Can design save the world? This was the title of a panel discussion hosted by the Art Fund at the Design Museum last night in London. Sharing the stage to address this contentious issue were TreeHugger favourites British design duo &Made;, the irrepressible Orsola de Castro of fashion label From Somewhere and co-curator of Estethica, as well as the omnipresent Ross Lovegrove and AFH UK co-founder Chris Medland. We were expecting a hot debate about the relative merits of design and how it can address sustainability issues, what we got was a series of presentations about individual design projects. While this wasn’t as dynamic or provocative as we would have liked, it was still a worthwhile overview. We already love the work being done by the first three names, but it was Chris Medland’s talk about AFH UK’s Arnica Project that was particularly illuminating. So do you know where that herbal wonder plant Arnica comes from? And what has it got to do with architecture?We often write about AFH and Cameron Sinclair, but it also important to remember all the offshoot AFH chapters around the world working on their individual projects. AFH UK's Arnica Project is a great example. In April 2006 Chris Medland and a group of AFH UK volunteers worked as architectural consultants with Oxford University and the WWF on an Arnica drying factory in Romania.
The Apuseni mountains in Romania are one of the few areas of the world where the endangered Arnica plant grows. The meadow farmers in this region are among the poorest people in the poorest country in Europe. Previously Russians bought the fresh Arnica from them and then made a fortune from drying it and selling it on. The WWF development project aimed to work with the Romanian farmers to create their own drying facility so that they could benefit from the "European markets rates of around 80 euros a kilogram, a 260-fold increase in the price paid by traders for unprocessed flowers previously."
However an efficient, appropriate and sustainable architectural design was needed, this is where AFH UK stepped in. Their brief was a tough one: the factory had to go from drawing board to fully functioning within 16 weeks, to be ready in time for the start of the Arnica drying season. The construction materials had to be local, the factory had to be built by hand by local carpenters and they couldn't rely on electricty. There could be no chemical substances, not even wood preservatives, otherwise this would interfere with the purity of the arnica plant, and finally the building had to maintain a constant temperature of 40°C.
Amazingly through careful planning, creative thinking, a Romanian translator and a very clever temperature regulating chimney all this was achieved on time and on budget. It is a heartening story which once again goes to show the power of thinking globally and acting locally and the effectiveness of collaboration. While the Arnica factory might not save the world it certainly goes someway to saving a very small corner of it and changing the lives of the people who live there. While the overview of our world is often doom and gloom if you zoom in to study the details you'll find many amazing projects that are making a huge difference.