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  • Unagru Architecture & Urbanism

A new take on Social Housing and Regeneration

The team recently visited the Design Museum to take in the ‘Waste Age: What can design do?’ exhibition, a thought provoking look at how design could be the answer to changing our ways and leaving the throw away culture behind.
Lacaton Vassal Bordeaux housing estate

Four-ton concrete balcony structures are lifted one at a time up to the 10th storey of a council flat block in Bordeaux, France. The crane operator describes how the engineers on-site help him place the units accurately. Then, the scene cuts, and we realise the balconies have been partially closed off to become winter gardens, the flats they are attached to open to the balcony to take advantage of the new space, transforming the flats into brighter homes at almost double their original size. These scenes are part of a video describing the work of French architects (and Unagru heroes) Lacaton et Vassal, part of the Design Museum exhibition ‘Waste Age: What can design do?’, a very worthwhile exhibition to visit if you get the chance, it will only run until 20th February 2022

The background: since 2003 the French government has spent €15 billion demolishing and rebuilding social housing blocks. At a cost of €26,000 to demolish and €120,000 to rebuild per unit, they have demolished about 150,000 units and rebuilt eight thousand less than this number. Of course, the new flats do make much better homes, but still, it must be frustrating to invest so much money with the result of and having fewer social houses available than when they started.

Lacaton Vassal Bordeaux housing estate

Lacaton et Vassal see this whole strategy as a senseless violence: people losing their houses and relocated for years, often not being able to return to their original neighbourhoods. They investigated the matter for years and delivered their finding in a report called PLUS. The solution is simple: rather than demolishing the large housing buildings, extend them outwards to provide extra living and outdoor space. In their designs the existing flat is opened up to the winter garden (about 3 metres deep) and the new balcony (about one metre deep). This transforms the apartments as they are opened up to light and landscape, with a buffer zone to assist with the climate and glare, plus essential additional living space. Albeit apparently technical, their proposal has architecture at its core centre to solving this issue.

Each flat was investigated and visited, with each solution slightly personalised by the inhabitant. Seen from the exterior the concrete structure, with reflecting glass panels, metal railings and shiny silver curtains, combine into an elegant monochromatic facade that changes throughout the day and the seasons.

Lacaton Vassal Bordeaux housing estate

The cost is of this magic solution is €45k per unit, only a third of the demolition + rebuild policy. If they had used this design solution they could have saved €10 billion for new social housing, or have provided 80,000 new homes. Of course it’s not always that simple, the super balconies design solution can’t work in every situation but it does put the costs into perspective and you could safely say the French Government have missed an opportunity to build at least 50,000 homes.

In the architects' words:

The general economy of the project is based on the choice of conserving the existing building without making important interventions on the structure, the stairs or the floors. This approach on economy makes possible to focus the energy on generous extensions that are, according to us, the key to enhance in a lasting way the dwellings quality and dimension. These extensions widen the space of use and the evolution of the dwelling and give the opportunity, as in a house, to live outside, while being home.

In the UK, we often see a similar social housing upgrading strategy, although usually oriented at increasing density of the site. We demolish a medium-sized estate building and replace it with a larger, mixed social and market housing block with the buyers of the market flats paying for most of the operation. We will discuss on the housing policies in our next newsletters - contact us to get onto the mailing list.

Do visit us at our studio if you would like to flick through our design books on Lacaton et Vassal, chat about their work over a coffee.


Waste Age: What can design do?

The exhibition introduces us to the topic through hard data, against a timeline.

We produce a lot of waste, and every year we consume way more than the planet can give, shown against a timeline with the industrial revolution, the introduction of plastics, and our consumer society. It is sobering news.

The answers are cultural (we should buy good quality items that last, and fix things rather than replace) and within technological and product design solutions. Here we find all manner of items, such as organic or recycled fabrics put together by the Stella McCartney design house; recycled bricks, mushroom grown insulation panels and seaweed tiles. All these forward thinking products excite us and we will try to encourage our clients to incorporate these into future projects.

The Design Museum is located on High Street Kensington, with a permanent exhibition devoted to contemporary design that is well worth a visit. The building itself is also stunning, a Grade II listed 1960’s building originally designed by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall and Partners and completed in 1962 to host the Commonwealth Museum. After the museum closed in 2003 the building was refurbished by John Pawson as part of a masterplan devised by OMA, probably the most influential architecture and urbanism office in the last thirty years.


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