About eight years ago, a married team of architects fell in love with El Paso, not only because the desert conditions aid their research but also the city itself.

Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller were hired to teach architecture at the Texas Tech Huckabee College of Architecture. 

Used to living in big cities like New York City, the couple wanted to have a car-free experience in the borderland until it became apparent that the desert conditions and infrastructure of the city would not let them.

“We recognized that it is unbearable to walk to work every day, even in September or October,” Kripa said. “It’s just so hot, and there’s nowhere to have shade as a pedestrian.”

Housed inside the historic Union Depot Station in Downtown El Paso, the school serves as a classroom and office for POST, or Project for Operative Spatial Technologies —  an experimental investigative, territorial think-tank situated on the U.S.-Mexico border —  where the two academics developed a program and an algorithm that identifies shade inequity. Whether through trees or infrastructure, shade equity refers to equal availability and access to shade in different areas of a city and among people of all racial, ethnic, and income groups – particularly in public spaces.

POST focuses on different issues, including air quality, UV protection, and their irradiated shade project — the unseen dangers of UV radiation in shaded conditions.

“You might feel like you can be outside for a long time, but you’re being pretty highly irradiated by scattered ultraviolet rays, especially in places like El Paso in desert environments when there’s a lot of airborne particulate in the air in the atmosphere,” Mueller said.

As part of their research, the couple made maps that showed a correlation between income levels and specific ZIP codes regarding shade equity in the city.

“Once we understand exactly which underserved populations have access to which type of UV protection, then the maps become real,” Kripa said. “Border crossings are totally exposed to UV damage. Part of an upcoming grant project is to understand histories of ecological degradation or neglect or spatial racism or environmental racism.”

A woman carries an umbrella for shade as she walks along Paisano Drive in Downtown El Paso on July 6. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Irradiation can cause skin damage to those suffering from shade inequity on both sides of the border.

“The U.S. has its environmental data, and Mexico has its environmental data,” Mueller said. “There are fewer and fewer collaborations across borders to share environmental data in order to understand the particular dynamics and identify vulnerable neighborhoods.”

To bridge the gap in environmental data between the two countries, POST constructs maps using satellites that span the jurisdictional borders. The satellites pick up areas with high levels of outdoor activity and analyze the available shade.

“We design and analyze the data with 3D technology, and that enables us to get a much clearer picture,” Mueller said. “Irradiated shade correlates directly to how much sky you can see from under a shade canopy.”

The importance of shade canopy and sky views are then run through an algorithm created specifically to find the available threats of UV radiation.

 “This algorithm is able to draw the visible area of the sky from any point in the city,” Mueller said. “We’re able to deploy the algorithm in all corners of the borderland. We put them in every pedestrian intersection to understand the shape of the sky at each intersection and the relative radiation exposure.”

Their research focuses on the UV damage and exposure in the region related to desertification and urbanization on the U.S.-Mexico border. It can be used in other cities with similar climates.

“The idea is to understand the inequitable access to shade by various constituencies,” said Kripa.  “The maps that we’ve been producing and the UV research we’ve been producing is starting to highlight issues of inequity.”

The duo’s research found that those that are the most exposed to UV include people waiting outside for public transport or crossing the border on international bridges which are open and exposed.

“They have a lot less access to shade versus other neighborhoods in El Paso that are more affluent that might have more access to big tree canopies in the shade,” Kripa said.

The tool also helps identify comfort under shade conditions by looking at several factors, including UV damage, temperature, and quality of shade available.

“It’s about analyzing environments where humans have made assumptions that if you’re in the shade, you’re good to go, you’re protected,” Kripa said. “It’s looking at other atmospheric phenomena under the shade that continue to inflict damage on the human body. So the tool, hopefully, will evolve. We’re working on adding layers of analysis.”

The tool creates dome figures of an area, analyzing the various layers of atmospheric phenomena.

“Looking at the representation of sky domes, we can make judgments about a given site like which corner would be the most in need of intervention,” said Mueller. “There are several types of architectural interventions. The tool helps designers see how various three-dimensional structures impact access to radiation.”

Practical applications

Once computations are complete, the architects can work on designing precise shade structures and canopies that have the same function as trees, which require a lot of water – a resource scarce in desert areas.

“What we’re trying to test now is whether or not we can design shade structures that are not trees … that address these very specific issues,” Kripa said. 

One of their designs will be tested with the non-profit organization Insights Science Discovery — a nonprofit that grew out of the Insight El Paso Science Center after it was closed — to create an outdoor classroom near Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park.

Rendering of a structure that will be built for the nonprofit organization Insights Science and Discovery near Mount Cristo Rey using a data tool to maximize shade equity. (Courtesy Project for Operative Spatial Technologies)

“The idea is to use a 60-foot enormous outdoor classroom shade structure as a prototype or as a testing built model to understand whether the research we’re producing (can be used to make policy recommendations),” Kripa said. “The hope is to start, kind of to strengthen, that relationship and to provide the city with the data that we have.”

The plan for the structure began in 2020 during the pandemic when Mueller and Kripa were working on their UV radiation protection research, and Insights approached them about creating a financially feasible outdoor classroom.

“In our mind, it had to meet all these requirements to protect against UV damage, but it also has to be perforated so that the wind can go through it and not rip it up,” said Kripa.

Alysha Swann, executive director for Insights Science Discovery, inherited the dome project from her predecessor. She will see it come to fruition and be used as soon as the fall of 2023 or spring of 2024 near Mount Cristo Rey in New Mexico within miles of El Paso.

“Our previous executive director worked with Ersela on several other projects,” she said. “This one came up as an outdoor equity grant that was proposed to New Mexico to help us provide shade for our hikers, our clients, and anybody else that goes out there, especially the kids at our dinosaur tracks because right now there are no trees in the desert, there is nothing to protect them.”

The collaboration allowed Kripa and Mueller to create a unique shade structure for the area where Insights promotes STEAM education in the border region in a hands-on, fun, and innovative experience. 

“We want to be able to provide an educational space for groups and field trips and different things, but make sure it’s safe in El Paso,” Swann said. “Heat is no joke, and the sun is no joke. We want to make sure that there’s a safe shade structure out there that will protect people … and still be able to meet out there on-site versus having to meet at a restaurant or somewhere else off-site.”

The structure, built in the style of an amphitheater made of thin, flat sheets of steel, could hold up to 80 children while offering accessibility for wheelchairs. 

“We’re scoring it with a numerically controlled arm and robotic fabrication,  bending so when it is all tied together, it makes its dome structure,” said Kripa. “The idea is that we’re maximizing how many pieces we can cut out of a 4×8 sheet of metal.”

Rendering of a structure that will be built for the nonprofit organization Insights Science and Discovery near Mount Cristo Rey using a data tool to maximize shade equity. (Courtesy Project for Operative Spatial Technologies)

Once the pieces are cut to their exact dimensions, they are all tied together using Reciprocal Framing Architecture, a proven style of architecture used by Leonardo da Vinci where all the pieces fit together to make a sound structure.

“We don’t need any beams or columns,” Kripa said. “We’re saving on material that way so it’s really just flat sheets of metal. The idea is that these are pieces that nest together and they’re cut with a robotic arm and bent and bolted together. So it’s just really light using minimal material.”

A steel structure’s lifespan is extensive because it is not biodegradable and easily recycled.

“It can last forever,” said Kripa. “If they decide to demolish it, they can reuse the steel and melt it. Steel is efficiently recycled.”

Other applications

Once the prototype is created, it will serve as a blueprint for using similar structures in an urban environment to create shade for the public.

“The prototype is the most complex construction challenge we have, a free-standing long-span shade structure in the middle of a high wind area,” said Mueller. “(Once the prototype is operational) we can do different modules, we can make minor adjustments to fit it on different sites that might be even less challenging from structural or even from a design standpoint.” 

“I’d love to replicate this in a city where there’s a movement to plant a million trees, but the question is where the water comes from,” added Kripa.

The software and accompanying algorithm created by the duo will be accessible for others to develop the skydomes and learn the shade available in any given area.

“The ideal scenario would be how we analyze shade and UV exposure, and desertification becomes how architects understand the context,” Kripa said. “We would love to teach and share that with all our colleagues and professionals and to develop a robust relationship with the city to share the research and work on built projects together.”

“This is for the people and to promote conditions of higher degrees of access to high-quality, safe spaces,” added Mueller. “If this can make it outside the school’s walls and into the community, that would be ideal.”

This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...