It seems quaint these days to remember - if you even can - a time when "green" didn't also carry the baggage of inconvenient truths and disaster scenarios. But here in Shanghai, under a blanket of olive smog, green entered the eco-vernacular only recently, around the time that Canadian Sherry Poon deemed it a city not too far gone to save.
Originally from London, Ont., Poon is part of a posse of McGill University architecture grads who decamped to Shanghai a decade ago to, literally, rebuild the city for the new millennium. She and her husband, Quebec native Raefer Wallis, began their careers developing eco-housing for foreign firms working in China. Seven years ago, Wallis and McGill mate Sacha Silva branched out on their own and founded A00 Architecture, which specializes in sustainable design and recyclable furniture - the latter still relegated to hemp-lined ateliers in hard-to-find Shanghai co-ops. A00's standout project to date is a carbon-neutral boutique hotel called Urbn, deemed a hot property by Condé Nast Traveller.
When she was pregnant with their second daughter, however, Poon, then 35, branched out in another design direction, launching Wobabybasics, a line of classic baby wear manufactured at a fair-trade, Danish-run factory in Qingdao. Poon peddled it successfully at markets and fairs and the local media went gaga for it, prompting her to quit her job with the Australian practice BAU and concentrate on designing clothing full-time. Today, even her competitors are fans. Karen Spencer, a popular children's wear designer with a stand-alone boutique in a popular Shanghai shopping district, calls Poon "so, so talented. She cares about details like flat seams, which make clothing for little ones more comfortable. Most importantly, though, she has a social conscience and gives back to our community - she has really inspired me."
Spencer is referring not only to Poon's clothing line, but to the Eco-Design Fair, which Poon launched in 2008 (in the basement of Urbn) to one-up the not-so-eco- and rather jumbled jumble sales she hawked at in the early days of Wobabybasics. The fair is now so popular that it's grown out of Urbn and two subsequent venues. Last April, it attracted 90 exhibitors and more than 2,000 visitors.
Naturally, Poon and Wallis's maisonette, in a shared house at the back end of a traditional residential lane, has become a lab for their respective ideas. But their collaboration on and in it only goes so far. "Raefer and I would never work together," Poon says matter-of-factly. In the case of the renovation, "he was the architect and I was the client."
So the distinctive wood-slat storage unit under the staircase is a prototype for the cabinetry at Urbn. (Remarkably, it also conceals a fridge.) Ditto the stools at the dining table. "We even experimented with a solar hot-water tank on the roof," says Poon. "We assumed it wouldn't be enough for the family, so we bought an electric heater as well, but we ended up returning it. [The tank]was all we needed."
Poon and Wallis were already long-time residents of the lane when their housekeeper tipped them off that their current apartment was on the market. They bought it for a steal and gutted it immediately. "The floors are original, and one door," says Poon. "The rest was ripped apart." But 11 months into the reno, heavily pregnant Poon had reached her limit. "I said, 'Look, I've got to move in. Now." That was Christmas Eve 2008. Saya was born the next month. (She's now almost three; her big sister, Ruohan, is five.)
The family is so devoted to recycling that, for a while, the only new items they bought were mattresses, which, until they built the bed frames, sat on the floor. The cabinetry and staircase are from wood reclaimed locally, "very typical of the other lane houses around here," Poon says. The countertops and dining table are cut from a leftover batch of Indonesian ironwood a friend imported to decorate his restaurant. It remains untouched by finishes. "Water-resistant," Poon says, without flinching, when I put down my water glass without a coaster.
Architects are a crafty bunch, so small adjustments - changing the feeble windows to double-paned, for instance, and designing them to open from the top to protect the girls from a disastrous third-storey fall - were easy. They also added skylights to the north-facing rooms, laid stone floors in the stuffiest corners and situated the windows to maximize cross-ventilation. "We rarely have to turn on the air con," Poon says. "And we have the heat on maybe two or three months a year."
It's a small space for four, to be sure, but the outrageous amounts of clever storage mean that Poon can work here when she needs to, although she also rents an office around the corner for her various ventures.
On this particular day, her time is flexible, as she has just wrapped up her latest Eco-Design Fair. But tomorrow should hold the usual chaos: planning two more clothing collections, setting up a fashion show, overseeing ads and websites. And you know you've made it when you're working on an app.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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