RETHINKING SOCIAL HOUSING

Ala Abuhasan

Cities around the globe have been planning and building social housing projects for decades. Focused on maximizing the number of units, the quality of dwellings is usually overlooked. Generally, certain typologies have driven the way we design social housing. For instance, a top-down planning philosophy—or a military planning philosophy—is evident in many projects. This method of approaching social housing usually leads to the design of endless rows of depersonalized dwelling units. No attention is given to the quality of life nor to the community aspect of such spaces.  

An Illustration of Military Planning Philosophy

Most of these schemes are built in rural areas—far from cities and job opportunities—making them socially isolated, dehumanizing and unsustainable. Therefore, changing our approach to the design of social housing will ultimately create more sustainable communities.  

An excellent example of successful social housing is Goldsmith Street, in Norwich, England. The street is a high-density social housing scheme by Mikhail Riches. The project re-imagines social housing as an opportunity to create a highly efficient, economical, community-driven fabric within the city. The Passivhaus design of dwelling units drastically reduces fuel bills for tenants. Communal gardens and planted alleys allow for safe areas for children to play and for residents to engage in social activities. The design enhances the wellbeing of occupants and establishes a strong community.

Other examples of successful social housing include Savonnerie Heymans and Le Lorrain by MDW Architecture. The designs focus on creating a variety of spaces to accommodate different family needs. In addition, each complex houses a children’s playground and areas for events and social gatherings.  

As architects, we work to sustain our communities. We are obliged to design good spaces that promote healthy living.  In successful housing projects, residents build emotional ownership of the place, they connect to it, they love it, they maintain it.

TAKING THE LONG VIEW

David Premi

In the investment world, short-term investments are generally associated with higher risk. If this is true, why do investors often fail to look long-term when constructing buildings?

Many investors, donors, developers, institutions and purchasing departments embrace the lowest initial cost for their buildings and designers while placing less emphasis on the life-cycle cost and the legacy that the built form will represent.

With the evolution of Building Information Modeling (BIM) we can calculate how much a building will cost over its lifetime, which can help investors decide where to cut costs and where to spend.

The initial investment of a building includes the construction cost plus “soft costs”. A significant soft cost is the fee for professional design services such as architects and engineers. Choices made during the design phase are critical because they will continue to impact future profitability, flexibility, operational costs and occupant health, happiness and productivity for the lifespan of a building. It is during the design phase of the process that a building owner has control over how much the project will cost in the long run. It is more accurate to refer to professional design fees as an investment rather than a cost.

With the current low-margin model, buildings of relatively poor quality often reach the end of their serviceable life after 50 years, before being demolished and replaced by new ones. What once seemed like a great investment is reduced to a pile of rubble in a landfill. We know that this trend is not financially nor environmentally sustainable – and there is a better way forward.

A more profitable and sustainable model exists, allowing us to construct better quality and more energy-efficient buildings. It’s now possible to build to a net-zero standard, where buildings produce as much energy as they consume. There is also a growing trend to perform deep retrofits to existing buildings, which is a renovation of an existing building which results in a substantial reduction in energy consumption. These approaches come with an incrementally larger initial investment in both design fees and construction cost but drastically reduce operation and maintenance costs over the building’s lifetime.

To better understand lifecycle cost, check out the video below:

Common sense and history tell us that investors who take the long view are the ones who end up on top. As designers, it is our responsibility to encourage our clients to see beyond the initial costs to gain an understanding of the true value of their investment.

DESIGN DISRUPTION

David Premi

Rendering of a proposed streetscape by dpai.

Historically, disruption has been associated with bad behaviour; we all remember those disruptive students at school. But today it has evolved to have a different meaning. From a business or organizational perspective, “disruption” is defined as changing the traditional way that an entity operates, especially in a new and effective way.

Disruption is now ubiquitous. Profound transformations in industries such as transportation, hospitality and music continue to occur through disruptions sparked by Uber, Airbnb and Spotify. The design industry is no exception. Tradition must be challenged if a design process is to be robust. 

Creating a virtual reality

Today, designers can create functional, virtual replicas of their projects, neighbourhoods and cities. These virtual models can be navigated in 2D or visitors can be immersed in virtual reality. Bus schedules, tree species, existing built fabric, complete with materials and textures, and an accurate daily cycle of the sun’s path can be embedded into these models. Cars and pedestrians roam the streets based on actual traffic data. Soon we will be able to include dynamic computer simulated wind, air quality, and temperature data to assess the environmental impacts of a change to the built fabric.

Unlike the cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming practice of wind tunnel testing, unlimited iterations of a proposed building or park can be studied “live” with this technology. Designers can see the impacts of their design as it is in its virtual context. Through web sharing of the model, the visual and environmental impacts can be experienced dynamically by many groups of people simultaneously. Public consensus at this scale could have a profound impact on any political issues surrounding a proposal.

Disrupting traditional processes

As a public engagement tool, this technology has the capacity to seriously disrupt both the traditional development and planning processes. Imagine a proposed building, twice the height permitted by zoning, is empirically and publicly demonstrated to have only positive impacts. Conversely, what if a permitted height is shown to have unacceptable impacts, pressuring developers to reduce the density on which the economics of a development were based? Land values could be affected on a hyper-local level.

Could virtual reality hold the answer to a truly democratic and participatory urban design process?

CITIES AS A CANVAS FOR EXPERIMENTATION

Petra Matar

As architects and urban planners, we need to let go of the idea that we have complete control. Instead of thinking of our work in terms of a final product, what if we approached it as an ever-changing canvas, that both shapes and is shaped by people and the environment?

Architecture isn’t a linear process with a single vision of what is right, but rather an infrastructure of human life, within which users and their activities move, adapt and change. We don’t see our work as absolute – it is an intuitive collaboration of many inspired individuals overlaying their visions in a shared community. We need to employ intuition and encourage participation in modifying and creating environments that perform and inspire.

A disconnected design process

The making of structures and cities has become a disconnected process. Codes, regulations, minimum requirements, deadlines and budgets tend to reign supreme over intuition and thoughtfulness. These are crucial factors, but too often ignore qualitative conversations and considerations.

A property built by a developer is typically built to maximize revenue – an understandable requirement – however, its contribution to society cannot be ignored. The process of city building can and should give designers the opportunity to practice good intuition, and end-users the freedom to participate and modify their environment.

Hands-on growth

The organic formation of dense human habitation in many parts of the world holds intrinsic beauty and order, as a manifestation of immediate human need with a close relationship to materials, highly conditioned by scale.

Photo by Agung Raharja

Densely inhabited areas can inspire cities to grow according to need, employing experimentation and improvisation. They represent spaces that have been designed with human scale fundamentally considered. Cities are an act of human creation – why not design them to celebrate human participation, ingenuity and creativity?

Opportunities

Imagine a design process that sees beauty and opportunity in experimentation; design born of imagination, fully driven and supported to apply and experiment with its vision. Imagine a city that is a canvas of experimentation.

Our wish is for cities to invest in realizing bold new ideas – not for the sake of self-image, but for the sake of society. Despite our best efforts at planning, cities grow and change over time without end results being fully known. As city dwellers, we must be encouraged and empowered to participate in the creative evolution of our urban environments

WHAT IS URBAN DESIGN?

David Premi

Urban design is the practice of arranging the elements of a city that provide infrastructure for a healthy, lucrative and productive environment for residents. Urban design deals with built form, transportation, density, public space, architecture, landscape design, land use, public transportation, public health, recreation, sustainability, politics, public art, micro-climates, and ultimately the character and quality of the built environment. It is a holistic practice that considers the complexities and inter-relationships of all these systems.

Urban design must therefore be a collaborative effort, and must a acknowledge and embrace the context of its political, economic, environmental and cultural complexities. Many voices must be heard and included to ensure success.

Urban designers

Unlike the roles of planners, architects and engineers, urban design is a relatively new profession. The title ‘urban designer’ was coined over 25 years ago but to date, there is no professional accreditation for this role. It is a curatorial activity that considers and acknowledges the many forces that shape a city.

Good urban design

Urban design should consider the ideal quality of the human experience. It’s proactive in that it delivers a quality master plan that the individual interventions strive to satisfy while supporting a vision. Issues arise when there is an overemphasis on zoning, often creating unnatural environments based on an artificial and arbitrary set of rules that are inherently inflexible, rigid and predetermined.

For urban designers to succeed, they need to be at the table as a primary driver of vision alongside planners. They also need to make sure that when individual interventions are made, they are not in conflict with the mission and values of that vision.

Even when the best process is followed, some results will be unexpected. Such is the nature of the complex and unpredictable system, and for that, we need urban designers.

A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

David Premi

At the recent Bay Area Climate Change Summit, a Hamilton audience of 150 people was told by Sustainability Consultant Yuill Herbert that the city could become carbon neutral by 2050. This, according to increasing scientific consensus, is the necessary target that all cities must strive for in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This is particularly timely as Hamilton city council also recently voted to declare a climate emergency. It is amongst the first few cities in Canada to do so after Vancouver, Halifax and Kingston.

Herbert said that governments have a lot of leverage to change the way we design our cities. He suggests the following:

Change regulations

Governments should enforce a net-zero carbon agenda for any new construction. Provincially, this could be enshrined in the building code if the Government considered climate change an important issue. Locally, bylaws could enforce a higher level of sustainability, for example, Toronto’s requirement for green roofs.

Intensify

The way a city is designed has a direct impact on its carbon footprint.  In an automobile dependent community, a great deal of carbon is produced driving around.  More expensive and resource-hungry roads and infrastructure are required in low-density environments. Cities must urgently adopt new (or finally get serious about enforcing existing) rules that promote compact urban form and intensification. Less sprawl and more density mean a more livable environment locally and a healthier planet. There is no downside to this concept.

Stop Designing for Automobiles

Parking requirements should be greatly reduced or eliminated. Parking stall sizes should be decreased. Require bike storage and car share in all new buildings. Build complete cycling networks. Cities must start to create redevelopment plans around both local and regional transit networks

Photo by Ken Mann – Global News

We are running out of time. All designers should feel an obligation to radically change the way we design cities and buildings and need to act to work quickly towards this goal. By declaring a climate emergency, the City of Hamilton has announced its commitment to this goal. We now have a new lens through which to justify and judge our actions.