A recent report (read it here) on the shelter situation in Haiti by Ian Davis of Lund University points out a troubling aspect of post-disaster reconstruction. Following the earthquake of 2010, more than 100,000 temporary shelters have been erected. These lightweight timber structures, called T-Shelters, are intended to be a transitional solution between tents, which are the usual emergency post-disaster shelter, and permanent houses. The problem, as Davis points out, is that the average cost of a T-Shelter ($13.80/square foot) is not much less than the average cost of a permanent house ($16.60/square foot). He suggests that the $500 million spent on T-shelters could have been better spent building permanent homes, especially as experience shows that “temporary” shelters tend to last a long time, becoming what he calls a “dismal legacy.” This is a problem as T-Shelters often occupy sites that are suited to permanent construction. Since the conventional building technology inHaiti is not timber (there are few trees) but reinforced concrete frames with cement block infill, the materials of the T-shelters are not easily transformed into permanent housing. Moreover, the imported technology is poorly suited to create the sort of skill-training that might generate future employment. Good intentions, not so good results.
Last summer I visited Charleston and saw an interesting house designed by George Holt and Andrew Gould. It’s basically a tiny version of Palladio’s Villas Saraceno, or at least its central portion, with the characteristic triple arch. No room for a loggia here, just a single room, barely 12 feet deep, but with a wonderfully tall ceiling that maintains the original villa’s regal scale. A small house with a big attitude. The ingenious plan has a two bedrooms above (each with a bathroom), with two separate staircases which allows one of the rooms to be rented out. The thick walls look solid because they are solid: load-bearing cement block filled with concrete and reinforced. Nice wood details. The owner, Reid Burgess, who participated in the design, has a website with great photos of the construction in progress.
Every small rebound in the number of new houses built is followed by a flurry of articles about how the housing industry is poised to make a comeback. But if my developer friend Joe Duckworth is right, the U.S. housing market is not experiencing a correction but a major restructuring. With college graduates heavily in debt—and high school graduates without well-paying jobs—the first-time buyer market is stalled, and existing homeowners, who might have “moved up,” are stalled, too. The future, according to Joe, is likely to include many more renters than in the last several decades, and so-called starter homes are likely to become permanent homes, as they were in the 1950s when a Levittown house would last a family’s lifetime. Twenty-two years ago, Avi Friedman and I designed the Grow Home, a 14-foot wide row house only 896 square feet in area. Over the next decade they were built in large numbers in the Montreal suburbs with a price tag of around C$60,000 ($95,000 in present day U.S. dollars). We intended the Grow Home as a lower rung for young families beginning their climb up the housing ladder. Today, that ladder appears considerably less tall, and what was designed as an “affordable home” looks like it may be the new normal.
524 West 19th Street in New York’s Chelsea District is a small residential building designed by Shigeru Ban, with Dean Maltz. The 11-story block contains only 8 units which the developer calls “houses,” since they are two-story duplexes that extend through the building, front-to-back, recalling the units in Le Corbusier’s unité d’habitation in Marseilles. The Chelsea houses have two-story living rooms, too, and shallow loggias. There the resemblance ends, since these are expensive ($3.6 – $11.25 million) condominiums with Corian kitchen islands and Miele cook tops. Press a button and the entire motorized 20-foot glass wall, which resembles a garage door, pivots up and opens the living space to the exterior. The façade consists of perforated metal shutters that can be raised or lowered to control privacy (though not sun, since this part of the building faces north). It is all very elegantly designed in a clear and unfussy way (unlike Jean Nouvel’s crazy quilt of 1,647 different windows across the street). But it raises a question. Is it really a good idea to open up your home to the dust and noise of Manhattan. Maybe, but I can imagine once the novelty wears off, the glass garage doors and metal shutters will mostly stay in place. As my friend Ian Ritchie says, “Architecture is the solution, but what is the problem?”
An op-ed in today’s New York Times, by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava of Mumbai, comments on a proposal for a $300 house as a solution for slum-dwellers in Third World countries. The authors correctly criticize the idea. Architects never cease to be fascinated by “minimal” housing (preferably prefab), and a $300 house sounds like the housing equivalent of the $100 one-laptop-per-child computer. But it isn’t. Twenty-five years ago, when I was doing research on slums in Indore, we discovered several interesting facts that contradicted the conventional thinking about how the poor live (available as a report, How the Other Half Builds, Vol I). For one thing, their homes were not all small—far from it. The reason was that households weren’t small. Nuclear families were few and far between, most families were extended, and most houses were home to 2-3 families. In the five communities we studied, there was no simple correlation between family income, family size, and sharing. We concluded that the reason for sharing was not necessarily economic, but was due to family ties, caste, or work groups. The last is important, for home often also means work place. So houses accommodate work spaces—and shop spaces—as well as living spaces. Further, building a house is not such a big problem for the poor—there are plenty of second-hand and recycled building material available in slum communities (and in the surrounding city). What is often a problem is water supply and especially waste (excreta) disposal. Better to put one’s energies there.