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Monthly Archives: July 2009

Good evening. I’d like to thank the School of Architecture for inviting me. It is a pleasure to be here today.

The purpose of this presentation is to share my experiences as an architect in Colombia, the challenges and opportunities of working in sustainable design in my country, my growth as an architect and new challenges ahead.

I hope to encourage you to find your own way to design in a sustainable way by exposing yourself to many techniques and solutions, many landscapes, many teachers, draw from all of them.

I will be using my personal website as a useful tool to present my experiences. I designed this website to reflect my ideas about architecture so I hope it helps transmits them to you today. I will ask you not to worry about focusing on details or be distracted by the images shown because it will be possible for you to visit my website at any time. I will pause in a few frames along the way to further explain some of the images.

4 degrees North is the latitude of Colombia. I have learned in the few years that I have been practicing architecture that site is the most important ingredient in sustainable design. When you fully engage and understand a site, you can address design strategies in a sensitive way.

I will present to you my projects and experiences in chronological order because this is my ongoing process of becoming an architect. Experiences in life and in architecture constantly affect our formation as designers. This opportunity to share with you has already encouraged me to clarify ideas and has generated more questions. I am not pausing to tell you about myself, I am inviting you to join me for a brief moment in my journey and hope that we can add this experience to all that should affect us, even so slightly.

Throughout the lecture I will be mentioning 3 key concepts.

Tropical Ecosystems, referring to the region Colombia is part of,

Local / Global, how to be both a local and a global architect, and

Sustainable Design and its meaning.

Sustainable Design has three dimensions: The Environmental, the Social and the Economical and only addressing all 3 of them can one accomplish true sustainability.

Many times projects only successfully address one or two of these dimensions. This issue, I think occurs everywhere, independent of the location on the planet.


Colombia is a tropical country, one of the 5 most diverse countries in the world. It has altitudes ranging from 0 to 6 km and 70% of its population living in urban areas. It has the privilege of holding at least 8 different ecosystems, from wetlands, to high mountains, dry deserts to extreme humid forests.  We have the coasts of the Caribbean country, the rainforest of Amazonian country, the mountains of Andean country, the plains of the Orinoquian country and the humid region of the Pacific coast.

In tropical regions, slight changes in altitude generate a whole new range of temperature, humidity levels, vegetation and animal species and ways of life. Microclimates are generated throughout urban and rural sites affected by specific local conditions.

Bogota, for example has more than a dozen microclimates. It is located 8,500 ft. (2,600 meters) above sea level, or as we like to look at it, we are 8 million people, 2,600 meters closer to the stars.

So the challenges of building in the tropical ecosystem of Colombia are many as we must deal with heterogeneity, biodiversity, variation. (indigenous groups, cultures, foods, dances…)

In the photos you are seeing as I introduce the lecture, you can see different indigenous and more modern ways of building in Colombia. You can observe:

– homes built on sticks to protect them from floods due to high rainfall

-homes made from thick straw walls to keep them cool inside

-use of bamboo in structures

– tightly woven banana leaf to create impermeable roofs

-rammed earth walls

All local materials which cause little impact on surrounding environment.

Indigenous people MUST UNDERSTAND the land in order to SURVIVE. They build almost intuitively.

These designs are naturally sustainable because they address the 3 dimensions of sustainability when they meet their basic needs, carefully choose sites and use local materials.

Our challenges are different from those of countries further away from the Equator such as the USA. We do not have to deal with extreme seasonal temperatures and design tight building envelopes and get to enjoy being free from mechanical heating and cooling systems. Although some regions do have hot temperatures year round, most people still rely on passive strategies to deal with heat. Unfortunately, in the last decade we have become more and more dependent on mechanical cooling systems and forgetting the simple ways of implementing natural ventilation.

Nonetheless, architecture in Colombia is naturally energy efficient thanks to our less extreme environmental conditions.

RESEARCH – CONTESTS – Interactive Thinking Park


My career did not begin with internships, small remodel projects or as a resident at construction sites. When I graduated from Los Andes University in Bogota, Colombia was affected by the global economic recession and construction had severely slowed down. I decided to join architect Dr. Esperanza Caro in the design of a few urban and rural Landscape Architecture proposals.

The Interactive Thinking Park is an example of a very conceptual process which gave me the opportunity to think about basic elements such as sun, wind, water and vegetation and find ways in which man-made objects would evidence their presence by interacting with them.


Manizales is a medium sized city of 300,000 habitants located at an altitude of 1,600 meters, in the coffee region of Colombia.

Inside a natural forest, in a suburban area we proposed a spatial system for the area turning it into an Interactive Thinking Park that puts you in direct contact with the biodiversity of our environment.


We proposed objects such as giant flutes that were played by the wind, sheltered areas to contemplate the rain, recreated habitats for indigenous orchids to live and designed ladders that would rise people high enough to experience changes in air thickness, fog and humidity.

Although, the project was not built due to political and economical reasons, we learned through this experience that this is an example of how taking a global need such as the need for amenities and recreation can be solved locally was applied locally inside a specific ecosystem.



My first involvement with a large scale project was in the Master Plan of a K-12 school in Bogota, called Los Alcaparros which was at a temporary site at the time, but was rapidly growing and needed to relocate. Under the guidance of Dr. Terukasu Takeshita, professor at Kyushu University, in Japan, I assisted in the development of the first Master Plan. With the information we gathered from looking at both local and global examples of school plans, conversations with the clients about their needs and interests, and site analysis, we came up with a new proposal.

Here you can see a typical linear scheme of a school in Colombia and the layout proposed for Alcaparros School where buildings were to revolve around a center gathering space and the Pre-school, Elementary School, Middle and High Schools would have their own architecture appropriate to the educational and social needs of the particular age group.

After some time of developing the idea, not completely satisfied with the location, the owners of the school decided to purchase a new site, one with better accessibility.

The location was set in the outskirts of Bogota, in the mountain ecosystem, 980 feet (300 meters) higher than Bogota with plenty of fresh air, endless views of green mountains, and its own natural water spring. The architecture that could be proposed in this location could reflect more clearly to the strong commitment of the school to teach the children to understand, respect and protect the environment.

So my experience occurs mostly within this ecological niche, a few kilometers away from the city, up higher in the mountains, in the Andean country.

I mentioned earlier how tropical systems are mostly affected by changes in altitude. In this particular microclimate we must deal with temperature variations of up to 35 deg F (20 deg. C) and drastic changes in relative humidity in a 24 hour period, along with high solar radiation at times and high precipitation at other times. A typical day can begin with a humid, cool 40 deg F early morning, a dry and warmer 70 deg F midday and a heavy rains in the afternoon.  In mountain ecosystems, the higher the altitude, the greater variation in temperature and humidity a location will have in a 24 hour period. These fluctuations affect durability of materials and their capacity to withstand the elements. So, variation in environmental conditions is a big issue that the environmental aspect of sustainable design has to deal with in a country like Colombia.

Again here there is a chance to apply global concepts in a local environment because the universal concepts developed for the first site were adapted to this new location. Climate, precipitation, sunlight and wind conditions were restudied and design strategies were outlined as a response to specific conditions. These ecosystems are like sponges, they retain water and thus have high humidity.

As I mentioned earlier, the site has a natural spring and the sites’ topography around the natural pond resembles a cradled hand. This feature plus the concept of idea of the central open space led to idea the project revolves around two centers, one created by the buildings and were most of the social activity will occur and one created by nature and the natural pond.

Soon after, when I went to study for my Masters degree at Tulane University, I continued the development of the school as part of my thesis while Dr. Caro finalized the design in Colombia and built the first phase of the school.

My thesis project confronted design at two elevations: one, at ground level in the direct contact with the site by following closely its contours, respecting the location of the existing tree masses and recognizing  the direction of the natural drainage; and two, at sky level when relating to the elements by suggesting various shading and daylighting strategies.


Upon my return to Colombia, I accepted the challenge of designing the Gymnasium for Los Alcaparros as they we ready for a new building. Being my first project, I was unaware of the implications of designing and building a project of these dimensions, yet the experience was full of professional and personal growth. A had set for myself high standards and knew of the high expectations from the school community composed of some 2500 people including students, parents and faculty.

The school is located among a low-income rural community who not always welcomed the presence of a private school in the area. The construction of the gym was intended to satisfy the immediate needs of Los Alcaparros, but was also thought as an opportunity to offer the less fortunate neighbors, specially the children, the chance to enjoy a sports facility of this kind. So again making reference to sustainability, the school was addressing the social needs of their location with this project.

In this general site plan you can see the 1st and 2nd stages of the School. All the construction is concentrated in the central part of the site leaving the southern and northern areas for sports fields, free from construction. That way there is no need to extend infrastructure to the entire site.

The main entrance is on the western edge of the site, next to the administrative offices and the centrally located cafeteria. The Master Plan contemplates a larger administration building here and possibly containing a small auditorium.

The preschool group is located on this hill around its own central space, the elementary school in the center of the layout and the Middle School develops along this path following the natural contours and has its specialized labs behind.

The gymnasium was relocated from the original Master Plan which had it in the north east corner of the site to this location, south of the barrier of pine trees. It became the element to complete the enclosure of the central space of the campus.

In the near future the High School classrooms will be located in this area. I will make reference to this project further ahead.

More than simply a stage for sports, the complex was conceived as a gymnasium, a classroom for sports and physical development, and a place for the playful encounters that are predominant in everyday school life. The gym complex completes the enclosure of the central open space, in the Master Plan. It integrates with the surrounding landscape and buildings by extending site and contextual lines to establish the elevation of elements such as the roof, balcony and terrace.

So, let me quickly go over the main layout of the building.

The main entrance faces south, and faces the central open space of the campus. The access is on the same contour as the M/S Building right here and outdoor steps lead you down to the lower level giving creating an outdoor gathering area.

So the main entrance leads you to the basket and volleyball court space. On its northern edge are multipurpose classrooms and opposite are 4 levels of permanent bleachers and another area for additional seating or for physical activities such as ping pong tables.

On the eastern side is the stage and on the west is the balcony, or VIP area, as it has come to known as. Not only is it a great area from which to see the activity below, it also has a priviledged from of the entire campus.

The other priviledged area is the terrace which gives access to the 2nd floor of the annex building and will potentially give the possibility of extending to connect to the 2nd level of the elementary school.  This volume was located here to better mediate this rather large mass of the gymnasium space with the existing built landscape. It contains music and art classrooms and is situated on the main façade while the large volume is embedded into the landscape, taking advantage of the terrain to present a lower façade to the north.

On the lower level floor plan you can see how the classrooms are set in direct contact with the central open space and large sliding glass doors allow for classes to extend and make use of the exterior space as well. Also, from the corridor that gives access to these classrooms, you can enter the locker rooms and take the stairs up to the court area.

The way in which I confronted the environmental and economical aspects of sustainable design was by proposing:

Passive strategies are used throughout the building.

Carefully controlled openings allow views of the exterior while avoiding direct sunlight on the playing courts.

Indirect sunlight and natural cross-ventilation eliminate the need for mechanical ventilation and reduce the need for artificial lighting.

Also with the use of indigenous materials such as concrete, brick, plaster and glass and vernacular construction techniques, already proven to work well in Colombia and specifically in this high mountain ecosystem. The buildings of the 1st phase of construction which used foreign materials such as drywall as well as steel structure were proving to be inappropriate in this environment and were presenting high maintenance costs for the school. In Colombia there is lack of skilled labour in the use of foreign materials and often their correct use means higher costs and usually it is not installed correctly.

Also, since the 1st phase went over budget, some features such as elements that avoided direct natural light from entering classrooms were cut out of the construction.

The economical dimension of the sustainable design was not performing as expected although the spatial design was powerful and sensitive to the site.  As I mentioned earlier, this is an example where not all 3 dimensions of sustainable design were successful.

We did encounter many challenges during the process. It was a personal challenge to design a 30,000 sq.ft. building with a program that required very specific dimensions of spaces and understand and visualize the issue of scale and proportion.

One current issue is the wind tunnel effect occurring at ground level along the entrance to the art and music classrooms. The lack of wind measurements taken during the design phase has generated a problem and we are currently studying solutions. On the other hand, design features such as the numerous extrusions of the walls that shape the interior volume represent a break away from more typical box-like spaces, avoiding the need for special acoustical control, lowering costs involved in implementing the entire acoustical design.

During the construction phase, due to the construction boom in 2007-2008, machinery and equipment was scarce affecting the timeline and the cool, rainy conditions generated a lack of workers willing to commute daily to our site when they had plenty of job opportunities in the city.

Nonetheless, the project was completed one year ago, in June 2008 and a proud school and local community welcomed the campus addition.


Travelling has always been a significant experience for me. By observation and interaction we as architects learn about diverse cultures, their ways of living, and their interaction with the built and natural environment. It is an opportunity to learn about local and global applied concepts and relate them to our work and continue our intellectual stimulus.

A year ago I had the opportunity to visit Australia and attend the GMMC. I will never forget the feeling the 1st night at the Riversdale Educational Center designed by Glenn Murcutt, located on the opposite side of the planet, many kilometers away from home, sitting at a long candle lit table joined by 35 fellow architects from more than 20 nationalities and with an overwhelming yet familiar sense of belonging. I felt completely at home.

We were all there to learn from the tutors (Glenn Murcutt, Richard Leplastrier, Peter Stutchbury and Brit Andersen), and learn about sustainability by reconnecting to the land, the elements and understanding site, program, and materials.

Many key phrases were pronounced during the 2 week experience:

“The hand reveals the answer before thought does. Drawing is thinking.”

“Our role is to discover, not to create.”                                                                         –Glenn Murcutt

“While some architects are absorbed by ideas, others are moved by the senses…by climate, landscape, and human occupation. Our hard wired memories of what a building should look and feel like.”    –Brit Andersen

“Origins are the key to trusting oneself.”             –Peter Stutchbury

“Learn to read the sky like a sailor does. Learn to read the land: moss lives on the side of the tree that receives less sun.”                       –Richard Leplastrier

I listened to honest, modest and humble words from the tutors carefully, relearned to sketch the site and observe it, and enjoyed the challenges of working as part of a team.

We were asked to develop a schematic design of a reconciliation center. My team took a risk by choosing a site at the edge of a cliff where winds were accelerated due to the deep valley below. It was a location with a weak ecosystem, frequently devasted by bush fires. The site conditions implied a bold architectural solution.

We identified several edges, transitional spaces within the local ecosystem: the river in the valley beneath, the edge of the cliff made of rock, the band of dry land, the area with more vegetation and the man made access road. The building was located on the dry portion . We proposed a long, thick rammed earth wall built with local materials and using indigenous techniques. This wall was a constructed edge, a PATH that connected brief, building and landscape. It was shaped to protect the habitable spaces behind it by deflect wind and fire.  The building visitors would be seeking spaces to think, share ideas while immerse in nature.  Walks along the wall, along the cliff would encourage thinking, sharing. The building was to encourage the psychological effect of walking along a path as a healing and thinking process.

Throughout the design process, I learned the importance of developing an the idea AT THE PLACE; THE SITE. Each site is unique; you must discover its uniqueness. So it doesn’t matter where you come from or how far you have travelled, if we learn how to read the land, as Richard Leplastrier would say, we can do site specific architecture.

The experience of the gymnasium was extremely significant for me yet created higher expectations for the next project and this Australian experience gave me more tools to confront future ones.


When I returned to Colombia I seeked the opportunity of a hands-on experience with a local, rapidly renewable resource such as Guadua, or Giant Bamboo. Although I have not had the chance to use it in any project yet, I learned about its potential within the sustainable design world.

This is an example of Colombia’s richness in natural resources. Although there are a few groups of people that have the knowledge of sustainable harvesting and production process of bamboo, most people in the industry don’t . They cut the plant at wrong times and overpopulate the land with bamboo promoting homogeneity of species and thus, not only produce bamboo of less strength and durability, but affect the fertility of the soil.

This is an example of the need for Colombians to educate ourselves in sustainable ways and learn to take care and full advantage of our natural resources in a responsible way.

PROJECTS – IN PROCESS – High School Building

I am currently developing the schematic design for the High School building at Los Alcaparros School.

The new campus building is located in the open space between the strip of pine trees at the western edge of the site and the existing, one-story, Middle School building. The 10°, slope will allow the building to connect to the exterior at different levels.

Just as conceptualized in the original Master Plan, the new building will reflect a more structured education as it will be used by the older students. Thus, a compact, 3-story building that is both rationally planned and responsive to terrain conditions will differentiate it from the lower schools. The floor area decreases as it grows upward generating a stepped volume which tries to understand its surroundings and create a subtle transition with the surrounding structures and landscapes. The corridors, which hold work areas, receive direct sunlight, welcome during typically cool mornings. This light filters into classrooms indirectly to provide natural lighting. At the rear elevation, the proximity of the trees blocks direct sunlight and allows for larger openings with views to the nearby forest.

Again, I will be looking to use passive strategies to light and ventilate the building to make it as energy efficient as possible.

The program layout generates new relationships and thus -new spaces- with existing spaces inside the building. A reading, study and lounge area for seniors is located on the ground floor near the gymnasium entrance generating a patio between the two buildings and completing the stepped agora facing the central open space of the campus.

In an effort to apply global concepts of sustainability in Colombia, my intention is to put together a team of designers, engineers and construction managers committed to the use of local materials, to passive wind and solar strategies, to decreased consumption of electricity and water, among others and maybe even implement the use recycled water and photovoltaic panels.


In addition to the development of this project, I am currently pursuing LEED AP accreditation. LEED COLOMBIA began developing last year and I think it will be excited to be part of the pioneering team that will help raise consciousness about sustainable design in my country.  It will be a challenging process because as I described at the beginning, each location has its specific conditions and one country’s national standards cannot be easily applied to another country.

In Colombia we do not have the economic resources that developed countries have and sometimes standard solutions to design issues in places like the US or Australia, in Colombia can rarely be implemented due to costs. (I am referring to elements like exterior sun shading devices or materials like low-e glass, etc).

Do to our tropicality, our architecture is naturally energy efficient so I guess the benefits from implementing LEED will come from the incentives of using local materials, recycling and reuse of materials, and use of green interior finishes.

So, unless the Colombian version of LEED addresses the 3 dimensions of sustainable design it will be very difficult for our country to make it part of our legislation and encourage clients to seek LEED Certification for their projects.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that we must generate opportunities to learn, test strategies, materials and construction techniques in order to develop skilled labor, lower implementation costs of sustainable projects and break free from limiting ways of thinking. Independent from the process of implementing a national standard, we have to encourage and educate ourselves in a sustainable way of life.

As you can observe from my presentation, I have always been interested in developing projects within the threshold of the suburban. For one reason or another, my experiences have revolved around projects located in these suburban, transition areas which are susceptible of being negatively influenced by urban development, but offer breathing space to dense urban areas and present opportunities for architects to rescue and protect them and touch them lightly.

I appreciate the opportunity to share my experiences with you today and am open for any questions or comments you may have.