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The Impact Report

This firm is using design to combat extinction

Many built environments throughout history have ended up destroying natural ecosystems. Terreform is trying to change that.

Cricket shelter farm

Cricket Shelter was conceived by Terreform  as a hybrid architectural typology delivering parallel solutions for food and shelter in distressed regions throughout the world. Image courtesy of Terreform.

It has been said that the goal of architecture is to improve human life; however, many built environments throughout history have ended up destroying natural ecosystems. The balance between meeting the demands of growing populations and reducing harm to habitats has proven mostly elusive in practice.

Mitchell Joachim

However, there are some groups, such as Terreform ONE, whose mission is finding the balance that brings harmony between built environments and natural ecosystems.

Recently, Bard MBA alum Konstancja Maleszynska spoke with Mitchell Joachim, cofounder of Terreform ONE, a nonprofit consulting group that focuses on architecture and urban design. As an organization, it strives to develop inclusive spaces and systems that manifest environmental and social justice for all beings.

The two discussed how pioneering acts of design can combat extinction and illuminate the environmental possibilities of habitats, cities and landscapes worldwide. 

Konstancja Maleszynska: Terreform ONE is both an architecture and urban design consultancy and, at the same time, a nonprofit. Can you tell us more about that in the context of your services and clients?

Mitchell Joachim: We do not typically have regular clients, and in a lot of cases our clients happen to be ourselves. Our own group comes in, chooses its own research project and we will work on that for a few years. We bring in sponsors, go for grants or we will be involved in gallery shows at major museums, but it's not necessarily a client coming in and asking, "Can you save the world?" And we [reply], "What part?" It's not that at all — rather, it's usually clients who come in and offer patron support, which might have some alignment with their own business practice.

In general, being everyday architects and changing colors based on a developer’s whim is not the kind of work we do. We do long-term engagements and research that, for the most part, involve living organisms and that add to what we call socio-ecological design thinking.

We're not really out there to just work for one individual, one situation or one group. In fact, in many cases, we are working for things that don't have a voice, like the monarch butterflies. We're working very hard to produce sanctuaries for them to survive. So, if you really want to say who our client is, it's a troubled species that's out there, not a human with a big bank account.

Maleszynska: What will it take for wide-scale culture change in your industry?

Joachim: I think it's honestly going to take something that's pretty violent, pretty disruptive and probably driven by our climate, most likely a big storm or flood. It is going to be at such a scale that we will no longer find it acceptable to be the way we are today.

If the fires in California are not enough, if the spill in the [Gulf of Mexico] was not enough, if hurricanes Sandy and Katrina and the massive floods in Texas were not enough — I don't know what it is. But there will be an event that will really put the fear of nature in us all and get us to change our attitudes. [This event] will cause us to produce something that has a strong relationship to the earth's metabolism, as opposed to these industrial systems that are the opposite, and even poisonous, on many accounts.

There will be an event that will really put the fear of nature in us all and get us to change our attitudes. [It] will cause us to produce something that has a strong relationship to the earth's metabolism.

Maleszynska: You call your work "Design Against Extinction." That gives this a lot of urgency, especially around implementation. For example, your recent Cooper Hewitt exhibit was about monarch butterflies. How would you do this kind of implementation?

Joachim: We did our research project on monarchs [for] over two years and involved people in entomology, in chemistry and in material science. We engineered a type of concrete that sequesters fly ash, [which] also has a very low embodied energy value, compared to other kinds of concrete. It has a system that helps absorb carbon, it’s lightweight, it's structural, it's fireproof and the geometry is articulated to deal with the lifecycle of this precious butterfly. It allows for things such as mud baths, areas for fungi and mosses, areas for caterpillar activity and other zones for respite. 

So, we really designed not only in the material itself, but the geometry and form of this kind of concrete can be assembled in a modular fashion to go on the sides of buildings to create a vertical sanctuary for monarchs. It is a semi-porous system so they don't stay there forever. It's meant to be accessible and safe, like a weigh station for butterflies to just get a moment to lay some eggs, eat some food or pollinate flowers, and then go about their lives. 

Building habitat for monarchs is one of the major initiatives in the Butterfly Conservation Society of North America. So the idea [is] we introduce it into a city, especially a city where monarchs are native, and we create a biodiverse environment. It's giving the monarch a chance, as well as all other organisms, flora and fauna alike.

The above Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s July 17 The Impact Report podcast. The Impact Report brings together students and faculty in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

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