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Sergio Palleroni
Sergio Palleroni

Public Works

Greening schools and housing

Sergio Palleroni might be the antithesis of a "starchitect". Rather than gold-plated commissions for the elite, Palleroni designs for the other end of the spectrum.

Most new architecture designs are for society’s wealthiest five percent—mansions and museums. But as Palleroni explains, that approach defaults on civic obligation and ignores some of societies most interesting challenges. He looks for ways to include architects in public interest projects, such as affordable housing or the rebuilding of New Orleans, and to build “million-dollar ideas with $100 in parts from Home Depot.”

Sustainable architecture has been a central tenet of Palleroni’s career. He co-founded what became the BaSiC Initiative, jointly housed at University of Texas-Austin and PSU. Its goal: to find environmentally sustainable and community-based design solutions to impoverished communities.

Through this program, he’s taken students from Portland State University and other schools to sites around the world. They’ve built an outdoor solar kitchen for squatter communities of Mexico—using focused sunlight rather than wood burning to cook the day’s meals, and doing so with inexpensive and readily available materials.

In Tunisia, they built solar bakeries for a community with 7,000 years of history making bread. In Austin, they built affordable and energy efficient “Alley Flats” for low-income families in Austin. And in Ladakh, India, they constructed an off-the-grid school with internationally renowned architectural engineering firm ARUP Associates, at the request of the Dalai Lama.

A faculty member in the Department of Architecture since 2008, and a senior fellow of PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Palleroni frequently collaborates with his wife, Margaret Leite, (also on the Architecture faculty at PSU); with Habitat for Humanity they designed a community center for families permanently displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

Though it has long-offered a bachelor’s program, the Master of Architecture degree at PSU is new; the first cohort of students graduated in June 2011. The program is nonetheless ambitious, putting youth to its advantage and placing students  

“We’ve shown up at every party, and no one has had bad feelings about us yet,” Palleroni jokes. “We don’t have to have a legacy of anything but the future.”

And so, PSU students alongside counterparts from the École Spéciale d’Architecture of Paris, France, to will design and construct orphanages in Haiti.

Another team, with students from Texas, Harvard and M.I.T., is developing classrooms for Haiti to replace some of the nearly 2,000 schools that were destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake. Lightweight, inexpensive, and durable materials for that project were tested at PSU’s Green Building Research Laboratory, which brings architects and engineers together to solve building challenges.

The irony is that this selfless, public approach has made Palleroni a star of a different order. He regularly finds himself invited to meetings, events, and ceremonies, rubbing elbows with prominent advocates like Jane Goodall, Richard Gere, Prince Charles, Richard Branson and others.

“Whatever crazy stuff we are doing for the poor in the developing world and U.S. is somehow making its way to the powers that be,” Palleroni says. “That, or I am their token idealist.”

His works have garnered accolades from his peers as well. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) selected Palleroni and three collaborators as recipients of AIA's 2011 Latrobe Prize. The biennial prize includes $100,000 in research funding for the team.

Palleroni’s proposal, selected from nearly 500, will look at how architects do and could play a role in public interest projects. It is the first Latrobe winner to address an issue other than a technical architecture challenge.

“My work is crazy work,” Palleroni says with a laugh.



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HERE IN OREGON, Sergio Palleroni’s greatest impact may come from addressing that most banal of school facilities: the modular classroom.

Commonly referred to as “portables,” these temporary responses to overcrowding often remain on school grounds for decades. Poor ventilation, acoustics and lighting, combine with energy inefficiencies to create short-term solutions in cost only.

Working with students, architects, educators, and others, Palleroni and Margaret Leite’s teams came up with several retrofits and new designs to make these temporary classrooms a permanent benefit to education, from improved day-lighting and air quality, to safer materials and adaptability to different configurations.

With 250,000 existing portables on order (a $15 billion industry), and a growing awareness of how sustainable buildings can improve education, the market appears primed for a portable green solution.

In 2011, Oregon Solutions adopted the “Green Portable Classrooms” project and will work with industry, school districts, and PSU to design, develop, test and monitor a prototype portable classroom during the 2012-2013 school year.