Spanish designer Lucas Muñoz on why sustainability should not be measured, but thoroughly understood
With a portfolio of work rooted in its local context, self-proclaimed ‘crafts traveller’ Lucas Muñoz discusses the conflicting data informing sustainability in design, and why the transparency and traceability of materials should become as relevant as their look and cost.
From BREEAM to LEED certified: sustainability seems to come in various degrees, and a truly independent, all-encompassing standard appears to be missing. In your opinion, should sustainability (in design) be measurable?
At the moment, to gain any kind of sustainability certificate you have to meet a certain minimum. But there is a thin line between compliance and non-compliance, leaving a large grey area that’s up for interpretation. In my opinion each construction project should define its own standard based on the precise information it embodies. That information should not only entail its location and materiality, but also the society and culture it’s embedded in, as well as the territory it belongs to. Any construction process should be a horizontal agreement between all parties involved, and aim not only for economic benefits, but social significance, too. If trust, transparency and ‘doing good’ goals become an inherent part of construction processes, there shouldn’t be a need for standards and certifications. In short: sustainability in design should not be measured, it should be thoroughly understood.
How did you apply these ideas around sustainability to your recent restaurant project Mo de Movimiento?
We basically mined most of the materials we used for the interior design from the demolition of the existing building. All undertaken deconstruction was legally mandatory. The first floor was too low, the closed patio had to be reopened and parts of the floor were too weak. No deconstructed element was immediately thrown away, but instead reviewed for potential reuse. Together with my design team, consisting of Inés Sistiaga and Joan Vellvé Rafecas, I was in constant action mode, improvising to build prototypes as materials appeared behind the dismantled layers. The construction site turned into an in-house atelier-cum-material storage. In a way, we brought architecture a little bit closer to its origin: local crafts applied to locally sourced materials and adapted to a project’s environmental factors, like climate and social context.
We had to deal with high levels of uncertainly as our design was directly linked to the (de)construction. Working with what was on hand implied high investments in manual labour, but much lower costs for materials. We often avoided catalogue solutions and went for more experimental ones. The pizza ovens, for instance, have a copper pipe installation inside their walls that allows the space to heat water with the remnant heat of cooking pizzas. This water can be used to warm up, among other things, the floor of the outdoor terrace. Architectural law in Spain forbids the use of energy to heat outdoor space. But, since this energy is a remnant of the use of the pizza oven, it’s our own ‘waste’ and therefore legally allowed.
But how do you know you are making the right decision? The one that’s best for the environment in the long term?
That can be tricky. For Mo de Movimiento I worked with a massive array of data and sometimes it was contradictory. When choosing flooring, for instance, the choice was between a 2-cm-thick material that had a very small impact and was made of recycled resources, or a 2-mm-thick material that was not that literally green, but less environmentally invasive. The first material had a better narrative from a communications point of view, but the second option was ultimately the better choice.
The lesson here was that numbers must always be interpreted and understood, and no information is complete. Luckily, we had the help of a dedicated sustainability team (Cristina Freire and Marcel Gomez, who analysed the lifecycle – the passport – of all found and to-be-used materials. They helped us define the best option – both ethically and economically – for every decision in the process from conception to completion. They kept us from greenwashing and supported us in defining a more profound approach to what the term sustainability implies. In the end, what we tried to do is to take the sustainability advice as a point of departure, not as a final varnish.
Green is a wasted term and somehow dangerous. We must accept that all human action has an impact, but that impact can be reduced. Mixing materials, for instance, can lead to further damage if their individual decomposition processes don’t blend well together. Combine found plastic with a natural fibre and you might be doing something that is labelled green, but you will not be doing something good in the long run. If taken through the right process in its pure form, garbage plastics can be completely recycled, but by mixing you run the risk of ending up with one non-recyclable material made out of two recyclable ones. The same goes for ocean plastics collected and processed into clothing. Washing these clothes emits a greater amount of micro plastics into the ocean than a normal polyester fibre. At the end of the loop, the hand-sized chunks of plastics taken from the ocean are returning to it in a micro size that is actually hugely damaging to the organisms inhabiting the sea. This doesn’t take away from the fact that if treated in the right way, these options can be good ones. It just goes to show that the only way to really do right is to take both the past and the future into account. If we want to avoid doing damage with our work, we should not design for the moment, but acknowledge that all we do is probably going to be there after we leave and that every material we use does and will have a price. It is foundational to any sustainability shift that the industry becomes more involved. The transparency and traceability of materials should become as relevant as their look and cost.
Do you believe the industry as a whole is moving in the right direction when it comes to environmental awareness?
Part of the industry is trying to find ways of adapting to a new global consciousness, nonetheless the desire for profit that it is based on is actually a muddy terrain to build such new structures on. And it’s complex to reach a point where efforts are synchronized around the world. We have seen the ‘paralysation’ of certain actors during the Covid-19 outbreak and how that impacted the endeavours of others. The pandemic has unveiled many of the weaknesses and fragile arrangements that support sustainability systems. And these fragilities are not only directly related to the industry, but also to the policies of local governments and their international networks, in regard to production and consumption. The industry, like the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, should have a heart. For this it needs the support of the politicians, which like the lion in the movie, should be brave. In any case, for both of these things to take place, the people – the consumers – will have to motivate them to do so.
This article is an excerpt from an in-depth interview with Lucas Muñoz. The full version will appear in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of Frame Magazine.