Grad student explores water, sustainability through architecture

After working with communities to address environmental problems and winning a national award, Sabrina Ortiz Luna graduated from the Master of Architecture track II program at the University of Oregon Portland this June.

She said she joined the program specifically because of its emphasis on sustainability in design.

Erin Moore, head of the School of Architecture & Environment and an associate professor in the UO College of Design, said the Portland architecture program is well positioned to use design to engage rich topics in urbanism, equity and the environment.

“I’m thrilled to have students like Sabrina Ortiz Luna working with faculty on these topics,” Moore said.

Ortiz Luna is particularly interested in the ways water is managed in the built environment. She was born in Mexico City, which she said is facing major water issues.

“They have the problem of not having enough water, they have the problem of having too much water in some cases, the city is sinking and some of the lower-income residents live up on the hills where it's harder to pump water into their infrastructure,” she said. “So for that reason I'm really interested in how architecture can respond to water problems.”

During her time at UO Portland, Ortiz Luna started helping communities find architectural solutions to environmental issues. She worked as a graduate employee to help set up a first-year graduate urban design studio focused on the Lents neighborhood in southeast Portland.

She called the Lents neighborhood “culturally rich but environmentally vulnerable.” Her job was to go beyond the existing studies of the area and actually meet and work with stakeholders and experts in the community, including those from Zenger Farm and Leach Botanical Garden.

She developed a report that became a key tool for graduate students in the urban design studio to design infrastructure addressing environmental problems while highlighting the neighborhood's cultural identity.

Brook Muller, UO Portland architecture program director and professor, said Ortiz Luna’s impact on the school’s design and intellectual culture has been extraordinary, and her impact on Muller’s own thinking has been profound.

“She is a stellar researcher and highly capable designer who formulates great and provocative questions, genuinely seeks to understand the interests and challenges of those community members she works with, and in all ways is an energetic, positive and tenacious force for the better,” Muller said. “Sabrina is an outstanding public speaker and agent of change who represents UO Portland and UO Architecture at its very best.”

Ortiz Luna was also part of a team of architecture students who recently won a 2019 American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment Top Ten for Students award for the project, “Healing Habitats: Innovation Center for Disease and Water Management.” She and the two other students, Elena Koepp and Catherine Earley, developed a building proposal for a facility in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that researches mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever, malaria, zika fever, and West Nile fever.

Their building proposal was recognized for its use of low-tech sustainable strategies as well as their integration of community engagement, public health and urban wastewater management. Along with Ortiz Luna and her classmates, Moore was at the American Institute of Architects national conference when the students were honored with the award.  

“I appreciate the recognition of the important work students like Sabrina are doing with faculty like Brook Muller in the Portland architecture program,” Moore said.

For her thesis project, Ortiz Luna designed and created a model of a mixed-use industrial building meant for brewing, plastic recycling and rock climbing.

“I’m looking at how architecture can respond to how we deal with wasted resources and how different uses in the building can benefit in exchange of those resources,” Ortiz Luna said. “The waste from one becomes usable for another.”

For example, the plastic recycling from the building becomes useful as holds for the climbing gym wall.

Now that she’s earned her graduate degree, Ortiz Luna is looking toward her future career and said she is already in touch with firms that also value water, sustainability and human experience. She hopes to return to San Antonio, Texas, where she primarily grew up, and help transform the city through sustainable architecture.

—By Emily Hoard, University Communications