The built environment in Micronesia is moving away from its culturally rich indigenous architecture that is, by design, sustainable, towards an import-dependent, energy-consumptive, monetarily-based architecture that is almost completely void of any cultural identity. This transition is being subsidized by the US Department of Agriculture and is in direct conflict with efforts made through the US Department of the Interior, National Parks Service Office of Historic Preservation. At the time of this report, it doesnt appear that either of these offices recognize the goals of the other, though efforts by each department are well intentioned.
The US Department of Agriculture is attempting to improve life safety through the introduction of typhoon-proof construction materials and practices; the US Department of Interiors National Parks Service Office of Historic Preservation is working diligently to record and preserve the rapidly disappearing indigenous culture.
I believe the mutual product of government agency efforts regarding the built environment is worthy of further study. Given the environmental and economic impact of energy supplies, the US Department of Energy should be included in this mutual effort. These departments, if they are to continue to administer to the region, should jointly address the issues of housing in Micronesia.
As Micronesia progresses into a cash-based economy, the free time and labor that was once shared between family and friends during the building of their houses is now becoming a commodity to be purchased. In place of a community housing effort, a building industry is forming. The product of this industry addresses the difficulties of building within a typhoon region, but it fails to incorporate cultural, economic and environmental impacts. I believe a more inclusive solution can be developed.
The process of specialization is an unfortunate byproduct of joining the modern world. A point I find particularly troubling is that there is no way to finance a house built in a traditional manner, and it is difficult to find financing for anything but the houses of stock plans. While a house of concrete can be easily financed, I was unable to find any method to finance a traditional thatch house. Few people have the resources to design and build a culturally and environmentally appropriate house within the constraints of the financial market and are therefore left with the option of building a stock plan concrete house or no house at all. The construction industry has developed around the market of these stock plan houses and is ill prepared to work in other mediums.
Aside from typhoon proofing, the goal of these stock plans is that human comfort is achieved through air movement, that a panacea will be made available to all. The hundreds of houses that have been retrofitted with air-conditioning units attest to the fact that this attempt is failing. The high costs of cooling these stock houses compounds the problem. One person I interviewed spent over $200 per month on his utility bill. One month, when his family was off-island, he decided to turn the air-conditioner off. His electric bill dropped to $40 per month. Though his house was uncomfortable, by living in a more traditional manner, he adjusted his habits easily. He went about most of his residential activities outside, in the shade of the trees and carport. The $160 per month he saved is quite impressive in a country where the average annual per capita income is $1,900.
Hundreds of years of environmentally specific, culturally rich evolution of built form is disappearing. The family unit is failing; they are less and less available for each other due to the demands of employment. The built form, the cultural icons of home that Micronesians have identified with for centuries, is fading. The houses, the nahs on Pohnpei, the hale on Kapingamarangi and the lohm on Kosrae are all being replaced by generic, climatically inappropriate, concrete buildings that have no cultural ties. If this trend is to be reversed, government agencies and the construction industries need to break out of their linear focus and holistically address the challenges of housing in Micronesia.
While working within a culture that has evolved over hundreds of years, solutions that bring on broad, encompassing changes should either be carefully introduced or omitted altogether. What is gained by addressing one problem is not always worth its repercussions of cultural and environmental losses.