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Build communities, not just home units

Published: 
Sunday, August 3, 2014
On the Home Front
Architect Jenifer Smith believes in building sustainable communities and engagement with the communities before a development is built. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

It has been reported that the Housing Development Corporation’s housing waiting list has reached 200,000. 

This has thrown up questions about strategies for land usage, housing design and urban planning in T&T.

In this T&T Guardian series on housing, Joshua Surtees speaks to architects, planners and surveyors to find out if there is enough land available, whether everybody on the list can get a place to live and what kind of accommodation makes best use of space while providing comfortable, functional living that complements people’s lifestyles. Part One features Jenifer Smith, the outgoing president of the T&T Institute of Architects (TTIA) who is stepping down after her two-year stint. Smith is the director of her own award-winning architectural firm.

J Surtees: Is there enough land space for everybody on the HDC housing list to have their own place to live? If so how will we achieve it?

J Smith: The issues facing T&T in terms of housing are issues being shared by many other countries in the world. By 2030 there will be five billion people living in cities. That equates to building a city of one million inhabitants every week for the next 20 years to house that number of people. 

In order to satisfy that we have to start thinking about the scale at which we do things and the speed. In terms of scale we have to think about sharing information (globally). In terms of speed we have to increase the use of prefabrication.

An idea which is gaining currency is helping an owner to build half their house and they complete the rest. The more difficult parts of the house like the structure are built but the internal areas, decorative elements and additional things would be added on.

Are these government housing projects?

There are two models I’ve been thinking about, one more successful than the other. Let’s start with the less successful model, which is called Mina Casa Mina Vida, a proposal in Brazil to deal with massive social housing. Millions of households needed to be built. The way they answered that need was with private partnerships. They were still social housing as they provided access to credit for owners and developers, high subsidies and high tax incentives.

The problem is that although they’ve achieved statistical targets in terms of the number of houses, the results have been quite low-quality in terms of architecture and infrastructure and amenities.

Is that because it doesn’t work when private developers are used?

In this case, because of the scale of the project they needed big-scale contractors. They wanted to do a good job but also maximise profit and there wasn’t much engagement with the communities who were supposed to be living in these new homes.

And it wasn’t successful?

No. The buildings were too standardised to cope with different family types. Units had absolute minimum space standards and no flexibility for re-use and expansion. They lacked social integration because the properties were on the outskirts of town in the low-cost housing area and they ended up with the usual problems associated with that.

Are we falling into that trap here in Trinidad?

We haven’t built at the same scale as in Brazil but you can see for yourself that social housing here is a bit ‘cookie cutter’ (mass produced/lacking character) in design and the interstitial spaces and community facilities aren’t really thought out. We must stop using “units” as our benchmark, “we’ve got to build 3,000 units this year” kind of thing. The mission is really building healthy communities and using the available land in the most appropriate and sensible way.

We’re still building a Corbusian idea of “zoning” when we should be producing mixed developments where people can work from home, walk down the road and buy a doubles and you don’t have to get in your car to go everywhere.

When you build mixed household developments do you have to get the different family types signed up beforehand or do you just base it roughly on the demographic makeup of the population with semi-confidence that all the units will be filled?

There is such a need for the housing that the way it is currently done is not as scientific as you suggest. What would be useful would be if there was more access to information in terms of the census—elderly people for example—and indepth understanding of the existing social housing estates, what works well and what doesn’t.

In Brixton (London), there’s an estate imagined in drawings with places where people would socialise on these elevated walkways and moving between buildings. In reality they just became areas for crime. So it’s about lessons learned.

And what about the second model you mentioned?

It’s about the overall trend away from this “cookie cutter” housing. You can use standardisation to push down cost but give home owners a lead role in determining how their houses will eventually look. It’s a pretty exciting idea.

How does it work?

An architectural firm called Elemental in Chile came up with the idea of the half-finished home. Their statement was that social housing should be a social investment not a social expense. They had 93 families that needed to be rehoused in an area that looks quite similar to Sea Lots. The state was saying to them here’s some modern housing estates you can move in to and they said no we don’t want to move in there, we’ve established our relationships, our links, friendships with neighbours and this is our community, we want to stay here.

Were they living in inadequate housing?

They were living in a shanty town. But they didn’t want to leave where they were living and be split up. So rather than design low class social housing, Elemental thought let’s build something more aspirational and middle class and start off building part of the home and, later, they complete their homes.

Are we talking about houses or medium density blocks?

In this case the design was three-storey blocks joined together, it’s quite dense but with courtyards in between and minimum distances between houses. They started out with 40 square metres which can be expanded to 75 square metres.

Expanded how?

They would put in the main structure and services (plumbing and electric) but they won’t finish things off. So, a window might not have any windows in it yet, it’s got the roof over so you are in a dry space and temporarily you could put a piece of cloth over a window…

So the families go and live in there and then feedback on what works and what doesn’t so it can be adjusted?

Yes. I found it fascinating as an alternative model. About three years ago I was involved in development in East Port-of-Spain working with a firm in the States that specialised in running workshops which we did extensively with people living within the community looking at large-scale maps and the residents showing us good and bad area, where things work and don’t work. And you could see these people were hungry for a real community development. Sadly nothing came out of it.

Is it still usable?

I think we should start with pilot schemes on a smaller local level with the participation of the people involved.

Would East PoS be a good place to do a pilot scheme?

Absolutely. The Quinta Monroy social housing (by Elemental in Chile) struck me as being very similar (to East PoS) and they didn’t present the design like a fait accompli but talked through the issues so people understood about making choices. It even enabled people to see who they were going to be living next to, so if they had particular friends they could end up being neighbours which facilitates a healthier environment. It also encouraged people to build, not just wait for the firm to come and do it for them. It facilitated self-reliance, self-actualisation and they felt much more engaged with the product at the end because they helped create it. It’s just like planting your garden, if you see things grow you’ve put so much into it you value it more and protect it.

Who designs HDC housing?

Architects can design them but you don’t need to be a architect to put in a planning application. We (the TTIA) think the built environment would improve if architects were designing it.

Earlier you mentioned prefabrication…

For anything on a larger scale, I think prefabrication makes sense.

Are a lot of building materials imported?

No, we have a lot of materials to build. Aggregates, sand, we make cement. Clay block factories, concrete block factories. But we do have to import some things, just like other countries. In terms of design considerations, we’re in a class 3 seismic area which is the same as Southern California, which is pretty serious.

So there will eventually be a serious earthquake here?

Yeah. It will be very serious.

Are the seismologists predicting when that might be?

One thing you can say about earthquakes is you can’t predict them except to say we know there’s going to be one at some time. There’s also floods to think about. Around the millennium when I returned to Trinidad it had been raining for six days. In Caracas, 20,000 people died because of that rain. The shacks on the hills and the mud sliding down…

We need to think about rainwater collection too. We need to think about sustainability not just as a fashionable word. And here we need to think about security as a big issue. But we’re not the only place facing these issues so there should be a lot more sharing of information in the region and in Central and South America.

The other problem we have is termites. If we didn’t have that we could be building more in plywood. There are advances going on in materials but, hand-in-hand with community participation, it has to be quite lo-tech to allow people to construct it themselves.

Any other future ideas for housing?

One of the things that could be really exciting is 3-D printing.

Is a lot of the inner-city space wasted?

The fabric of town I like most is Belmont, Gonzales. Yes there are small streets but it feels right and there is that mix of being able to walk down to the shops, you don’t need a car if you live in Belmont, you can walk around.

Would East PoS be a good test-bed area for a pilot scheme?

East PoS would be perfect. There’s a complex up at Beverly Hills (Laventille), I went up there to do one of these community exchanges where they used to live in these British-built barracks that had workshops or garages on the lower level and people lived above and they hung their washing out in the middle. It worked well for quite some time.

Now, it looks like a modern upmarket development from a distance but when you go inside you realise it hasn’t been thought through in terms of how people would use the space. Toilets had blowback, windows faced leftover space for car parking, there was no natural breeze, nowhere to hang washing so you need dryers, that’s not sustainability. 

And the saddest thing was in the courtyard there’s a spring which means a huge amount to the community, it’s treasured for its historic social value and it wasn’t integrated in any way.

It was left there but it wasn’t celebrated when it could have been the heart of the development.