Building Sustainably before Sustainability: Speaking with Fernando Abruña

Sustainability Architecture 5 min read
Fernando Abruña constructing la Escuela Ecológica. Credit: Ciencia Puerto Rico

Sustainability has become one of the most important elements in long-lasting architecture projects today. The term, first officially recognized by the United Nations in 1987, has been increasingly implemented in every facet of construction. Whether it’s finding more sustainably sourced materials, or more frequent implementation of greenery, sustainable building has become a mainstay of contemporary architecture.

Well before 1987, though, Fernando Abruña was already incorporating sustainability into his practice. Hailing from Puerto Rico, Abruña got his Bachelors in Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1974. There, he wrote his thesis on natural ventilation and daylighting in tropical environments. After this, he would pursue a non-traditional PhD. with the experimental architect Buckminster Fuller. From here, he would begin an uphill battle as a teacher, advocate and creator of sustainable architecture in Puerto Rico. We spoke with the sustainable pioneer to get a look into that mind that was twenty years ahead of its time.

Early Career

After his PhD. work with Fuller, Abruña would create his hand-drawn bestseller Fresco Gratis, a guide centered around architectural elements that keep homes in the Caribbean island cool without the need for additional energy. Shortly after, he would begin his teaching career at the University of Puerto Rico, where he would teach about the integration of nature in architecture - but it wasn’t making a real impact.

Fresco Gratis by Fernando Abruña
Fresco Gratis book by Fernando Abruña.

“I would say, roughly speaking, that the first 20 [or] so years of my career were spent doing lots of lectures, and informing people of the benefits of [integrating] nature in our architectural work. But I didn't have that much work. I had plenty of time to do research, to do publications, to do presentations, lectures, forums, etc. But there were no clients. Nobody was interested in sustainability at that time.”

Early in his career, sustainability as an idea didn’t exist. He was often told “Estas tocando la octava nota” (roughly translated as “You’re out of touch”). Without a culture to support his innovative ideas, they would always be just that – ideas.

La Casa Ausente

In 1999, after nearly twenty years of teaching, Abruña was finally able build his first project - La Casa Ausente. A completely carbon neutral, off-the-grid work, the house would prove he wasn’t out of touch, but instead ahead of his time. The work contained all elements of a modern house, and ran completely off natural rainfall and sunlight. It became emblematic of the possibilities that implementing sustainability in architecture brought.

In 2004, he became the founder of the US Green Building Council Caribbean chapter, a monumental step in his quest for sustainability. “That was another big, big plus, because now it was not only Fernando Abruña talking about sustainability, but this nationally recognized institution in the US addressing the issue.”

From Relative Obscurity to Superstardom

He adds, “Right after that, we got contracted by the government to design the first public eco-school in Puerto Rico”. Situated in Culebra, Puerto Rico, the school received dozens of awards. Further, by achieving Gold LEED certification, it had tremendous impact on the small island.

After this, Abruña received dozens of requests for different eco-projects. Now, he’s built an impressively broad resumé ranging from affordable eco-homes, to eco-cars, and even patenting a new window design.

His Design Process

“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” - Buckminster Fuller

This approach to architecture is one Fuller’s mentee never backs down from. He states aside from direct, visual beauty present throughout his eco-friendly designs, the true beauty is found elsewhere.

Fernando Abruña guiding principles
The guiding principles used by Fernando Abruña

“There's the hidden beauty that you don't see, but it's happening elsewhere in the planet. When you're doing sustainable architecture in one place, somewhere around the world, maybe four trees were saved because of the work that you did. [There’s] less consumption, less CO2, less electricity, less resources, less trees that were cut down. That beauty is not initially apparent... Your client is not really the person who signs the contract. The client really is the rest of the planet.”

Additionally, Fuller introduced Abruña to the concept of “speculative design”, a design approach concerned with finding solutions before problems arise. This ideology has not only been useful in solving design problems, but addressing environmental issues caused by building; and the first of these issues is resource consumption.

“The whole construction industry is responsible for 40% of co2 emissions. So, we have a very big responsibility. If you're going to design and build something, it better be sustainable – but it also needs to be resilient and durable.”

His strategy for minimizing waste comes from his chief maxim, “Try to try to do almost everything with almost nothing.” An approach he feels his predecessors lacked. “[Architecture prior to 1930s] ended up being playful ideas about how to manifest architecture in interesting volumes, and how you articulate form. The new generations are much more inclined to look at their reality through a social perspective.”

This social tidal shift has allowed him to make enormous impacts on his home island. Recently, he won a design competition to create an eco-home for victims of the Hurricane Maria. Complete with his patented windows, self-sustaining water and electricity and garden, the two-bedroom house is one of the most affordable, sustainable houses designed today.

Fernando Abruña has always remained ahead of his time. Nearly 50 years into his career, he has never backed down from his worldview where architecture and sustainability go hand in hand. His work has become the change he wanted to see, bringing long-lasting, eco-friendly architecture to Puerto Rico. What many deemed as “out of touch” was simply an idea he realized far earlier than his contemporaries: In order to build lasting architecture, we have to have a planet for it to be built on.

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