“Above all, it takes courage and curiosity” – An interview with Pia Rebekka Alge
Updated: Mar 28
We are happy to share the following interview with Pia. What a pleasure to see that our impulse at the University of Liechtenstein in spring 22 could inspire one of the students to take up the topic of self-sufficient living and regenerative architecture in her master thesis. More about Pia's master thesis "UNIT" and her thoughts on regenerative architecture follows.
Congratulations again for this super great piece of work and for completing your Master's, Pia!
What connects you with the Integrity.Earth association?
I got to know Integrity.Earth in the design studio at the University of Liechtenstein. Through Integrity.Earth, I became intensively involved with the topic of regenerative architecture and sufficiency. This is where the idea for my master's thesis came from.
What fascinates you about your work?
I am particularly fascinated by the social aspect. As an architect, you are responsible for shaping people’s built environment. You can only do that if you really get involved in understanding people's needs and wishes.
What profession would you choose, could you start over?
At the moment I am still at the very beginning of my professional life and I would choose the same again. I hope that will still be the case in a few years.
When and where can you really switch off?
I can switch off best in the mountains when hiking and in my parents' garden with the chickens.
Can you tell our readers about your design UNIT?
Unit is a 6.91m by 3.38m living box for one person, built with a timber frame construction. When selecting the materials, it was important to me to use primarily renewable raw materials such as wood and to use only as much material as necessary. That is why, for example, the interior wall is not clad, but the panel is visible.
Unit is highly self-sufficient. This means that in theory it can be installed anywhere without any need for connections. Photovoltaic modules on two sides of the unit produce electricity, which is then stored in a battery or consumed directly. Heating and cooking is done with a central heating stove using logs. Hot water is also heated there. The water itself is collected on the roof of the unit, filtered, and then stored as drinking and service water. The toilet is a composting toilet. This reduces water consumption and the compost can be used in the garden.
To keep the unit flexible, it stands on screw foundations. These are easily removable when changing position, reusable, and leave no permanent changes in the soil. They are usually used for prefabricated garages, garden sheds, and temporary container buildings and are therefore ideal for the Unit.
What was your main motivation to address the topics of regenerative architecture, sufficiency and self-sufficiency in your master thesis project?
I believe that these topics will become more and more important in architecture in the future. Especially the topic of sufficiency and the question of what we really need to live well is essential to me. With my project I wanted to show that less energy and material consumption does not necessarily mean that one's own quality of life has to decline, as long as one learns to use the available resources properly. I wanted to show how it would be to use only the resources that are available at one's own place of residence, or in the immediate vicinity. A good example is water. You can only use the water that is collected on your own roof. In the case of the unit, this is significantly less than the current per capita consumption in Liechtenstein. If you look at statistics on average water consumption, you can see that a large part of daily consumption is toilet flushing. Saving this water can be achieved without significant changes in daily life by, for example, using a composting toilet.
One of the guiding questions of your research project was how to design a self-contained dormitory that promotes awareness of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. In what ways do you think our built environment influences our consciousness?
I think everyone can best put themselves in situations that are close to the reality of their own lives. If someone, to put it exaggeratedly, grew up in a household where every little distance is traveled by car, then that person probably won't think about planning bicycle parking. Likewise, someone who lives on several 100m² of living space will most likely not be able to believe that it is possible to live on not even 25m² and still have an equally satisfying quality of life. Therefore, I believe that (young) architects, as future designers of the built environment, must have the opportunity to live in a socially, ecologically, and economically sustainable way, at least during their studies. They should ensure that the buildings of the future have no negative impact on the environment, the climate, and the social coexistence of people. In my opinion, they can only do that if they are personally convinced of the importance and correctness of the measures.
How do you estimate the access threshold for a building like UNIT? Aren't only people who are already closer to the topic of sufficiency and self-sufficiency moving into these housing units - do you see that as a problem at all?
The threshold of entry for the unit is probably quite high to begin with. I think that most people will look at the concept with curiosity but rather skepticism, because at first glance it is different from the "normal" lifestyle in Liechtenstein. Therefore, in the beginning, certain groups of people will certainly be attracted more than others. However, I do not see this as a problem, but simply as part of the process. It takes individuals who decide to move into a unit and who can then, in conversation with others, credibly demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages.
A main aspect of the concept is that the individual units can be integrated into existing settlement structures. The direct contact between the residents of the unit and the existing neighborhoods should ensure that word gets around about the advantages of living (temporarily) in a unit. The aspect that the units can be moved easily and inexpensively due to the screw foundations should lower the inhibition threshold to place a unit in one's own garden. To put it simply: you can just try it out. For me, students were interesting as the first target group, among other things, because they are usually moving out of home for the first time and are looking for affordable living space for a limited time. They are most likely to be open to trying something new.
Where do you see the advantages of living in such a settlement (vs. status quo) for people who may not (yet) be familiar with the topic? What makes living in such a settlement attractive (or to whom)?
The advantages of living in a settlement consisting of several units or of existing settlements that are (temporarily) condensed by single units, I see mainly in the fact that the material becomes less important and the social living together becomes more in focus. There are more and more single households in Liechtenstein that require a lot of living space alone, have high costs and only little contact to the neighborhood. So if one imagines that a single person with a large garden agrees that one or more units could be placed in their garden for a certain period of time, then the person would have more contact with other people and those who move to into the units in the garden would have an inexpensive living space. In the sense of self-sufficiency, it would then be additionally good if the residents of the Unit would maintain the garden and grow fruits and vegetables there. This in turn would have a positive impact on biodiversity and food sovereignty.
Model Blueprint by Pia Rebekka Alge, 2023.
Where do you see difficulties that people living in such a settlement could encounter?
At the beginning, it would definitely be an adjustment. It starts with the self-sufficient electricity, water and energy cycle. You first have to become aware of how many resources you actually consume, how much of it is really necessary or how much is available to you at all. Also, having a small private living area tends to force you to go outside and coordinate with others. That can make you feel more socially dependent in some ways.
You did a lot of research beforehand on individual consumption of energy, etc. (life cycle assessment) Was this the first time you had looked deeply into these calculations? What was surprising, shocking, or just your main take-away from that research?
It was the first time I dealt with the topics of energy - and resource consumption in this depth during the course of my master's thesis. In the course of my studies, I had lectures on these topics, but the pure facts and figures were not very tangible for me. By finally looking at only one person in a box, it was more comprehensible for me. And so similarly, only still more seizable and more experienceable, I imagine, it would go to the inhabitants the boxes. To take the topic of water as an example again, when you see the water level in the water tank getting lower while you're taking a shower, you only realize how much you're using. I was particularly surprised by the power consumption of individual electrical appliances. It also led me to critically question many of my own habits.
Did this project and this intensive examination of the topic of sufficiency and self-sufficiency have a lasting influence on you? Are there any basic principles or concepts that you will adopt in your future designs? Is it at all possible to adopt only individual parts (compost toilet, rainwater harvesting) or is it always an overall concept?
Dealing with these topics has sharpened my understanding of interrelationships and shown me what a positive influence architecture can have on people and nature.
Certain basic principles, such as collecting and using rainwater, and also the use of photovoltaic systems, can be implemented almost anywhere, in my opinion. These are concepts that also work without residents having to change anything in their lifestyle. Elements such as the composting toilet or heating and cooking with logs require more cooperation from the residents and also do not make sense everywhere. I believe that it has to be about finding the right solutions to individual problems. In a densely populated city, different approaches are certainly needed than in Liechtenstein, where the temporary use of land and thus densification of the settlement structure with self-sufficient housing units can work.
How do you think architecture is evolving as a discipline - are these issues playing an increasingly central role even as you study/teach? Does it already do so?
Architecture has always evolved and adapted. What is planned and built is what is considered meaningful and beautiful by society at the moment. As the general population becomes more and more aware of sustainability, I think architecture will also adapt more and more and try to act in a more sustainable way. You can already see that in teaching.
Where do you see the problem in scaling up such communities and designs?
The unit itself, as a place to raise awareness for the resource and energy consumption of a single person, is in my opinion difficult or impossible to scale up. As soon as several people live in a box, the awareness of what one needs is lost. The danger that one begins to shift the responsibility to the other person is great.
As a collection of several units, on the other hand, I think the design can be scaled up relatively well up to a point. It is important that a neighborhood, whether it is primarily made up of units or whether it is incorporated into the existing settlement structure, be able to organize itself to some extent. It needs to be possible for everyone to know everyone else and for there to be a sense of community. Simply put, if you as a resident of the Unit only see yourself as person X in a collection of identical boxes, then the group is too big.
What does it take for us to build more and more like this in the future ( - or to be able to)?
I think above all it needs courage and curiosity from all involved. The technical aspects are actually, as far as I have seen in my project, for the most part already clarified. And individual projects from the Tiny House scene also show that it is possible to live like this. I see the legal foundations as the biggest challenge at the moment since small, temporary, self-sufficient residential buildings are currently in a legal gray area at best. What is needed here is political will, social pressure, and players who are capable of implementing such projects on a larger scale.