How 'creative building and flats with no walls' could be the solution to halt urban sprawl
Architectural president says flats should be sold without internal walls - letting the owner decide on how to divide the space, writes Paul Melia
Architects have to "get more creative" and design better apartments to halt urban sprawl and foster communities.
President of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) Carole Pollard also says we need a new model for developing the cores of our built-up areas, with co-operative housing presenting a real opportunity.
This involves individuals and families coming together to buy a site, and designing and building their homes, generally in clusters of at least 10. Open space is held in joint ownership, and all are responsible for maintaining common areas.
The model makes best use of urban sites, and has proved "hugely successful" in Berlin. It could save our rural towns and villages, and rejuvenate our city centres.
"Co-operative housing is something we need to explore for small brownfield sites, not just in Dublin but in towns and villages around the country," Ms Pollard said in an interview with the Irish Independent.
"But it's very hard to borrow money (for it). Banks like building on the flat because you can draw a line around a map (to designate ownership). When you get stacking (building apartments) it's more difficult."
A graduate of the Dublin School of Architecture DIT, Ms Pollard was appointed president of the RIAI in January 2016.
She says there is a need to foster new thinking to address the housing crisis. We must consolidate our cities and urban areas, continue to support local authority architectural competitions to get "innovative housing schemes" of two to 15 units across the line on small, difficult sites, and knock existing houses together to create new homes. The aim is to develop communities, as much as provide new housing.
"There's a lack of understanding about living in apartments, and we can design better apartments. Architects need to get more creative to encourage builders to build. Until we try it, we're in that vicious cycle where we think everybody wants a house with front and back garden," she said.
"We don't want to build vast social housing estates and ghettoising people. We need mixed development, and need to look at pocket developments which are ideal for towns and communities."
The housing stock needs to change to cater for smaller household sizes, single people and the elderly. Our perceptions around housing need to change, she added.
New apartments should be sold as single units, with no internal walls. Owners should decide if they want one or two bedrooms, or perhaps a larger living room.
Attics in houses should be convertible, to allow homes to expand to accommodate growing families. Some architects are also designing adaptable apartments, which can be extended.
"People are scared of high density. They think Ballymun was high density, but it wasn't. It was low density in high buildings," she said.
"In Rathmines in Dublin, you can go to the cinema, and stroll into town. It's got a swimming pool, a cricket club, offices and apartments, a shopping centre, cottages and local authority housing cheek by jowl with some of the most expensive houses in Dublin.
"It's got a recycling centre, a hotel, small pocket parks, laneways that only pedestrians and bicycles can get through - that's what high density is. Independent retailers can survive alongside Aldi, Lidl, Starbucks and Dunnes Stores because they've got the footfall. There are so many benefits.
"What could be better than living in a town where your kids can walk to school, you can go to the pub and not worry about drinking driving laws, the shops are on your doorstep and you get that sense of community?"
She maintains that one-off housing leads to rural isolation, and that people "allowed" retail parks to develop which sucked the business from smaller towns.
"We are responsible for the demise of our towns and villages. There are empty houses all over the place and in the wrong places. I see rural isolation and it's a big issue where people are getting cut-off from communities. But the country can't afford a bus going up every boreen," she said.
The boom-and-bust cycles are "too devastating" to be allowed a repeat, and result in valuable experience and expertise being lost.
"We need a planning framework to deliver infrastructure and feed it out (over a period of time). I count housing as infrastructure, along with roads, rail, hospital and schools.
"We can't afford to keep losing our construction workers, architects and engineers. We're going to have economic cycles, we just need to plan for it a bit better," she said.
She is critical of procurement rules, saying it takes too long to get an architect in place to design social housing and the level of professional indemnity insurance being demanded is too high for smaller firms.
She is also critical of the level of profit builders feel they need to earn, saying it is "set in stone", but points to our existing buildings presenting a large part of the solution to the housing crisis.
"We're pretty good at conservation, but unfortunately we don't look after our ordinary buildings. It's really important we protect these," she said.
"We have buildings which are empty upstairs, and we need to get them back into use. If the ordinary buildings decay, we lose the character of our towns.
"We can learn a lot about the footprint of our towns, their character and scale, from ordinary buildings. But we shouldn't keep everything just because it's old, and we shouldn't knock down everything built in the 20th century either. There's lots of flimsily built, hastily designed stuff that can go and we can be more creative in how we use older buildings."