Sustainable design is a valuable part of our ethos at Optima as we strive to create vibrant communities built with the surrounding natural environment at the forefront. Now more than ever before, changemakers across the world are expanding the possibilities for what sustainable designs resemble. Today, we’re spotlighting a leader in sustainable design and affordable construction: Gjenge Makers and its founder, Nzambi Matee.
In 2017, Nzambi Matee, then an engineer working for Kenya’s oil industry, threw everything she knew away to create a startup aimed to address the need for affordable and sustainable construction materials in her home country of Kenya and across the world. Her first thought immediately went to plastic, a material creating pollution problems across Eastern African countries like Kenya, where Matee has resided her whole life.
Thanks to her academic background, including a major in material science, along with experience working as an engineer, Matee understood which plastics would easily bind together and built the needed machinery, allowing her to mass produce the building alternative. Today, Gjenge collects waste materials from local factories and other recyclers and then uses a mixture of plastic and sand to form durable bricks and tiles.
The designs aren’t just sustainable and durable. Matee and the Gjenge team wanted the finished products to emulate a sense of beauty, and today, bricks come in an array of colors, including red, blue, brown and green. Since its founding, Gjenge has transformed more than 22 tons of plastic into various alternative building materials and created more than 100 jobs for local garbage collectors, women and youth.
We can’t wait to continue exploring the ways innovative architecture can contribute to a healthier, more sustainable world, especially with changemakers like Matee impacting the lives of others daily.
Since Optima’s founding, we have thoughtfully developed environments where nature and architecture coexist. This principle of sustainability – known throughout architecture as biophilic design – is becoming increasingly popular across the world throughout all types of built environments.
The process of biophilic design isn’t anything new to the world of architecture; however, in recent years, the design principle has seen a renaissance. Today, biophilic design is used within modern architecture as a method to fulfill the inherent connection between humans and nature.
Because our natural habitats have increasingly become built environments, designers and architects have discovered the significant value of adding biophilic elements into all kinds of structures to enhance the relationship between natural and built environments. The framework for designing these biophilic environments consists of employing both direct and indirect experiences of nature. Direct experiences incorporate everything from natural light, fresh air and organic landscapes, while indirect experiences include utilizing natural materials and colors and ecological attachments to a location. Everything from skylights to green walls to fountains all apply the conventions attached to the design principle.
Beyond creating connectivity to natural environments, biophilic design also supplies an ample amount of benefits to both its surroundings and those who inhabit them. One of the most prolific benefits attached to the design principle is the improvement of air quality. Designs that employ vibrant greenery absorb the natural toxins in the air, ultimately enhancing the atmosphere.
Having access to vegetation and other models of biophilia also has a direct impact on happiness and wellbeing. When design principles like natural light and ventilation are introduced into built environments, a greater appreciation forms – establishing a more welcoming, advantageous space.
Biophilic Design in Optima
Throughout our communities at Optima, we use biophilic design to improve the lives of our residents and complement their beautiful surroundings and communities. In our latest project, Optima Lakeview, we’re employing biophilic design throughout many elements of the architecture.
The development features a stunning atrium that includes our signature vertical landscaping system within it. At the atrium’s top, an expansive skylight fills the space below it with an abundance of natural light. Optima Lakeview is also home to a variety of private terraces and setbacks featuring lush vegetation and ensuring residents a seamless transition from outdoor to indoor environment.
From the materials used in construction to the greenery placed throughout a building, more and more architects are discovering how to include biophilic design within their builds, connecting their built environment with the natural world around them.
Scottsdale and its surroundings offer some of the country’s most historic art and architectural sites, including Taliesin West and its museum of contemporary art – SMoCA. Because of the popularity of these marquee locations, some of the area’s other unique contributions are often overlooked. Today, we’re spotlighting one of the community’s most ambitious architectural and design feats, Cosanti.
Found in Paradise Valley, Arizona, less than a 15-minute drive from Optima Kierland Apartments, Cosanti is a standout in its suburban neighborhood. The Gallery and design studio were designed and built by the Italian-American architect, urban designer and philosopher, Paolo Soleri. Soleri, who built the project in 1956, lived with his wife on the five-acre property only a few miles from Taliesin West, where he studied under renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright just ten years earlier.
The structure’s name originates from Soleri’s Italian roots. Cosanti combines the two Italian words for ‘object’ and ‘before’, and the word itself means, ‘There are things more important than objects’ – a philosophy Soleri lived by. This attitude extends beyond the structure’s name and into its architecture, where he introduced his own philosophy of arcology. The term recognizes the importance between built and lived environments, similar to that of sustainable or regenerative design.
Cosanti’s otherworldly design elements easily separate it from its modern surroundings. Some of the build’s most alluring features are its outdoor studio, performance spaces, swimming pool, Soleri’s residence, and of course, his famous ‘Earth House’.
To create the Earth House, Soleri utilized an earth-casting technique, where his team formed dense mounds of earth and then covered them in concrete molds. After developing, the earth under each mold became excavated and concrete structures built partly underground appeared – a building method that allows the structure to utilize natural insulation from the earth.
Soleri also used terraced landscaping, courtyards and garden paths to separate branches of the unique campus and further connected the environment to its natural surroundings using earth-cast wind-bells.
Today, the Arizona Historic Site offers local residents and tourists free guided tours of the visionary structure and property. To explore the grounds and more of Cosanti yourself, visit their website here.
As part of our ongoing “Woman in Architecture” series, we’re shining a spotlight on one of the world’s inspiring creatives, Neri Oxman. With a rich background in architecture and a drive to create, there was no question whether she would become the ingenious architect and designer she is today. Today, we’re diving into Oxman’s momentous life, work and achievements.
The Life of Neri Oxman
Oxman was born on February 6, 1976, in Haifa, Israel. Both of her parents taught architecture, and growing up, Oxman spent much of her childhood immersing herself in her parent’s studio, which helped her establish a desire for creation at a young age.
Originally, Oxman attended medical school in Israel, but after just two years, she realized that her interests belonged elsewhere. She began her architecture studies at Technion Israel Institute of Technology but eventually transferred to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London – one of the most prestigious architecture schools in the world – where she graduated in 2004.
In 2005, Oxman traveled to the United States, where she began her Ph.D. studies in architectural design and computation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Throughout her research at MIT, Oxman discovered her passion for environmental design and digital morphogenesis – a type of generative art. Oxman also launched her own research project titled material ecology – a term she coined – to experiment with generative design.
Oxman launched her research project material ecology – a term she coined – in 2006 while studying at MIT to experiment with more facets of generative design. Material ecology, Oxman’s design philosophy, combines aspects of 3-D printing techniques with biology, engineering and computer sciences to build objects and structures through natural growth instead of assembly.
The advanced philosophy also places humanity in harmony with nature, which is a principle of sustainable and regenerative design. Through her work, Oxman hopes to shift from consuming nature as a geological resource to instead editing nature as a biological resource. Oxman’s philosophy has led her to utilize biological shapes and textures throughout many of her designs.
Notable Work and Achievements
Much of Oxman’s early work involved only 3-D printing. At MIT, she founded the Mediated Matter research group where she has created almost all of her structures and designs – large and small. Oxman’s innovative 3-D projects range in size from complex enclosures to detailed pieces of clothing.
Some of Oxman’s most famous works utilize fabrications created by animals or other natural processes, including Silk Pavilion. The installation was created in 2013 with the help of 6,500 free-ranging silkworms that wove layers of silk onto a Nyon-framed dome. The completed project resulted in a stunning moon-like pavilion. The method of creation was recreated in 2020 for Oxman’s Silk Pavilion II, which resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Inspired by vibrant marine life, in 2013, Oxman collaborated with renowned fashion designer Iris Van Herpen and materials engineer Craig Carter to create Anthozoa. The 3-D-printed dress used a mixture of hard and soft materials that were crucial to its movement and texture. Oxman worked with Carter again in 2014 for a project called Gemini, a chaise lounge chair consisting of a milled wood frame and a 3-D-printed upholstery. The intricate chair was designed with the intent to recreate a womb-like environment.
Oxman and Mediated Matter have also prototyped various new tools for printing since the group’s founding. A few of the groundbreaking technologies include a printer that can create sections of rooms and an unprecedented glass printer. Alongside her extraordinary work, Oxman has also received many architecture and art awards as well as achievements throughout her career.
Senior Fellow in the Design Futures Council
London Design Festival Design Innovation Medal, 2018
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Contemporary Vision Award, 2019
Dezeen’s Design Project of the Year for Aguahoja, 2019
Honorary Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts, 2021
Oxman’s illustrious career has led her to collaborate with some of the most resourceful designers in the world, further catapulting her unique philosophy into the spotlight of the design world. Today, she continues working with the Mediated Matter group experimenting with different forms of generative design, and teaches at MIT as a tenured professor.
At Optima, sustainable design has always been part of our ethos, as we strive to create vibrant communities built with the surrounding natural environment at the forefront. And as technology continues pushing the boundaries of sustainability in architecture, we wanted to explore what the future might possibly hold.
Historically, sustainable architecture has focused on lush outdoor environments, and at Optima, we know the benefits of urban greenspaces, which is why we have incorporated them into our communities for decades. Urban greenspaces and vertical landscaping are just some of the many sustainable features found in many of our Optima communities that help promote mental and physical health, while mitigating pollution and emulating the feeling of oasis.
Today, as new age modernism continues to evolve and environmentalism exceeds formalism, designers and architects are developing new ways to create built environments that also benefit the Earth. The newest approach to sustainable architecture is found within regenerative building.
Regenerative building looks beyond lessening harmful impact; it seeks ways to repair and restore the surrounding environment. In the regenerative design process, innovators conceive ways for each building to produce its own energy, treat its own water and emit a net-positive impact on the environment.
While global contests like Redesign the Worldare encouraging designers to envision radical solutions to end environmental issues through built communities, some architects have begun to bring regenerative building to life.
Buildings like The Kendeda Building For Innovative Sustainable Design found on Georgia Tech’s campus and Portal High School in Irvine, California use green roofs and water collection systems to reduce reliance on negative forms of energy. Other buildings like Nova Scotia Community College’s Centre for the Built Environment take advantage of multiple sustainable design features like living walls, geothermal systems and solar and wind energy to regenerate and restore their surroundings.
As sustainable approaches to design continue to expand over time, we can’t wait to continue exploring how – through architecture – we can change contribute to a healthier, more sustainable environment.
As champions of leading-edge, thoughtfully-designed spaces built to inspire communities, we enjoy sharing the visionary work of others who continue to impact the world’s landscape. In early 2021, Dezeen, the internationally-acclaimed architecture, interiors and design magazine, launched its Redesign the World 2021 competition. More than 100 firms submitted their ideas for rethinking planet Earth, and Dezeen has provided a platform to showcase the 15 most visionary, radical solutions to ending environmental issues.
Dezeen launched the contest in partnership with Epic Games and architectural visualization tool Twinmotion. The competition sought revolutionary solutions and asked contestants several ambitious questions, including: where and how will everyone live; how will vital ecosystems flourish; and most importantly, what would a redesigned planet resemble?
Each proposal consisted of an in-depth narrative, still images and a short video animation depicting the landscape. And, following more than two months of deliberation, Dezeen published all of the top submissions here, including the winning entry: Fernando Donis’ Frame City.
Donis, a celebrated architect known for designing CCTV Headquarters and managing the international architect firm Donis, constructed an idealized environment in which nature and humanity coexist. In his design, Donis established new forms of topography formed by terrace-like structures made of timber, depicting a vibrant natural landscape filled with lush greenery intended to house millions of people. The inspired landscape takes advantage of the most sustainable transportation methods and produces an environment where diverse networks of cultural exchange would thrive.
Like Optima, Donis envisions a world where nature and infrastructure become one, and innovative, thoughtful design leads the direction for an excelling world. You can read more about Fernando Donis and his vision behind Frame City here.
While Modernism has a history over a century deep, modern-day architects designing in the discipline are looking towards the future. Recently, Space Caviar founder Joseph Grima published a manifesto for a new kind of non-extractive architecture, positioning Modernism’s traditional, formalistic approach against a new, environmentalist way of operating.
Moving Away From the “Top-Down” Approach
In a conversation with Dezeen, he says that modern-day architects are considering how Modernism can be a “form of stewardship of the natural environment,” as opposed to just in conversation with the landscape through compositional considerations. At the center of Grima’s manifesto is the idea that architecture should no longer have a top-down approach, where materials are selected for their aesthetics and function, but without consideration for their impact on the environment.
Interestingly enough, Mies van der Rohe’s famous Barcelona Pavilion is employed as a primary example of “top-down” architecture here. The materials used in the project – green marble, travertine and onyx – exemplify Modernism’s “skin and bones” appeal at its most raw. But where did they come from? These are questions that will no longer be ignored, according to Grima.
Setting Our Sights on Sustainability
Grima’s manifesto resonates. At Optima, we create built environments with the surrounding natural environment in mind. Beyond just living in visual harmony with the landscape, we’re invested in fostering a more reciprocal relationship.
Our signature vertical landscaping system, featured at properties such as Optima Sonoran Village, Optima Camelview Village, and Optima Kierland, plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy and sustainable environment. The system, with self-containing irrigation and drainage, provides a haven for urban wildlife, promotes evaporative cooling, re-oxygenates the air, reduces dust and smog levels, reduces ambient noise, detains stormwater and thermally insulates and shields residents from the desert sun, all of which contributes to a sustainable urban environment.
Meanwhile, Optima Sonoran Village also served as the pilot project for Scottsdale’s International Green Construction Code, or IgCC. Having earned full certification from the program, Optima Sonoran Village’s attributes include major building elements consisting of 95 perfect local and recycled content materials; energy efficiency as a result of the high-performing glazing, overhangs, building configurations and exterior shading devices; water resource conservation from plumbing fixtures and excellent indoor environmental quality and reduced material emissions from the materials used in the development.