A Costa Rican student in New York dreams big: ‘micro buildings’ for a green future

October 3, 2017

Imagine a city where the designs and construction techniques of buildings reduce utility costs, improve people’s wellness and affect the natural environment in a positive way.

Converting such a vision into reality is what drives Costa Rican student Natalia Martínez to try to change, on a small scale, how the world perceives the functionality of urban areas. Martínez, who studies Urban Design Architecture Studies and Metropolitan Studies at New York University (NYU), will be participating in European Utility Week starting Tuesday in Amsterdam with the zeromicro™ Applied Research Consortium, directed by architect and NYU professor Louise Harpman.

Martínez, 21, got involved in the project after taking two design courses with Harpman. During one of the courses, Harpman asked students to design a project similar to her zeromicro™ project, which seeks to combine a building methodology called “zero net energy” with very small, micro unit dwellings that reduce utility costs and environmental impact.

For this project, Harpman selected Martínez, along with falong with NYU Gallatin students Lila Rimalovski, Arielle Ross, Gui Marcos, and Jason Gabaee to join the research and project management teams. zeromicro™ was sponsored by NYU while the United States Department of Commerce sponsored the project’s conference.

Zero Micro Team
The Zero Micro Team. From left to right: Jason Gabaee, Natalia Martínez, Arielle Ross, Gui Marcos, Lila Rimalovski and Louise Harpman, director of the project. (Via Zero Micro’s Instagram)

Professor Harpman and her team comprise the only university delegation representing the United States at European Utility Week. At this event, zeromicro™o will seek collaboration and investment to be able to create a metering and monitoring system to get a grasp of the utility costs and functionality of this new apartment model.

“zeromicro™… is a much more user-friendly technology. It can report to you on your phone or watch, [using] a dashboard,” Harpman told The Tico Times via Skype.

Louise Harpman
Louise Harpman is a U.S- architect and NYU professor who created Zero Micro to develop sustainable architecture as a means of modern living. (Courtesy of Louise Harpman)

“The idea of this real-time data and monitoring is not there yet, but it could actually help all of us,” she said. “People feel hopeful. They know there’s more they themselves can do.”

To this, Martínez added that it’s very important to take into account how collecting big data can help us learn more about how people consume basic utility services of water, gas and electricity in their homes.

“[It’s about] what they’re doing, how much they spend on it and how much waste they produce,” Martínez told The Tico Times. “We haven’t found a similar concept anywhere else in the world… We were invited to the conference because it’s a new model of apartments and a new lifestyle that can be expanded through a whole city.”

Zero House
Zero House was designed by Specht Harmant Architects, which was Harpman's previous firm and takes into account the zero net energy building method and micro unit dwellings. (Courtesy of Specht Hartman Architects)

Martínez said that, when it comes to climate change, she is concerned about the ways in which excessive consumption is affecting the environment. To address this, the zeromicro™ Project seeks to incorporate and respond to recent trends in architecture, construction systems and urban politics. To achieve that, the project must comply with different requirements.

Manhattan Micro Loft
A design of the Manhattan Micro Loft by Specht Hartman Architects, Harpman's previous firm. (Courtesy of Specht Hartman Architects)

“First, there’s a great demand for individual apartments in urban areas. Secondly, there are regulatory requirements to generate zero waste or net zero positive buildings… Lastly, [Zero Micro] would take into account regulation and monitoring through big data,” Martínez explained.

For the Costa Rican student, it’s a three-way win: less money is spent on utilities and upkeep, more people are encouraged to live in a building that costs less, and those who rent the building gain a marketing tool for consumers seeking a sustainable lifestyle.

As for Harpman, developing this type of project comes from a motivation to help people live comfortably and in harmony with the planet.

Manhattan Micro Loft
The interior design of the Manhattan Micro Loft with its zero net energy methodology and micro unit dwelling design. (Courtesy of Specht Hartman Architects)

“We’re pretty aware of the problems, but if we don’t become part of the effort to solve them, who will? That’s what our generation and certainly the next generations of students, I think, feel very keenly: that they need to educate themselves, but they also need to realize that the time is now. As I say: there’s no planet B,” Harpman told The Tico Times.

Harpman also plans to build on the new apartment model to explore new ways to create emergency shelters that’ll provide people with all the necessary things to survive in the case of extreme weather events.

Manhattan Micro Loft
Manhattan Micro Loft's staircase with cabinets included. (Courtesy of Specht Hartman Architects)

Martínez hopes to return to Costa Rica someday and implement these new methodologies and models in our country.

“That class inspired me to someday create a business that can be systematically sustainable and be able to do something great. In the end, it’s about coming back and making Costa Rica the best country possible,” Martínez said.

zeromicro™ will be representing NYU and the United States at European Utility Week from Oct. 3 – Oct. 5. The group will speak at the Consumer Center City conference as well as the Sustainable and Smart City section. Louise Harpman will also be speaking in a section called Intelligent Buildings.

 

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