• Tuesday , 17 October 2017

The Importance of Situating Architecture in a Broader Context

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Emmett Scanlon and Orla Murphy of UCD’s School of Architecture, Planning & Environmental Policy recently asked me out to Richview to speak to their first year MArch. students who are busy running a project known as #risinghome. Each week a different group of speakers talk to and interact with the students; I was with Michelle Norris, chair of the Housing Finance Agency (who lend money to Approved Housing Bodies for the supply of social housing), and James Pike of O’Mahony Pike architects.

Not being an architect, it can be challenging knowing how or where to pitch a talk on housing policy to a class of architectural students. Housing policy – both contemporary and historical – can be a complicated issue covering supposedly diverse (but actually inter-related) topics such as the role of the church, incest, social exclusion, mental health, labour mobility, vacancy rates, neo-liberalism, sub-prime lending and so on. We got there, however, and eventually ended up discussing how an architect can take on board societal and financial issues in their designs.

I suggested a challenge to design suitable accommodation for different households on an average wage (in Dublin around €41,000pa, a bit less elsewhere). This would mean students designing homes for single people which would sell for around €160,000; for a couple this figure rises to €320,000. An alternative challenge would be to take 30% of an average salary as the sum that could be expected to be paid in rent each month: if this is c. €1,000, then the architects’ job was to design a home that would reasonably be let for this sum. It’s not easy working backwards like this.

In preparation for these weekly speakers, the students have created a space known as The Front Room and within this they have taped out a new bedsit-sized 40sqm unit. Even without the advantage of having real dividing walls and doors, it was evident how inappropriate this size space is for any form of living, especially not long-term (there are standard hotel bedrooms larger than this). Translating policy rules to on-the-ground dimensions (literally in this case) is a good way of bringing home the importance of clever design in creating liveable places, and of space in and of itself. It was also easy to point out how reducing size is the least efficient way of reducing building costs.

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There are a couple of significant points about an exercise like this. The first is the very act of bringing together experts from diverse backgrounds to meet and discuss issues with architectural students, to give them an understanding of the role of social policy for example, or the importance of designing for affordability. In over a dozen years teaching I have never spoken to architectural students like this about housing issues and how their skills and mine are interrelated and interconnected.

Silo-thinking has been – and probably still is – a curse in many areas of Irish life. Built environment professions are as guilty as anybody else of this, and indeed, our adversarial system of construction doesn’t help matters. Events like The Front Room talks are therefore very valuable in helping to break down (mentally at least) barriers between parties involved in building our environment, before they become too embedded. I think that having various parties with skin in the housing game explaining where they are coming from and how their area relates to or affects the architectural element helps to contextualise issues for students. Highly skilled professions like architecture and engineering have a tendency to believe that it is perhaps they who are the most important element in the construction process; in this case, house-building. Engaging with other components, from policy to finance, highlights the fact that architects, like the developer or financier, are part of a continuum where no one person is more important than the other, but yet where nothing can happen without the other.

The Front Room and #risinghome is a brilliant idea that will serve its architectural students well in situating them and their skills in a broader approach to housing, which can only be of benefit to all.

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