THE SOUTH AFRICAN HOUSING CONFERENCE IN CAPETOWN, AND THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON HUMAN(E) SETTLEMENTS HELD IN Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA, September 2012
South Africa offers a tremendously exciting environment for discussion of ideas, and innovation in urban development. The “new” South Africa has huge challenges for creating satisfactory living environments for millions of its black citizens who were/are living in slums. There is some highly creative thinking going into spatial design, building construction, tenure arrangements and finance. There is an influx of skilled professionals from a variety of countries and cultures to add to this creativity. This includes a significant contingent from Holland, where there is some particularly innovative professional thinking around Open Building techniques (see below) and social housing best practice.
The first of these conferences was a cross-disciplinary forum, with good representation from all levels of government, social housing providers and the development industry. I provided a 20 minute workshop presentation on Community Engagement, which was well received. The other presentations included a New Zealand paper about transformation of a large public housing estate using a community based model. There was some reporting back from the recent World Urban Forum held in Naples, with a significant finding being that there was a disturbing observation about increasing social distance between people making policy and those experiencing the impacts of policy implementation, at all levels of government including local government (which made my paper all the more significant). However the main value of attending this conference was to absorb current thinking about housing and thus put on my housing brain, which helped me to draft a Discussion Paper as a prelude to a Housing Policy for the City of Ballarat.
The second conference was organised by the South African Architects Institute, and was more focused on best practice housing and neighbourhood design. I was given the opening keynote address for which an hour was allowed, and I customised this around some issues I had been briefed on that were of particular local relevance. These included mobilising the community sector for mass urban transformation (experience from Glasgow UK) and development of tri-sector partnerships for significant urban reform (experience from international development projects), which I had been asked to talk about.
Three other international experts had been invited to address the conference on various aspects of Open Building and System Separation, which are emerging areas of innovation in Holland, the USA and some other western countries. These concepts have particular relevance for South Africa as well as for Australia/Ballarat, as outlined in the following summary.
Open Building, System Separation and Sustainable Asset Management
An architectural concept of “Supports” was developed by Dutch architect John Harbraken in the 1960s, and was inspirational when I was an architectural student. This involves design of built frameworks using modules (he used the dimensions of a traditional Japanese floor mat) within which users could slot in customised modules, with the capacity to adapt buildings over time. This concept was used in the construction of the iconic “Habitat” building that was showcased in Expo 1999 in Montreal (which I also travelled to see).
Harbraken’s concepts have recently received new momentum with the development of the Open Building concept in the United States and Holland, apparently inspired by Harbraken’s original work but taking it much further. In Open Building the emphasis is on design of the primary structure, which has inbuilt flexibility to provide for immediate customisation as well as future adaptation. It can be applied to new building or renovation of existing buildings, small and large. There are increasing numbers of Open Building practitioners, with particular application to residential buildings and health care structures (the latter because of the rapid obsolescence of any fully developed design solutions, and the need to accommodate as yet unforeseen medical developments, with regular refurbishment).
Systems Separation is a practice that has been developed in parallel with Open Building, and the two are now being linked. In Systems Separation the usual phases of a building’s construction are completely disconnected. Design and construction of the primary structure is commissioned as an entity in its own right, with the brief providing for a high level of durability as well as flexibility. The secondary phase of a building’s completion (interior design, completion of aesthetic treatments) is commissioned as a next phase, at the appropriate time. The tertiary phase (equipment and furnishing, building commissioning) may be pursued in stages once the appropriate configurations are clear. It is claimed that this separation is cost effective and provides much improved results, because the skill sets required for the three stages are quite different (an analogy was made between tennis, badminton and ping pong). Separation also provides for changes to be made along the way, as well as design for future uncertainty. This provides primary building solutions that are highly sustainable, because of their immediate and future adaptability.
There is an obvious link to be made between these two concepts and with emerging best practices in Sustainable Asset Management, which professional bodies such as EAROPH are leading. All three concepts suggest a need to shift from a focus on the initial construction of a building to considering (and lengthening) its life cycle. An analogy that I can make is derived from the book “Factor Four” (Amory Lovins et al) which urges halving inputs and doubling outputs to improve sustainability. One of the many case studies in this book relates to a carpeting company which original defined its business as “selling carpets”. After some clever Factor 4 thinking, it redefined its business as “keeping floors carpeted”. It focused on producing and laying carpet tiles, and there was an annual inspection to replace any worn tiles, these then being recycled to produce new tiles. Far fewer tiles were produced in total but floor were better carpeted at all times, more people were employed and profitability was much improved.
The analogy with buildings is clear to me. If we are to achieve sustainable buildings we need to switch from a focus on the initial construction to an annual investment, maintaining the value and functionality of the built assets, and adapting the secondary and tertiary systems on a regular basis to adjust to the changing needs of users. There are many disincentives for making this switch, especially in an environment where external funding is only available for capital projects at the initial construction phase. However if the initial investment can be made in maximising the durability and flexibility of the primary structure, this may facilitate a more cost effective ongoing process of annual investment in cyclical maintenance as well as adaptation to changing use patterns.
Some of the leading proponents of Open Building and System Separation are keen advocates of design competitions as a way of encouraging innovative solutions to the design of the primary structure. Because a high level of flexibility and adaptability is required, the conceptual development can be carried out remotely from the social context, and possibly from the details of the physical site (depending on the site constraints and opportunities and the level of information that can be provided). Given the highly innovative nature of these concepts in Australia, it is possible that State or Commonwealth Government support could be secured for these competitions (and perhaps for implementation). System Separation guru Georgio Macchi, who has been responsible for major urban developments in Switzerland, indicated to me that he would be willing to help with this, and offered himself as a design panel judge. There was also enthusiastic support from US Professor Stephen Kendall, who is an Open Building advocate.
There are three possible applications of these concepts to Ballarat that are apparent to me, and which might be considered as possible project initiatives. All could be the subject of design competition.
1. Civic Hall. It seems to me that System Separation would be highly appropriate, and that the nature of the building makes it very suitable as the subject for a design competition. A robust and adaptable primary structure could provide flexibility for a variety of as yet uncertain uses to be introduced, and for these to change over time.
2. Indoor sports buildings. Constructing these is a significant investment, and there are challenges for sustainable asset management, providing flexible multi-use spaces, and allowing for adaptability over time. It is planned to convene a futurist workshop on the possible ways that sport and recreation patterns will change in Ballarat over the next 20-50 years, and this could generate the brief for an innovative generic Open Building design.
3. Demonstration housing project. One proposal emerging from the recent housing workshop in Ballarat is establishment of a consortium to develop innovative small dwellings that can fill a market gap and demonstrate good practice to the development industry. Open Building can provide an exciting framework for small dwellings, allowing for customisation of spaces to meet the needs of the initial occupants, but providing flexibility for structures to adapt to the changing needs of these people or other occupants. It is possible that some private sector sponsorship (peak industry or professional bodies) as well as government support for an initial design competition around this concept could be encouraged.
As another follow on from the South African conference, I have been encouraged to engage with EAROPH in linking best practice Sustainable Asset Management modelling to the Open Building and System Separation conceptual development (which has its own financial modelling templates). An appropriate vehicle for some global collaboration on this new thinking woutl be through the International Federation of Housing and Planning, which partners with EAROPH but is based in Amsterdam. Professor Kendall is particularly keen that this should be pursued. If the City of Ballarat would like to play an active part in this global discourse, it would be an easy step for it to become an EAROPH corporate member.
Dr. Jane Stanley
EAROPH Australia Executive Committee Member
Director for People and Communities for Ballarat, Ballarat City Council