3rd Mar 2021 — What do we mean by ‘Sustainable Housing’?

What do we mean by ‘Sustainable Housing’?

At SWA we often find ourselves using the word ‘sustainable’. It seems that the word resonates differently for each of us, and some of our recent collaborations have given us pause to consider what we really mean. So we are re-considering our ideas and disrupting our biases about holistic sustainability, to find new ways of embedding a variety of approaches into our work.

We’re interested in how projects are fostered, often long before they reach us. It is clear that the means of catalysing a brief are not evenly distributed among society, a structural inequality that seems impossible to overthrow. So, we look for the cracks and blind spots in which we can pursue more diverse agendas outside ‘normal’ building practice.

We remain passionate advocates for low-carbon buildings and emergent green technologies. After the year we’ve all had, it seems evident that these are not the only tools we need to sustain ourselves, nor are they the only answers for sustainable housing.

In this trio of journal articles, we focus on homes, as we see this as the most urgent typology, given the unprecedented demands we have placed on them in the last year. We want to connect the three tiers of sustainability – sustaining the self, preserving the environment and re-establishing connections between people and place – and reimagine a new lease of life for housing in the UK.

Sumaya Vally's Letter to a Young Architect

An Ethical Process

Sumayya Vally argues that sustainability is best considered as ‘the ability to sustain’ – we agree. One important shift is for us to advocate for ‘sustainability’ as an ethos, not as a goal. This notion impacts the inclusive nature of our office and the practices we enact, the respect we give our clients and the effort we put in to ensure we respond appropriately. As Clare Bond noted in her shortlisted Habinteg Essay, diverse voices represent diverse needs. We use the process of designing with our clients and collaborators to embed meaning in a place and build tomorrow’s history. Part of this means incorporating the ability of a building to adapt to, sustain and

evolve with its occupants over time. ‘Long life, loose fit’, as the saying goes.

We find the ‘ethos first’ approach particularly benefits our smaller housing projects, which at first glance might appear less ‘able’ to support the sustainable measures we strive to include. We try to work in ways that ask different questions, sometimes with other professionals such as artists, performers or engagement specialists to help us step outside our own frame of reference. Our collaborations reveal new ways to communicate our proposals through less ‘architectural’ means, to tease out the expertise of the client and design spaces for these scenarios.

A Collaborative Process

As architects we usually find ourselves operating between procurer and occupier of a building; it can feel as if we have scant agency to question or challenge how sustainability is embedded into a project brief. So how do we open up new ways of commissioning buildings, before the brief is decided? One way is to become your own client, as we did for the recent retrofit of Stock Orchard Street. This single house retrofit made us re-consider the value of housing retrofits at scale.

Another route is to seek collaborators with specific sustainability goals; we play a strategic role on a number of Passivhaus retrofit projects (some within Conservation Areas), connecting with building occupiers to understand how to balance their need for

thermal comfort with their desire to preserve the aspects of the architecture that are precious to them (and the planning authority). The process also helps us find ways to address different kinship models too, since our procurement and design approach is guided by the strength and diversity of the participants’ priorities.

In recent projects for later life living, we have proved the value of inserting a workspace into a bedroom or adding a ‘half room’ for someone to work or sleep in. But the more we adapt and tweak, the more we realise we’re only scratching the surface of housing’s ability to sustain. Homes are now doing the work of office, cinema, dance studio, gym, counselling room and classroom; the brief for the sustainable home needs to be elevated accordingly and we need a more radical approach.

Sustainability Life Cycle

We have argued that to sustain all our futures we need to design for current and evolving needs over time. We could call this ‘spatial dexterity’ – the ability of a space to continually accommodate and negotiate between individual needs and collective preferences.

Spatial dexterity goes beyond cupboards with fold out ironing boards, LAN connections at kitchen counters or sliding walls. It means that the space should be designed generously, with sufficient thresholds and adaptability to empower residents to resolve the tension between changing spatial needs, for themselves. This is a cornerstone of a building’s ‘ability to sustain’, as neighbourhood demands vary (outside-in) and residents’ needs evolve through their own life cycle (inside-out).

Housing to support Lifetime Social Mobility

In the branding of housing as a commodity, we have been sold the concept of ‘starter’, ‘family’ and ‘retirement’ types, because these titles are convenient for quantifying individuals by what they can afford.

Maarit Heinonen-Smith posits alternative categories for housing, using occupant life-cycle behaviour to define a broad ‘agenda’ for any particular home. The focus shifts towards the occupier, their relationships and behaviours, which challenges the designer to find innovative ways to meet these needs.

She recognises phases of dependency, ranging from more independent lifestyles (‘discovery’ and ‘purpose’) to acknowledging caring needs or responsibilities (‘dependence’ and ‘commitment’). This seems radical because it separates age and economic status from need, while beginning to eliminate the assumed gender roles that ‘starter’ or ‘family’ housing implies.

Heinonen-Smith recognises that a home could support and adapt to each stage as well as cyclically moving between them. We propose this could go even further: movement could be across the dial, back and forth between stages repeatedly, or occupying multiple roles simultaneously.

We like this because it builds diversity into the brief for a home, shifting focus away from number of bedrooms (correlated with economic value) towards a consideration of the social and civic function of each dwelling in its context. After all, designing a home should be an exercise in empathy, not ‘viability’.

This focus on the building user’s agenda is helping us to define and quantify the sustainable potential of our housing projects. We are interested in the bigger questions about how to resolve the uneven distribution ‘home’ or ‘work’ loads, how to meet evolving needs for privacy

and confidentiality, and our role in reconsidering who is a dependent or who is a caregiver.

We are also interested to understand how our projects can support the fair and sustainable distribution of lifetime responsibilities within families, communities and the urban environment.

Some of our current work is indicating this requires a synthesis of critique of the environmental performance and social value of existing buildings, better communication of opportunities and ideas outside of the building profession, and to integrate social value into a building’s lifecycle. As these project progress, we will report back with our findings.

We recognise there are limits to what architects alone can achieve – real disruption needs more voices to join the call for sustainability in housing and to redefine what a home is for.

In parts 2 & 3, we explore ideas for engaging, motivating and cultivating knowledge across more representative groups of building users. We discuss examples of how to initiate demand for sustainable housing types, how to motivate disengaged occupiers and how to share project learning between communities.

In the meantime, let us know your thoughts about these ideas for re-considering sustainable housing – we’re live on Twitter and Instagram.