Housing (crisis) Report - UNStudio

Datum: 11-03-2021 09:53:20
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Thurs 11h March 2021
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Housing (crisis) Report
  It is a common misconception that affordable housing needs to be utilitarian in order to be financially viable. The incredible success and legacy of the Amsterdam School architects of the 1920s is testament to the fact that a ‘total architectural experience’ can be achieved within a critical budget. When it comes to building homes, good design should never be something that can only be enjoyed by the lucky few, it should and can be for everybody.”
Ben van Berkel
  Photo source: Unsplash  
  With increasing numbers of people moving to cities for work, extreme housing shortages have been an ongoing problem in many global cities and developing countries for a long time. In recent years however, many European cities have started to experience their own housing shortages and have already put ambitious targets in place for the construction of large numbers of new homes over the next 10 to 30 years.

It is widely understood that in order to operate to their full potential, our cities need to provide adequate and affordable housing for key workers, young professionals, creatives and students. In recent years however, many such essential groups have been priced out of the market and are now being forced to decamp in droves. Our cities are no longer working for everyone.
On a planning level, densification presents a significant obstacle. Simply creating mono-functional suburban residential zones is not an acceptable answer, as the real demand for housing is within the very fabric of our cities, where people work and where public transport is provided. So how can we plan our already space-poor cities to accommodate high volumes of new homes? And what needs to be done to ensure that our existing infrastructures and services can adequately serve such growth?

Solving these issues is, without a doubt, an extremely complex affair. It encompasses many scales and requires dedicated action from multiple stakeholders. In the following report, we will describe some of the steps currently being taken in a number of European cities and outline a number of possible further approaches that we believe could contribute to both short and long term goals.
So how did we end up in this predicament?
  Yick Fat Building, Hong Kong. Photo: Note Thanun on UNSplash  
  So how did we end up in this predicament?  
  The fact that many cities now have insufficient affordable and social housing stock is the result of numerous factors. While part of the blame can reasonably be placed on inadequate investment, planning and foresight, other factors have exacerbated the problem significantly in recent years.

Many European cities have recently experienced exorbitant rent increases. Berlin, a city where the vast  majority of people choose to rent, rather than buy a home, has seen its rents double since 2008. Similarly, while the municipality of Amsterdam estimates an expected 11,000 new inhabitants each year, the price of owner occupied housing has risen by almost 50% since 2010. This has had the roll-on effect of the gentrification of neighbourhoods where key workers were previously housed, or could afford to live. An additional source of the problem is touristification, which has resulted in an increase in the number of residential properties being offered for short-term rentals and, as a result, being removed from already depleted housing stocks.
What steps are being taken?
  UNStudio's urban study for the A10 ring road in Amsterdam provides a glimpse into the future for the Motorway X City (BNA, 2016). The ring road turns into a pleasant boulevard as a result of the decreased air pollution and noise that will come with electric vehicle use  
  What steps are being taken?  
  Many cities in Europe are currently taking steps in order to tackle the problem. In the UK, for example, these include radical reform proposals to the ‘outdated and ineffective’ planning system, while in London, plans for an Affordable Homes Programme have been outlined with £4 billion funding secured for 2021-26 and planning for 82,000 new homes to be built from April this year.

Berlin, on the other hand, introduced a five year rent freeze in Jan 2020 in a bid to slow gentrification in the city. A citizen’s initiative to re-nationalise public housing that had been sold to private housing associations is also underway.

Amsterdam - a city where the waiting list for social housing is now over 15 years - has also set a maximum price rise of 1% plus inflation, alongside plans to build 52,500 houses between 2018 and the end of 2025 (7,500 on average per year). 17,500 of these will be social housing, while 10,500 will be affordable homes and rooms for students and young people. In addition, a ban has been introduced on letting new-build homes, unless these are rented out as social housing or mid-priced rental homes.

While the above actions are certainly laudable, they remain isolated changes to housing policies, rather than incorporating long term integral planning for the claims made on urban space by broader societal challenges, such as energy transition, mobility, climate adaptation etc. We believe that cities can achieve much more if they adopt an integral approach to spatial development and to solving the problems that arise from the various claims that are currently made on our urban space.

Such an integral approach requires that all stakeholders – government, policy makers, planners, investors, developers, architects, engineers, contractors and residents – play their part in devising integrated scenarios and strategies where planning and building seamlessly coincide with political, social and economic ambitions. If our cities are to thrive, all parties need to commit to long term goals and replace their individual interests with a common goal: the creation of sustainable cities with a balanced mix of living and working, good public transport and a housing market that is accessible for everyone.

Further information on these proposals can be found in the recent publication: ‘Wat wij willen is nog nooit gebeurd’ (What we want has never happened), available from March 18th.
So is this really a design problem?
  Click image to play  
  So is this really a design problem?  
  Without a doubt, no adequate and long lasting progress can be achieved without creative planning and progressive policies across the board. However, once these steps have been taken, large volumes of homes need to be built in a very short space of time.

Of his blueprint for a new generation of social housing, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recently stated, “High-quality homes shouldn’t be the preserve of the rich. This is why I have put the twin goals of affordability and quality at the centre of my new Affordable Homes Programme. […] I want to deliver a new generation of social housing in London that sets the standard nationally when it comes to excellent design, safety and sustainability.”

However, while delivering on such promises means that urban planners and designers need to find feasible solutions to issues related to size, urban density, mobility, inclusive and safe neighbourhoods, adequate amenities and the incorporation of urban green spaces, we also have to ask ourselves what ‘excellent design’ actually means in this context. What does the contemporary home need to provide?

There are of course the staples, such as adequate daylight, good ventilation, access to outdoor space, quality of materials, good spatial organisation and comfort levels etc. But there are also further considerations that the designer of today’s homes needs to consider, such as net zero-carbon buildings, circularity, changing demographics and lifestyles, flexible layouts for the multipurpose use of space and the provision of shared amenities and spaces for social connection and community building.

With cities all over Europe currently taking steps to solve their housing crises and securing funding for the construction of large numbers of new homes in the upcoming years, it is essential to avoid that haste borne of urgency results in utilitarian or inadequate design solutions. This means that in order to operate within a critical budget, architects need to devise integrated design and construction solutions. Solutions that can deliver the required quantity of ‘high quality homes’ on time and within budget.

So yes. This is very much a design issue.

But that leaves us with one question: how?
A possible solution for fast and affordable design/build processes: Modular Design Manuals
  Diagram of repetitive elements in the Ardmore Residence in Singapore  
  A possible solution for fast and affordable design/build processes: Modular Design Manuals  
  Many of UNStudio’s earliest projects were housing developments in the Netherlands. Ben van Berkel has referred to these projects as contributing to his learning “how to design within the Dutch context”. In the intermittent years, UNStudio has designed numerous residential projects the world over, the experience of which has furthered our knowledge of what ‘quality housing’ is and should be, whatever the budget.

The Dutch government has stated that, in order to solve their housing shortage, 1,000,000 new houses need to be built in the Netherlands by 2030. Most of these are required in the ‘big 5’ cities, particularly in the metropolitan region of Amsterdam. So far however, targets are not being met to reach this goal.

Whilst modularity is commonly understood to relate only to the physical components of buildings, at UNStudio we believe that if we apply a fully integrated modular design approach to the urgent provision of new homes, we will not only be able to control critical budgets and significantly speed up the construction process, but it would additionally enable the control of numerous facets of the design/build process across multiple projects from the outset.
  Diagram of the structural modules used in the Doha Metro Network in Qatar. Copyright: Qatar Railways  
   “Another common misconception is that complexity, or variation, is costly; that simplicity or uniformity are the only viable approaches for the design of social or affordable housing. In fact, in much of our work, often what appears to be complex, is actually based on the repetition of a set number of base modules. And while such modular design enables us to create a high degree of variation and multiple iterations at low cost and great speed, it also enables the integration of pragmatic functions that improve the performance of, and how we experience buildings on multiple levels.”
Ben van Berkel
  Click to enlarge. Diagram of the modular approach applied to both the structure and the interiors of the stations on the Doha Metro Network. Copyright: Qatar Railways  
  For the Doha Metro Network - in the first phase of which it took less than 7 years to design and build 37 individual stations – UNStudio created a Modular Design Manual. This manual served to provide an extensive set of design guidelines, architectural details and material outlines for the various contractors who built the individual stations.

The manual for the Doha Metro Network detailed everything from the structural components, to the finishing materials and even the signage. The goal of the manual was to ensure that, even though different firms were building the variously sized stations simultaneously, the design, material choices and quality for both the architecture and the interiors would remain consistent across the entire metro network.

We believe that an expanded Modular Design Manual approach for the high number of homes currently planned, could bring many advantages and mean that current targets could be met.
The advantages of an integrated modular approach
  Above and below: The modular design manual for The Doha Metro Network  
The advantages of an integrated modular approach
  The advantages of an integrated modular approach  
  The potential benefits of working from Modular Design Manuals are numerous:

Structural variation can be achieved through sets of base modules that can be grouped and configured to suit the specific location and scale of the development, while pre-manufactured components can be constructed on-site, saving both time and costs. Such an approach also means that, by following the guidelines and specifications in the design manuals, multiple contractors can build individual developments in different locations simultaneously.

Working from Modular Design Manuals that are tailored to specific budgets means that a wide variety of material and detailing combinations can be achieved from pre-determined options, with the result that no two buildings are ever the same. It also means that cost calculation accuracy can be achieved across multiple projects, eliminating surprises further down the line, while quality across the board is determined from the outset.

In an expanded modular approach, sustainability standards, design principles, materials, installations and technologies can be integrated from the start across all developments, while compliance with regulations and local buildings standards is incorporated within the manuals’ design specifications.

Furthermore, circular principles involving all parties and the full lifespan of the buildings could be determined from the outset, while WELL Building Standards can be applied across the board.

Finally, when working with such an approach, any changes, developments or innovations that occur over time can be incorporated into very specific facets of the manual, making them a futureproof option for the design and simultaneous construction of large numbers of buildings and developments.
Integration of technology and the future use of data
  '100 Homes', Brainport Smart District, Helmond, by UNSense. Visualisation by Plomp.  
  Integration of technology and the future use of data  
  Another important consideration for the future development of our cities is the creation of new models for data use with respect to residential developments and living expenditure. While Smart City projects the world over are employing data to increase efficiency, we believe that on a local level, data can also be harvested and applied for the social and economic benefit of individual households.

UNStudio’s sister company, UNSense is currently working on a project in the Netherlands (the Brainport Smart District in Helmond), called ‘The 100 Homes Living Lab’. This project aims to develop a constantly evolving real life learning environment, where data and technology are applied and tested at a neighbourhood level.

The 100 Homes Project aims to develop and test an alternative and fairer economic model in which the residents themselves benefit equally from the exchange of their data.
  The Urban Data Platform, '100 Homes', Brainport Smart District, Helmond, by UNSense  
  The backbone of the new neighbourhood is formed around a digital platform, the ‘People Data Platform’. Unlike many existing data exchange systems, this platform uses the principle of Equal Exchange, meaning that data ownership is not controlled by one single tech company, or by a handful of them, but by the residents themselves.

By focusing on ‘user consent’, the residents and end users become the owners of their own data, and through the People Data Platform, they themselves can decide what data they want to protect and what they want to share and with which parties. By giving residents control over which data they share with whom, the basis for a new economic model of Equal Exchange is created, and residents are given control over the services that are developed around their data within their community.

With a dashboard – under the management of a neutral party – the platform will provide precise insights for each user into the profit that the data exchange yields. Ultimately, this will lead to a situation where the added value of the data exchange is equal and tangible for all parties.

In conclusion, it has become abundantly clear that in order to equip our cities for the future, urgent action needs to be taken to provide adequate housing for people of all incomes. We believe that in order to achieve this, multiple stakeholders must work together to find integrated solutions. As one of the actors within this network, we also believe it is the responsibility of architects to devise specific and progressive design solutions to tackle this pressing issue.

Further information:
linkedIn Article by Ben van Berkel >>
UNStudio’s recent ‘Future of Housing’ webinar >>
Early UNStudio housing projects >>
For further information please contact:

Karen Murphy
+31 (0)20 570 20 40
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