Building for People: Human-centered Design with Local Materials

A mobile laboratory is traveling across Europe

SOURCE: International Living Future Institute


By Gabe Dunsmith

A mobile laboratory is traveling across Europe. Designed and built by university students, the lab serves as a hub for innovative façade design. Chartered by Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Ostwestfalen-Lippe University in Germany, the mobile laboratory places human occupants at the center of building design. “We do not build for nice pictures or academic purposes,” say Doctors Uta Pottgiesser (Ostwestfalen-Lippe) and Ulrich Knaack (Delft), the two lead professors working on the project. “We build for people.” It is essential that building design is human-centered, they say, with a focus on local materials; otherwise you risk being alienated from places in which you work and live.

Delft professors chose to focus on façade design because the façade largely determines a building’s energy efficiency potential. After hosting workshops on interior design and glass construction, Pottgiesser and Knaack decided to tackle building exteriors so their students could work directly with heat retention, external light, and moisture resistance. According to them, the students are in charge: the professors step back and let the architects-to-be run the program.

This project marks the professors’ first foray with an on-the-go laboratory. The lab has traveled to Bath, England; Dusseldorf, Germany; Lucerne, Switzerland; and San Sebastian, Spain, involving students with diverse projects at each location. The collaboration that ensued was a powerful experience, students attested, as they gained immediate, visible results that transcended national and cultural borders. In Bath, for example, façade experiments centered around low-cost material with a small environmental impact; and students retrofitted their building designs to adapt to various climate zones.

At the end of the day, says Pottgiesser, students are working toward a concept she dubs “Slow Construction”: in line with social movements like Slow Food, the goal of Slow Construction is to bring buildings into alignment with their local environment by using materials from the surrounding area, purging toxins from buildings, and shaping buildings to specific climatic and ecological conditions. “Many vernacular and historic buildings have been extremely adapted and ‘friendly’ to their specific environment,” she says. “With modern technologies, media and means of transportation, this relationship has been disturbed.” The students’ goal is to use technology in an appropriate way, catering buildings toward minimal environmental impact and maximum utility.

The façade project proves that buildings can be both comfortable and ecologically sustainable. The students focused holistically on a building’s entire lifecycle, going well beyond the scope of mainstream architecture, where decisions are often constrained by construction time and costs. Through mistake and success alike, they learned to tend to the building envelope—the interface between indoor and outdoor that influences such factors as daylight and human comfort.

In all the students do, says Knaack, “sustainability is the key driver—everything we develop has to be good for the environment, the people.” Façade design may be only one piece of the puzzle, but it is a key stepping-stone for understanding how humans might live better on the earth.

The work presented in this article is part of the Pillars of Sustainable Education program that funds universities to support the realization of community-based projects to explore innovative uses of sustainable materials and design. More information about the program – made possible by Alcoa Foundation – can be found at


GABE DUNSMITH was born and raised in Southern Appalachia. A graduate of Vassar College, he lives in Seattle and interns with the International Living Future Institute.

Tweet me: A mobile laboratory is traveling across Europe run by students from @tudelft & @HochschuleOWL

KEYWORDS: Education, Pillars of Sustainable Education, Alcoa Foundation, International Living Future Institute, ILFI, Hochschule Ostwestfalen-Lippe, Delft University of Technology

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