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The Modern, The Vernacular, The Sustainable: Puntacana

by Danny Forster on Apr 12, 2010

Sustainable design is usually taught not as a discipline but as a series of tactics. Architecture students learn how to optimize for the sun and wind by appropriately orienting the building; they study storm water management strategies; they are trained how and where to deploy solar panels and wind turbines. But these solutions are superficial—appendages grafted onto buildings that are otherwise designed as they always have been.

This course, Puntacana: The Modern, The Vernacular, The Sustainable, was an attempt to make contemporary ideas of sustainability the starting point of our design work, not the finishing touch. We believe that if we began with sustainability as our architectural premise, the formal solutions for the buildings of Puntacana would grow out of the local environment itself. For this studio, sustainability is more about place than energy loads and more about culture than efficiency.

Flip through the entire publication of the Harvard PUNTACANA / DOMINICAN REPUBLIC PROJECT.


The students were asked to find out how homes are built in Dominican Republic and how people live in them order to find alternative ways to work within that culture. They were not required, in other words, to work in the traditional vernacular of Dominican architecture, but instead to create a modern vernacular by rigorously examining preexisting conditions and finding formal solutions that responded to those conditions. The work in this publication may not resemble Dominican buildings we′ve seen before, but that′s not because a bunch of mainland American architects swooped in with their own notions of contemporary design—it′s because their designs began without preconceived notions and grew from an understanding of the climate, vegetation, technology, culture and material of Puntacana itself.

In Holly Trick's work you'll see a series of four linked-courtyard villas all with the same size and number of bedrooms and bathrooms. Based upon their respective orientations to the sun and the programmatic requirements she created (all bedrooms must face east, all living rooms must have double exposure, and so on) the villas morphed into unexpected and seemingly arbitrary attenuated shapes. But this transformation is anything but random; it′s the result of a solar parametric analysis: the shape of the houses adjusts and reacts to the movement of the sun and parameters set for each room. The building is arresting in its seemingly willful use of form, but ultimately (and phenomenologically) grounded in the specific environment of its place.

In work submitted by by Danielle Meyer and Monica Franklin you find housing densely arrayed perpendicularly to the water′s edge. Such density, atypical for Puntacana, enables the developer to preserve more wetland in other areas, but it creates a problem: privacy concerns for the inhabitants. In order to address that challenge, Danielle and Monica design vegetative primary walls to buffer and insulate one home from the next. The components of the green walls, their specific plant mix and vegetative character, are determined not by aesthetics, but by their proximity to the ocean. The authors factored in the effect of salt content in the air and water and the capacity for certain plants to grow, making vegetative walls that are essentially locally or environmentally created. A formal difference therefore arises from house to house that both pleases the eye and offers a visual demonstration of how the Puntacana environment works.

These and the other projects in this book are all examples of research performed with the support and guidance Puntacana Resort and Club and GRUPO Puntacana. The goal was to offer the development team a series of alternatives to the traditional way in which they have sculpted their island community. Each project is different, but each was born out of an investigation of place and a belief that true sustainable design, when fundamentally integrated into how we think as designers, can create a new architectural language, inextricably tied to culture, climate, and place.
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