sergio Palleroni is no stranger to post-disaster reconstruction. As a freshly minted architecture school graduate in the early 1980s, he jumped on an opportunity to help with rebuilding efforts in earthquake-damaged Nicaragua. A few years later, he moved to Mexico City to assist with recovery work after the 1985 earthquake. “That was one of the two best reconstruction efforts ever, the other one being [post-1945] Japan,” he remembers. “In Mexico City, 250,000 housing units were built in two years.”
These and other early experiences with underserved communities led Palleroni to notice a void in American architectural education. In 1995, he co-founded a design/build program at the University of Washington called BaSiC Initiative, along with Steve Badanes and David Riley. BaSiC now works all over the world to improve local conditions through design and construction. The program is currently housed at both Portland State University (PSU) in Oregon, where Palleroni is an architecture professor and a senior fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, and the University of Texas-Austin. It has helped dozens of in-need communities, including the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. Among its undertakings there were the Katrina Furniture Project, which transformed building materials salvaged from post-Katrina wreckage into furniture, and A House for Patty, one of the first homes built in Biloxi, Miss., after the storm. More recent BaSiC projects include Druk White Lotus School in India (which sustained damage from this past summer’s floods but is still operational); a solar-powered bakery in Tunisia; and contributions to the Haiti Rewired construction manual. (More information on BaSiC can be found at www.basicinitiative.comwww.basicinitiative.org.)
Palleroni’s wife, architect Margarette Leite, is a BaSiC Initiative instructor, as well as a professor in the architecture program at PSU. She also serves as his partner in their Portland-based firm, Palleroni Leite Design Partnership (PLDP). One of PLDP’s latest projects is a community center for a neighborhood of families displaced from New Orleans by Katrina. The residents have made new lives in a Habitat for Humanity development in Houston, and Habitat hired PLDP to design a gathering place and activity hub for both adults and children.
In all of their work, Leite and Palleroni embark on a mission to thoroughly understand the cultural needs of the building’s end user. “It’s important to us that people explain to us what they’ve lost,” Palleroni says. “Telling us their stories acknowledges that need for normality. It’s a huge step for the architects to step into the lives of other people and find out what was most important and resolve that formally. I think the programming—the deep conversation with the client—is one of the two to three most important things you do in disaster relief.”
This type of in-depth research also makes up a crucial element of BaSiC Initiative’s projects. And it informs Palleroni’s teaching both at PSU and in courses on international humanitarian action through Erasmus Mundus, a graduate program overseen by the European Union. He emphasizes real-life, in-the-field experience, and encourages students to spend extra time understanding their clients’ needs. “I had this weird training that happened where I was, when I was,” he observes of his disaster rebuilding background. “How do we create that kind of training? We all realize it’s a growing need.”
In her academic work, Leite is particularly interested in tectonics and building materials. In June 2010, she and her students teamed with local company Pacific Green Innovations to build a 700-square-foot demonstration home using SwissCell cellulose-and-resin panels. She and Palleroni believe the lightweight material could be a good fit for disaster relief housing in Haiti and beyond.
Like Palleroni, Leite focuses on helping her students consider alternative career trajectories. “Rather than having architects always doing museums and libraries, we’re bringing in the idea that design can go much further than that,” she says. “We’re trying to get students to look at potential career paths where we can have a greater impact on all people, not just the wealthy."