If you have to believe the Dutch government, the country is lacking around 1 million homes. That is a staggering number for a country with 17.5 million inhabitants. One can question the accuracy of this number and the methods used to arrive at it. Research from the University of Cambridge showed that these estimates are notoriously wrong by big margins, and demand is a term that is subject to change. House prices, interest rates, salary growth, inflation, demographic development and many more factors play a role and people constantly adjust what they think they need and how they perceive what they have. I have not seen masses of homeless people on the streets of Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Arnhem. That means that almost everyone still has a home. There seems to be no acute shortage of space. Whether this space is ideally suitable for the individual needs is a different question.
The average resident of the Netherlands had 65 m² of living space available in 2017 according to official statistics. On a global scale, that is a lot of space. Few have more – Australians have the biggest houses with around 89 m² with the US and Canada following suit, but many can do with a lot less. Swedish feel that 40 m² per person are enough and in Hong Kong 15 m² are what a person has. In times of climate change and an urgency to mitigate its effects, we should start thinking if more houses are really needed. In the end, each and every newly built building still increases our CO2 footprint. Even when we build bio-based, there still remains a carbon footprint since not everything in a building can be carbon zero and transport, machinery, workers commuting to the construction site – they all produce carbon dioxide and create waste or pollution.
As architects, we are all slaves of the obsession of making – ideally something new. To us, the new buildings we designed show progress, prosperity, economic growth and our own self-confidence. The might of a city is often measured in the height and extent of its skyline. We are fascinated by 100 Mile Cities, endless cities, megacities and most of us architects want to add a piece here and there. Our ego, our education, the whole self-understanding of the profession ‘forces’ us to. We feel we have little choice and ‘if it’s not me, then my colleague will do it and (s)he will do it worse’.
Stepping out of the plan A of common practice asks for a plan B, a real alternative and a new work model: It is time to not only rethink but also profoundly change what architects mainly do.
I believe there is ample room for a new common practice. Already now, more and more architects engage in a much wider field of space making or space changing than five or ten years ago. They develop software for better use or performance of buildings, they establish new development models, and they invent circular or recycled materials and production methods. They do all that as trained architects and with the architectural thinking and the knowledge they gathered as architects. Likewise, they can do that because they understand how complex systems work. After all, building is making something complex in a complex process – complexity squared. Architects, urbanists and landscape architects are complexity masters and in a world that becomes more and more complex, they can play a crucial role in solving the Gordian knots we are confronted with everywhere.
But even if someone decides to stick to the core of the discipline, there is more to be done than ever before in history. The need for climate change mitigation has started drastically changing everything in our lives, and it is fair to assume that this was just the beginning. Rules and regulations will become stricter and gradually force us to abandon our polluting lifestyle. Building as one of the main carbon emitters will see drastic limitations. We will have to build a lot less new buildings and instead embrace radical re-use. No building can be as easily be destroyed any more. I would not be surprised if in the future there will be a carbon calculation that includes the building removed as a debt the new building has to but most probably cannot compensate for. We will have to use what we have instead of making something new. The prefix ‘RE-‘ will become the norm and not the exception: RE-generate, RE-use, Re-… . ArchitectuRE will move from a generating profession to a regenerating profession. It will move from the abstract of new massing to the tangible of the transformation and reconfiguration of existing buildings with ‘RE-‘materials.
In that process, we could also solve the problem of the 1 million – most likely less – houses missing. If we make reconfiguration our priority, then we could start contemplating if it would not be a good idea to abandon the ‘more is better’ paradigm. If everyone in the Netherlands would be OK with 61 m² instead of 65, then we could house another 1.5 million people in the buildings we already have. And if we use the investments necessary to increase the energy performance of the houses and a little more to reconfigure them, we could achieve a double effect: solving the housing crisis by solving the climate change crisis.
by Markus Appenzeller
Cover image: erasmusmagazine.nl