What is sustainability? There are so many definitions of it. Among others, in terms of architecture, it is an ability to face the challenges of the future, such as a rapidly growing population, globalization and digitalization, food and resources scarcity followed by poverty and refugee waves. Moreover, according to scientists, climate change will inevitably lead to more and more unpredictable nature catastrophes. We as planners should take it into account, always keeping in mind that neither of the three factors of sustainability (ecological, economic and social) can be neglected.
The architecture of tomorrow must offer or, if possible, even be the solution to some of the pressing problems. It should provide necessities, give possibilities, unite communities and, most important, – be able to change. After all, change is the only constant in our turbulent and insecure world.
Therefore, sustainable architecture is all about flexibility, modularity, inclusion and eco-friendliness, while sustainable urbanism means short distances, decentralization, safety, diversity and self-sufficiency. Only when we learn to be thoughtful about our planet and its finite resources, we can achieve a sustainable way of living. For example, before spreading further and further into the wild, destroying the natural habitat of animal species, we should focus on the renovation of the existing neighbourhoods and redevelopment of fallow and abandoned territories. Secondly, following the rules of the circular economy instead of perpetuating the wheel of consumerism and waste is crucial. Organic, recycled and recyclable, deconstructible and reusable building materials are the future. I am sure, someday, we will have to build our houses from waste we created over the centuries. In addition, every good urbanist has to make sure that natural cycles (such as the water cycle, sand cycle etc.) are not being seriously interrupted.
All in all, technological innovations in recent years have been very promising. Equipment for CO2-free energy generation, automated household utilities, modular vertical gardens, permeable paving stones, and even structures made out of fungus which can partially be a replacement for concrete already exist. Furthermore, architects would be happy to start testing and implementing such innovations en masse as soon as possible. So why is the shift towards sustainability so slow?
This is a complex question with no simple answer. The disadvantage of innovations is that brand-new technologies have high investment costs. It means, they will become profitable, but only after many years of exploitation. This way it is rarely possible to make a lot of money very fast, it’s rather a long-term investment. At the same time, capitalistic system has treated nature as if its resources were infinite. It made it easy for companies to destroy habitats in the name of growth. The cheapest option is most often an unsustainable one, be it an energy source, a mode of transport or a building material. That’s why sometimes we, as consumers or experts, don’t have the power to choose the most sustainable option. In our world, who has money – has the power.
As you see, it does not only take urbanists to make a diverse society work in a way that is the least harmful to the environment and to future generations. It requires societal change, although political willingness is not there. It is important, that the decisions at every level of governance are made collectively and not only by those, who put profit higher than the common well-being. Subsequently, it is important to normalize the processes of participation and let the local community decide the fate of their neighborhoods themselves. Let people be the co-designers of neighbourhoods, which they know from the inside.
Needless to say, such a shift requires radical changes in a whole social system, beginning with politics and ending with our own perception. But who said it would be easy? The realities we are facing today are harsh and we can only go through them together, while leaving the stiffness of our own minds behind, opening up to new possibilities and forms of living, embracing change and caring for each other as well as for our planet.
Around four years ago, I joined the university group “Engineers Without Borders – Karlsruhe Institute of Technology e.V.“. It is a non-profit organisation that carries out development cooperation in a wide range of areas worldwide. I became interested in the Beaumont – Haiti project because I wanted to help people suffering from natural disasters and political instability in one of the poorest countries in the world. We are relocating a school and an orphanage in a small mountain village called Beaumont. Due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew and at the same time the construction of a new national road, directly in front of the old site, a new home for the pupils and orphans had to be built. With this decision, our Haitian-German partner organisation Pwojè Men Kontre turned to us about seven years ago. And so one thing led to another.
We create the basis for the reliable operation of the orphanage and the school by constructing safe buildings. We design, plan and realise the entire new site, using the skills we have acquired in our studies in a practical and sustainable way. With the resulting earthquake- and storm-proof buildings as well as the planned infrastructure, we are creating a home for orphans and a place for school children to learn.
We want to give children in Haiti perspectives that we all take for granted. But in Haiti, this does not only mean providing access to sufficient drinking water, the light at night and education as a foundation. Above all, it also means designing every building to be earthquake and hurricane-resistant. A principle for us to make sustainability possible in this country in the first place. This gives the next generation chances to receive a proper education. In the end, they will not only shape their own future but will also be able to actively develop the entire country.
From Germany, we plan, calculate and discuss multiple possibilities for designing buildings that are later realised by us in cooperation with the Haitians on site. Since the project came into being in 2014, a lot has been achieved – several classrooms, an orphanage, a canteen, a multifunctional assembly hall with a solar system, as well as a self-sufficient sewage system have been built.
I joined Engineers Without Borders in 2017 and have since designed buildings, water and sewage systems and drawn them in CAD while other association members have implemented them in Haiti. Recently, I also had the opportunity to participate in Construction Phase 9 and finally go to Haiti myself for six weeks. Our team, together with the Haitian workers, built a new classroom and started another one. I would like to share this progress with all of you because it means a lot to me!
Construction phase 9 was the first construction phase since 2019. At first, due to Covid-19, all travel plans worldwide were cancelled and we had to stop construction on site. But other political accidents and a 7.3 magnitude earthquake also shook Haiti recently, which kept delaying the ninth construction phase. Neither the team nor the board of the association could know for sure when and if it could take place at all. But all the circumstances were taken note of and the team studied the situation in the country in detail. Appropriate additional security measures were taken and finally, the travel team could set off!
Photo: EWB, David Clement
After our arrival, it was with a heavy heart that we noticed the traces of the earthquake that had hit the country in August: many houses are badly damaged or completely destroyed, broken infrastructure, such as buried roads, complicate land routes, building materials are missing or difficult to supply. Fortunately, all buildings constructed by EWB have remained intact except for minimal, statically irrelevant damage. The site visit of the orphanage and the school gave us goosebumps, as we realised more than before that our work to construct high-quality earthquake-resistant buildings is not in vain.
In the 9th construction phase, we set out to build two more classrooms. This was an ambitious goal, especially considering that most of us had never been to Haiti before and had hardly any construction site experience. But we were confident, motivated and excited to finally continue this important work.
In the first two weeks, we quickly learned how to use a wide variety of tools properly: Saws, drills, demolition hammers and vibratory plates were used daily on the construction site. We learned and mastered important techniques of timber construction. In the same way, our processes, such as the tying of the reinforcement cages, became faster and more precise. But as on any construction site, we were constantly confronted with challenges. Due to the lack of fuel, our first concreting session was briefly on the brink of failure – without fuel for the vibratory plate and concrete mixer, the trenches for the foundation could neither be levelled nor the foundation concreted. But help came just in time from Hugo, our partner and building material supplier, who got us 3 gallons of petrol.
Left: Vibratory plate in action Right: Reinforcement cages are ready
We started the first big concreting session with a lot of joy and of course a healthy portion of excitement before the exhausting day. In the blazing sun, we first started with three concrete mixers at the same time: 4 buckets of gravel, 2 buckets of sand, 1 bag of cement, water in – concrete out, continuously without interruption. But as it had to happen, not everything went according to plan: one hour after the start of the concreting, the first concrete mixer stops working due to a broken joint. Half an hour later, the V-belt of the second concrete mixer breaks and at about the same time the workers start to strike. But after negotiations with the workers and a few phone calls to get a V-belt at short notice, the concreting could still be completed well thanks to combined efforts.
The further concreting of the plinth, the floor slab and the second foundation went smoothly with our practised team and good preparation.
On our days off, we enjoyed the beautiful landscape and the warm hospitality of the Haitians and were able to recover from the strenuous work. Of course, the programme also included visiting the destinations of the surrounding area: be it the dark caves in the valley or the mountains to enjoy the breathtaking views. With luck and good weather, you can even see the Caribbean Sea in the distance from there. Haiti’s nature is extraordinary and fascinating to the European eye. Palm trees and lianas, flowers of different sizes and shapes, as well as large colourful butterflies, giant spiders, tropical frogs, snakes, hummingbirds and multi-coloured lizards will remain in our memories for a long time.
Over time, the language barrier and different cultural backgrounds were no longer an obstacle to having a beer with Valleur (director of the orphanage) in the evening or playing board games and learning new dance moves with the girls at Nan Ginen orphanage. We also built a good relationship with the workers who accompanied us on our trips. From time to time they brought us boxes, full of passion fruit, guavas, coconuts and oranges, which was just what we needed after the exhausting days on the construction site.
The last week on the construction site was very productive, but not easy. Unlike previous construction phases, some of which were months long and involved several teams taking turns and continuing each other’s work, this construction phase consisted of only one team that had to build the classroom from start to finish. We were aware that there is still a lot to do to finish the building before we had to leave. The classrooms are very much needed here right now. The number of pupils is increasing, so at the moment classes are even being held in the dining area of the canteen. Also, two classes are always studying in the auditorium at the same time, which is not an optimal solution because of the noise pendulum. That’s why we started the final week full of energy.
After the classroom walls were braced together, they had to be covered with wooden slats. From the outside, the load-bearing components are not visible, but from the inside, the truss is open and will soon be used as shelves by the teachers and schoolchildren. The roof trusses were almost entirely completed by our Haitian helpers Stanley and Jean Vanex and erected on the roof. These had to be braced, which is essential for the load-bearing capacity of the roof truss. Meanwhile, Stanley and Vanex are good at working with wood, which is rare for Haitian workers. We have done some training with them on how to use different saws and other tools used in woodworking and have gone through all the roof truss plans together in detail. Our Haitian friends did the new tasks with a lot of interest and motivation – slowly and unsteadily at first, but with time more and more quickly and accurately until all the roof trusses were in place and fastened.
Here in sunny Haiti, German traditions have not been forgotten either: after the completion of the wooden construction, we celebrated a small topping-out ceremony with some good Haitian rum. It was breathtaking to watch the first sunset from the freshly built roof because the view from up there is just insane!
Now the battens and the sheet metal had to be attached to the roof. But again, things did not go according to plan: there were heavy thunderstorms and showers for two days.
Working on the slippery sheet metal in this weather was dangerous. Longingly, the team waited for the sun – and then it came. Again, there were days of nailing and screwing on the construction site, the house took its final shape. After the shutters and the door are mounted and the screed is poured, the building can be used.
Even during the rain, we had no time to be lazy. Some repairs in the showers of the girls’ dormitory were done, the tool container was tidied up and the available material for the next teams was carefully counted. Additional training on the maintenance of the PAUL water filter, as well as on the maintenance of the batteries of the photovoltaic system were conducted with the caretakers of the school to ensure the longevity of the electricity and freshwater supply.
The bricks for the second classroom were prepared. The construction management of the building of this classroom will be taken over by our local friends, Stanley and Jean Vanex, after our departure.
Shortly before our departure, we were invited by Valleur to church and then to dinner, where we could experience Haitian Catholic traditions. While in Europe during Catholic masses it is being melancholically preached about our sins, here the atmosphere is much more cheerful, with singing that can easily be mistaken for relaxing beach music if you don’t understand the lyrics. After mass, we had the opportunity to meet Bishop Joseph Gontran Decoste. He told us a lot about his trips to Germany, about how the beauty of the Cologne Cathedral impressed him and about the cooperation with German Catholic associations that have been supporting Haiti for 60 years. He was very interested in our work and even invited us to visit Les Cayes. The exchange with this nice and grounded man was very interesting and inspiring – we are envious of the next travel teams that will be able to take up his offer.
It was with heavy hearts and not without tears that we said goodbye to the orphans. During the time we lived in the Nan Ginen orphanage, we got very used to them. Even though we could only communicate with gestures, it was so much fun to play and dance together in the evenings, to listen to them sing. Dancing and smiling are international languages, yet we regretted several times that we didn’t learn Creole better before the trip so that we could have deeper conversations.
Suddenly the day of departure arrived – six weeks have flown by. Our suitcases are full of Bernardette’s (our cook) homemade jam and our hearts are filled with pride for what we have achieved and with the most beautiful sunny memories that will warm us all winter in cold rainy Germany.
Night. Heat. Overwhelmed with pleasant excitement, I pull my suitcase through the crowded streets of Bangkok towards the bus agency, because I know – the next dawn I will meet in a new for me, interesting and mysterious Cambodia. While I’m waiting for the bus, I notice a group of young people who seem to have just finished school. From their accents it was clear that they came here from around the world. It didn’t take much effort for me to approach them and get acquainted – traveling alone, you involuntarily start to sail along incredible currents, meeting interesting and so different people on the way. We talked for a long time and played various games until our bus arrived. And how cool it was! The seats are wide, comfortable, with folding backs, where you could sleep – such transport is very common in Asia. A few hours passed unnoticed, it began to dawn, and here we are on the border of two countries. We were taken off the bus because we had to cross the border on foot. After a series of different procedures and paperwork, I finally set foot on Cambodian soil.
What I saw surprised me a lot. The border area itself was like a crowded bazaar – traders shouted prices from behind the counters under the buildings of hotels and casinos, while travelers were trying to find their vehicles. Poverty, hunger and hopelessness immediately caught my eye. Homeless people sat on the roadsides, begging for alms, and exhausted, dirty women with babies in their arms wandered among the crowd. And there were so many of them that I felt helpless and insignificant, because even after feeding one poor man, I realized that I could not help hundreds of others.
When I found my bus and perched comfortably again, I just thought about how lucky I was to be born in a prosperous country, to have a roof over my head, food every day, not to mention hygiene products.
We moved on and soon arrived in Siam Reap, where I spent three busy days. The reason for this trip was my dream to see Angkor – the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, the ruins of which are located near this city. But I will tell you about it later.
So, saying goodbye to my new acquaintances, I went to meet my host, whom I found on the Couchsurfing site. I arrived at my destination – a primary school, located quite far from the city center. No tourists could be seen here, so I, a blonde with a European appearance and a blue suitcase, was very different from the locals. I waited for my host for more than an hour, so I had time to watch people, and I noticed one very strange thing: all the women who saw me were happy and smiling, the children waved merrily at me, while the men frowned, looking furiously. I still do not understand what caused such a reaction. (If anyone has any guesses or explanations – please share them in the comments!)
At the school behind me, a bell rang announcing the end of lessons, and a noisy crowd of children, about 8-10 years old, poured into the yard. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but most of them got on their scooters and drove home confidently. I was shocked! Little kids. On scooters.
After two hours, I got tired of waiting for a host who didn’t even respond to my messages, so I quickly found a hostel on the Internet in the heart of the city with a pool and round-the-clock parties for only $3 a night. But, what a pity! I was so far from the center, and public transport was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, I came across a tuk-tuk on the way, so I didn’t have to walk three kilometers on the hot asphalt under the tropical sun. The driver drove me to the doorstep of the hostel, where I heard loud music and laughter. Fortunately, there was a free bed for me in a room with 19 people. After a grueling road, I just dreamed of a pool! So before going to the city, I had a good rest, swam, getting acquainted with many cheerful young people from all over the world, who also stayed here. As you can see, traveling alone does not mean being lonely.
I was anxious to see the city, so without delay, I went for a walk. Despite the fact that Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, it was a great pleasure to walk its streets. Yes, the roads and sidewalks were bumpy, the houses were not in the best condition, the knots of power lines on the many poles looked unsightly, but there was so much different greenery that it gave the city a special charm. I have never seen such colorful flowers of different shapes and sizes, so I felt like in a paradise garden. Additionally, Buddhist and Hindu temples with their golden domes and ornaments only intensified this feeling. Even now, as I write this article, I am overwhelmed with emotions that I unfortunately cannot describe. I remember the monks in their orange robes resting in the courtyard of the temple in the shade of flowering trees. Stray dogs and cats perched peacefully beside them, and kittens jumped on the trees. It was very touching – the doors of the temple are open to all living creatures. Personally, I brought from there as much peace of mind and tranquility as even the sea has never given me. By the way, how many kittens can you see in this photo?
In the evening, the streets of Siam come to life. Bars and cafes are filled with people – locals and tourists. If you come to this city and want to have fun – I advise you to visit the famous Pub Street. Don’t be surprised if taxi drivers offer you to buy drugs from them – they try to make money on tourists in various ways, but keep in mind – Cambodian laws strictly prohibit the sale and use of drugs.
Having walked a lot, I returned to the hostel. After a little chat and a swim in the pool, I went to bed early, because the next day I had a long and busy program. Although I really enjoyed living in a hostel with young people and non-stop parties, staying up until the morning was not my priority, because I came to see the cultural heritage.
Dear readers, if there are girls among you who also love or intend to travel alone, then I want to warn you to be careful. There will always be many men in a hostel, cafe or at the party who will try to get you drunk and ready for sex, maybe even offer you to marry them. Never forget that you, your physical and mental health, your desires or unwillingness are the highest priority. Do not succumb to such provocations just because “they want something, and you are uncomfortable to refuse.” Be able to say no, walk away from the unwanted companion and stand up for yourself.
So, finally the morning came. The long-awaited trip. It was three o’clock in the morning, but thousands of tourists had already gathered under the walls of Angkor. I was not surprised, after all this is the former capital of the Khmer Empire, the largest city of its time. Two thousand years ago, these areas were already densely populated and technically developed. The whole complex covers an area of about 200 km2 and is marked by the geometric structure of the plan and the harmony of the composition. In total, there are about 100 multi-storey palaces and temples, built without cement or other binding materials. The stone blocks are connected by the principle of a lock. Numerous towers, decorated with inscriptions and masterful carvings will not leave visitors, accustomed to European architecture and art, indifferent.
This is not the end of my acquaintance with the culture of Cambodia. Following my tradition, I found a theater here, which was a grand performance about the history of this region. The variety of colorful costumes, masks and decorations, as well as the number and skill of the actors were breathtaking. But the events they brought to life on stage were sad. Many upheavals, wars and crises were experienced by the Cambodian people: the strong and unique Khmer kingdom became a vassal of the Siamese Empire due to endless class strife and invasion. This was followed by French colonization, Khmer Rouge terror, genocide, armed conflict, poverty, and devastation. The consequences of these events still continue to negatively affect the country’s economy and social order.
And again, I realized that we actually have so much and don’t appreciate it. We quarrel, trying to find flaws in everything. But in fact, daily food and the availability of an apartment, clean tap water, the opportunity to study – these are the reasons for the great joy. I know this is hard to believe, but without exaggeration, billions of people in our world do not have such privileges. And those who even have a peaceful sky over their heads and a stable situation in the country – won the jackpot in the lottery called life.
What type of travel is right for you? Are you one of those people who like to bask on the beach or one of those who wander the crowded streets all day with a camera in hand? Do you catch your breath from the architectural heritage, or rather from the thickness of the wild jungle, where almost no human has set foot? Are you interested in a family vacation, or are you looking for thrills behind the doors of strip bars and massage parlors? In fact, it doesn’t matter what category you belong to. Because here everyone will find something for themselves and, believe me, you will return home full of unforgettable impressions! I started this rather spontaneous journey from the city of millions – Bangkok. I know most tourists prefer sunny Patagonia or the islands in the south, but if you have already travelled so far, do not neglect the opportunity to visit the capital.
Shortly before my arrival, I found accommodation on Couchsurfing (This website will allow you to meet the locals and have a great time together). So, somehow with adventures I got to the metro station, where I was to be met by my host. It turned out to be a smiling friendly young man Tan, who put me on his motorcycle (with a suitcase on my lap!) and drove me home. To say that new impressions began to overwhelm me from the first minute in Bangkok is to say nothing. Let’s at least take the fact that I rode a motorcycle for the first time (although, actually, the second time, because the first time it was a “motorcycle-taxi driver”? who drove me from the bus stop to the subway station). At first, I was afraid to get on a motorcycle, after all I’ve never did this before! Then people started laughing at me, because a motorcycle in Thailand is like a bicycle in the Netherlands: without it – no way. So I kinda gave in and let them put me on the vehicle.
Here we are – Tan’s home. There lived a wonderful family who, despite the language barrier, were very friendly to me. In his spare time, Tan showed me the city, celebrated Christmas with me, and helped in this unfamiliar country. We talked a lot and learned about each other’s cultures. And I realized how cool it is to know languages and to be able to communicate with people from another part of the globe. Eventually, I stopped being afraid of the motorcycle and started to enjoy it, while Tan picked up speed on the track among the skyscrapers, jumping between cars from lane to lane. My first day in Bangkok. I do not cease to be surprised. You will no longer find such architectural structures as here in any city. My undisputed favorites were the temple complexes of Wat Po and Wat Arun, as well as the Grand Palace. Walking around the city, you will find many other buildings that impress with their wealth, giant golden Buddhas, mosaics of colored mirrors, ornate dragons, giants and other mythical creatures. My advice to you: when going to Thailand, bring light clothes that cover the shoulders and knees. Only then will you be able to visit temples.
Religion and spirituality occupy an important place in the life of Thai citizens. In contrast to European countries, where more and more young people are turning to atheism, here religion is thriving and keeping up with the times. There are many monks on the streets, who are easily recognizable by their orange robes. And it’s not just elderly men, which surprised me a lot and, I must admit, made me happy. Among the monks are many children, adolescents and young men. Every Thai must be trained not only in the army, but also to complete training in the temple. People say that only such a person can become a real man. People who dedicate their lives to God have many advantages and benefits: they do not pay for transportation, receive food for free, and most importantly – they are highly respected and valued. In addition to Buddhists, there are many Christians in Thailand, including the family that sheltered me, so, keeping the traditions, I spent Christmas Eve at church, and again, a pleasant surprise awaited me. Spending winter evenings in shorts and T-shirts just itself is an unusual phenomenon, but what I saw in the churchyard struck me! Near the church, which stands on the bank of the river, there was a huge Christmas tree, and hundreds of people danced energetic swing around it! Well, Tan and I were no exception! Loud music was played, street food was sold outside the church, competitions were held in tents, and children tried to win prizes. That’s how, coming to church, you can accidentally come across the biggest open-air party in the style of the forties.
The food is dominated by sweet and spicy flavors. Coconut milk and lemongrass are indispensable ingredients in many national dishes. And the variety of fruits just drives you crazy! Fruits of various shapes, colors and sizes stunned tourists with attractive prices. But do not rush to buy, because first you have to bargain well – you benefit, and sellers don’t lose their skills 😊 During the first days I spent in Bangkok, I managed to try coconut soup with mushrooms, rice with banana, baked in a leaf, jelly of grass in milk, chrysanthemum juice and many other strange things, the names of which I have never heard and probably will not remember. The only things I didn’t taste were scorpions, caterpillars and other insects. When the sun sets and street fairs with food and souvenirs begin to come to life, some traders (especially in tourist places) begin to flaunt their “delicacies”. I’ve even seen a crocodile on a spit a few times, and it’s a sad sight. As my new local acquaintance explained to me, Thais don’t really eat scorpions or crocodiles. This is all done for tourists. That’s where various stereotypes about Asian “eating everything that lives” come from. But, as it turns out, this isn’t always true. If you have the opportunity, go to the theater. When I’m in another country, I always try to visit an opera or a play, because it can tell us a lot about the spirit of the people. And in Thailand, this tradition of mine did not disappoint me. I went to a play about events from Thai legends. A monkey helped God build a bridge across a river by outwitting a mermaid. I have never seen such a variety of colored and ornate masks in my life. And the melodies of the songs pleased the ear with unusual motives. After spending a few days here, I decided to move on to Cambodia, where my adventures continued. But about this, as well as about other cities in Thailand, you can read in the new posts.