by Jincy IypeMar 25, 2022
Social housing, an increasingly tricky realm to operate in amid the numerous population and housing crises we have birthed, even in developed countries, is also an incredibly rewarding one if done sensitively enough. The great responsibility bestowed upon the designer in this realm is not only to match numbers with cost-effectiveness, but to do so humanely, since the act of creation here encompasses creating homes for people, a great number among whom would have harboured this dream for long. It is probably as courtesy of these conditions that the amount of literature and discourse on social housing (as a direct proponent of the inevitable problems springing from them too) is massive. All this, happening on a scale almost as large as a starchitect’s cultural centre or a corporate headquarter, and yet, elegant solutions for mass affordable housing or at least niche social housing, remain few and far in between.
A finalist for the Mies van der Rohe Award, the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture, seeks to reimagine this paradigm by focussing on the basics of social, communal spaces, with the added efficiency of industrial production, albeit merged with a sustainable feat. 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà de Llobregat, Barcelona, by Peris + Toral Arquitectes, have a lot going on for them as a holistic development, but it is the sum of these thoughtful parts that help the project emerge as a warranted yet sensitive intervention in this realm.
Built on the site of a former iconic cinema, Pisa, the housing units complex befittingly looks straight out from a Richard Linklater film, or off late, warmly reminiscent of a parallel offshore European setting for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. The ‘freestanding’ residential building, touted to be the largest wooden-structured residential building in Spain, comprises five wood-framed floors supported by a reinforced concrete structure on the ground floor to accommodate shops and public facilities. For a total floor area of nearly 10,000 sqm spread over the 85 social dwellings, the structure makes use of roughly 8,300 sqm of zero kilometre wood from the forests of Basque Country.
The second layer of innovation that translates directly into efficiency in building for this social housing, to the tune of 0.24 cubic metres of wood per square metre of built area, is how the Spanish architects developed the place’s layout. The entire development is inward looking, and is nucleated around a central courtyard, with all means of vertical access and propagation, cores essentially, placed in the courtyard itself. What this also does, apart from optimising floor plate area, creating more communal spaces, and “communicating” rooms, is spare a barrier-free facade, completely utilisable for the architects to design, and for residents to use. The kind of layout employed here notably also speaks to the ingenious, age-old chawl typology in Bombay, India, which is an interesting parable to draw from in the study of social housing typologies.
Access to this courtyard is facilitated through the concrete portico on the ground level that acts as a massive doorway to the building, filtering the relationship between the semi-external public space and the courtyard itself, which intends to act as a small plaza for the community. Four communication shafts are placed along the four corners of the courtyard, instead of what would have been individual accesses to the hallways of individual units through the external facade - a callback to the very US-centric motel typology of buildings. On a typical floor layout, the units are thus accessed through a ring of “private terraces”, overlooking the courtyard.
The 85 dwellings are distributed in four groupings, with a total of 18 units per floor. Four or five homes are laid out around each nucleus, in order to ensure cross-ventilation and a dual orientation for all typologies of units. The dual orientation manifests itself by virtue of creating avenues for unhindered access and permeability of sight and physical movement between the courtyard passageway, roughly 13 sqm unit floor area over short spans of 3.6m in cross-laminated timber, and another terrace in the private ring, thus completing a spatial sequence of sorts.
Each of the homes consists of five or six modules, depending on whether they have two or three bedrooms. The homes’ spatiality and layout tend to influence sociological factors as well, with the open-plan kitchen being located in the central room, acting as a space distributor that replaces passages, while making domestic work “visible” and “avoiding fixed gender roles”. The sizes of other rooms in the house, the bedrooms particularly, developed in a matrix of sorts, are determined with a view to offer flexibility, an ambiguity of use, and functional indeterminacy. Within these fixed bays, cross-laminated timber bearing walls in the facade and a grid of CLT beams and columns uphold the structural integrity of the building, while the structure is optimised by compensating momentums with multiple supports and cantilevers at all ends. The facade design and its incorporation in the main structural system is another step towards optimisation, with the façade’s construction system and structure joints both solved by mechanical bonds, avoiding the use of scaffolds. Portions of the courtyard’s vertical expanse and the exterior building skin are built using electro welded wire mesh, holding sun shading in place and “filtering sights”.
“We chose to work with wood due to the possibilities it offers for industrialising the structure of the building and improving both the quality of construction and the time it takes, and the positive reduction of emissions you get with a totally sustainable material,” explains José Manuel Toral, architect and co-founder with Marta Peris of Peris + Toral Arquitectes.