Sergio Palleroni is the founder and director of the BaSiC Initiative, a community design program at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. BaSiC brings faculty and students together to work on design/build projects for low-income clients all over the globe, drawing in collaborators from other schools, nations, and disciplines. One of its most high-profile undertakings is the Katrina Furniture Project, for which students fashion furniture out of materials salvaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He spoke recently with residential architect.
What is the BaSiC Initiative's long-term objective? “The end goal is to make reflective practitioners. We can't think of architecture as just work. Every act of creativity has the potential to affect the future of the world. My mission is to get students to begin to think of people of low income and little means as exciting clients. We want to make beautiful buildings and products, but we want to make those products accessible.”
Why does the program place such a strong emphasis on collaboration? “We look at a fundamental problem and think about how other resources at the university can help. Design can't solve problems all by itself. We have to look at things from many different sides. We're hoping to get students to realize that collaboration is the mode of the future, to get them to leverage all the knowledge around them.”
What BaSiC Initiative projects are you most excited about? “The Alley Flat Initiative in Austin—we're doing 600-square-foot to 850-square-foot houses to help people readopt the alley as a residential fabric. Maybe it will become the new green corridor of this city. For that project we're in the process of building the first two potentially net-zero houses in Texas. Also, we just finished (with a few other organizations) a house in Biloxi, Miss. It may be the first LEED-certified house on the Gulf Coast. The Katrina Furniture Project is a collaboration between the University of Texas, the University of Washington, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. It gets students to think about how you make use of a limited supply and teaches them to realize how precious material is. We're gearing up to start offering the furniture pieces for sale this fall—we slowed down while we went back and dealt with housing. Now we're going back to the furniture. I want to create a series of furniture-making workshops on the Gulf Coast.”
How do you have time to run your own practice? “I'm blessed with an incredibly brilliant and organized wife, Margarette Leite. Our firm, Palleroni Leite Design Partnership, is working on several eco-houses, as well as a city in Taiwan and green community centers in Houston for Katrina refugees. I am immersed in all activities of the BaSiC Initiative, but having brilliant students and colleagues has allowed it to grow and mature in ways I could not have imagined or predicted. ... On one side, the Katrina Furniture Project, we're looking at the grain of a piece of wood, and on the other side, we're looking at a city and using the same design skills. That, to me, is one of the extraordinary things about design.”