Emma Lappalainen - City in Crisis alumna

Meet Emma, an alumna of the ‘City in Crisis’ (now called ‘Interplay of Cultures’) studio course at Aalto University in 2010. Emma graduated as an architect in 2011, currently working as the CEO and lead consultant at Finngroup Consultants.

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Development work challenges an architect to think outside the box and provides a wider perspective. It can be rewarding to offer one’s professional skills to support the sustainable development throughout the world.

Emma Lappalainen

Emma is an architect specialising in sustainable urban development, circular economy of the construction sector, urban climate change adaptation, green building and post-crisis reconstruction with a focus on developing countries and international cooperation. Her professional experience includes e.g. positions at UNEP, UNIDO, UN-Habitat, HabitatIII Secretariat and the Unit for International and EU Affairs at the Ministry of the Environment in Finland.

“One does not necessarily come to think first of architecture when talking about development cooperation, but there are architects working with development work at various United Nations organisations and NGOs. Some Finnish architects have also carried out building projects in developing countries with the help of grants from Finnish foundations, and, in this way, have been able to support poor communities. A new kind of thinking has spread to the field of architecture: architects have begun to ponder on how they could influence environmental and societal problems.”

During her studies, Emma participated in the ‘Cities in Crisis’ studio in 2010 with a field trip to Cambodia, which came to influence her interests in social development. In her master’s thesis with the title “Investigation into Best Practice Principles of Post-Disaster Urban Planning”, she researched pre-disaster development of disaster resilience and post-disaster displacement strategies with the help of case studies in Japan and Haiti. The master’s thesis can be found here.

“I became interested in environmental and societal influencing and international affairs during my architecture studies, and the theme of my master’s thesis for Aalto University was post-disaster urban planning. Thereafter, I worked for the United Nations for more than eight years in Kenya, the United States, Sri Lanka and Denmark. I wrote international policy guidance, managed projects on disaster resilience, reconstruction and green building across the world, and designed homes for civil war victims in Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through my work, I have seen a cross-section of development cooperation from international politics to community-level development projects.”

Emma’s drive to make an impact led her to address international UN assemblies, revealing that within the realm of development, architects can offer contributions far beyond conventional building design.

“The urbanisation of developing countries and urban climate adaptation are trending themes of development work and closely related to architects’ education. More traditional development cooperation related to the know-how of architects is represented by projects dealing with post-disaster and post-conflict reconstruction, slum upgrading, as well as projects related to the construction of village schools, orphanages, community buildings and affordable housing. However, building design is often only a small part of development cooperation projects: during the years that I worked for the UN, my identity as an architect expanded to include the expertise of sustainable urbanisation and construction.“

Currently, Emma works as the CEO and lead consultant at Turku-based Finngroup Consultants. Finngroup Consultants specialises in the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the built environment and resilience of urban areas, with projects all over the world. Finngroup Consultants co-operates closely e.g., with the Ministry of the Environment in Finland, and UN organisations such as UNEP and UN-Habitat.

“Some people may ask whether it is necessary to have Western architects in developing countries. My answer is that external expertise is needed to introduce new approaches, technologies and tools to support local know-how. It is important that external experts work together with local experts and support them to find new innovative approaches to develop forward their local knowledge. Such approaches could, for instance, be the ones that deal with disaster resilience, environmentally friendly actions and cross-cutting analyses, as well as good practices previously learned in the same kinds of contexts. In these cases, as well, it is important to work with locals and build local capacities.“

Thank you Emma, for sharing your inspiring story!

Find out more about Emma’s career and previous projects here.

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