According to Delacámara (2014), only a part of urban challenges may be solved through architectural interventions and planning initiatives. Specifically, he states “that [the] self-sufficient building might be part of the answer but not the answer in itself” (Delacámara, 2014). This statement is a pertinent consideration, especially to a young architect like myself, where new technologies are ingrained into architectural processes and can easily seduce and dictate research agendas. Although focusing on new green technologies, zero carbon buildings and the broad category of sustainable design is vital to the practice of architecture; the socio-economic context in which architecture exists has to be understood as well. After all, a building does not exist within isolation. Architectural contexts are considered during the design process, but are economic contexts considered beyond project profitability and viability? That said, should an architectural solution be the last solution?

During the economics of sustainability lectures, I recalled one personal experience which relates to the idea that the broader socio-economic context of a design project needs to understood to assess its applicability and viability. While studying as an environmental engineer, I was given the task of designing a system which captured and reused landfill gas. I researched current mechanical systems, studied current issues and began to design an efficient system that would reduce greenhouse gases emissions by reusing captured methane.

As my researched evolved, I learned that methane was produced in landfills by the breakdown of organic compounds in an anaerobic (no air) environment. I was fascinated as I delved deeper into the technicalities of the project and was steadfast in my belief that the system was a sustainable way to capture and ultimately reuse methane for electricity and heating. During my final presentation, one of my professors asked me if a landfill gas collection system was the most appropriate solution? For instance, if methane is produced through the breakdown of organic compounds, then a less-expensive solution could involve separating organic compounds from inorganic waste and using them as compost in organic farming applications. Additionally, if I had wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, why did I not reconsider the entire process of landfilling and prioritize prevention, such as encouraging a rigorous recycling regime? It became obvious that I did not consider the broader socio-economic context in which I was designing. Instead of rethinking the system itself, I focused specifically on the technology. Although the capture and reuse of landfill gas is in theory a green initiative, it is a reactionary design. Instead, the larger problem is a societal one: the prevention, collection and treatment of urban refuse.

The above example can be related to a major problem which persists in architecture; the scale of analysis often becomes too local and site-specific early in the design phase. For instance, local environmental conditions are analyzed, such as wind speeds, precipitation levels and incident solar radiance. Additionally, architectural contexts are analyzed to ensure community integration or to create a landmark which stands out from adjacent buildings. However, the larger socio-economic context of the design project is taken as a granted. The project was put up for tender, therefore, is needed. Delacámara (2014) discusses the need for resilience in the urban fabric and it is in this idea of resilience one can begin to contextualize architectural projects within a socio-economic environment. For instance, if resilience can be ensured by the differentiation of social agents with varying functions, architecture has the ability to creates spaces for these social agents. Furthermore, resilience is multi-scalar and architecture needs to be understood within the same multi-scalar model. Instead of a clear professional demarcation between urbanism and architecture, they can be seen as two scales of analysis. Thus, architects need to start considering the evolving role of their architecture in creating a resilient urban fabric.

My second home, Calgary, clearly showcases an urban fabric which is linked to its socio-economic context. Located within the province of Alberta in Canada, Calgary is a city growing under the influence of a market supplied by oil sand revenue. However, with a progressive mayor and increasing younger population moving to the city for promised work, the money is being spent on many “sustainable initiatives” such as dedicated bike lanes, public art installations, and inner city tax incentives to promote residential living away from sprawling suburbs and into the downtown core. Although I consider all of these initiatives a step in the right direction, I wonder if they too are the self-sufficient building Delacámara (2014) discusses. For example, in the recent price drop of oil, Calgary suffered greatly. Many design projects were canceled and many of the young population who moved to the city for work found themselves briskly unemployed. The very direct relationship between economy and infrastructure became apparent. As a result, the resilience of the urban fabric comes into question. For example, the diversification of economy was never a priority of the city councilors nor the mayor. The architecture and design projects over the last five years appealed to a young population who demanded the amenities commonly found in larger cities. These projects are by no means a negative addition to the city infrastructure, however, there is a clear disconnect between the image the city wants to project and the economic realities. BIG’s Telus Sky, Foster+Partners Bow Tower, Calatrava’s Peace Bridge and, recently, Snohetta’s Digital Library are all being built or have been recently built in Calgary in the last few years. However, none of these projects have considered the dynamic socio-economic in which they are designing. A booming economy a few years ago does not mean a booming economy forever.

However, I believe architects have a skill set that allows them to bridge scales and ensure resiliency is a core value in the design process. One of my favorite examples which I believe showcases the possibility of rethinking the role of architecture is the firm Elemental’s incremental housing project, Iquique Housing. The firm’s design agenda focuses on redefining the role social housing plays in society. Instead of simply building social housing, the firm researched and studied the socio-economic context of their project. Social housing is not a local problem but instead a consequence of larger socio-economic and geopolitical contexts. However, Elemental’s project did not want to offer a band-aid solution. By building a 50% completed house on a desirable piece of land within the inner city, inhabitants could complete the rest of their house as they saw fit, as well as access public transport and other inner city amenities (Awan, Schneider and Till, 2011). Additionally, over time these houses would raise in property value and provide a source of equity for their inhabitants (Awan,Schneider and Till, 2011). The economic realities of the project, determined at both a local and national scale, led to an innovative solution for both the architects and users. In this sense, the architectural elements became a thread in the resilience of the urban fabric.

Elemental’s Iquique housing (Palma, 2009)

Elemental’s Iquique housing (Palma, 2009)

There is often a need to understand the local, site-specific conditions of an architectural project; however, these are just as important as understanding the socio-economic and political context. My own experiences both in my past education and living in a city which relies heavily on oil sand revenue have given me firsthand experience regarding the importance of a multi-scalar approach to architectural design. In one case, when I designed a landfill gas collection system, my scale of analysis was so focused on the technology. As a result, I was unable to consider if the design intervention itself was the right solution. In Calgary, architecture projects are built under a veneer of constant profit. These projects, although positive for the well-being of the citizens, have to be understood within an economy which lacks diversity. This mindset is in clear opposition to the notion of a resilient urban fabric. However, when one designs within a framework of resiliency and uses a multi-scalar approach, innovative solutions can be sparked as can be seen by Elemental’s incremental social housing typology. I look forward to applying these approaches in my next semester at IAAC and in my future exploits as an architect.


Awan, N., Schneider, T. and Till, J. (2011). Spatial agency. Abingdon, Oxon [England]: Routledge. pp. 143-144.

Delacámara, G., 2014. Life, Entropy and Resilience In The City. Iaac Bits, 2.2.2. pp.2-8.

Stott, R. “ELEMENTAL’s “Half-Finished” Housing Typology: A Success in All Circumstances” 22 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Available at:


[Accessed 16 December



Palma, C. 2009. Iquique Housing with additions. [image online] Available at: <

wound-vac-therapy.html> [Accessed 16 December 2015].



“Economics of Sustainability” is a seminar of IaaC, Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia developed at Master in Advanced Architecture in 2016 by:
Students: Connor Stevens
Faculty: Gonzalo Delacamara