Redesigning living in the city

A New House for London generated curiosity and debate from the public and media when it was displayed outside The Building Centre during the 2015 London Design Festival. A prime concern was its relevance to the issue of affordable housing in big cities. The project also captured a wide range of other areas of innovation. In our summary of the project, the project initiators A New House for London, the Arup director Stuart Smith and The Building Centre’s director of strategy Lewis Blackwell, reflect on the themes, ideas and problems driving the execution of the project, from production to the issue of land banking to smarter and better urban living in the 21st century.

Had you worked on anything similar previously?

Stuart Smith

This is the second house we’ve done at the Building Centre. The first one, the WikiHouse, came out of other projects I’d worked on at the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion [with Herzog & de Meuron, Ai Weiwei]. My team had worked on other versions of the Serpentine Pavilion through the years. I was interested in how that programme explored architecture and materials and thought it be would be interesting to find something we could do that explored technology and engineering. About the same time I was thinking about tha,t I came across the WikiHouse and eventually approached the architect who had already been in conversation with Lewis about doing something at the Building Centre. The WikiHouse was a great start, it explored digital fabrication, we explored self-build, and we explored the idea of a flat-pack house.

Lewis Blackwell

That project got a fantastic response and the form that response took became the genesis of what we did this year – people took an interest in that, the idea of ‘The house different from your concept of what a house should be.’

How did the project arrive at using a shipping container and what was the functional and commercial appeal?

Stuart Smith

Once we completed the WikiHouse and reflected on it, the idea of applying the technology to building an individual house was really engaging. We started looking at what we could do next. Initially we went to Vitra to look at the Renzo Piano Diogene house. It was interesting but very small, not really a house, more like a cabin to put in a garden.

Then the project moved on, through an association with a Brazilian mining company CBMM. The idea was that if you could build shipping containers in high-strength steel, you could make them something like 20 percent lighter and therefore produce a big advantage in terms of material weight and sustainability. There are something like 20 million shipping containers and only about 5 million in transit.  It is inefficient to ship them back to where they came from. It’s a lot of energy to melt them down and re-use them.

Lewis Blackwell

It’s not very sustainable, there are so many around, you want them to be a component in something else – they need an afterlife.

Stuart Smith

They are surprisingly cheap as well: £1,500-£2,000.

Lewis Blackwell

The conversion of them is more expensive than the crude valuable material. But it’s not such an inflexible form that there is nothing you can do with it. And there’s the opportunity for use in temporary spaces. But from your point of view, from quite early on, you were quite excited by the approach of the engineer and using the properties of the container more cleanly.

There are other shipping container projects out there. What made this different?

Stuart Smith

Once we alighted on that idea, we went off to talk to architects, and Carl Turner was a good choice. He had been working on shipping containers at Brixton, at Pop Brixton, and had encountered a number of issues such as how to cut them up and so on.

Lewis Blackwell

We avoided the solution which seems to be taken by projects in London and elsewhere where the original structural properties of the container are often lost, and vast new steels are introduced to them prop up. You came up with an approach much more in tune with the qualities of stacking containers. Carl and his team brought a lot of insight from their experience on making virtues out of the basic properties of the containers.

Stuart Smith

One of the ideas we demonstrated in the exhibition was the possibility of scaling this up, building more units. I think what’s interesting about what we’ve done is that people don’t generally explore alternative types of housing.  In the UK we have a very traditional model of housing and people generally want things that are tried and tested, and innovative solutions are harder to realise.

Lewis Blackwell

One container was larch-clad, so for most people that was no longer seen as a container, while the other one was steel externally so it was obviously a shipping container. If you give people the choice of which one they want to be in, they would inherently say the larch-clad one looked more familiar. But it was much less stackable, much less flexible, from a functional point of view; once you adopt the cladding approach you compromise the functionality. But people like what they like, they like bits of wood, they like bricks.

What are the barriers to developing this idea further?

Stuart Smith

It’s the investment cost of building a factory that often holds things back – nobody’s got a factory, nobody can go into production, nobody has enough units on order. But the steel is super cheap in China and as this is very portable, you could in theory have your house built in China and shipped over and assembled rapidly in the UK. I looked for some other examples: Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House where he made one or two prototypes and had orders for 30,000 but couldn’t get started in terms of production for various reasons, and Piano’s Diogene is also relevant to some extent. I suspect it’s the production effort of making something like that affordable that stands most in the way. But you could see potentially that hurdle could be partly overcome by shipping containers because you’ve got the unit and the modules there and you don’t need a factory.

Lewis Blackwell

What we aren’t really empowered to do a lot about is the bringing up of the building costs, the method of building, and of course the land costs. We talk about the analogy with this house and a narrow boat — the idea of renting the mooring; you don’t have all the costs of actually owning a piece of the city. That challenge remains. The problem we have with housing, the expensive element especially in London is the cost of land. Then structurally how the market works at the moment where land banking by house builders is actually a quick piece of business to do. You are actually improving your balance sheet while you are not building anything – that’s clearly an issue.

Just the general cost of having a big house builder controlling a large space of land, just buying a piece of land anywhere, that’s going to be the major cost in the process. You can pretty well sit on it forever. What we were positing was not so much a house, much more ‘a machine for living’ as it were. And it was installed and did its job for a bit, and whether it was for three years, as in the case of Pop Brixton where things would be on site for three years and then the site would possibly be released to be re-developed in a different way. Or it could be ten years, or you could be renting every year until such time as you were unable to rent or chose not to rent.

Our project here at the present was suggesting you could be using these pre-fabricated portable elements to disassociate the land costs and the building element. You could be making it somewhere else, you could be trading that house like if you went to a car dealer, if you have different means, you get a different car, and you could do that with your house. In fact we have done that. We have sold on the structure in the end. We put it on eBay and somebody bought it and i'ts now somewhere near Brighton. The owner has some plan to have some studio space and rent studio space.

Aside from the container itself, and the challenge the project posed to the dysfunctional practices around land, the engineers really pushed the technology of the home. The home begins to connect creatively to a wider ecology.

Stuart Smith

In terms of the systems we put into the housing for example when we did the Wiki House, we wanted to have an automated house, when you came into the driveway you had an automatic sensor and you could control the house, change the lighting and so on, but also to wire up to DC power so you could plug into the internet and everything could be internet-controlled so that was quite a big change. Then we took that idea and used it again on the container house but added to that a Maslow battery for energy storage – the moment we did that, everyone was talking about it.

Tesla is producing a battery you can put in your house. I heard Jonathan Porritt talking about energy storage and this being the future of how we would upgrade and maintain and run our houses. Through DC power and battery storage, that then opens up microgrid possibilities from photovoltaics and solar power – it’s all connected. So we were investigating that kind of technology as well in both projects. Using LED lights and controls, you minimise the amount of energy you are using, you can maximise the amount you are storing from micro grids and photovoltaics and that sort of thing. And we know buildings consume a huge amount of energy that we use and it would be good to use significantly less energy in the future. These two relatively small projects will allow us to explore those innovative systems and transport them from one project to another, and at the same time exploring ideas about construction and technology and the way it’s used to provide housing – and for people to actually come here and see it for themselves. It would really be interesting to see people’s reactions to both houses actually. People come in and automatically imagine themselves living there. And you know they want to know how much it costs as well because there is a relationship between the kind of space and how much it costs.

In terms of the actual space for living in, did people have a problem? Practically, who do you envision would buy into it, it does demand some rethinking about our relationship to property?

Lewis Blackwell

Though it is clearly is much more compact, I didn’t find people take issue with that because it was quite generously appointed in terms of the decking, the roof spaces. We weren’t filling it up with all the stuff you have in your home in anyway so it didn’t seem as cluttered, and there was the analogy with the narrow boat. People found it quite different initially, so when confronted by a container (only one of the containers is hidden by the cladding) and it's made charming by the fact its got an exotic deck, a bit of planting, all helps people realise that this different approach to housing can be made very effective. The Eley Kishimoto graphics which may not be to everyone’s taste but they are quite strong, so you realize a strong graphic treatment and some fabric can make a steel box feel more friendly.

Young people who want to live in London as young professionals plus also people coming from abroad and not necessarily dreaming of their property ladder piece of Britain, but just wanting to work, they’re quite open. Where can I live in London? How can I live in London? You could imagine if you did start putting a model of marketing around, let’s say there was a prefab factory in China that would ship them over and you have various graphic options, and customize your own one, you specify if you wanted Eley Kishimoto graphics, or I prefer this floral pattern from Laura Ashley, or whatever. But we have got to get rid of preconceptions that that my house is going to be this little brick thing, or that I am forever going to be on the housing ladder desperately hoping that property prices might increase. What you really want is to not to have to travel an hour each way and spend all of your money on buying a plot of land in a part of the city you didn’t really want to live in the first place, to build more, nor particularly well-built, old-fashioned houses. What you really want to do is to have less of your money going in to that, and instead put it into a highly functional unit, in the tight part of town that will service you for the next three to five years.

Next steps?

Stuart Smith

I’d love to be able to test this and build a container house, like the one we’ve drawn up, but on a larger scale, say 100 units. London is changing all the time and when a structure arrives such as Crossrail, when that opens it changes the nature of some parts of London. You are going to be able to hop on a train and be in the middle of London in 30 minutes as opposed to 40 minutes or an hour. Therefore there will be a big impact in terms of development as that infrastructure comes online. Projects like this can just get ahead of the curve, be on-site and quickly built in some of these locations and then later on replaced by other models. They can be part of the transition.

Lewis Blackwell

Clearly we need more housing and we see that there is land in the city that doesn’t get used a lot of the time. We have to get more efficient. A design-led thought about how to get different kinds of housing can be transformational in dealing with the problem. It is what we’ve been working on with this project but there are large financial and planning mechanisms that need to evolve to open up the potential for taking this further. I hope we can continue to encourage discussion and facilitate necessary changes with our work at The Building Centre.

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