Can Design Help the Housing Crisis?

Photo credit: Substandard Housing, eviction in process. source: New Yorker

by Liz Falletta

A reaction to Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Though housing type and housing design are near the top of the list for many of us as we evaluate our housing options, these issues barely registered in the lives described in Matthew Desmond’s  Evicted. As Arleen, Crystal and Pam searched for housing that met their severely limited financial means and compromised rental backgrounds, different housing types were stated in passing: trailer park, single family home, duplex, rooming house, homeless shelter and, curiously, a three story brick building on a dead end street that may or may not have once been a mental institution. But how this housing was physically designed merited almost no mention. Spatial organization and architectural style were discussed only three times in the 336-page narrative. The duplexes Lamar and Patrice lived in were described as “longer than they were wide, with rough-wood balconies painted blue-gray.” (Desmond 2016, p 13) Arleen’s new apartment on Thirteenth Street was once a “stately thing . . . built in the Greek revival style . . . with twin columns supporting an awning over the door.” (Desmond 2016, p. 53) And the house Sherrena the landlord bought right before her trip to Jamaica was a “large, late colonial-style home with a round turret and generous porch.” (Desmond 2016, p149)

Milwaukee Trailer Park, source New York Times
Milwaukee Trailer Park, source New York Times

Perhaps the design of the homes documented in Evicted was overshadowed by their deplorable condition. Or perhaps design was simply deemed a “higher-order need,” by both the author and his subjects, similar to how Arleen positioned finding a home above her children’s attendance at school. (Desmond 2016, p 283) Either way, architecture and design played no role in this particular housing story. But, what is the role of design in the housing debate? By leaving it out Desmond suggests that design is a bit player at best, a luxury valuable only to those who can afford it. But, all of the homes documented in the book were designed by someone, responding to some accepted measure or metric. Design is an inextricable part of our housing system because somebody has to make decisions about how housing should be physically organized and arranged so that it can be built. Can design be used to address this housing crisis, and if so, how and what degree of impact could it reasonably expect to provide?

One design issue that is touched upon in the book, though not discussed in design terms, is cost. Would housing that is cheaper to build and maintain help the situation? Should architects and designers be more concerned with reducing the cost of new housing? Could prefabrication, 3D printing technology and more flexible building codes make a dent in our housing crisis?

Or is one of the hurdles to affordability the mismatch experienced by those in the book between user type and unit type? Should our housing stock better recognize, reflect and support the shifting co-living situations documented in Evicted? Could microhousing, tiny homes, accessory dwelling units, adult dormitories or mobile shelters place housing within better financial reach and create more supportive social structures?

Or, what about using design thinking to remake not just housing, but the way housing is delivered, to create a better designed housing system. So-called “self-help” housing schemes approach housing as an open system that can evolve over time as the needs and means of families shift and change. While efforts to fast-track affordable housing by reducing regulatory hurdles aim to streamline and hopefully increase production. Would these strategies offer a clearer pathway to improved housing affordability?

Yes to all of the above.

Though it is unlikely, as Desmond points out, that even the least expensive permanent housing could be built without subsidy at a price point accessible to Lamar, Larraine or Vanetta. (Desmond 2016, p. 309) Experiments with new housing types are ongoing, but typically at a high price point to cover the costs of innovation. And self-help housing has been hard to implement at scale. Yet all of these strategies offer incremental, and important, opportunities to make progress, and are significant arenas in which design as a discipline can contribute.

Tweet: Architecture looks into itself, rather than out into the world, for agency, and too often hasn’t seen poverty as a design problem.

Though housing costs, housing types and housing delivery are profoundly shaped by housing design, too few architects view design as a collaborative activity that partners with builders to reduce expenditures, owners and users to develop new typologies and regulators to streamline systems. Architects rarely speak about housing design in these terms and the issues of cost, type and delivery are often viewed as infuriating barriers to good design rather than respected drivers of design innovation. “The unfortunate tendency in architectural discourse,” say architects Steven B. Moore and Barbara B. Wilson, “is to credit authorship to individual designers, rather than the collaborative decision making process.” (Moore, p.29) Architects are trained to evaluate architecture as an autonomous art, where “originality and newness have traditionally comprised the two dominant modes of legitimation.” (Moore, p.13) Architecture looks into itself, rather than out into the world, for agency, and too often hasn’t seen poverty as a design problem.

Quinta Monroy Housing, Iquique, 2004. Photograph by Cristobal Palma. source: deezeen
Quinta Monroy Housing, Iquique, 2004. Photograph by Cristobal Palma. source: deezeen

The prevalence and persistence of such attitudes was on display recently when the winner of the Pritzker Prize was announced, architecture’s most prestigious award often described as its Nobel Prize. This year’s laureate, Alejandro Aravena of Chile, is a leader in a new generation of architects motivated by social concerns and is well known for his firm’s self-help housing solution “half a good house.” In an interview with dezeen published as the award was announced, Aravena shared his belief that “universities are failing to give architects the training that will enable them to find solutions for an imminent global housing crisis.” (“Architects “are never taught the right thing” says 2016 Pritzker laureate Alejandro Aravena” 2016) He is concerned that architects are “never taught the right thing” in school and are currently “unable to overcome the challenges posed by politics, economics and building codes to deliver viable solutions.” (“Architects “are never taught the right thing” says 2016 Pritzker laureate Alejandro Aravena” 2016) This interview elicited 45 comments (as of 5/4/16) first of which said, “the PC takeover of architecture is complete: the Pritzker Prize has mutated into a prize for humanitarian work.” In a quick follow up interview, the architect, honored for the profound architectural quality of his work with disadvantaged groups, felt obligated to backtrack, saying that the global housing crisis requires “professional quality, not professional charity,” claiming that “architects have no moral obligation to society.” (“Architects have no moral obligation to society says Alejandro Aravena” 2016)

If this is the attitude, even from a leader in the field who has delivered quality architecture in extremis, architecture and design will have little to contribute to the housing crisis. Architects will have essentially “self-evicted” from the pressing problem of poverty. If designers want to be more than just the hero of their own story, they need to expand both their perception of that which can be designed and their practice of design thinking, extending design benefits to people like Scott, Trisha and Jafaris who cannot “afford” architecture. Architect Aravena got into social housing when it was, in his words, “the least cool thing to do.” (“Architects “are never taught the right thing” says 2016 Pritzker laureate Alejandro Aravena” 2016) Let’s change that.

 

If designers want to be more than just the hero of their own story, they need to expand both their perception of that which can be designed and their practice of design thinking …

 

 

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