AGENCY Architecture is located in El Paso, Texas, and our work has focused largely on ideas that shape our border-adjacent desert context, with a particular sensitivity to social issues, ecological instability, and resource depletion. Current work is looking at the Chihuahuan Desert—a unique and uniquely challenged binational territory that crosses the U.S.-Mexico border. Here, climate change is evidenced daily: The combined impacts of climate migration, desertification, and urbanization exacerbate the asymmetric distribution of environmental threats and public health risks to this large (and largely underserved) area. One significant environmental threat is the hidden, subperceptual danger of high levels of ultraviolet radiation exposure, surprisingly high even within shaded conditions in public space.
Our new initiative at the Project for Operative Spatial Technologies (POST) at the Texas Tech University Huckabee College of Architecture regional site in El Paso— just steps from the border—is focused on transboundary issues of environmental and spatial justice. POST is addressing the risk of overexposure to ultraviolet radiation in the built environment through several related design and design research projects. With the support of the 2023 Columbia University Buell Center and the ACSA Course Development Prize, we are planning to work with students in the coming year to build on this work on shade, UVB exposure and its effects on communities and migration patterns, and the disparities that arise when analyzing the differences in effect on both sides of the international border. A vertical design studio will endeavor to visualize innovative and effective designs for safe public shade. Student design research projects will provide positive health impacts to borderland communities through architectural and urban design of computationally informed, radiation-aware public shade structures, designing models, and prototypes to enact regional transformations at scale.
The ongoing Irradiated Shade design research initiative develops computational mapping, drawing, and modeling tools to enable designers to uncover, represent, and protect against the unseen dangers of ultraviolet radiation in public shade. Project outcomes to date include a shade-deficit-mapped analysis of El Paso/Ciudad Juárez pedestrian space that uses GIS; the development of several custom representational analysis tools, like a spherical and cylindrical projection algorithm capable of mapping and quantifying sky exposure in any urban setting; and a sky exposure catalogue that helps contextualize disparities in public shade. The project has provided a productive and urgent context for the development of custom computational mapping and modeling strategies to address urgent public health concerns and inequities in the provision of public amenities.
In order to instrumentalize this research with a built proposal, POST is working with regional nonprofit STEAM educational organization Insights El Paso to design a “safe shade classroom” in Sunland Park, New Mexico. The project combines an outdoor classroom with a protective shade canopy designed to assist in educating visitors about strategies to counteract the harmful effects of scattered ultraviolet radiation common in the U.S.-Mexico borderland. The design endeavors to provide a safely shaded outdoor classroom for school-age children at the trailhead of a regionally significant archaeological site. The design of the shade structure focuses on an innovative yet low-cost structural shading assembly: Custom shading modules are designed to interlock as a reciprocal frame, using minimal material to achieve the required long span. The design allows for customization and adaptability to respond to sky exposure and other environmental conditions impacting ultraviolet radiation exposure.
As the planet continues to warm at unprecedented rates, mitigating the subperceptual and detrimental impacts of elevated levels of solar radiation upon human and more-than-human bodies will soon become even more urgent a task for architects and urban designers. In the high desert geography where we practice and teach, the impacts of planetary warming produce immediate negative impacts on life, which are compounded by the unpreparedness of the built environment. By creating a design workflow that visualizes and spatializes the effects of the built environment on UV exposure, we can produce and assess a taxonomy of locally adapted, protective shading geometries, enabling safer outdoor environments amid this emerging and escalating threat.
Ersela Kripa is an Associate Professor and Director at Texas Tech Huckabee College of Architecture – El Paso. Stephen Mueller is an Associate Professor. They co-direct POST, and are founding partners of AGENCY Architecture.