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- An Interview With Satpal Kaur
An Interview With Satpal KaurAug 30, 2022
Satpal Kaur is a design activist, a disruptor, and a constant seeker integrating community needs by creating energy efficient buildings with social impact.
This week, Raise Green CEO Franz Hochstrasser (FH) had the opportunity to sit down with renowned architect Satpal Kaur (SK), known for designing New York’s first Passive House. These buildings rely on smart construction and efficiency to use 85% less energy than traditional construction. Satpal is an innovator, global citizen, and social and environmental justice advocate. She’s currently seeking support for her newest installation, PYRE, a COVID-19 and Climate Change inspired work set to appear at Pier 35 in New York City.
FH: Satpal, it is so great to meet you! Tell us a little bit about yourself; who you are and what impact you strive to create.
SK: I was born in the West Midlands in the United Kingdom to a family of generations of carpenters and builders who built where they settled from India, Kenya, UK and now USA. I trained at the Architecture Association. I came to the USA as an immigrant and landed my first job at a Starchitect firm. Not fulfilled, I instead joined a small firm which pioneered energy efficient buildings in NYC. I started my eight year apprenticeship that drastically changed my trajectory by learning from construction sites and real life building data.
I began to interpret buildings as bodies with energy, waste management and recycling needs. Buildings, like bodies, do not lie.
I designed the first two multifamily buildings in NYC based on Passive House standards that use 85% less energy than standard buildings. Both buildings were recognized by Mayor de Blasio,“One City Built To Last” goal of 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050 and triggered building code changes for affordable buildings. My curious mind led to me championing different envelope typologies from landmarked SSUS Ship Conservatory to affordable Window-AC unit prototypes in affordable multifamily to meet electrification.
The impact I strive as a Design activist is to holistically integrate clients to actively become part of the sustainable revolution pursuing a comfortable and just environment. My firm believes Architecture is a tool for Equity, Change & Activism championing Healthy spaces.
FH: For our audience who have not yet been exposed to this innovative construction, what is a Passive House and why is this such a significant development in construction and energy efficiency?
SK: The concept of Passive House originally began here in the USA but was never fully utilized, and instead the Germans fully embraced it. A passive house is a set of rigorous standards (continuous insulation, air tightness, high performing windows, ERV/HRV and reduced thermal bridging) to achieve buildings that use and waste very little energy, while staying comfortable, minimizing environmental impact. Understanding and implementing the components of an idealized enclosure consisting of: structure, control layers (heat, air and water) and finish is crucial in the success of making the building energy efficient that perform to utmost standards. I compare the building to the human body on a cold day that needs to stay in homeostasis; stay dry in cold & damp conditions, staying warm with an insulated jacket & a warm scarf.
Buildings and their construction together account for 36 percent of global energy use and 39 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually. Therefore the adoption of high performing standards such as Passive House can be applied to any building type resulting in HUGE energy savings and emissions reductions.
FH: Your work weaves themes of community and resilience together, tell us about the future you hope to create/are inspired by.
SK: I believe the equation is climate change+climate justice. It is a holistic approach that weaves both interchangeably. It affects air, water, earth and people, especially the vulnerable communities. Vulnerable communities are located at the periphery areas prone to natural disasters therefore implementing resilience design approaches means we are future planning and proofing for everyone. For the future I continue to be hopeful and be inspired by staying curious and keeping a beginner's mind rather than being an expert!
FH: Covid-19 created a unique environment, how does the PYRE installation pay homage to those lost while asking us to look to the future?
SK: Here at home and in communities around the globe there is a rush to move beyond the Covid pandemic. In the din of back-to-normal, inflation-flamed recession fears, record breaking temperatures and war in Ukraine our memories are being crowded out by urgencies of the moment. Yet our sense of global vulnerabilities are highlighted no better than the collective experience of the pandemic that touched every life. The PYRE guides us to reflect not only on the loss of life, but also on the landmine of potential learnings from this catastrophe that has altered all our lives. How we work and live has been forever changed by the pandemic. We cannot forget those lost to Covid. The best dedication to their lives is for us to live and design the future with a more preventive, just and equitable mindset.
FH: PYRE touches on many different injustices -- social, economic, and environmental. How do you see the host space, Pier 35, as a representation of the intersection of these injustices?
SK: The social, economic, and environmental factors surrounding the geography of Pier 35 are complex. The pier is located in a flood zone. It is not a private pier that has access to a bigger pool of funds in comparison to other piers owned by large corporations. The local residents are mostly in the middle and lower economic strata. The opening of Pier 35 just before the pandemic highlighted the need of surrounding local communities for restorative outdoor space. It provides for a beautiful landscape of water and bridges as the backdrop to a space for leisure, play, picnic and contemplative pursuits. It is passionately restored and maintained by the local community.
The location of Pier 35 in the Lower East side historically has been home to immigrants in search of the ‘American Dream’ but discriminatory FHA policies in the last century have prevented equitable dream of home ownership. This resulted in pockets of affordable public housing that serve predominantly communities of color located at the periphery of NYC's significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs), and clusters of industry and polluting infrastructure along the waterfront. The area has been labeled as a result of above decisions as ‘hazardous’. In recent times the area has been identified by FEMA as a flood zone due to threats of climate change from projected rise in sea levels. Super Storms Sandy devastated the area and flood prevention efforts are behind schedule. These factors make the Lower East side communities vulnerable to storm surges and exposure to underlying water and ground pollution. Unfortunately, many of these vulnerable communities do not have adequate health insurance in case of dire exposures. In addition, most buildings are not designed or retrofitted to be resilient in the face of worsening environmental challenges.
Ironically, now like many areas in NYC, part of this area is changing due to gentrification and becoming more desirable. However, segregation by privilege still remains. A great example of this is the new luxury building at One Manhattan Square which stands out in view from Pier 35. To meet the zoning requirements to gain additional square footage the Developer needed to provide some affordable units. The developer decided to create two separate buildings on the same lot: one at market rate and the other affordable that is demarcated separately in the architectural aesthetics.
Pier 35 provides the extended view of NYC with bridges connecting to downtown gentrified Brooklyn with the tall shiny buildings and access of Ferry rides to other boroughs as well as fishing spot for the locals which is technically not allowed.
FH: What was the location's significance to you, a New Yorker who has seen the city shift and transform over time?
SK: The location of the pier has parallels to my work of creating justice-informed resilient environments where architecture can be a tool for activism championing healthy spaces. I learned from Friends of Pier35NYC; the local group which maintains the Pier 35, that they were one of the worst impacted zip codes from Covid in the beginning and unfortunately also subjected to the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Additionally, Pier 35 has never had an art installation mostly due to economic reasons. For me I wanted the PYRE to be accessible for all and honor vulnerable working class underprivileged communities.
Pier 35 is a stage performing the many acts of the hustle of NYC as a constant melting pot of different cultures, languages and the juxtaposition of many worlds colliding and converging. It conveys the city's shape shifting nature and personality, connecting people from different walks of life, some you can only meet in an open public setting. Pier 35 is an urban busy corridor and positioning the PYRE allowed to recreate the need for human interaction that disappeared during Covid pandemic. Meeting the rich diversity of people is very much part of NYC identity and inspires a dialogue about the different ways to incorporate public space, and green space, into our communities.
FH: Negative space seems to be a significant undercurrent in your works, can you talk a bit about how it plays into the PYRE installation?
SK: The negative spaces in the PYRE act as framed, paused, moments of the shape shifting experience of the structure both internally and externally. This is reflected in the casting shadows, the light of the sun that bounces from the PYRE ‘diamonds’ to the artificial night lights of NYC and to the reflection of both on the East River’s momentarily still canvas.
FH Tell us about the current state of PYRE, where along in the process you are.
SK:Currently I have started a crowdsource funding page. I am requesting all to DONATE AND SHARE via their social media. Right now, funding for this community-driven project is our greatest hurdle in moving forward.
FH: If anyone is interested in supporting this cause, how should they contact you to discuss opportunities to collaborate/support?
SK: The most impactful thing you can do is donate and share with your friends and family! Here is the link. If you want to get involved, I can be reached at email@example.com.