How Architects Can Ease the Global Housing Crisis


SEATTLE, Washington — According to the United Nations, more than 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing, including slums and informal settlements. Densely packed and increasingly gentrified urban spaces have created a global housing crisis. A 2018 report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy sampled more than 200 global cities and cited only 10% as being “affordable.” The cost of accessible housing is directly correlated to poverty—both aggravating and mitigating it. As such, many cities are attempting to stem soaring real estate prices and increase housing accessibility in a myriad of ways. Examples of proposed mitigation have included acquiring more governmentally owned land in the case of Chengdu, China, or encouraging private sectors to finance projects such as the “Urban Wealth Fund” in Hamburg, Germany. However, architects themselves may play a critical role in solving the global housing crisis.

The Global Housing Crisis

Although the novel coronavirus has dampened the decade-long trend of moving from suburban or rural areas to cities—often perceived as the soul of real estate, commerce and culture—the percentage of people residing in cities is predicted to reach 68% by 2050. In addition, some of the fastest-growing mid-sized cities, which the U.N. defines as having fewer than one million inhabitants, are in Asia and Africa.

This may appear to be encouraging news as sub-Saharan Africa is home to 27 of the world’s 28 poorest countries and has an average poverty rate of approximately 41%. Logically, urbanization could act as a catalyst for economic growth, increased job opportunities, higher incomes, access to education and a higher demand for food grown in poverty-stricken rural areas.

However, the number of the urban poor is rising as prices for rent, food, transportation and energy consumption in cities soars. For instance, a 2018 study on urbanization showed that in African cities, 39% of renters are insecure about losing their property. Moreover, urbanization also directly impacts the environment. Air pollution, traffic congestion and higher temperatures are the result of previous urban designs, traditionally employing massive tracts of concrete and steel.

The combined factors of insecure housing and environmental risks exacerbate issues of poverty and can correlate to negative health-related issues. Many experts suggest that the housing crisis, specifically the urban housing, is a result of a century of “reactive housing policies” instead of proactive policies. Evictions have led to “mass human rights violations” and current designs are unsustainable—both in a literal and environmental sense.

How can architects and architectural firms play an integral role in addressing this growing crisis?

An Evolving Role

The role of the architect was previously that of designing and completing infrastructure projects. However, the architect’s’ role has evolved over the years and now encompasses different aspects of a project.

Luxury high-rise buildings made for mega-companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Coca-Cola have ushered in attractive and career-defining contracts for architects and firms, and many have followed suit. Yet, this comes at the cost of a global housing crisis.

While some experts cite that giant corporations and private equity firms primarily drive housing markets, some architects are making a change by embracing social responsibility for the environment and the growing renter population.

Some of the leading architect figures and firms around the globe, including Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, MVRDV and MASS Design Group, demonstrate that there are innovative ways to build affordable, high-quality and environmentally conscious structures.

An Architect’s Social Responsibility

Today, urban architects face a hefty challenge. Not only are their designs constrained by the aesthetics of an existing neighborhood and limited budgets, but past failed attempts at creating affordable housing make investors wary.

Architects began to move away from mass affordable housing projects due to criticisms of modernist structures being dense, uniform and dysfunctional structures. As such, architects began favoring aesthetics over residents’ actual needs. These include public housing projects ranging from Les Bosquets in Paris to Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis.

Social responsibility as an architect is not a clearly defined role nor is it new. William Mangold, a professor of interior design at Pratt Institute, broadly defines architectural social responsibility as “characterized by attitudes that value justice, equality, participation, sharing, sustainability and practices that intentionally engage social issues and recognize the consequences of decisions and actions.”

Architects such as Alejandro Aravena are prime examples of the ability to both deliver aesthetics and adopt the role of a “socially responsible” designer.

In Action

Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2016, one of the most prestigious awards in the architectural world. What is unusual about Aravena is that architectural experts respect his aesthetic form but Arvena has also designed more than 2,500 low-cost social housing structures. He also coined the idea of “half of a good house” which consciously stayed within the limited governmental budget to build “half” a house where families could reside in and then allowed them to build or invest in the second half at the pace that worked for their budget. This gave families a home while enabling them to expand the space beyond the bare minimum governmental mandate.

MVRDV is a firm based in Denmark that has designed projects for cities in India such as “Pune” in 2018. Their low-cost high-rise structures accommodated around 5,000 residents and took into account the diverse structures of families. Each unit ranged from 45 to 450 square meters based on resident needs and is part of a larger, communal complex that includes public courtyards and green spaces.

A final example is a U.S.-based firm, MASS Design Group. While the design firm’s work in Burera, Rwanda was not a housing project but instead a hospital project, the co-founder Michael Murphy succinctly affirms the evolving role of the architect: “Architecture is an expansive field…but too often it has been narrowly considered, ignoring the social justice inherent in appropriate design.”

Expanding Social Responsibility for Future Generations

The growing interest in socially responsible architecture for the environment and residents extends beyond individualistic pursuits. Universities are also beginning to offer increased course offerings in ethical design. Conferences are occurring on levels as large as the 2016 U.N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Developmental (Habitat III) and between stakeholders, designers and local residents that provide platforms for dialogue. Additionally, institutions such as the Smithsonian are collaborating with design students and highlighting the need for socially responsible architecture.

With a new wave of conscious design and direct collaboration between architects and future residences, addressing the growing housing crisis may not seem so monumental. Creating affordable housing addresses many of the underlying issues of global poverty. Studies have shown that stable and secure home environments vastly increase the mental well-being of a person which can translate into areas such as job stability, curbing homelessness, drug abuse rates and health consequences. The overarching fact is that unless cities radically dissipate or design models change, there will be finite space to house the growing global population. As such architects, architectural firms, global organizations and governments need to work together to address the global housing crisis.

—Lily Poppen
Photo: Flickr


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