Communities, researchers join forces to design framework for sustainable housing

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Friday, May 13, 2022
Esther Obonyo’s research focuses on using sustainable materials to create buildings that can withstand natural disasters as well as crises brought on or exacerbated by climate change, such as extreme heat waves, while also reducing the carbon footprint of the building by requiring less energy to heat or cool it. Credit: Penn State College of Engineering. All Rights Reserved.

By Sarah Small

As the executive director of the Global Building Network and associate professor of engineering design and architectural engineering at Penn State, Esther Obonyo applies best research practices to explore what makes environmentally sustainable and climate change resilient structures, from crushing bricks in the lab to visiting Tanzania for field research. Now, she is employing another technique that she says is critical and often lacking or secondary: listening.  

“There are many metrics that exist for measuring housing resilience to natural disasters or climate change that I’ve studied, and some are very complicated, with hundreds of questions, but even then, the voice of the impacted communities is still very minimal,” she said. 

With a two-year, $400,000 National Science Foundation Boosting Research Ideas for Transformative and Equitable Advances in Engineering (BRITE) Synergy award, Obonyo is bringing the community voice to the forefront of design criteria by leading the project, “Developing and Validating a Framework for Measuring Resilience in Low-Income Housing in the Post-Pandemic World.” 

Obonyo’s research focuses on using sustainable materials to create buildings that can withstand natural disasters as well as crises brought on or exacerbated by climate change, such as extreme heat waves, while also reducing the carbon footprint of the building by requiring less energy to heat or cool it. She said that while researchers have developed many sustainable, resilient solutions, the adoption of these solutions has been slow. To answer why people are not adopting the technology and methods at scale, Obonyo said she wants to focus on the human perspective, with a particular emphasis on vulnerable populations. 

“We are questioning the targets, metrics and tools that are used to measure resilience, because a lot of our metrics, tools and frameworks focus on the physical dimensions,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is still to get the physical assets to perform better, but we need to go beyond that and start looking at the lived experiences of the people within marginalized communities.” 

While Obonyo had started examining the human perspective before the pandemic, she said that COVID-19 shed light on the importance of this work. 

“When we went into lockdown mode, I had just come out of a series of workshops where people from both the building sector and the health sector were expressing an interest in a more widespread acknowledgement that buildings and health are connected,” she said. “Then COVID happened, and suddenly it seemed like the whole world was talking about the interconnection between buildings and our health.” 

The pandemic had another impact on the research, as traveling far distances was no longer feasible. Obonyo turned her efforts in Pennsylvania, focusing on modifying old buildings — instead of building new ones — in low-income areas, and examining issues of extreme heat, air quality and heating and cooling efficiency. 

“Since we couldn’t travel, we started asking, ‘How can Pennsylvania be a testbed for a global problem that is aligned with the vision and the mission of the Global Building Network?’” she said. “The distributed model of the Penn State Commonwealth Campuses is an asset for us, because we have been exploring synergies with different types of communities: Philadelphia, a very large city; Pittsburgh, a medium-sized city; and New Kensington, a small city.” 

Obonyo said the research is more than academic.   

“As I was reflecting on the opportunities for engaging with community members in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and other places, I realized that a lot of these housing units that are impacted by issues like extreme heat or air quality happen to be women-led, especially by women of color,” she said, noting these key stakeholders are frequently left out of such conversations. “They face significant obstacles, such as a lack of childcare or the potential of lost wages, to engaging in these research conversations.”  

To help mitigate these barriers, which are not limited to but overwhelmingly impact women of color over other demographics, Obonyo requested some compensation for participants in the grant proposal. The request was approved.  

“I’ve spent my entire career trying obscure the fact that I’m a Black woman in STEM,” Obonyo said. “For the first time, I was bold enough to embrace my identity and feel comfortable enough in my skin to ask, ‘What would limit me as a Black woman from participating in research that could help my community that is being adversely impacted by extreme weather events and experiencing energy burden?’ I’m very excited that we have some resources to help us hear from the people in these communities and, together, we can develop a more equitable, human-centered framework for building designs.”