Passive Methods of Design Based on Puerto Rico's History and Culture

by Rajeev Atha

Research Question:

What factors should be considered in architecture design to optimize energy consumption by implementing passive methods of design by studying the history and culture of Puerto Rico? How in addition to this cultural intervention, the development of technology and education within the community centers can raise awareness and preparedness into energy transition of Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean inhabited by humans around 4000 years ago, has been culturally rich evolving with every wave of invasions from Tainos, Spanish Empire and finally the United States of America taking over in 1898 following the Spanish-American War.[1] Spanish culture was dominant in Puerto Rico but it had a mix of cultural influences throughout time. The beauty of nature integrated with their culture signified a respect for the natural resources that the citizens have striven to protect and embrace.

Hurricane Maria changed the face of the island with the existing issues of energy systems and its management, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) surfaced. Puerto Ricans suffering the second biggest energy outage in the history of mankind was significant to raise concerns in the existing government and the future of the island.[2] A strong cultural heritage of the island was rattled with destruction of power grids, houses, healthcare issues, transportation, being the major concerns.

The reconstruction process for Puerto Rico is concentrated mainly on rapid resurrection of the power grid, along with housing development schemes and strategies for rehabilitation. Narrowing the scope of perspective to energy and housing as a single entity, there is no effort taken to optimize energy consumption through design and architecture of the upcoming houses. In one of the lectures, Professor Lionel Orama said, “If you don’t see the wall, you can’t break down the wall” which fits perfectly in this case. The consideration of passive methods of energy optimization through architecture design such as orientation of the building, natural cross ventilation, reduction of radiant heat by increasing shading devices and efficient building envelopes in the tropical region could have a major impact on the amount of energy that is consumed in individual households. Favoring the prevailing climate in Puerto Rico, these strategic designs for housing needs, could reduce the energy consumption by 26%.[3]

Left: Streets of Old San Juan; Right: Buena Vista Hacienda

Left: Streets of Old San Juan; Right: Buena Vista Hacienda

The historic city of Old San Juan, provides a valid precedent for this phenomenon, where the houses that share a common wall in combination with shading devices such as galleries and balconies, reduce the surface area of the heat gained from the sun. The courtyard in the back of the house creates a release for the hot air inside the structure. This generates a difference of pressure in the house and the environment around it, which in turn forces air to enter the building. During the walking tour of Old San Juan, Professor Jorge Lizardi also pointed out the culture of Puerto Rico that the citizens take pride in with the influences that have developed in the island over generations and adapting to them. These principles were also observed in Buena Vista Hacienda in Ponce.

After Hurricane Maria, the need for rehabilitation and redevelopment of the community was a vital aspect of reconstruction of the society. In an effort for the people to own a housing property, various strategies were implemented by the Ponce Neighborhood Housing Society (Ponce N.H.S.) Even though these strategies were achievable, a thought towards realization of the optimization of the housing project was absent. Affordable housing seems like an attractive alternative to housing needs, however it fails to recognize the occupants as the end user of the product that is delivered. If there is an effort to mitigate energy consumption from the schematic design stage, then the need for energy as a whole is reduced from housing.

After further researching and analyzing the nature of architecture and urban design prevailing in Puerto Rico, a need for social gathering spaces has always been part of their culture. The spaces that were defined by public squares and plazas were an integral part, which served as a space for awareness through community centers (as seen in the city of Adjuntas, with Casa Pueblo taking charge of the public square to create awareness against pipelines and mining), a space for social interactions and recreations (as seen at La Placita in San Juan). Such essential public spaces have been sacrificed in the recent times. A need to replenish the urban fabric with these spaces is critical since it promotes a sense of society through social interactions. In order to strengthen social interaction, a trans-scalar module needs to be implemented with an initiative to add a social perspective at a housing level as well.

Public Square at Adjuntas; Casa Pueblo Birthplace

Public Square at Adjuntas; Casa Pueblo Birthplace


With social interaction in the scenario of Puerto Rico, the squares could also serve the need for awareness, education and preparedness as an essential lesson for the society. Jonathan Polanco, a graduate student at the University Of Puerto Rico (UPR), Mayaguez and a researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Energía y Sostenibilidad Isleña (INESI), described that the major problem during Hurricane Maria was not the destruction itself but the lack of mitigation systems that were supposed to hold the society together. Healthcare, access to basic human needs of food, water and housing were disrupted without a measure to control them. He further emphasized that only if the people and the community centers were equipped with contingencies that were required in such a situation, the disaster would have been mitigated at the base level. These could have also been achieved with public squares along with community centers, which could serve as epicenters for a social aid to the society in their own unique ways. With a social aspect being catered to by the community centers and public squares, it formulates into social resilience along with mitigated need for energy on an individual level promoting an overall resilient infrastructure.

Hydro-power Plant, Utuado

Hydro-power Plant, Utuado

Housing is primarily driven by energy through electricity. It is essential to mitigate the need to use energy or to develop a sustainable way of sourcing and satisfy the energy requirements of the society. In order to achieve this, the first step in the process is to recognize the existing available sustainable sources of energy. This example was seen particularly in Utuado, Puerto Rico, which housed a hydro-power plant in the nearby city territories but went unnoticed by the government that was focused mainly on coal and natural gas power plants. This was also observed in the hospital at Vieques where around 120 solar panels were left behind where they could’ve been in working condition. Recognition of these sources of electricity to cater to the requirements of the society is as important as implementation of latest technologies. These prevailing sources which have lower costs of construction, operation and already in the island’s infrastructure could cut down the use of polluting sources of energy. The cost that is associated with these systems is to replenish them to an operating condition. This cost is significantly lower than creation of an energy source.

Integration of sustainable energy sources with passive architecture design and an upgraded urban fabric could be part of the process to achieve resilience in Puerto Rico. This can be further amplified with the employment of technology, especially solar panels with a battery back-up. The addition of the technology could mean that buildings and housing developments in Puerto Rico could reach a Net Zero Energy stage throughout the island. When used in combination with the passive design principles, there is a possibility of a house to reach a net positive outcome, where excess energy generated from the solar panels are discharged in the main grid. This excess energy could then be used for commercial activities, cityscape lighting, etc.  However, this technological aid also brings the question of how  the general population will be aware of the operation and maintenance of the technology that is offered. Further looking into the aspect for financing of solar panels, there needs to be policies/schemes that could be implemented in order to achieve a greener and resilient state in the future of Puerto Rico.

It could be said that to find a path to a resilient energy source in Puerto Rico, there are three major aspects to look out for; mitigation, recognition and transition. The three stages, even though independent of each other, strive towards the same end goal, which is resiliency. Through this research, essential cultural environments, housing, social interactions that lead to energy transitions are observed and analysed through the experience of being in Puerto Rico and interacting with local leaders, citizens, and the members of INESI with the hope that a justification was achieved from these interactions. However, to further reach out to a resilient society, there are questions to be explored and answered. Some of the questions are:

How can we achieve a rapid reconstruction and rehabilitation of the housing requirements by keeping the cultural aspect intact? How can modular housing be executed and still retain individuality and identity of each housing development?

What factors are required by the population without basic assumptions on what is food for them? How can transparency be achieved on what the requirement is and what is actually provided as a service?


  1. “History of Puerto Rico.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Jan. 2019,

  2. Ahsan , Tahmina. Passive Design Features for Energy-Efficient Residential Buildings in Tropical Climates: the Context of Dhaka, Bangladesh . KTH, Department of Urban Planning and Environment Division of Environmental Strategies Research, 2009,

  3. Campbell, A. F. (2018). “It too 11 months to restore power to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. A similar crisis could happen again. Vox. Retrieved from