As a native of Kenya who studied architecture in Indiana and Scotland and worked in places as diverse as Ireland and the United Arab Emirates, John Onyango believes that architecture from one region and climate can inform architecture from another.“It is all connected,” he says, “especially in this era of climate change, where rising sea levels and temperatures will impact the comfort and affordability of our homes.”
Last week, the architecture professor showcased that philosophy in South Florida by bringing the second international conference of Zero-Energy Mass Custom Homes, or ZEMCH, to the University of Miami. Co-founded by Onyango and other like-minded architects in 2010, the budding organization is dedicated to promoting the global production of socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable homes—affordable, comfortable, and mass-producible homes that can be customized for their climate and locale to use little or no energy, reducing or eliminating their carbon footprint.
Drawing dozens of students and more than 50 architects and ZEMCH adherents from countries as different as Italy, Iran, South Africa, and Australia, the conferees were welcomed to the School of Architecture’s Stanley and Jewell Glasgow Lecture Hall by Acting Dean Denis Hector, who told the group that changing—or better yet, instilling—energy-conserving behavior will be among their biggest challenges.
Recalling a telling moment, Hector harkened back to his days as a young architect in Stuttgart, Germany, where a young neighbor, fascinated by foreigners, often visited Hector and his roommates. One day, Hector said, the boy returned from wandering around their apartment utterly astonished to find a light on in the empty kitchen.
“This is a child who had never walked into a room where the light was on and there wasn’t somebody in the room. It was that culturally ingrained,’’ Hector said. “All these issues of energy are issues that have to do with your ability to be energy-conserving, but also our ability to persuade the inhabitants to be energy-conserving.”
Founded at the Glasgow School of Art, which is affiliated with the University of Glasgow, where Onyango was a student, ZEMCH aims to enhance collaborations between the housing industry and academia and establish a forum for resolving the design, production, and marketing issues that impede the delivery of sustainable and mass-customizable homes in both developed and developing countries.
One of the goals, said another ZEMCH co-founder, Japanese architect Masa Noguchi, is publishing a textbook to share the diverse and expanding body of ZEMCH knowledge. He was happy to announce that the ZEMCH Network, which consists of five regional centers in Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, England, and the United States, would officially grow by one more—in Italy—at the three-day conference that ended November 1.
“We are not quite at the foundation of a movement,” said Noguchi, who was Onyango’s teacher in Glasgow and now lives in Melbourne, Australia. “We are still in the basement, but every baby step counts.”