Outside the Box: The Expanding Role of the Architect as Advocate and Activist

Continuing with the weekly Cahdco Lunch and Learn sessions, a couple of weeks ago I presented on an article in the 2018 Architectural Design journal “Housing as Intervention: Architecture towards Social Equity.”

Written by Hadiya Al-Idrissi

July 4, 2019

The article I specifically looked at was “Calling All Architects: New Approaches to Old Housing,” which featured 3 projects around the world that exemplified inventive design solutions to maintain and improve existing housing stock. Usually, these renovations cost less than half the amount it would to demolish and rebuild. From minimal interventions with maximum impact, to advocacy for policy changes and replicable models, these projects highlight the improvement of livability in social housing from the unit, right through to the neighborhood scale.

There is a growing body of research that demonstrates people with stable, affordable, well-designed housing lead healthier happier lives than those who are rent burdened or precariously housed. Historically, housing has been considered distinct from architecture. Housing was seen as a socio-economic product to be delivered at the least possible cost and mass produced, whereas architecture was considered a cultural endeavour, something more ‘poetic’.

In other words, housing was seen as a commodity, while architecture was a luxury.

The articles and projects featured in this journal highlight the expanded role of the architect as an advocate and activist in the betterment of lives through the built environment, and demonstrate how housing projects and the design processes behind them can be interventions towards greater social equity, fair access to opportunities, and resources for an economically stable life.

  1. Cité du Grand Parc (2016) – Bordeaux, France

Lacaton & Vassal; Frédéric Druot Architecture; Christophe Hutin Architecture

  • Grand Parc was created to house working-class families, newcomers as well as those displaced from the city centre as a result of slum clearance after the second world war.
  • 3 of the towers were slated for demolition until Frederic Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean Phillipe proposed an alternative solution. The renovation included adding insulation and pre-fabricated, 3.8m concrete ‘winter gardens’ (balconies) to each of the 538 units.
  • The winter gardens are enclosed with translucent polycarbonate sliding panels and reflective insulated curtains. The placement of insulation and winter gardens help to reduce energy consumption through passive solar heat gain during the winter months, while the foil curtains reflect heat during the summer months.
  • There is no thermal bridging, as the new structure is independent of the existing building.
  • At around $75,000 CAD per unit, the renovation cost roughly half as much as a new-build scheme. Only half of the budget was spent on the facades; the rest was dedicated to more general upgrading on the interiors of the towers.
  • Rents have remained stable and none of the tenants were displaced during construction.

Before (left) and after (right) of the Cité du Grand Parc renovation (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/may/12/grand-parc-bordeaux-lacaton-vassal-mies-van-der-rohe-award).

Before (left) and after (right) of the Winter Garden additions (Source: http://www.druot.net/grp).

A simple and elegant update to the repetitive concrete blocks we associate with mass housing, this project also won the 2019 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture. Read more about it here.

2. Central Hill Estate: Alternative to Demolition (2016) – London, England

Architects for Social Housing (ASH)

  • Built in the late 1960s as an alternative to housing families in tower blocks, Central Hill Estate is a low-rise, high density neighbourhood of over 1,200 residents located in south London.
  • The entire estate was slated for demolition through a Council-led ‘regeneration’ plan that will almost eliminate the affordable housing stock, when Architects for Social Housing (ASH), a volunteer based group of architects and designers formed and proposed an alternative plan to the loss of the thousands of homes.
  • The plan included increasing the housing capacity of the estate by 40%-50% through strategically placed infill housing and ‘roof extensions’ – pre-fabricated lightweight construction of units to be added to the roofs of existing low-rise buildings. The new housing would include a mix of units sold and rented to the private market to offset the cost of the long neglected repair and maintenance of the existing buildings.
  • The architects hired by Council began their consultation with the residents by posting on their Twitter account a photograph taken of the estate at night with the caption: ‘Would you walk down this alleyway!’ As a clever response, ASH published stereotypical negative statements made about estates juxtaposed with photographs highlighting the beauty and diversity of Central Hill.
  • The ASH plan was costed at a total of $130,000,000 CAD, less than half the cost of Council’s proposed plan to demolish and rebuild the number of existing homes.

Proposed Alternative to Demolition Site Plan of Central Hill Estate (Source: https://architectsforsocialhousing.co.uk/)

Political propaganda (left), ASH propaganda (right) (Source: https://architectsforsocialhousing.co.uk/)

ASH reminds us that the existing residents matter as much as the existing buildings. ASH approached this project with a sensitivity to the needs of the tenants, lots of community engagement to inform their design decisions, and advocated on behalf of the residents when scare tactics attempted to coerce public approval of the demolition. ASH remains active in proposing alternative solutions to demolition of estates across London, read more about them here.

3. Tower Renewal (2016) – Toronto, Canada

ERA Architects

  • Nearly one million people in the Greater Toronto Area live in approximately 2,000 concrete residential tower blocks which were built between 1945 and 1984. These towers were originally intended to promote social progress, alleviate pressures on infrastructure and services in crowded downtown cores, and provide residents with access to green space. Today, ‘tower in the park’ housing accounts for nearly half of Toronto’s rental housing, one of the most unaffordable housing markets in Canada.
  • Most of the buildings themselves are in poor repair, are below today’s energy efficiency and accessibility standards, have underused green space and lack community amenities.
  • Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects, and some local partners set up a non-profit organization independent of the City Department to manage what has become the Tower Renewal Partnership (TRP). TRP conducts feasibility studies at the unit, building and campus scales, publishes reports and lead initiatives to improve these tower in the park neighbourhoods.
  • The Tower Renewal Vision has 3 phases:
    • Energy retrofits and improvements to existing housing
    • The provision of new community amenities and programming
    • Better integration of tower neighborhoods into the city through infill development new recreational opportunities and improved transit connection.
  • To modernize the ageing housing stock while maintaining affordability, the Tower Renewal Partnership has proposed Passive House and mechanical retrofits to high-rise apartments in order to reduce energy consumption and lower operating costs.

Conceptual sketch on improving a typical Tower in the Park development (Source: http://towerrenewal.com/)

Proposed renovation on unit scale of Ken Soble Tower (Source: http://towerrenewal.com/)

The Tower Renewal Partnership demonstrates how the architect can take on more of a research role to inform long-term policy-making and design decisions around improving a specific aspect of existing rental housing stock. The lessons learned and best practices from these studies could also be replicable and applicable across the rest of Canada. Read more about the Tower Renewal Partnership here.

Parti diagram of Midtown Housing (2013), Duvall Decker Architects, Mississippi.

Presenting on these projects prompted good discussion on the way we administer Request for Proposals (RFPs) for architects. How do we best facilitate creativity in affordable housing solutions? Are budget constraints considered an inhibitor or motivator for innovative thinking? Could we utilize architecture schools by hosting affordable housing design charrettes to generate fresh ideas? Ultimately, there needs to be a balance between creativity and feasibility.

Housing is architecture.

Design is a tool that shouldn’t be reserved for only those who can profit off of it. Good conscientious design should be applied to every housing project for the betterment of people’s homes (and in turn, their lives), regardless of what rent they may pay. Architects have that power, coupled with a drive for advocacy and activism, it’s about time we use it to redefine how affordable housing looks and functions, and perhaps begin to erase its stigma for good.

Check out the 2018 Architectural Design publication “Housing as Intervention: Architecture towards Social Equity” if you would like to learn more.

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Hadiya Al-Idrissi

Development Project Coordinator

July 4, 2019