Building Better, Giving Back

At a straw-bale construction site in Pakistan

For architect Martin Hammer, every building has a close and complex relationship with the world around us. It is a perspective that fosters thoughtful examination of how we build and how we live.

Hammer asks, “Is it healthy to build with a particular material and to live in the space created? What natural resources and how much energy are consumed in its manufacture? Is the material local? How can it be reused or recycled, and finally, how does it return to the earth at the end of a building’s useful existence?”

Hammer learned to appreciate sustainability long before it became a buzzword, at NJIT’s School of Architecture where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1980. The energy crisis of the 1970s was the social context that led him to concentrate on energy efficiency in buildings and to integrate passive solar strategies into many of his projects. Today, he utilizes numerous sustainable building technologies and practices, including passive solar design, photovoltaics, rainwater catchment, greywater reuse, use of salvaged materials, and other ways to harmonize the built and natural environments.

After graduation Hammer moved west, finding employment in Berkeley, California, a community known for its environmentalism. Two years later he started his own architectural practice. His first commission was to design and build a small addition for a friend – literally build the addition. “I put on a tool belt and did the hands-on work. It’s an experience every architecture student should have. It provides direct understanding of materials and how they go together. It makes you a better architect.”

Over the last 15 years, Hammer has become a leading proponent of straw-bale construction, which was first used in Nebraska in the late 1800s. Rediscovered in the 1980s, it has since been employed in 49 U.S. states and in over 45 countries worldwide. His introduction to straw-bale building occurred when a contractor, also interested in environmentally friendly building, commissioned a 3000-square-foot shop and studio.

Straw-bale buildings are energy- and resource-efficient, fire-resistant, and with proper design are highly resistant to earthquakes. Hammer has since been involved in their design, engineering, construction, and testing. He has authored state and national building codes for straw-bale construction, and he is a contributing author of the book Design of Straw Bale Buildings.

After a devastating earthquake in 2005, Hammer helped bring the benefits of straw-bale building to Pakistan as one of the founders of Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building (www.paksbab.org). In 2010 a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, and Hammer volunteered to evaluate damage for the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, and later assessed historic buildings with a World Monuments Fund team. But it was the sustainable reconstruction of Haiti that interested him most, and since June 2010 he has been promoting safe, affordable, sustainable and culturally appropriate rebuilding in Haiti through Builders Without Borders. In March the first straw-bale building in Haiti was completed by his American and Haitian team.

Why does he feel compelled to help in Pakistan and Haiti? Hammer says it’s an inclination that was strengthened at NJIT – where he played soccer as well as studied architecture. He specifically recalls being inspired by Anthony Schuman, now associate professor of architecture, and by Mal Simon, his soccer coach. Schuman’s presentation on village life in West Africa impressed Hammer with the differences between his life and the lives of people who have far less material wealth, yet a wealth of culture and community. Hammer also cites the example of how Simon and his wife, Diane, volunteered for a Peace Corps family service program in the 1970s, relocating to Jamaica with their children.

"My education at NJIT was a catalyst for thinking in new ways about how we relate to our environment through architecture, through design and building,” Hammer says. “It was there I also met people who motivated me to ‘give something back’ whenever I could."