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Staff Review: Designed for Habitat

Designed for Habitat
David Hinson & Justin Miller

I won’t pretend to be an expert in this field, but I would like to think that I know a little something about it… I did, after all, work for a small architectural practice for several years, and then the Australian Institute of Architects. Oh, and both my parents are in the industry: one is an architect, the other an urban designer. So even though I’ve never had any training in the discipline, I’ve been surrounded by it for most of my life, and I thought I’d put that history to use (or test it out?) by reviewing a book based on a very interesting premise: collaborations between designers (either ensconced in universities, or practising architects) and the social housing initiative Habitat for Humanity, whose key stakeholders are the volunteers who run it and the low-income people they run it for.

This focus on collaboration really is the most striking thing about Designed for Habitat—so much so that, in fact, it almost comes off as a how-to manual for anyone who might need to pull together such disparate groups: the design-focused architects, the efficiency-focused charity workers, and the results-focused beneficiaries of the projects. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. It’s clear from the preface that these relationships have been challenging all involved for decades, with sometimes disastrous results, so a little focus and guidance is probably just what is called for. It does give a very specific spin to the book, though, so if you’re just picking it up to get some fluffy stories of humanitarian work well done, or some nifty tips and tricks on designing low-cost housing, this probably isn’t quite what you’re looking for. But maybe it’s what you need.

I found the brief introduction to the rocky history of design in low-cost housing efforts quite interesting. As someone who has only seen architecture from a twenty-first-century perspective—a perspective that has included some pretty innovative social housing projects, like Elemental’s incremental social housing in Chile—I had kind of taken it for granted that truly useful low-cost housing needed skilled design input; I didn’t realise that this input had, in the past, led to some significant public housing SNAFUs in the US, not to mention a rather dim view of the potential role of architecture in contributing to a better world. This view was thrown into rather sharp relief, particularly in America, by natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

In the rarified world of international architecture, the biomorphic cultural icons, the acrophobic skyscrapers, the exuberant private Xanadus—design marvels that defined an era—began to seem more than a little beside the point. Leading the way, future architects lodged in design studios across the country had already reacted to indulgence.

This stereotypical view of the preoccupations of architecture, and the ways in which architects had already been trying to redirect them, sheds some light on why these collaborations have so often been riddled with conflict, frustration and failure, and why the authors of this book believe that some real-life case studies of successful (if not fairy-tale) collaborations might be just the thing this humanitarian dream needs.

The authors present these case studies in a way that obviously hopes to guide people through the collaboration process. For each case, they begin with a project timeline, move on to an introduction to the ‘why’ of the project (or, as they put it, the ‘Catalysts for Collaboration’), follow this with the ‘how’ (the story of the design and construction processes), and then finish each one with the ‘Lessons Learned’—probably the key part of each case study, and the unique value of this book. It doesn’t shy away from pointing out what worked and what didn’t, and from recognising the long-term impact that these projects have on their residents and communities. The cumulative wisdom of these lessons is summarised in the important final chapter: ‘Lessons from the Field: Keys to Making Collaborations Work’. This chapter goes through the most frequent and valuable lessons that can be taken away from the thirteen case studies that make up the body of the book—lessons like ‘the power of design’, the importance of ‘best-practice communication strategies’, and the absolute imperative of understanding and aligning the motivations of the various collaborators.

Ultimately, however, the authors end the book on a positive, though cautionary, note:

As the cases profiled in Designed for Habitat attest, though success requires more than a shared desire to help low-income families, partnerships between Habitat and architects can yield homes of inspiring quality and help affiliates become more effective at addressing their core mission of eliminating poverty housing.

This book’s efforts at sharing the steps it takes to achieve such success make it a rather unique and particularly valuable addition to the reading list of anyone interested in socially conscious or low-cost housing. But you needn’t take my word for it. For those who don’t trust the opinion of little old literary me, who lacks any qualifications in the architecture department, I sought a second opinion from an expert: my mum, who just also happens to be an award-winning architect interested in affordable housing. (Convenient, no?). She agrees that this book ‘provides a great insight into a wide array of collaborative projects, exposing the raw politics, partnering and inventiveness that it takes to get such innovative housing solutions on the ground, while the simplicity of the case study format, which always treats us to plans, photos and the all-important “Lessons Learned,” makes this book not only a good read, but also a valuable resource’.

So there.

Staff Bio

Lois Shedd photo

Lois Shedd is Publishing Assistant at Palgrave Macmillan Australia. Her background is in literature and linguistics, and she completed her Master of Publishing and Editing at Monash University in 2011. Her if-you-were-stranded-on-a-deserted-island (aka ‘favourite’) book is The Lord of the Rings.

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