The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2018
Berkeley Prize 2018

[ID:1865] DESIGN:wiki_HOUSE – a student competition to promote affordable sustainable housing in New Zealand

New Zealand

New Zealand faces the intensifying problem of how to ensure an increasing number of households with low to moderate incomes obtain and sustain affordable sustainable housing. Inspired by the work of Architecture for Humanity and the Open Architecture Network (http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org), the “DESIGN:wiki_HOUSE” Competition seeks to use free digital open content forum (“wiki”) technology to foster an interest by New Zealand students of architecture (and other disciplines) in affordable sustainable housing and a commitment by them to the social art of architecture in their academic years and future professional lives. While

promoting this ongoing interest in improving the lives of others through architecture is a primary objective, the most important outcome of the Competition will be the resulting wiki - a free, publicly accessible architectural design database and forum for anyone interested in sustainable affordable housing in New Zealand.

Adequate housing is an undeniable basic human necessity. While New Zealand could not be said to be suffering a housing crisis akin to much of the developing world, it faces its own looming problems relating to the affordability and sustainability of housing for increasing numbers of the population. While affordable housing has been expressly recognised as an issue of concern for many low- and moderate-income people since the 1970s, sustainable housing has, until recently, been viewed largely as a peripheral concern. A lack of understanding of principles of sustainability and their close relationship with lifecycle affordability, together with the perceived added cost of retaining architects and other professional advisors in this regard, seems historically to have dissuaded social housing providers from engaging with these issues. Further, the size of the New Zealand housing market has limited the availability of affordable sustainable building systems for those wishing to implement them.

It is the express vision of the New Zealand Government that “all New Zealanders have access to affordable, sustainable, good quality housing appropriate to their needs” (Housing New Zealand, “Building the Future”, http://www.hcnz.co.nz). To achieve that vision the Government’s strategic housing goals include increasing access to affordable and sustainable housing; increasing choice and diversity in housing markets, improving housing standards, increasing integration of housing with the community and other sectors; and increasing capacity within the housing sector. The Government has also expressly recognised the important link between affordability and sustainability in housing and the need to encourage more architects and designers to focus on the affordable housing market (Housing NZ, “Sustainable Housing Supply”, http://www.hcnz.co.nz).

The capacity of third sector (i.e. non-government) housing groups in New Zealand is small but growing, aided by a Government commitment to fostering development and growth in capability by developing new housing models and approaches, and the Housing Innovation Fund, established in 2003 partly to increase third sector involvement in social housing (Housing New Zealand, “Programme of Action”, http://www.hcnz.co.nz).

The intention is that the DESIGN:wiki_HOUSE Competition and wiki will become a primary resource for third sector housing initiatives and individual households seeking to access free information about affordable sustainable housing, including architectural design solutions submitted by students as entries to the Competition.

While there is now a much wider appreciation of the need for housing to be both affordable and sustainable, a problem remains: accessing professional design guidance about affordable sustainable housing is still out of financial reach for many New Zealanders. Improving the housing situation for the substantial sector of New Zealanders who cannot afford to purchase professional design services can and should be a primary concern of the architectural profession in this country, a concern that must begin during architectural education. This Competition aims to foster that concern.

There are many definitions of “affordability” and “sustainability”. The definition of affordable housing adopted in the context of this essay is housing for which residents in the lower 40% of household income distribution (i.e. low- to medium-incomes) pay no more than 30% of their gross income towards rent or mortgage payments (Global Green USA, “Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing”, 2007; Centre for Housing Research Aotearoa New Zealand (CHRANZ), “Affordable Housing in New Zealand”, 2006). The definition of sustainable housing adopted here is housing which enables people to provide for their personal, social and cultural wellbeing, while avoiding, remedying or mitigating any adverse impacts of that housing on the environment (cf. section 5 of New Zealand’s Resource Management Act 1991) and, more specifically, embodies principles of environmentally sensitive design relating to waste and recycling, energy, water, and ecology.

Reflecting a trend that has occurred in most OECD countries in the last twenty years, New Zealand rental costs and house prices have increased faster than household incomes, growing the disparity between house prices and rents and low to medium household incomes. A lack of affordable housing is both a social and economic issue. Housing affordability transcends the ability of households to purchase, rent or sustain adequate housing; it also affects their ability to achieve positive outcomes in education, health, employment, regional economic development and building communities (CHRANZ, 2006).

Unfortunately a lessening in the affordability of housing can (and often does) find direct correlation in a lessening of the quality of housing stock. Providers are often tempted to avoid what are seen as relatively unjustifiably high costs of engaging architects to advise on sustainability issues in order to keep supply costs down so as to meet acceptable rent and purchase price levels for lower income households. This can be the case especially in relation to existing housing stock where adaptation and renovation to make housing more sustainable can be perceived as overcapitalising a project (thus making it unfeasible). With approximately 70% of today’s housing in New Zealand expected still to be in use in 2030, the issue of upgrading non-sustainable housing stock to meet the needs of lower income New Zealanders in the future is a pressing concern (CHRANZ, “Housing Costs and Affordability in New Zealand”, 2004). Further, a house that is unsustainable can make it unaffordable over its lifecycle (e.g. high energy or maintenance costs), creating a negative symbiotic relationship common in much of New Zealand’s older housing stock.

Various interventions can be made to make housing more affordable and sustainable via interaction with the demand for and supply of housing. Demand interventions involve giving direct assistance to households with a housing need; supply interventions aim to increase and maintain affordable sustainable housing stock available to lower income households (CHRANZ, 2004).

The proposed Competition aims to be a supply intervention in a number of ways. Firstly, making solutions to affordability and sustainability problems freely available via a public wiki could eliminate the cost to housing providers of engaging architects to address such issues. Projects might therefore be more feasible (and thus more of them would be created), and that without any additional costs having to be passed on to housing consumers (therefore more affordable). Secondly, if design solutions are more readily available and therefore more widely implemented there will be a greater proportion of the housing stock that is affordable and sustainable. Further, the open accessibility of information and architectural solutions relating to affordable sustainable housing and free use of them will hopefully generate a wider interest in and commitment to affordable sustainable housing for all New Zealanders.

The problem with past architectural design competitions aimed at addressing affordable sustainable housing is that they have taken a “products” rather than a “systems” approach to generating solutions, resulting in specific designs for specific sites with little transferability or adaptability. By contrast, the DESIGN:wiki_HOUSE Competition seeks to elicit a multiplicity of systems solutions for dealing with problems faced by a multiplicity of houses by becoming the catalyst and seed material for the creation of a wiki where people can either access assistance and information relating to affordable sustainable housing or contribute to resolution of design issues. The Competition is also designed to foster socially responsible, collaborative approaches to those design solutions.

According to Ward Cunningham, their original creator, wikis are “the simplest online database that would possibly work.” They are series of linked web pages to which people are often given generous access to enable wide contribution to and editing of the content. Their structures build and provide access to databases while simultaneously generating a “largely self-organising social or community-of-interest map”. Wikis “collapse geographic and temporal distance to allow geographically dispersed agents to collaborate in unprecedented ways, integrating widely diverse sets of knowledge into the design process.” The use of wiki technology has the power to lead to “a world where project information accumulates and is searchable, but also perhaps to a world that is a partially ‘proactive’ environment that brings together related topics and documents, unobtrusively contextualising and raising participants’ awareness of what has gone before” (A Burrow & J Burry, “Working with Wiki, by Design”, Architectural Design vol76(5)). This accumulated, searchable, proactive wisdom and experience is precisely what is needed to address the issue of affordable sustainable housing in New Zealand, and is why wiki technology would be used for this Competition. To paraphrase Cameron Sinclair, in a world with millions of problems, what is needed are millions of solutions, shared with all the world, evolving with every new iteration of the Competition.

In Phase 1 of the Competition (approximately four weeks’ duration) students will be presented with a selection of 5-10 “problem” houses, i.e. houses that suffer from affordability and sustainability issues. Entrants (teams or individuals, geographically local or remote from each other) will be invited to select one of these houses and propose a solution that addresses those issues (as they perceive them to be). That solution may be in any form appropriate to the problem posed, ranging from theoretical approaches through construction systems to discrete architectural details, although it must be capable of digital submission to the wiki. By predetermining the pool of problem houses the Competition establishes a level playing field for students without unduly restricting the direction they might take in proposing solutions. Further, using real-life problem houses promotes real-life and implementable solutions for those (and other) houses. Semi-finalists will be selected by the Competition jury to compete in Phase 2 according to criteria that value the creativeness and pragmatism of the design response proposed, the transferability and adaptability of the response to other houses and situations, and the clarity of communication of the proposal.

It is important for the Competition to have value to its intended beneficiaries and that it attract attention to the wiki. For those reasons the jury would include people interested and involved in social housing (for example the Chairperson of Habitat for Humanity NZ and a representative of Housing New Zealand), people interested and involved in sustainable housing (such as an Eco Design Advisor from the Building Research Association of New Zealand), and architects involved and interested in affordable sustainable housing. It would also be extremely beneficial to have an architect on the jury who is interested in the use of wiki technology in collaborative design practice. The jury and Competition would be co-ordinated by John Gray, a senior lecturer in the Victoria University of Wellington Faculty of Architecture and architect engaged in social housing issues.

All proposals submitted will be published on the Competition wiki, subject to an Attribution Share Alike (by-sa) Creative Commons licence (http://www.creativecommons.org). The by-sa licence allows other people accessing the wiki to rework, tweak and build upon entrants’ work as long as they credit the original designer and licence their new creations back to the wiki under identical terms. Submitting entries subject to this licence is crucial to the success of the Competition (in Phase 2) and the wiki as a whole as it allows free use and adaptation of submissions. The licence also accommodates commercial application of solutions, otherwise a key client of the wiki (social housing providers) would be prevented from using the designs.

In Phase 2 of the Competition (approximately six weeks’ duration) semi-finalists will be asked to select one of the semi-finalist proposals for development. They may select their own proposal, or the proposal of another semi-finalist; they may work alone or in their original team, or they may form teams with other semi-finalists to concentrate on one proposal. Again, submission format will depend on the approach taken by the semi-finalist – they may, for example, chose to standardise a discrete detail from Phase 1, or develop a theoretical approach into an express building system. Awards will be given to the top three submissions again having regard to criteria valuing the creativeness and pragmatism of the developed design response, transferability and adaptability, and clarity of communication. A special award could also be given for the submission that, for example, exemplifies a collaborative or multidisciplinary approach to architectural design.

It is intended that the Competition become an annual event and be adapted from year to year to address a particular issue of concern relating to affordable sustainable housing. For example, the first Competition might address issues of passive heating and ventilation; the next how to increase integration of housing and community; the next water collection, re-use and recycling; and so on.

As noted above, the most important outcome of the Competition will be the resulting web-based architectural design resource freely accessible by anyone interested in sustainable affordable housing in New Zealand. Like other wikis, it is intended that this will gather content and critical mass through the free engagement of individuals and groups. By way of the annual Competition (hopefully also with participation from students of disciplines other than just architecture) the wiki will grow and gain value to the social housing sector, fostering the philosophy of the wiki in student professionals along the way. This will ensure the Competition has a real and continuing positive impact and isn’t consigned to the realm of the merely theoretical.

The pressing need for housing that is superior in terms of affordability and sustainability to much of what is presently available to lower income households in New Zealand is clear and present. A theoretical, one-off architectural design competition won’t save us from these problems, but a sea change in thinking and modus operandi by student architects such as that required by the DESIGN:wiki_HOUSE Competition and the resulting multitude of possible solutions just might.

If you would like to contact this author, please send a request to info@berkeleyprize.org.


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