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Community Spotlight: Q&A with Sergio Palleroni

Who are you?

I am a professor of architecture and the director of the new Center for Public Interest Design at PSU, which is the first in the U.S. of 17 centers being created this year. I am also a fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. Although I grew up in the Southern Andes in Argentina, I have spent most of my life in the U.S. and Europe. I am an active member of the Hispanic community and of several international efforts to address the conditions of the poor and disadvantaged both in the U.S. and globally.

What are you working on right now?

Too much. One of the issues with public interest design is that need is always there, which generates very exciting and interesting opportunities for our faculty and students to collaborate, but humbles us with the reality of what poor people are facing worldwide. With the inauguration of the center this year, we have been working hard to get it up and running, and have a set of research agendas and opportunities for collaboration with students, public forums, and training programs in public interest design. It’s a very exciting moment, and the whole country is watching to seeing how we do it. Six faculty members with strong public interest focus make up the team, along with a new research faculty member hired thanks to our endowment. PSU is now a center for this international movement.

And, of course, our work with the healthy, sustainable modular classroom—the SAGE classroom—continues. We are in the process of building the first large implementation at a Waldorf School in Corvallis. This and three other projects in the Northwest will be the first opportunity to test their performance in the field as we move into selling it throughout North America. Thanks to Energy Trust and the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, monitoring systems are already paid for and will provide further evidence as distributors in the U.S. and Canada make the pitch for better classroom environments for our children.

And on the student front, in mid-December we went to Haiti, where for the last three years we have been working in collaboration with Ecole Superior de Arquitecture in Paris to design and build an orphanage for 800 street orphans. The project construction and much of the instruction is being supported by CARITAS Italy, which has made a significant commitment to Haiti (260 million euros over five years). As large as this sum and the amounts pledged to reconstruct this country are, Haiti remains one of the most devastated and impoverished countries in the world. Our work will continue after the completion of the orphanage and school in helping plan an agro-forestry project that will cover the 22-hectare site. We will also attempt to work with other stakeholders in the region to reconstruct the water resources of this valley, potentially making it a model for this country with 97 percent deforestation.

What’s the one thing you want the sustainability community to know about what you’re doing?

As grave as the impacts of the ecological crisis are to our health and well-being in the U.S., it’s in the margins of the third and fourth world that you really see how devastating the impact of climate change are on the lives of the poor, and how much it affects the simple possibilities of even surviving. Though we now know that so much of what we are experiencing climatically and in the destruction of our ecosystems is due to human action, it’s the poor that suffer its greatest impact. It’s these margins that my team and I have been interested in from the beginning. We really need help to come up with those inexpensive, appropriate $10 solutions that can be systemic and make a real impact for the people who need them the most.

What’s your favorite thing about being a part of Portland State?

Collaboration. I worked for two decades at the University of Washington and the University of Texas (Austin) and never experienced the healthy collaborative environment I have had here. Despite our limited resources (compared to UT Austin), collaboration has made projects like the SAGE classroom, and our work in Haiti, Ladakh, and Taiwan possible. And ISS has been a godsend when money is needed to initiate a project, and when we need to connect with intellectual, political, and grant resources to make things happen.

What is your dream job?

World-class cheese maker. Now that I have started to dabble in cheese making—my new Portlandia persona—I really appreciate how much skill it takes to make even a simple cheddar. That’s my exit/retirement strategy when the time comes...