PUBLIC BUILDINGS LEADING ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES The case of a Cultural Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Trabajo presentado en: 3rd CIB International Conference on Smart and Sustainable Built Environment (SASBE09) realizado en Junio de 2009, en Delft, Netherlands

Maria Jose Leveratto M Sc Architect
Ministry of Culture, Buenos Aires City Government, Argentina, marialeveratto@gmail.com

Keywords: Public administration, green buildings, sustainable practices, building management

Abstract
This paper describes a greening programme being carried out at an important cultural centre in Buenos Aires. Centro Cultural Recoleta is a modern, multi-arts venue located in one of the fanciest areas of town. In a context where sustainable performance of buildings is not a main issue in any agenda, authorities accepted the challenge of introducing different actions towards the promotion of environmental practices. The guiding spirit is that public buildings should lead and set higher standards. Using existing resources within the administration, joined with economical and technical sponsorship from private sector companies, and non governmental organizations, a variety of actions are being implemented. They include garbage separation, the promotion of the use of bicycles, education and an electricity conservation programme. The paper provides a short description of each action, highlighting the obstacles and limitations found when carrying out this type of programmes for the public administration in a developing country. Finally, some recommendations for better results are given, pointing out that although countries such as Argentina have very low contribution to green house gases, they have people scavenging garbage, energy shortage during peak seasons, polluted water and air, noise and traffic congestion. Global warming has raised international attention, hopefully this attention can help emerging economies follow a different development path.

1. Introduction

Within the limits of the capital city of Buenos Aires live 3 million people. Including its metropolitan area, the population rises to around 12 million, almost one third of the total inhabitants of Argentina. The region, suffers many of the environmental problems usually found in big Latin American metropolis, with wide differences in living conditions, infrastructure and access to urban services. Wealthy neighbourhoods coexist with informal squatter settlements and open dumps.
The city is located besides the Río de la Plata, a large source of drinking water for the whole region, with its coasts heavily contaminated due to the lack of proper wastewater treatment plants. Despite of this openness to the river that disperses fumes, air quality in the densely populated city is poor. A massive motorized traffic system, including an extensive public transportation network, based on diesel fuels is the source of around 90% of total local emissions of toxic gases. Recent economic recovery has increased the number of private cars leading to more congestion, noise and higher air pollution. This economic recovery has also increased other environmental problems such as the amount of garbage for disposal and the greater need of electricity for air conditioning.
In this context, sustainability is not a main issue in the City’s agenda yet. There is no supportive public policy towards a broader promotion and adoption of green practices. No energy conservation regulations for buildings or incentives for renewable energy sources can be found. Even if in some cases, there is appropriate legislation, the lack of political willingness, deficient controls and corruption reduce the potential of change.
Besides, local culture is far from being conservative and environmentally responsible. General perception tends to believe “Argentina is a big country with endless resources and endless capacity to recover”. It is also important to mention that gas and electricity prices are highly subsidized. Under this circumstances, the idea of introducing sustainable design and management in buildings is particularly challenging.

2. Public Buildings in Buenos Aires

Buildings owned and administrated by the local government are generally more than thirty years old and scarcely maintained. They were designed by city’s staff professionals, according to their own priorities and style, with little or no public participation or open architectural competitions. They do not include strategies for rational use of energy, natural lighting, ventilation or any other measure related to sustainable design. Refurbishments are reduced to minimum, and improvements are more related to urgencies (such as roof’s repairing or plumbing) or encouraged to the proximity of political elections (with façades’ paintings or better furniture for offices). Newer facilities can be found mainly for schools or health care centres.
Energy consumed in these buildings is mostly electricity. It is used for lighting, air conditioning and equipment. The payment of electricity bills is centralized. Building’s administrators do not have information or control about their expenditures and the amounts required are directly discounted from their budgets. If electricity consumed in a building is lower than planned, the saved amounts cannot be expended for other purposes. The complexity and bureaucracy of public finances do not allow redirecting funds, and money remains in the “big black box” of city’s accounts. This system promotes waste and misuse of energy at all levels.
Centro Cultural Recoleta (CCR) is a public building administrated by the Ministry of Culture. It is a 12.000 sq meters multi-arts venue housing a diverse range of art, music, theatre, dance and educational events. This well renowned cultural centre is located in one of the fanciest areas of town, and frequently visited by crowds of modern and young publics. The original building was a monastery from the 17th century, organized around Spanish patios and galleries. During the 1980’ it was remodelled for cultural uses by one of the most important local architects.

The Centre has always been considered the place for avant-garde experiences and new artistic ideas. That may be the reason why the authorities have been opened and enthusiastic about starting a change towards a more sustainable approach to architectural design and operation.

3. Tools for action

When there is no deep political commitment and budgets are low, creativity and cooperation with other interested actors can be an important key to success. This is the approach and the guiding spirit for changes at Centro Cultural Recoleta.
First, an analysis of building’s characteristics and management structure was carried out. It included visits to the premises under diverse conditions; interviews with relevant employees; and identifying environmentally motivated” people within the existing staff, as potential future activities’ leaders.
After this analysis, priorities have been defined according to different parameters: cost effectiveness; implementation feasibility; visibility; and impact. It has also been important to consider the particular requests of employees, looking to provide answers to some of their perceived needs with the environmental proposals. For example, incandescent lamps need to be replaced very often due to their short life performance. Shifting to compact fluorescent lamps has the advantage of reducing the job of maintenance workers because, besides saving energy, they last much longer.
When priorities were settled, the next step has been the search for potential partners and associates. City’s administration has a variety of resources at no extra cost. That may include personnel, transportation, press, management and technical support from specific agencies or research institutes. With particular agreements those resources are usually available and willing to cooperate.
Private sector is, particularly in this case, a good partner. Climate change and global warming has put environmental protection in the international agenda and many companies, recognize the value of collaborating with ecologically friendly proposals. As partners, they can provide technology, products and usually funds, as they count with special budgets for social responsibility activities. The modern, young, and intellectual profile of Centro Cultural Recoleta makes it a good candidate for private sponsorship allowing us, to some extent, to decide on the characteristics and kind of our potential sponsors.
Other important associates for environmental activities are non governmental organizations and grassroots groups. When objectives are clear and shared, they can provide human resources for training and education as well as a variety of ideas and connections for public mobilization.

4. Actions

4.1 Energy

Over consumption of electricity is a main concern in public buildings. As mentioned before, bad management, lack of interest and no responsible controls generate wastes that could be easily avoided. It is common to find lights turned on in patios and other outdoor spaces of the Centre during sunny midday, just because the person in charge didn’t come that day, or because outdoor and indoor lamps are connected to the same switch.
Other important issue is the type of technology used for artificial lighting. Cheapest systems are also highly consuming ones. For example, public corridors, covering a surface of around 300 sq meters, are illuminated with extremely inefficient 500 watts quartz lamps. The electricity consumed for artificial lighting in this area is 5200 Kwh a month, almost twenty times higher than the mean monthly consumption of a regular Buenos Aires home.
Under these conditions, Centro Cultural Recoleta has signed two cooperation agreements: One with the City Environmental Agency (Agencia de Proteccion Ambiental, a local government organization) and another with Osram (a private sector lighting systems and lamp company). Actions include personnel training, capacity building, and new lighting systems and lamps. Savings of around 20% of total electricity consumption are expected, with no extra cost to the public budget. Money savings are estimated on 22.000 US dollars a year.

Future plans include demonstrative photovoltaic systems connected to the grid, and high powered LED lighting for theatre and other performance areas. These technologies are not commonly used in the local context, but it is an interesting challenge to introduce them, present them to the public and analyze their applicability and potentialities.

4.2 Garbage

Garbage is probably the most pressing environmental problem of Buenos Aires. Since the big economic crisis of 2001, a multitude of poor (popularly called “cartoneros”) wander through town with improvised handcarts, scavenging garbage in search of plastic bottles, paper, etc. Many take their children with them. Working conditions are dreadful. The government has not been able to solve the situation with coherent and practical garbage separation plans, yet. This picture of abandonment contrasts with the touristic and European image of Buenos Aires.
With help from the Ministry of Environment, it was fairly simple to implement a paper-cardboard separation programme for all the administrative sector of the building. At openings and vernissages glass bottles and plastics are gathered.

responsable for garbage separation

[caption id="attachment_981" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Plastic bottles after a vernissage"]plastic bottles after a vernissage[/caption]
After a year of work, CCR employees are highly involved, collecting approximately 3 m3 of paper and 2 m2 of plastics a month. This material is given directly to a family of cartoneros, who come to pick it up twice a week. On the other hand, it has not be possible yet to implement a good separation programme for public areas. Garbage cans are not well design for recycling purposes, and our visitors do not have the habit and discipline to separate their disposals correctly. One of the next challenges is to provide nice, durable and manageable cans to encourage good separation practices.

4.3 Non motorized transportation

Buenos Aires could be a perfect city for cycling. It has a mild climate, an even terrain and beautiful landscapes to move around. Although infrastructure for bikes is very scarce, many ride them because they are a cheap and fast mean of transportation.
No public building in the City has bike parking spaces, neither for visitors nor for employees. CCR building is the first one to include them, inside and outside the premises. This was possible due to an agreement with an important local bicycle shop. They have paid for the racks while CCR has printed a City map showing the best routes to arrive, giving also recommendations about safe cycling. The brochure, including the logo of the sponsor, was distributed by post to the mailing list of frequent visitors, and given for free to the public at the entrance.

bicycle parking

[caption id="attachment_984" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Maps and information to get to the cultural centre without car"][/caption]

It could be argued that the use of bicycles should not be promoted until proper infrastructure and better traffic control measures can make it secure. But until that policy is defined and implemented, Centro Cultural Recoleta has decided to improve and ease conditions for urban bike users, as much as possible.

4. 4 Education and promotion of results

Education and promotion are key actions in this programme. The objectives, characteristics and results of every sustainable practice incorporated have to be clearly explained to the public, using effective information tools to ensure they are understood. One of the most important values of this programme is its power to spread the message, and achievements are measured by their capacity to encourage others to follow. Some educational activities are linked to local or international events, like the European Mobility Week or Earth Day. Others are our own celebrations such as The Solar Cooking Day, on December 21st to commemorate summer solstice. As CCR has no trained staff to collaborate in this area, all educational activities are planned and organized in cooperation with other organizations, mainly non governmental ones. It is an area with great potentially, and still needs further development, including special courses, workshops, exhibitions, family activities, etc.

Activities for kids

[caption id="attachment_978" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Solar Cooking Festival"][/caption]
5. Lessons

After around one year of experience leading and thrusting an environmental programme in a public building, there are some lessons and recommendation to share, of a work still in progress. These lessons can be described according to the main factors influencing them, but are highly interconnected and related to one another.

- Employees. For different reasons, working for the public sector can be very discouraging and unmotivating. In the local context, there are no rewards or any compensation for better performances or particular support to personnel willing to improve their skills. Besides it is difficult to change established habits, especially if the new ones may require some extra work. In our experience, the best way to win employees’ support is when they understand these practices are for their own benefit. There are higher chances for a worker to incorporate new environmental protection behaviours, if she or he recognizes the significance of those actions for their children’s future and health. No one incorporates a different conduct permanently and truly just because a boss says so. The relevance of employees’ involvement and compromise should not be underestimated; its importance has been highlighted by the Spanish Action Plan for Energy Efficiency and Energy Saving (2008-2010). This Plan focuses on changes in behaviour and management as a relevant strategy to reduce consumption, at much lower cost than any technological investment.

- Bureaucracy. The change towards better social and environmental practices in the public administration is a slow and long term commitment. Results may take much longer than in other activities, due to the amount of paper work, approvals and signatures required for any action. Noticeable progress can be frustratingly slow and discouraging. To ease the road, it may be recommended to find interested key actors (such as directors of environmental agencies, urban planning, sanitation, etc.) to help projects move forward. It is also important to settle feasible targets, allowing stages and adjustments.

- Political commitment. As mentioned before, environmental issues are not in the main political agenda. Governmental officials always have more urgent and visible problems to attend, and there is no particular public pressure, as voters do not view the subject as a priority, yet. This context is not favourable and proposals such as urban solar access regulations, incentives for solar thermal heating, or stricter requirements for building constructions have little support among political leaders. But on the other hand, they, and their technical advisers, pay attention to foreign, particularly European, successful urban proposals. Projects like the Public Bicycle System for Barcelona or the London Congestion Charge are known and appreciated by local decision makers. Fortunately European cities are moving towards more sustainable planning and design policies, and these examples may empower local proposals, adapted and redesign for the local context. In industrialized countries, green ideas are becoming fashionable. This trend opens an opportunity for the developing world, too. Better income social groups tend to look and copy European and North American ways, and will pay attention to environmentally friendly proposals if the message is well promoted. The power of media is also important in this aspect.

6. Conclusions

Argentina is a country with very low contribution to green house gases, and carbon emissions are not our main environmental priority. But if international attention and funds are available focusing on that global problem, this is an opportunity to start doing thing better. Hopefully, national economic conditions will continue to improve, leading to better living conditions for all. Global warming has raised the attention, and can help developing economies to follow a different path, protecting their natural resources with a smarter, cleaner and more effective technological development.
The public sector is very well-placed to set an example operating sustainable. Not only because it is the single biggest energy consumer in the city, but mainly because one of its duties is to educate and demonstrate better practices. Its power is quantity. It owns an enormous stock of buildings; and it invests, contracts and buys huge quantities of goods. Public buildings reflect community’s values and expectations. Hopefully, soon they will start to reflect a brighter side.

References

Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), 2006, Better Public Building. London, United Kingdom.
Howell, M et al, 2005, Sustainable Public Buildings: Leading the Way, Urbanism Down Under Conference, Wellington, New Zealand.
Instituto para la Diversificación y el Ahorro de la Energía (DAE), Spain. www.idae.gov
Sabsay, D. et al, 2007, Proceso de Elaboración Participada del Anteproyecto de Código Ambiental de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Argentina. www.farn.org.ar

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