Pamela Hansen got more than she bargained for when she met CHRIS GRECH, an academic working in the United States. Besides his work in sustainable design, she discovered that his Malta family home in Mosta has a remarkable history
Christopher Peter Grech, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, is Associate Professor and Director for the Masters of Science in Sustainable Design programme at the School of Architecture and Planning at Washington DC’s Catholic University of America.
Sustainability is a word that carries quite a cachet these days. In the US creating green jobs has been seen as one of the ways to get the economy moving while also addressing energy and climate change, all priorities of the Obama Administration.
People everywhere are becoming more and more aware that we cannot take our energy supply for granted and heating and cooling our homes has become very expensive.
We use up a lot of energy in buildings - our homes and our offices among them - it is therefore crucial that professionals like architects are being tutored in sustainable design.
That’s why; I was interested to meet a compatriot who is doing his bit in addressing the issue. I met Chris at his parents’ home in Mosta.
He had already given me some background on the sprawling villa in the heart of the town, which has a 9,000 square metre (eight tumoli) garden and as I walked up the bustling street I was wondering how such an extensive garden was accommodated in that congested space.
But peace reigns as soon as one walks through the door and the garden beckons in the background. This was no ordinary home and garden, which meant that Chris was going to have to compete with that.
He talks proudly about growing up in a villa with history. The property, which has belonged to the family since 1815 seems to have developed into a prominent lawyers abode ever since.
Chris’s father and his brother David have carried on the legal tradition to this day.
It all started with Giovanni Battista Mifsud and later his son Michelangelo Mifsud (also a Monsignor who was acting bishop in 1874 and later Vicar General). The latter made extensive additions and improvements to the building, as he had ambitions to become Bishop, which unfortunately did not happen.
In 1846 Michelangelo’s sister Marianna married Gaetano Grech (another lawyer) and the family name of Grech Mifsud was established. The couple moved in with Michelangelo.
Both their sons also became lawyers. The eldest Oreste was a member of the Executive and Legislative council and was awarded the CMG for his part in the drafting of the 1887 Constitution, which was recognised as a significant first step towards government by elected representation. The younger son, Giovanni left Malta on graduating. He was involved in law reforms in Egypt and eventually became a judge.
Besides, their sister Maria married yet another lawyer Napoleone Tagliaferro, who progressed from director of education to university rector. Like his brother in law Oreste he was also a member of the Executive and Legislative council.
What had started up as two adjoining houses with, at most, a modest garden had by the end of the 19th century expanded to its current size to accommodate the extended family.
The youngest sister Teresina inherited the property in 1925 and lived there till her death in 1945. Chris’s father and his siblings inherited the house on their father’s death in 1956.
“My brother, sister and I practically went nowhere else, accept school, while growing up. We were so lucky to have such a huge play area to explore.
“My dad is also a keen gardener, besides being a lawyer, and had presented a television programme “Dawra mal gnien” in the early days of local television. He was also an amateur farmer. Everything at the lunch and dinner table was home grown.
“There were pigs, lambs, chickens and rabbits reared in the garden and all the vegetables and herbs were home grown”, Chris tells me, which no doubt, together with the villa’s history must have influenced his choice of career.
His first school was at St Joseph’s in Rabat after which he moved to St Edward’s College until age 11, when he went to Stonehurst in the UK, his dad’s old school.
The idea at the time of his O’levels (late Seventies) was to attend the University of Malta, but the then political climate persuaded his parents and him that Liverpool University was the better option.
He graduated BA (Hons) in 1982 and was awarded the Liverpool University Holt Travelling Scholarship in that year. In 1985 he graduated B.Arch (Hons) and won the First Prize in a Phillips Lighting, Industrial Design Competition.
After graduating as an architect he worked in London, including a stint with Foster and partners from 1986-1988, when he worked on Stanstead Airport.
In 1992, he was a founder of the Facade Engineering Group, Whitby Bird & Partners and later a partner in Penfold Associates, London, in the UK.
During the nineties recession Chris moved to Michigan, US, where he took up the post of adjunct assistant professor at the University of Michigan. He later became associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and in 2007 took up his present post.
His move to the States seems to have honed his interest in academia. And after all it was the ‘sustainable’ aspect of his work that had first got my attention. People are becoming more and more interested in what is being done to address the problems connected with energy, water and pollution. I asked him how exactly his current job works vis-à-vis sustainability?
“Ten years ago people looked at you wondering what you were talking about when you mentioned sustainability. Now I think that everyone knows what it means and its importance.
“Sustainability has not been treated academically in a co-ordinated and systematic way, but in a rather ad hoc manner. The university asked me to work on a master plan to include a Masters of Science in Sustainable Design (MSSD) programme and a Masters of City and Regional Planning (MCRP).
“I managed to devise the curriculum, hire faculty staff and recruit students in six months. We tackle sustainability on at least two levels at the Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning in Washington DC. The MCRP is a programme that looks at cities. It’s a larger scale initiative. Whereas the MSSD would look at individual buildings, the MCRP looks at what happens when you go a scale up from the buildings.
“How buildings work with each other, how buildings create cities and regions and what infrastructure is required. It’s a mixture of design and policy. It’s looking at things from an urban design but also from the legislative, policy point of view.
“We’ve also introduced an introduction to sustainability course for all our students. It includes some theory about sustainability, which involves ethics and how that influences us on a daily basis, not necessarily as architects or designers.
“We cover the more practical aspects about climate change, for example, what we can do as architects. I ask practitioners to come in and talk about sustainability. Not just architects, but also contractors and lobbyists. This gives the students as broad a perspective as possible on sustainability.
“I stress to the students that there are two levels where they can make a difference in terms of sustainability. One is a personal level, and the other is a professional level. And I think that before you even get to the professional level, you have to understand sustainability on a personal level.
“One is to take an everyday process and analyse that and see what the implications are, say of brushing your teeth, do you leave the water running all the time.
“That’s the first thing and then later in the semester, the second assignment is: what’s your carbon footprint – just in a very basic way to try and calculate that and then estimate how the students can actually reduce that.
“I think once they get the idea of how they as individuals can make those adjustments, they can then try to understand professionally what impact they can make and I think as professionals, they can make a huge impact.
“The School of Architecture and Planning’s mission, Building Stewardship, focuses on preparing architects and designers to assume a personal responsibility for the welfare of the world,” said Chris.
That is a huge responsibility so the whole programme has to have a holistic approach. How is that tackled? I asked.
“Let me tell you about the interdependence of the words ‘building’ and ‘stewardship’, which we stress on, first and then we shall talk about the holistic approach.
“Our MSSD programme is both a natural extension of our mission and a deepening of our commitment to the stewardship of the social, natural and built environments.
“The two semester programme provides students with an opportunity for full immersion into the theory and application of sustainable design and provides graduates with leadership skills in the field of sustainable design.
“Courses cover topical concerns such as greenhouse gas emissions and zero energy design, embodied energy and life cycle analysis, national and international rating systems, water conservation and management, and low energy building materials.
“Two courses in systems and simulation define the core of the programme in which students are introduced to a variety of simulation software that allow energy, light and water vapour to be modelled, analysed and adjusted as an integrated component of the design process.
“As to the holistic approach, it’s as holistic as one person or small group of people can make it. I try to address it by inviting a number of people in to speak not just during the introduction to sustainability course, but through the whole programme.
“We’re very keen to offer a wide variety of electives that tries to deal with the holistic nature of sustainability. We have a course in integrated coastal management, we’re offering courses in affordable housing, I’m developing courses in environmental law, and workplace psychology.
“These are things that really excite me – we’re not just thinking about architecture. We’re taking a much broader view. Sustainability is not just about energy or materials, and it’s not just about architects”, he told me.
“Educational programmes such as ours are realising the important role that local governments, associations, and individual citizens can play.
“The latter are increasingly aware of that. Probably what they don’t realise is the value that students attribute to feedback and information from the people who are actually facing these challenges on a day-today basis or have some of their own expertise and knowledge.
So how does the programme combine all the different elements, while giving students the skills they need to graduate and then perform as professionals?
“We look at the energy that goes into acquiring the materials and making the products, the architectural building products, and we also take a look at life cycle analysis.
“That has to do with not only energy, but resource depletion, air pollution, water pollution. Now we deal with these on a fairly basic level, at the introduction to sustainability course, but we deal with it in much more detail in The MSSD program, particularly the sustainable materials and assembly course that I teach.
“I am interested in introducing concepts and knowledge, which will help architects and clients. With regard to the latter, to change their perception on building from a short-term perspective to one, which, in the long run, will benefit them financially.
“The client’s concern in most cases is related to cost and so there’s always to-ing and fro-ing on how cost effective putting in a certain amount of insulation or of glazing, etc.
“Architects have to try and have a feel for both the technology and the cost effectiveness. It’ a question we come back to many times. There are some institutions that don’t want to spend the additional money up-front to go through the certification process, and that’s a big problem.
“The way that commercial development happens in America is that the costs associated with construction have to be recouped in a much shorter time than say in Europe, so developers take a very short-term perspective here, in Europe it’s slightly longer.
“We talk about embodied energy and there’s embodied energy of the building materials, but there’s also the recurring embodied energy, which is how much energy you use to maintain the building.
“After about 25 years, the recurring embodied energy becomes significantly more than the initial embodied energy, so if a client had to take a long term view of the building performance, 25-50 years down the line, small adjustments or increases in capital expenditure early on will reap huge dividends in the long term. And we hope that more clients will take that kind of view,” he said.
Getting back to his roots and his obvious love of the house he grew up in. I asked Chris whether he has thought of coming back to live in Malta.
“Probably, when I retire. I will sit in the garden and write about a subject I am keenly interested in - Maltese History during the British period”, he told me.