[First published on www.ecobuildonline.co.za]
Architects and designers use the term “people-centred” design rather loosely. It has become a rather superficially applied term that gives the impression of a type of design that considers people first, or at least cares about their well-being. But what does it really mean and how can we apply it meaningfully in design so that it’s more than just a word, but a reality?
With the rise in an emphasis on “sustainable” architecture, there is a lot of focus on green building technologies and creating sophisticated systems that save energy and water. Green buildings create better environments for the building’s users which is a drastic shift from the modernist buildings of the 50's and 60's that were built to be functional only, and little was known about how inhabitants might be affected by lack of natural light and poor ventilation. It was about cost and financial return first and people last.
This fundamental shift has affected the way that we design the interiors of our buildings; spatially, functionally, and materially, as well as changing the way we create the envelope around the interior spaces (to incorporate more openings for natural light and ventilation for example). Green buildings are but a small part of our built environment. We have the ability to influence social connections between people by designing spaces that consider people first – to make reference to that which is outside ourselves (and outside our object building).
Andre Spies of Twothink Architecture, says that people-centred design should emphasise the “spaces in-between buildings rather than the buildings themselves”. He refers to examples of vernacular architecture where traditional mud buildings, by their physical layouts around a centralised space, created safe spaces for the community to gather and herd cattle. In Cape Town, the steps and alleyways of District Six consider how pedestrians move and pause between buildings. These spaces become connective fibres that create patterns and weave delicate connections between people and places. These are community spaces where “life” happens. Spies calls this “democratic space”, where cultural difference is respected, where equality happens, and where safety is created by a feeling of belonging.
Indian architect, Rahul Mehrotra, presented a body of his work at the Architecture ZA conference in Cape Town in 2012, and received a standing ovation from an audience that related to the need to cross the social divides in our own country. Mehrotra’s work demonstrates that there are ways of encouraging different communities to interact with each other by arranging spaces in different and unexpected ways. He calls these "collective thresholds”.
A beautiful example is a house designed for a young filmmaker which includes an outside portico that is used by the middle class inhabitants on weekends and by the locals in the village during the week as a public space. Because the locals feel that they have been recognised, there is a mutual respect between the two parities, although they are of such opposite classes.
Another example is a block of public toilets in an informal settlement which was conceptualised as a “community centre” where children can come to study at night. The caretaker has the “penthouse” on top and is able to watch over the block to make it a place of safety. Mehrotra said that architecture consists of a lot of privileged authorship and prefers an approach where the stamp of an architect is not obvious. Even his larger, more commercial buildings are more like “places” than objects – containers for people in which they can express themselves. Here, people come first.
Designer, Stephen Lamb of Touching the Earth Lightly redefines “people-centred design” as “human-hearted” design. His passion is creating design that seeks to address social issues of dignity and safety (food and shelter) first and foremost. He expresses the need for architects and designers to move away from a self-referential approach and to “listen and respond to the simple, everyday needs of people in tangible, logical, and meaningful ways”.
Lamb’s “Green Shack”, which he worked on in association with artist Andrew Lord, illustrates how simple (yet innovative) design can be used as a tool to deal with physical and social problems. Some of the main concerns it deals with are fire, flooding and food security. The green vertical veggie gardens which grow on its north and west walls are its namesake. Lamb emphasises that the Green Shack is a representation of a set of ideas that are meant to instigate a “conversation’”. Design should be an iterative process that changes to incorporate a society’s needs. He also challenges the notion of what is “beautiful”. Is it a perfect geometric form, or the latest item of fashion, or is it something that responds to people’s real needs?
For me, as an architect, “people-centred” design is about broadening our perception of what architecture actually is and what role architects should play in society. “People-centred” design is about allowing people to “own” their buildings, whether it be new community centres or their own homes. These should be places where people feel that they belong and are recognised. It’s about allowing each person to hold their own concept of “home” within themselves whatever that may be and whatever form that may take.
Design is powerful because we have the ability to create connection in tangible ways. We can affect change in the now by applying our knowledge of space. It’s not necessarily an easy task, and Spies says that “we will probably never master this slightly ‘utopian’ idea of people-centred architecture entirely”, but through an iterative process that challenges and questions conventions, we can make a start.
I'm always keen to jump on anything that rides on the sustainability bandwagon. So I found myself at the Accelerate Cape Town/KPMG Sustainability Forum last wednesday (June 19). The catch phrase that seemed to come up over and over was "future proofing" and that I believe is what sustainability is really about. It's about responding to problems we have now in such a way that we are not being reactive but forward thinking and proactive. Gone are the days when the world used to think climate change, and running out of critical energy supplies and water, would be far beyond our generational reach. We're hardly talking about decades here, in the next few years (in fact now) we are reaching critical shortages. It's just that people are denying it, or worse yet they are ignorant - and that there is no excuse for.
Design changes and innovations seem like the easy part when we are actually trying to budge people's stubborn "business as usual" mindsets.However, the commercial building industry is becoming increasingly and remarkably forward thinking with regards to reaching towards and going beyond energy efficiency goals. Sarah Rushmere of the Green Buildings Council SA revealed statistics that show clear exponential growth in the number of buildings that are going for Green Star accreditation - the number of accredited buildings in South Africa to climb to 100 by 2014. She also explained that energy efficient buildings out perform conventional buildings by about 4-7%. It's quite trendy nowadays to be able to don the Green Star badge, but it's a trend that is producing a set of successfully robust energy efficient buildings.
No. 1 Silo - Allan Gray Building at the V&A Waterfront (Case Study) (images from www.siloblog.co.za)
Michael Smith of Allan Gray (tennant) and Mark Noble of V&A Waterfront (landlord) presented the energy efficient aspects of their new building called No.1 Silo. They are going for a Six Star GBC rating. They spent a lot of time attending courses and forums to learn about best practices in the field. They also visited Australia to see 15 of the top buildings there, speaking to designers, developers and facilities managers to find out what worked and what didn't. An "eye opener", says Smith, was that there were a lot of complex and quite gimmicky strategies that didn't actually work. They playfully termed this "green bling". So they decided that it was essential that the strategies they used would be tried and tested. "Simple is better than complicated", added Smith. Sustainability is also quite specific to the site and requirements of each building therefore concepts should not just be copied. |Most importantly, the building should minimise the negative impact on the environment, whilst enhancing the positive. They also looked at the social side of sustainability. All of these goals would remain in sight whilst keeping in mind maximum return on investment.
Noble explains how this building has been a catalyst to kickstart the new "Silo District" at the V&A Waterfront (the area around the clock tower). They emphasised how the approach to the creation of the building was through partnership, in terms of developing a dynamic landlord/tenant relationship. This symbiotic approach extended through to the design team and professional consultants. Smith emphasises that its important to challenge conventional wisdom and push the boundaries. In all aspects they stuck to the vision of creating something simple, robust and reliable. "Don't be afraid to ask the stupid questions", concludes Noble. It is in asking these questions that one is able to come up with intelligent solutions. Instead of a "green" building, they call it a RED building which stands for Resource Efficient Design. We'll look forward to seeing the completed building this year.
Hotel Verde - Africa's "greenest" hotel?
(images from hotelverde.com)
Andre Harms of Ecolution Consulting, is heading up the sustainability initiatives at the currently under construction, Hotel Verde, situated in the precinct of the Cape Town International Airport. It's been dubbed "Africa's greenest hotel", which will be evidenced upon its completion this year.
The design makes use of basic passive principles such as giving most of the rooms north and east facing outlooks in order to maximise light and warmth. These facades face onto a luscious retention pond and green area beyond, where jogging trails have been incorporated for the guests. Solar panels on the north facing facade generate power as well as providing shading for windows. The entrance foyer and lobby have a green roof which not only increases thermal insulation but also encourages plant life and biodiversity. The greening also comes inside the building to the foyer and restaurant spaces where plants will be grown on vertical "green" walls.
Once the concrete slabs of the building have been laid, they will conceal plastic cobiax balls which are used as "void-forming spheres" to reduce the amount of concrete required in the slabs. They are strategically placed so as to not affect the structural integrity of the building. Over 51 000 cobiax balls have been used in the project, which saves about 600 cubic metres of concrete! Another innovative system implemented (a first in Africa) is a geothermal looping system below the basement that is coupled with heat pumps. This provides hot water for the building.
Other sustainable strategies that have been implemented are rainwater capture and use for irrigation purposes, a grey water plant that supplies water for flushing of toilets, high performance double glazed windows and a lift that makes use of gravity in order to reduce its power consumption by 30%. 3 large wind turbines in front of the porte cochere on the west side which will generate power although Harms is quite candid in explaining that the payback period is long, so they are more of a gesture to nature powered energy than a financial investment. Green bling? Perhaps. Guests are given incentives to turn off their air conditioners and reuse their towels. They can also spend an hour in the gym to generate enough power to make half a cup of tea!
Projected energy savings for the building are approximately 50% (according to a conservative industry benchmark) but they will likely be more as proper testing can take place when the building is complete. There are no GBC Green Star standards for hotels yet so they are applying for an international LEED gold rating. The date of completion will be in August. How long will it remain the greenest hotel? Hopefully it will be the catalyst for a greener future in the hospitality industry.
Continuing the conversation
The morning wound up with a short presentation from Sarah Ward from City of Cape Town who spoke about the city's work on a Resource Efficient Development policy for new commercial buildings. There is often a strong alliance between politics and development which makes policy change difficult. There is also a delicate balance between pushing energy efficiency whilst managing the revenue the city receives from electricity sales - this is money that goes into essential infrastructure and important city initiatives. It's something that can't change overnight. Many initiatives such as the Smart Building handbooks, which focus mainly on retrofitting and behaviour change, the Energy Efficiency Forum, and the Awards programme are positive advances.
Sally-Anne Kasner presented EcoStandard who are developing standards against which products that claim to be "green" can be tested. Ryan Alexander, from Aurecon, spoke about their 5 Star green building in Century City. He stressed that one of the most important factors in a building's success, is the management of the building post construction. He also emphasised that everything works within context. For example, the building uses rainwater for flushing of toilets which works well in the rainy season but is an issue in the dry summer when water is scarce. A building does cannot exist in isolation. There is a greater climatic, social and economic context that is unique and needs to be addressed as such. It's not just "copy and paste".
On that note, Tony Wright from KPMG, reinforced the theme of "future proofing" and the importance of long term investment, which is what sustainable thinking should always consider. We should be challenging convention whilst also applying pragmatism. Although business is competitive there is opportunity to learn from and emulate others, which creates a meaningful ripple effect.
It's exciting to be part of the sustainability movement as it gathers momentum and indeed accelerates us towards a better (and greener) Cape Town.
It is never too late to ruminate on a conversation about architecture. And so I found myself a few weeks ago, at a day long conference called Conversations on Architecture (affiliated to Decorex South Africa).
Conversations, especially amongst architects, can be rather long drawn out affairs (this is not because they are boring but because it takes a long time for a room full of creative minds to discuss how to change the world). Not so on this particular Monday as presentations from six speakers, both local and international, were packed into only one day of bigger than bite sized nuggets. It is not possible to write about everything that is discussed in such conversations and some of the other writeups I have read, show how people perceive these things so differently. We reflect on what others have said so uniquely. So here is mine...
I have often been fascinated by the paper art of origami. In fact I am fascinated by anything small that I can create with my hands. There is something about paper art that alludes to a creative kind of ambiguous form that is not bound by the principles of nature such as gravity for example. You can build a house of cards but it will eventually topple. Origami forms are bound together by connections, which are the folds. Each deliberate fold in the paper must be so specifically and beautifully crafted so as to build a form that relies on iterative actions.
Solano Benitez from Paraguay makes paper architecture. And by this I mean a kind of form that is crafted by the oneness of the material and the intricacy of its connecting folds. He builds predominantly with clay bricks which are ample in Paraguay and are a very economical material. And so it sets a precedent for building in poorer communities yet in creative and experimental ways. The experimentation is played out in the development of a structural system that allows the brick walls to mould into different shapes and forms that defy conventional building principles. Bricks also have very basic structural properties that are quite beautiful when exploited, such as the arch - the bricks essentially support themselves. A project for the Telethon Foundation which is for the rehabilitation of people with limited mobility, uses the "building within a building" concept. The internal "room" is a brick mesh steel reinforced arch that makes an arched cavelike form inside. I am reminded of Gaudi's structural stone arches at Park Guell in Barcelona, yet Benitez's structures are pristinely elegant. Outside the main building a skeletal arched brick structure bends a similar form from the edge of the building over the outside space adjacent thus bringing part of the building structure outside.
For another house project, a structural system was engineered to allow brick walls that are only 4cm thick to be created. To create structural stability, the walls fold like an accordian, thus expressing a "paper-like" facade. Perhaps one of the most striking of his projects is the tomb for his father. Four concrete walls cantilever to form the four sides of a square in the middle of a forest. On the inside are clad mirrors, like translucent paper. Thus not only do the walls seem to disappear, but you are constantly aware of yourself as you see your fragmented reflections in the mirrors.
Heinrich Wolff urged, "don't accept convention without questioning but don't abandon it without gain". There must be sense, though beauty can often defy logic. Benitez shows that beauty and innovation can be the result of a strictly logical and systematic process.
Timber is not what it seems
British architect, Alex de Rijke says that "timber is the new concrete" and like Benitez has been experimenting with creating a new kind of architecture that derives its aesthetics from its structural characteristics and capabilities. The materials used are engineered cross-laminated timber and ETFE which is a durable teflon coated plastic. This timber can be used structurally in place of concrete which, if it is to be more frequently used, will require a mindshift in the building industry. This material is so strong that "it's like being able to make a ship out of matchsticks," he says.
Kingsdale School in London, is one such project where de Rijke experimented with these material systems. The main rectangular block shape of the existing school was retained and the existing central space transformed into a temperate "inside outside" courtyard covered by a large ETFE moulded roof. On one side of the courtyard is a timber "blimp" like structure which forms a large auditorium. Such a structure was only possible to build with the aid of a computer controlled cutting machine. Is this truth to materials or a new form of post modernism? The amount of engineering required in producing the material means that it is generally the same price, if not more than the price of a concrete equivalent. It could be argued that timber is more sustainable than concrete due to its renewable properties but in this form, a lot of other energy consuming factors also come into play. Perhaps a slightly self indulgent form, this kind of creative design does not take itself too seriously.
De Rijke's architecture is innovative and unexpected. His designs range from a glass house with sliding walls, a slightly "kitsch" wedding venue in Blackpool to many other projects that experiment with the cross laminated timber capabilities. It is playful architecture. A project he calls "Floatopolis" is an imaginary "anti masterplan" consisting of floating terraces on the Thames in London. It's a marina but also a part of the city, only this has a floating infrastructure! It is also self sufficient. The practice envisages its future studio to be a floating studio that is part of this "village". This notion is inspired by Dutch ways of living which are often on water canals and has been proposed as a solution to London's housing crisis. Living on water has many benefits and challenges. It is a mobile type of construction which does not require foundations and therefore easy to build wherever there is water. Houses can also be prefabricated to save costs. Though an unusual concept, perhaps this idea is not too far out for the future. When we live on water we never really "own" it, it is always changing and moving. Perhaps we need to learn to live more fluidly with nature instead of staking claim over a piece of landscape that was never really ours to own in the first place.
The end of the conversation (or the beginning)
Local Johan Slee's architecture also has echoes of inventiveness but mainly with simple design that fulfils more than the requirements. There is much colour, formal and material experimentation. The walls of Stone House are made entirely from stone found on the site. Thus the house grows out of its landscape - a union of materials. It echos the vernacular built forms with its simplicity and functionality. Red House similarly is blended into the landscape with the use of red soil (found on site) and cement coating on the walls.
Every now and then we must be reminded that architecture is not just about shopping malls and office blocks and making "pretty" things. It is about pushing the old towards the new and inspiring society. It is has always been the arts that have lead culture and society through the centuries. So to those who need to hear it, architecture is not what it seems.
This blog is about...
My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.