What Role Do Materials and Construction Systems Play in Democratizing Architecture?
“Architecture does not change anything. It’s always on the side of the wealthy.” With these words, Oscar Niemeyer referred to architecture as being a privilege mostly destined to the upper class – a statement that has historically proven to be true, even as some would like to deny it. Today, only 2% of all houses around the world are designed by architects. This is largely due to the fact that, to the average consumer, architect-designed homes continue to be perceived as expensive and esoteric products available only to this select few; a luxury that many cannot fathom to afford, especially as housing prices rise. Ultimately, this makes good design inaccessible for certain segments, forcing them to settle for precarious living conditions in standardized spaces that fail to take their needs into account (that is, if they even have access to housing).
As we traditionally know it, architecture alone cannot serve our changing world; There are simply not enough architects to meet today’s housing needs and their services are out of reach for many. But it is also true that as it continues to innovate and incorporate new technologies, the industry is evolving fast to respond to current challenges. Simultaneously, we are witnessing a change in the role of the contemporary architect, shifting from the former elicit, distant figure to adopting a closer approach capable of empowering even the most underprivileged, similar to the work of Francis Kéré and Alejandro Aravena. After all, when conventional architecture is unreachable, it all comes down to granting users the power to take part in the construction of their own built environment – and hence improve their living conditions in the process.
Empowering users with the right tools, skills and knowledge
People can be empowered through architecture when they are given the necessary tools to participate. This involves using high-performance materials that are inexpensive and easily sourced, such as plywood, corrugated metal, local or recycled materials like used brick. However, although their use has the potential to democratize design, this effort alone has historically been insufficient in providing mass access to good architecture. Why? Without the necessary skills, knowledge and physical or digital tools to put them together, materials lose their purpose.
The key therefore seems to lie in combining cheap materials with simple construction techniques that enable quick assembly, like prefab or modular systems, as well as with new technologies and innovations – from open source collaboration to digital fabrication tools. This way, users have the ability to partake, at various levels, in the design and fabrication process of their own housing solutions, including the possibility of exploring self-manufacture and self-construction. As long as the necessary knowledge is acquired on how all of the components fit and work, this recipe can certainly play a pivotal role in the democratization of high-quality housing, becoming a potential catalyst for change.
Below, we explore this through an inspiring selection of cost-effective, user-oriented residential projects built with affordable materials, simple construction techniques and new technologies that are becoming more attainable. While some were already practically self-built, others show great potential for future participatory and collaborative housing solutions accessible to a wide range of people.
Box House / Studio Bark
In this case, the client didn’t have the budget to pay for an external contractor, nor the specialist skills needed to lead the building process. The architects thus developed U-Build, an innovative system of flat-pack timber building boxes that is modular, flexible, and can be ‘nested’ onto standard sheets of plywood. It is easy to assemble and disassemble, being simple enough to be built by users in various configurations, yet complex enough to meet structural requirements. The system was designed using parametric computer software that enables complex designs to be coded into simple components, which were later ‘cut out’ at a local CNC workshop. After 100 cutting hours, the result was a 95 sqm house constructed using manual handling techniques by the client (with some assistance from Studio Bark).
Built with plywood, wood fiber and locally sourced materials, Box House is a cost-effective alternative, which can even be cheaper if a community has its own CNC machine. Altogether, low-cost materials, easy assembly and automated manufacture makes the construction simple and accessible.
We feel that by increasing the ability for clients to engage in the build process, they become more likely to understand the benefits of good design and invest more into the design community. — Nick Newman, Director of U-Build
Wikkelhouse / Fiction Factory
Created with cardboard as its main building material, this unique modular house combines a cheap, recyclable and easily available material with advanced technologies and straightforward assembly. The fabrication process starts with 24 layers of top-quality cardboard wound around a rotating house-shaped mold. To ensure durability and insulation, the layers are bonded with an eco-friendly superglue and the house is finished with waterproof foil and wood-paneling.
Although built in a workshop, the Wikkelhouse can be transported and connected on site in one day. Because it is made from segments that can be added to as needed, it is also fully customizable in size and function. Essentially, users are given the pieces, but they get to decide their function and carry out their assembly where needed, with no complex skills or special expertise required.
Micro-house prototype / SPACE10
With the goal of finding an affordable, adaptable and universal housing solution, this project explores the concept of local self-manufacture with open source collaboration. Often, open source involves releasing CAD drawings online that are inaccessible for most of the people they are intended for, which is precisely where this approach differs. Rather than simply receiving a range of design files and templates to cut the materials, users directly collaborate in the project. Whereas previous attempts of widespread low-cost housing are presented as complete, unalterable systems, this proposal grants a degree of flexibility, customization and improvement that implies a higher chance of success.
The 49 sqm micro-house was built using only a CNC milling machine and plywood, with the total adding cost up to only $192 per square meter. And with recent innovations such as hand-held CNC machines, it is even possible to imagine a near future where these tools will be the size of vacuum cleaners. Therefore, with open source collaboration, one easily sourced material and usable machines that did not exist 10 years ago, the project is able to be self-manufactured, broadening the accessibility of housing to those who can’t otherwise afford it.
The combination of affordable materials, simple construction techniques and new technologies can certainly give the average user the power to access, participate in or potentially self-build high-quality housing. This doesn’t mean, however, that the contemporary architect is doomed to disappear. With their expertise and creativity, they are indispensable in transmitting knowledge, specifying, regulating, ensuring building requirements are met, teaching skills that can be replicated and adopting a leadership role in the continuous democratization of design. They are also crucial in the development and application of the design tools that will be pivotal to even a dream of universal affordable housing. While some are already gaining ground in the industry, others, like 3D construction printing, still need more evolution and investment to reach their full potential and enable further cost reductions.
There is a long way to go in building the road towards the true democratization of architecture, but it seems that the first few stones have been laid.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Democratization of Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; If you want to submit an article or project, contact us.