Italian Sustainability :: Reggio Emilia 2013

Photos by Bianca Marchany
By Bianca Marchany, MID Candidate

As design students traveling to Florence, you might think the center of focus might be Florentine architecture and design through the eyes of Filippo Brunelleschi or Leone Battista Alberti. This was certainly the case with the exception of a day trip to Reggio Emilia, a small town west of Bologna. For this day, we studied design through the eyes of Enrico Bonilauri and Mariana Pickering, architects spearheading the fight for sustainable design in Italy.

Mariana and Enrico together create Emu Architects, a design firm dedicated to the notion that "Sustainable development is development that 'meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'." They met with us to discuss some of the challenges they face designing for sustainability in Italy and how they are able to push their design ideas by working them into the core values of the Italian way of life.

We started the day with a construction site visit in Albinea. This site was prescribed to Enrico and Mariana, with twelve lots assigned. Unfortunately, site orientation was already determined, creating a challenge for these sustainability-minded designers. This single family home is designed with the opportunity to support a typical Italian family growth model, a main house with apartments for extended family. This design is also seeking CasaClima Class A Certification.

CasaClima is one of the multiple approaches to certifying the use of energy in a building in Italy. Others include Regional Certifications, Ithaca and the Italian LEED. One of the largest talking points of the day was about how each of these systems is an approach to sustainable building, yet they aren’t centralized, totally comprehensive or even accredited throughout the entire country. What was great about visiting this site was the in-depth technical discussion Enrico led regarding building envelope and building performance. We had the chance to see these materials up close, before complete installation, offering us the ability to see how each material is affected by the next.

Our next stop was Cinque Campi, a local, organic winery. Enrico and Mariana's unique talent for zero energy design came in handy when designing the wine cellar. Here, it is imperative that wine be fermented in a "stable thermal environment," as Enrico stated. He continued with a very technical explanation for how jet grouting, then excavating will create an environment with ideal thermal conditions for the wine. Vanni, owner and operator, ferments his wine in the bottle so it is imperative that the interior temperature is always between 13-19°C and humidity is consistently between 13-30%. Enrico and Mariana were able to achieve this without installing any mechanical systems, it is simply the result of exposing the natural, earthen walls. We topped off the discussion with a wine tasting and I must say, Vanni makes the best Lambrusco I've ever had.

We moved onto lunch at the base of the Canossa Castle. Here we indulged ourselves in traditional Reggio cuisine. This is a particularly special site for Enrico and Mariana as they are proposing a deep energy retrofit of a small house in close proximity to the castle. At the moment, the house is a bit of an eyesore; however Enrico and Mariana have detailed plans for how they intend to redesign the house to fit right into the landscape, a huge step in the eyes of the Comune, the local building authority.

Here, Enrico and Mariana face the challenge of convincing the Comune that redesigning this house will benefit the landscape, rather than leave it as is simply because it is very old. They also plan to design this house as a Passive House, meaning the house does not require any kind of mechanical system to ensure the comfort of its occupants throughout the entire year. This can be achieved in a number of ways, including proper site orientation and a tight building envelope. A Passive House is "one of the highest achievable standards in building energy efficiency" as quoted by Mariana in her blog.

The time we spent with Enrico and Mariana was an incredible opportunity for us to see how the idea of sustainability is treated in other parts of the world. We were able to see sustainability approached in different ways and I think the best lesson learned is that you can apply sustainability to any condition, or as Enrico and Mariana say, "think globally, act locally." For more information on Emu Architects please visit