What Role Do Materials and Construction Systems Play in Democratizing Architecture?

“Architecture doesn’t change anything.” It is always on the side for the wealthy.” Oscar Niemeyer said that architecture was a privilege that was destined mainly to the upper classes. This statement has been proven true historically, even though some may deny it. Today, architects are responsible for only 2% worldwide. This is due in large part to the perception that architect-designed homes are expensive and exclusive products that only a few can afford. As housing prices rise, so does this. This makes good design unattainable for certain segments and forces them to live in precarious spaces that do not take their needs into consideration (if they have housing).

Architecture alone, as we know, cannot meet the changing world. There are not enough architects available to fulfill today’s housing requirements and their services are too expensive for many. It is true, however, that the industry is constantly evolving and incorporating new technologies. This is allowing it to meet current challenges. Parallel to this, we are seeing a shift in the role and responsibilities of contemporary architects. They have become less distant, elitist figures, and now take a more humane approach that empowers even the most marginalized, much like Alejandro Aravena’s work. When conventional architecture is impossible to reach, it comes down to giving users the ability to build their own environment and improving their living conditions.

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Giving users the tools, knowledge and skills they need to succeed

When people are provided with the tools and knowledge to be involved in architecture, they can become empowered. This means using low-cost, easily sourced high-performance materials such as plywood and corrugated steel. Their use is likely to make architecture more accessible to all, but this alone has not been enough to provide mass access to good architecture. Why? Materials lose their purpose if they are not assembled with the right skills, knowledge, and digital tools.

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Combining cheap materials with simple construction techniques like prefabrication or modular systems is the key to achieving quick assembly. This can also be done with innovative technologies and new innovations, such as open source collaboration and digital fabrication tools. Users can participate at different levels in designing and fabricating their own housing solutions. This includes the possibility to explore self-manufacture or self-construction. This recipe, as long as you have the knowledge to make sure that all components work together, can play a crucial role in the democratization and creation of high-quality housing. It could also be a catalyst for positive change.

We explore this by presenting a selection of inspiring, cost-effective and user-oriented residential projects that were built using simple construction techniques, affordable materials, and new technologies that are more accessible. Some of these projects were self-built but others have great potential to become participatory or collaborative housing options that are accessible to many people.

Box House / Studio Bark

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The client did not have the funds nor the skills to hire an outside contractor in this instance. U-Build was developed by the architects. It is a modular and flexible flat-pack timber box system that can be “nested” onto standard plywood sheets. It’s easy to assemble and disassemble. However, it can be used in many configurations. The parametric computer software was used to design the system. This allows complex designs to be converted into simpler components that can then be ‘cut’ at a local CNC shop. The result was a 95m2 house built entirely by the client using manual techniques (with some help from Studio Bark).

Box House can be built with plywood, wood fiber, and other locally sourced materials. It is also a cost-effective option that can even be less expensive if the community has its own CNC machine. The construction is simple and affordable thanks to the ease of assembly and automated manufacturing.

We believe that if clients are more involved in the construction process, they will be more likely to see the value of good design and to invest more in the community. Nick Newman, Director at U-Build

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Wikkelhouse / Fiction Factory

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This unique modular house is made with cardboard as the main building material. It combines advanced technology and simple assembly with a low-cost, recyclable material. Start with 24 layers made of high-quality cardboard, wound around a house-shaped mold. The layers are bonded using an eco-friendly superglue to ensure insulation and durability. Finally, the house is finished off with waterproof foil and wood-paneling.

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The Wikkelhouse is portable and can be assembled in a single day. It is fully customizable in terms of size and function because it is made up of segments that can be added or removed as necessary. The pieces are provided to the user, but they can decide what function they want and how they will be assembled.

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SPACE10 – Micro-house prototype

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This project explores the idea of local self-manufacture and open source collaboration with the aim of creating affordable, adaptable, and universal housing solutions. Open source often means that CAD drawings are made available online but are not accessible to most people. This is exactly where this approach stands out. Instead of receiving templates and design files to help cut the materials, users can directly participate in the project. This is a significant improvement over previous attempts to make widespread affordable housing affordable. Previously, these systems were rigid and unchangeable. The proposal now has the potential for customization, modification, and greater success.

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This micro-house measures 49m2 and was constructed using only a CNC milling machine, plywood, and a total cost of $192 per square meter. Recent innovations like hand-held CNC machines make it possible to envision a future in which these tools are as small as vacuum cleaners. The project can be self-manufactured thanks to open source collaboration and the availability of one easily sourced material as well as usable machines that didn’t exist 10 years ago. This will allow for greater accessibility to housing for those who otherwise wouldn’t have the means to afford it.

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Combining affordable materials with simple construction techniques and modern technologies can give everyone the ability to build high-quality housing. However, this doesn’t mean that the modern architect is going extinct. They are a vital part of the ongoing democratization and advancement of design. They are crucial in developing and applying the design tools that will enable affordable housing for all. Some are already making a mark in the industry. Others, such as 3D construction printing need more investment and development to realize their full potential and reduce costs.

Although there is still much to be done in order for architecture to truly become democratic, it appears that the first stones have been laid.