5 Q’s with Jonathan Barcant

As architects and designers, we’re aware of our social responsibility to help design a better world. However, this isn’t possible without collaboration with other skilled practitioners and thought leaders from various industries. One of which is Jonathan Barcant, who we recently spoke with about his objectives regarding the environment and the development of unique techniques to benefit the region.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has allowed us to really cue in and adapt by using local resources and delve into ways that we can limit consumption and waste. In this 5Q’s feature, we are eager for Jonathan to educate and empower us on these topics.

Jonathan Barcant, a civil engineer who graduated from McGill University, specialised in soils, water, and environment. He is the founder and Managing Director of Vetiver TT Ecological Engineering Solutions Ltd., as well as the co-founder and Managing Director of a T&T based non-profit organisation called IAMovement.

As a World Economic Forum Global Shaper within the Port of Spain Hub, Jonathan has participated in several WEF events, including the Annual Meeting of the New Champions (AMNC) in China in 2015, the Sustainable Development Impact Summit (SDIS) in NYC in 2017, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth: Sprint to 2020 in San Francisco, in 2018.

He and his fellow teammates, are passionate for positive environmental and social change and this shows through their continued actions. They are successfully raising awareness on key social, environmental and economic issues that can help educate the nation and empower others in the Trinidad and Tobago community.

Jonathan left a traditional ‘mainstream’ career behind in 2013, working for a large international engineering firm in the mining industry, given the environmental destruction which he witnessed first-hand. The primary area which he has given most of his focus to in T&T over the last six (6) years since then, is Climate Action. Specifically, through both IAMovement and Vetiver TT EES Ltd. His work has been focused on introducing and educating about, designing and implementing green engineering solutions, and building climate resilience at the community and country-levels, working with other NGOs, communities, homeowners, the private and commercial sector, government ministries and state entities. Additionally, through IAMovement, a key area of focus has been driving citizen education, awareness, engagement and social change on the need for climate change prioritisation and action in general, especially with regards to sustainably energy transitions in T&T. 

Q1

ACLA architecture: If you could sum up IAMovement in a paragraph, what would you say are the key components of the non- profit organisation?

Jonathan Barcant: IAMovement was founded by a group of passionate young people in 2014 who came together feeling a common need to effect positive social and environmental change, and has since become one of the leading civil society voices on climate change in T&T. IAMovement’s work has been carried out through activities, events, projects and programmes which engage and empower others – with a strong focus on education and building greater public awareness and capacity on key issues especially related to environment, climate and sustainable livelihoods; and facilitating conversation and dialogue at the national level. An important discussion which has been led by IAMovement over the years, is how smart integration of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy policies and projects into T&T’s energy landscape can have critical economic benefits and social impacts, in terms of maximizing the country’s revenue and job creation through our remaining fossil fuel resources; while also preparing our next generations for a more energy secure future, in a world where T&T’s remaining reserves and the world’s dependence on fossil fuels will inevitably one day come to an end.

See IAMovement’s short 3-part video series on “Re-thinking Energy, 2018”
Video 1: The Opportunity Cost

Video 2: T&T’s Electricity Subsidy

Video 3: Solutions for T&T

Q2

ACLA: Trinidad and Tobago is progressing where new techniques like this are being utilised, however the progression is slow… is this a challenge for you, being a young Trinidadian with regards to getting solid footing for this industry here?


JB: Yes, no doubt when introducing something brand new which is mostly unknown, a good deal of effort is required to carry out necessary education at all levels. So over the last 6 years, while we’ve been carrying out educational programs at the community level to introduce vetiver grass and the Vetiver System (VS) as a bio-engineering tool, we’ve also been doing a great deal to raise awareness and introduce these solutions to decision makers who can make use of them on their projects – namely, private and commercial project developers, engineering firms, and government ministries. One of the great benefits of the Vetiver System (VS – which refers to the correct methods to implement and use vetiver grass successfully as an engineering tool) is that it is very cost-effective, sometimes providing as much as 70-80% savings when compared with traditional alternatives such as steel-and-concrete walls and rock-gabion baskets. However, with civil engineering being a field which requires a high-degree of confidence in design, often engineers prefer to stick with what they know. The most important way in which we’ve been able to advance confidence in the VS solutions is therefore through case studies – where to date, we’ve implemented close to 100 residential and small scale projects, several larger commercial projects where the VS has served as a direct alternative to retaining walls and rock-baskets to protect infrastructure, as well as projects for riverbank coastal stabilization and erosion protection, with the Ministry of Works Drainage Division and Coastal Protection Unit.

Q3

ACLA: How accessible is Vetiver in terms of supply and installation? How long does it take for the roots permeate deep enough to allow for reasonable hillside retention?


JB: Having been developing Vetiver System (VS) solutions in T&T now for 5+ years, we’ve developed a very good supply through propagation in several nurseries around the country. Installation can be carried out rapidly, where Vetiver TT’s standard teams can install 1000-2000 plants per day, covering an area of 1000-2000 sq ft of soil-land in need of stabilisation and protection (and where these rates can be ramped up as needed for larger projects). Being a plant-based solution, it is however not immediate, but a good-degree of stabilisation can be achieved in 4 months where the roots would have extended about 3-ft deep, with full-capacity within 1-2 years when the roots reach 10-ft in depth. However, since Vetiver TT EES operates with full civil engineering capacity, we make consideration for this in our design and offer combined-solutions where required. On our projects, we therefore assess and make recommendations for slope-grade to allow for successful Vetiver System (VS) establishment, and include other measures in our design as needed such as temporary or permanent surface water management (drainage), geotextiles, as well as rock-baskets and retaining walls if needed – where these can provide some immediate needed support, but can be reduced in cost and size since used in combination with the VS.

Q4

ACLA: As architects and designers we are always looking forward to what the future has to offer.  Where do you hope to see Trinidad in the next 5 to 10 years in terms of sustainability, environmental change and construction as a whole?


JB: Like in many other areas as well (such as food and health, for example), I think mankind has gotten ‘blinded by the lights’ over the last few decades, in terms of thinking that the more refined, artificial, straight-edged and man-made something is, the better it is; and T&T is no different. However I think it’s becoming clear now across sectors that this isn’t always true, and that there are many traditional ways of doing things which are far healthier and more sustainable, for both ourselves and our planet; and which can also often have the added benefit of saving money! Both in the short and long term. To this end, I think that T&T has much opportunity available in terms of advances which we can make towards more sustainable design and lifestyles, both in our cities and rural areas, and which can include things like more innovative and advanced public transport systems, bicycle friendly roads, the integration of energy efficiency approaches and renewable energy into our buildings and grid, water harvest systems and more innovative water infrastructure to reduce wastage, better waste management and circular economy (material up-cycling and recycling) approaches; and yes, green infrastructure approaches like vetiver grass and the Vetiver System (VS) as well, which can aid in protecting existing hard infrastructure, stabilising hillsides, slowing runoff to promote groundwater recharge and reduce flooding, and more. The interesting thing is while having a host of ‘downstream’ environmental, social, and quality-of-life benefits, these also ALL offer direct economic benefits in the form of savings and/or returns. Being things which are new, all that is required for these (and which can sometimes be a barrier) is the willingness to adapt and change. It is my hope therefore that our decision makers recognise the immense win-win value of these transitions and give them the high importance and attention they deserve to build healthier, happier and more resilient future for T&T which we know that we all deserve. 

Small Change, 2016 is a short documentary that aims to take the conversation on climate change forward within the context of Trinidad & Tobago.
See full documentary here.

Q5

ACLA: The Vetiver Education + Empowerment Program (VEEP) is an extremely useful tool to help Trinidadians become educated about their land and homes, especially in these challenging times. It can be utilized by the younger generations to get more informed… How have you, or how do you plan to market this and how can we as architects/designers assist?


JB: The VEEP model was originally developed in Paramin through the UNDP GEF Small Grants Programme, and is now being expanded to other parts of T&T through the ‘Building on Vetiver’ project supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Lab – which is also entailing close work with UWI to capture the many social, environmental, engineering and economic benefits of the Vetiver System (VS) from an academic standpoint, through a number of case studies across Trinidad. Another project being led by the Inter-American Institute for Corporation on Agriculture (IICA) and supported by the Caribbean Biodiversity Fund (CBF) is also now seeing it expanded to several other Caribbean islands, with IAMovement being a key technical implementing partner to implement the community VEEP and VS trainings. The VEEP model is therefore constantly being refined and improved, but is indeed now one which can be easily replicated in many communities where there is need for the benefits it can offer, such as the stabilisation of slopes to protect homes, agricultural lands and infrastructure; the treatment and cleanup of contaminated lands and water such as through soak-away systems and agricultural runoff; and also livelihood opportunities through the production and sale of sustainable vetiver grass handicrafts – or vetiver plants propagation for use on other private and public works projects. One of the most important reasons for which the VEEP model was developed however, was to inherently build the resilience of people, by giving them simple, green and cost-effective tools which they can use to tackle their own soil and water related challenges which can be exacerbated by more extreme weather (heavy rains, floods, hurricanes, etc); where they won’t be solely reliant on expensive hard engineered alternatives or government interventions. 

We are therefore promoting and ready to support VEEP expansion to other areas as needed, and are refining ways to make this knowledge more exponentially available – including digitally, through online courses, training and educational videos, social media and technical webinars. We also hope that governments and other partners may recognise its value and support its further implementation at the national scale since this is indeed a solution that could benefit many people, including those most in need. Lastly, the VEEP model can also have good application on very large construction projects internationally in the tropical and sub-tropical world (such as in mining, and highway development), where these projects often have high impact on rural communities who can have the opportunity to gain valuable and sustainable employment through being part of needed rehabilitative solutions.

Architects and engineers can play a critical and important role in helping to support expansion in the Vetiver System (VS) use, since the VS has the greatest success rate (which can be close to 100%) when it is properly considered and accounted for during the design phase. Not yet being a mainstream solution, it is often ignored or forgotten at this stage, where we are called upon to assist only after site (soil and water) challenges are being faced (and where there is little to no budget considered for its implementation). If included in the design phase this allows for proper consideration of geotechnical and water management needs, and the use of combination with complimentary approaches as required to have a comprehensive and properly catered for solution.

BONUS Q6

ACLA: As you become more and more intimate with this super-plant, have you experimented with any other capabilities of Vetiver within the construction industry? What about woven sun shading systems for instance?


JB: Along with the functions vetiver serves for land stabilisation and erosion control, it is also a good phytoremediator – meaning that it can assist with the treatment of contaminated lands and water, through its ability to take up large amounts of heavy metals and polluting nutrients. We’ve therefore experimented with its use for the treatment of contaminated landfill leachate, and have also implemented a project in Pt Lisas to provide some final (tertiary) treatment of waste waters before discharge into the environment. 

Referring to the use of the plant itself as a material for construction, in fact the leaves are also well known for their use in traditional earthen “Tapia” building, which is making a tremendous comeback internationally, and there have been several successful building cases also in T&T – where the quality and aesthetic is very high, with a look that resembles Mediterranean terra-cotta finishing. The leaves are also indeed used as a roofing material which is very popular in the tourism sector on other Caribbean islands such as St Lucia, for beach bars and huts, given it’s attractive look. Some Asian countries have also particularly excelled in the diversity of handicrafts being made, and other household items such as placemats and curtains are produced using both the leaves and roots. 

In T&T, a new community-led brand called House of Vetiver was born through the first VEEP project in Paramin, which offers a range of sustainable handicrafts using vetiver grass, including items such as baskets, mats, re-upholstered chairs, soaps, fragrant root bundles – and also vetiver essential oil which is produced in the Dominican Republic or Haiti and bottled in T&T.

Learn more about Vetiver here!



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