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A Reflection on Sustainable Architecture: Interview with MAST’s co-founder Marshall Blecher

Interview by Martina Graziani, Alvaro Gerardo Ponce De Leon Saavedra, and Tate Lauderdale

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Following a special lecture about timber buildings and climate change, focusing on building housing on water, our alumni of the course in Wood Architecture had the opportunity to interview Arch. Marshall Blecher, cofounder of MAST, a Denmark-based architectural studio with a vision to improve the relationship between the city and the sea.

How did you choose Copenhagen? How did you end up there and why did you choose to stay?

It was a pretty simple decision. I wanted to study outside of Australia after graduation. Because I think it's always good to broaden your experience. And I considered studying in America, I applied to MIT, I considered studying in London… And then I found out the cost. I decided to go to Denmark where I was able to study for free. I actually got paid to study there - crazy. So that's basically why. I mean, I knew the city so well. I had been in Sweden for a short stint while I was studying. So, I knew Copenhagen, I liked the city, and it was free.

What is your approach to design? What is step one of a project? And how do you value the relationship with water?

As for the first one, how do you know what is your approach to design? Yes, I get asked about it a lot. I tried to write about it a while ago, and I may sound a little pretentious, but like I said, it is something like radical simplicity. So, I think it is good to have big ideas about goals that you are trying to solve, but then it is better to try to solve them in the simplest way possible, to really reduce them. So, with the houses - I treat houses like puzzles. I have done so many, and now I have all these different puzzle pieces in my head and I can sort of start to see how those puzzle pieces can fit together. There is always a different solution to the puzzle, depending on the site, the client, and the budget. Obviously, there is always composition. And a lot of it is just staring at a computer screen in SketchUp, or Rhino and making it look nice, honestly. But I think a lot of it is problem-solving and puzzle-solving. So I think this is my approach to design. But then, also taking on difficult challenges, combining different ideas, and then solving them in the simplest way.

Where do you start? Do you start with a SketchUp model? Do you start on paper?

For houses, I have started a new workflow recently, I have bought my third drone after crashing two. I don’t like working with surveyors, since you always end up with double information which is not always easy to work with. So I've started doing the survey myself with the drone and getting a 3D mesh of that site. Depending on the site, if there are too many trees, it can be hard. But I'm doing a project in Scotland, where it’s perfect grassy hills and rocks, so you have this colored, beautiful 3D model and then you can really inhabit the site and work with that. And then, I start. I always move between 2D and 3D, constantly testing something in 3D and going back to plan. We're always trying to improve the workflow. I think one interesting thing about building on water is you don't have a site necessarily, or the site is always moving. I mean, it's always flat, it makes up a little bit of points. But it's very different than designing a house on land. We've got these fixed angles, and it would be moved 90 degrees. So you've got to think about houses on land and water very differently.

Have you explored the protocol solutions for this?

I mean, it's obviously important, but I think that too much emphasis is put on the construction solutions and too little emphasis is put on the initial project - like, do you need a 404,000-square-foot house? No. And no matter how much recycled aluminum and steel you use, it's never going to be sustainable. If you build a house out in the middle of the countryside, it's not going to be as good as building an apartment. So I don't like to overclaim that a lot of the projects we're doing are sustainable because a lot of the time they’re luxury products for people who probably don't need them. But even still, we do try. And I think in Denmark, even as a small country with so little impact on the world, we do set trends. And I think if you can show really good examples of low-carbon construction, that will slowly filter out. So that - I think - is the job of architects, and especially people in wealthy small countries like Denmark: to develop new ideas. And so we do try.

Maybe to complement that, for example, we can focus more on the type of materials you use, or the type of energy you use, and what can be the most important part of that? Materials? Energy?

Yes, when you do big public projects in Denmark, now you have to do lifecycle analysis. And it's interesting to see, I still think it's an imperfect art. There are so many things left out of that, which I think are important. So it's a crazy job to try and reduce a building to a number. And, you know, again, it ignores a lot of the bigger-picture questions. But I think it's good in a way to keep things simple - don't use too much concrete, don't use too much virgin plastic, don't use too much steel. And then, I've worked with an engineer, and that company has done a lot of analysis, and even in the worst case, building with timber is significantly better than steel and concrete. So I think that's a good starting point. Even if the wood is burned after 20 years, and the house is demolished, it's still better than building out of steel concrete. So, we always like using timber. Timber makes sense on the water because it's lightweight, durable, flexible, and patinates nicely. So I think it's good to keep things simple sometimes and just have a few as much as possible. Recycling is also obviously super important. And there's a lot of discussion about this - rather than building new sustainable housing and demolishing old ones, upcycle, reuse old housing. That's the biggest thing that we can do.

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