85 Social Housing Units develop as connected timber blocks around a courtyard

A finalist for the EU Mies Award 2022, the massive residential wooden structure by Peris + Toral Arquitectes takes shape in Barcelona, proposing new paradigms in social housing.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Mar 12, 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.

  • The development is centred around a courtyard and is designed to be introverted with the courtyard as the social nucleus | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    The development is centred around a courtyard and is designed to be introverted with the courtyard as the social nucleus Image: José Hevia
  • The structure comprises five wood-framed floors supported by a reinforced concrete structure on the ground floor to accommodate shops and public facilities | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    The structure comprises five wood-framed floors supported by a reinforced concrete structure on the ground floor to accommodate shops and public facilities Image: José Hevia
  • All vertical access shafts to the building are located on the corners of the courtyard, enabling communal interaction in the central space | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    All vertical access shafts to the building are located on the corners of the courtyard, enabling communal interaction in the central space Image: José Hevia

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.                 

  • The exterior building skin is built using electro welded wire mesh, holding sun shading in place and “filtering sights” | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    The exterior building skin is built using electro welded wire mesh, holding sun shading in place and “filtering sights” Image: José Hevia
  • Circulation space is optimised by allowing access to units through an inward ringed corridor overlooking the courtyard, as opposed to individual accesses to hallways through the facade | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    Circulation space is optimised by allowing access to units through an inward ringed corridor overlooking the courtyard, as opposed to individual accesses to hallways through the facade Image: José Hevia

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 interior layout of the units is designed to be flexible and modular | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    The interior layout of the units is designed to be flexible and modular Image: José Hevia
  • Each of the structural bays of the homes are optimised to a span of 3.6m in using timber beams and columns | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    Each of the structural bays of the homes are optimised to a span of 3.6m in using timber beams and columns Image: José Hevia

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.

  • View of the staircase and vertical circulation cores providing access to the inner ring of “private terraces” and passageways | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    View of the staircase and vertical circulation cores providing access to the inner ring of “private terraces” and passageways Image: José Hevia
  • Unhindered visual avenues are formed across each unit and the passageways, encouraging social interaction | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    Unhindered visual avenues are formed across each unit and the passageways, encouraging social interaction Image: José Hevia

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.

  • Access to the building’s terrace | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    Access to the building’s terrace Image: José Hevia
  • The terrace looks to serve as an extension to the building’s communal spaces | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    The terrace looks to serve as an extension to the building’s communal spaces Image: José Hevia

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.

  • Site Plan | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    Site Plan Image: Courtesy of Peris + Toral Arquitectes
  • Structural plan and layout of ground floor, basement, and typical floor along with communal spaces and terrace | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    Structural plan and layout of ground floor, basement, and typical floor along with communal spaces and terrace Image: Courtesy of Peris + Toral Arquitectes
  • Layout of a typical residential floor | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    Layout of a typical residential floor Image: Courtesy of Peris + Toral Arquitectes
  • Building Section | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
    Building Section Image: Courtesy of Peris + Toral Arquitectes

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”.

Axonometric stacking diagram | 85 Social Housing Units in Cornellà | Peris + Toral Arquitectes | STIRworld
Axonometric stacking diagram Image: Courtesy of Peris + Toral Arquitectes

“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.

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