Friday | 10 October, 2008 | 9:32 am

Designing in the extreme

By John Loos

October 2008 - Building energy efficient and affordable houses in environments where year-round temperatures can vary between 100 degrees Fahrenheit and -40 Fahrenheit is every bit as difficult as it sounds, but more than 1,200 architectural teams were up to challenge at the 3rd International Architecture Competition for Sustainable Housing, a competition presented by Living Steel, Brussels, Belgium.

This year's challenge was using the multifaceted qualities of steel to build an energy-efficient home in Cherepovet, Russia. Finalists gave presentations to the competition's jury on June 26 and 27 in Helsinki, Finland, and the winner, Peter Stutchbury Architects, Newport, Australia, was named on June 29. Stutchbury's design was a fusion of steel and natural earth, with its sleek, angular design half-buried in a mound to benefit from the natural heating properties of the ground.

Living Steel is a globally collaborative program launched in 2005 by the World Steel Association to advocate innovative and responsible housing construction, specifically with steel. Its architectural competition hopes to find solutions for the growing global housing shortage, and this year raised the bar not just for its entrants, but for architectural competitions in general.

Changing the rules
It's an unwritten rule that architectural competitions be judged anonymously. However, this year Living Steel infused the idea of collaboration and discourse into its competition by having the 12 finalists present their designs to each other in a seminar-like setting.

"In presenting the ideas, each team got to view how each other had approached the design challenge and each architect learned how different people thought about the challenge and building in a harsh climate," says Carl Perry, regional manager for Living Steel. "The whole learning curve was absolutely outstanding. The feedback we had through the judges and the entrants it was one of the best professional experiences of their lives. It was an outstanding outcome."

Perry also says that even though the competition is over, architects are still in communication, collaborating and sharing ideas for other projects as they try to satisfy unique housing needs around the globe.

A world of solutions
As the world becomes more environmentally conscious and home builders look for more versatile and energy-efficient solutions, steel is poised to be an answer to many building problems in extreme climates. For each competition, Living Steel has deliberately chosen challenging locations. Along with the harsh coldness of Russia, it has created challenged for the marshy soil of Brazil and the hot, humid conditions in Kolkata, India.

In marshy environments, lightweight steel offers more possibility for builders worried about the weight of their structures. "With concrete you might be able to only go two stories before you start sinking into the earth," says Perry. "With lightweight steel structures, you might be able to go three or four. You can go higher and using the lightweight steel components to better enhance what is poor soil conditions."

For India, while steel can allow for comfortable and efficient housing, the problem lies more in the fact the market simply doesn't build with steel. "We have to create the whole supply chain," says Perry. "In terms of a sustainable solution for a poor country [like India], Living Steel is trying to create new skills for a labor force that will hopefully build hundreds of these houses over time."

Ultimately, Perry is confident that steel will become more common in these harsher climates, and in markets that have yet to embrace the material in terms of preferred construction materials.

"The beauty of steel is its flexibility," says Perry. "You can do so many things with it. It's really the adaptability of steel in so many different environments that make it a good, useful in these extreme environments." MM

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