of view to carry a message that we are closed. I believe that is the wrong message,” Ramírez opined.