At a time when housing has become such a pressing social, economic, and political issue, it is important to ask the questions: how do we actually want to live together? And how do the places we live in get produced? Examining international examples of innovative, self-determined housing reveals the fundamental connection between modes of production and habitation.
How can our domestic environments reflect emergent patterns of daily life to create resilient social spatial configurations? Can multi-residential environments offer more than an atomised accumulation of individual units and traverse the polarity of the house vs the apartment; a polarity evident in housing typologies in Ireland and ingrained in the national psyche? Challenging the established model requires alternatives to reductive developer-led/market-driven housing provision which distorts our relationship to the places we inhabit by turning them into high-risk commodities.
The Translating Housing research project briefly described in this article sought to explore these questions by analysing a series of Berlin-based case studies of diverse and innovative approaches to housing typologies, financing, and development models, in particular various forms of co-housing.
These Baugruppen (building groups) and particular forms of Baugenossenschaften (building co-operatives) have involved groups of people coming together to secure sites or empty buildings, design their future homes collectively, and in some case participate in aspects of the building process. These forms of self-organised housing are customised to residents’ needs regarding size, layout, interior fit-out, etc. By eliminating the risk – and associated profit margins – of building investors/developers, the buildings that emerge from these processes are generally of a higher quality and more cost-effective than traditional alternatives.
Baugruppen projects effectively divide the finished building into individual apartments within a larger framework as collectively agreed by all residents. Baugenossenschaften provide affordable housing in the middle ground between ownership and rented accommodation, such that cooperative members are simultaneously both landlords and tenants, and the building is effectively independent of the free market’s speculative circle .
The negotiation inherent to such projects allows the tensions and potentials sparked by individual and shared needs and aspirations to be explored. Amenities that would not be financially feasible for individual households – shared roof terraces, collective kitchens, guest apartments, common gardens, shared workspaces, etc. – are made possible by collective investment. These resources support the social resilience and flexibility of collective housing models, and were particularly valuable during COVID-19 lockdowns .
The diversity of dwelling types typical of these medium- to high-density residential typologies is often coupled with a reciprocal flexibility, allowing rooms or spaces to be transferred, or dwelling units to being swapped as residents up-scale, down-scale, or adjust their live-work configurations. The Ritterstrasse 50 project, by architects Ifau and Jesko Fezer and Heide and von Beckerath, for client GbR Ritterstrasse 50, is a good example of how this designed flexibility works. Simplicity in the building’s volume, structural strategy, and services design allows for highly personalised internal spatial configurations, with no two apartment layouts being the same.
Ritterstrasse 50 also illustrates the significance of shared spaces and facilities. Its generous common areas include a 159m2 two-storey common area in the lobby, a roof terrace with summer kitchen, a laundry room, a shared wrap-around balcony, and a garden.
Our Translating Housing research developed a methodology to illustrate the location and relationship of such spaces to the building’s organisation. These drawings are cross-referenced to specially developed graphic representations of the density, construction and site costs, programmatic mixture, shared and private amenity provision, and the organisational and funding models of each project. This methodology foregrounds the interconnection between design intent and underlying financial and organisational models, as it is only through an understanding of these interrelationships that the case studies can inform our thinking in other contexts.
Berlin’s development authority plays an important role in facilitating these self-generating projects: by strategically using its own land assets, and by accommodating smaller networks, not just large housing providers. These strategies could be instructive for Ireland, as has been outlined by SOA (Self-Organised Architecture)  who suggest that such state facilitation could take the form of sale or allocation by lease of public land for community-led housing initiatives based on such European models .
For example, at Ritterstrasse, a ‘concept-driven’ sales process was used, meaning the site was sold not for the highest offered price, but for the best value for the city in terms of social, architectural, urban, and environmental criteria. Ritterstrasse 50 was selected because it proposed giving back part of the site as green space to the surrounding housing. Its emphasis on collective spaces and participatory planning processes was seen as an example of best practice for urban housing; a practice of people making the city and in so doing taking responsibility for it.
1. D. Englert, ‘Sozialwohnungen als Renditeobjekte’, Tagesspiegel, Berlin, 14 February 2011.
2. D. Kleilein, 'Urbanität in der Krise: Die Stadt nach Corona', Taz, 29 July 2020, p. 2.
3. SOA is a not-for-profit action research collaborative working to establish community-led housing in Ireland.
4. SOA Research CLG, LAND: Roadmapping a viable community-led housing sector for Ireland. Available to download at: www.soa.ie/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/roadmapping_clh_land.pdf. Accessed 4 May 2023.
5. K. Ring, AA Projects, and Senatsverwaltungfür Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt, Selfmade City Berlin: Stadtgestaltung und Wohnprojekte in Eigeninitiative, Berlin, Jovis Verlag, 2013, p. 203.
It is a strange time. Conflict is general, but there is one area of surprising consensus: Una Mullally and Michael McDowell are writing columns that agree with each other . The cause of this congruence between left and right is the proposed reworking of the St Stephen’s Green shopping centre – a design both correspondents decry for its blandness and generic expression . In the absence of full-time built environment critics in the Irish popular press, Mullaly and McDowell have each written extensively, with different emphases, about matters of architecture, urban form, and planning. Their critiques of the proposed development express views common in our society. While James Toomey Architects’ shopping centre might not be the most important building, with its clip on "Mississippi river boat façade" , the journalists’ point stands: so many facades, reworkings, and new builds betray a lack of consideration of threshold, of contribution to public space, of the linking to and protection of communities, or of seeking to create humane and delightful places to live. This is not a critique of architects per se, but of our planning system.
It is worth briefly setting out the status quo: most buildings are constructed by private individuals or companies, each acting in its own self-interest. These individuated projects become the public faces of our cities and towns, shaping our movement patterns, our ability to find repose or respite, and the network of social encounters that constitute a society. Acting to regulate and temper these disparate development processes is our planning system. ‘Forward planning’ teams within local authorities shape policies in the short, medium, and longer terms, while ‘development management’ departments consider specific applications for development permission. Beyond this, An Bord Pleanála adjudicates on appeals to planning decisions throughout the state.
There is something quaint about this, a simple system for a simpler age. It assumes an episodic pace of development – where extant works can be reasoned against proposed, at a pace which allows things to cohere. It’s a system ill-equipped to respond to the contemporary pace of development. While pre-planning systems exist, feedback tends to be high-level, strategic. Points raised may often be set aside by the applicant in the aspiration that a higher body may overrule local planners. Tactics shape decisions. Sometimes a flat refusal is not in the public interest; conditions requiring the omission of a floor, or even an entire block, are reasonably common. But these retroactive measures are probably the least useful ways to ‘manage’ development.
Applicants, for their part, assemble ever more complex design teams with specialisms added as tools to bolster a case, not necessarily to improve design. Many anticipate An Bord Pleanála as the final adjudicator. There is little incentive to justify the increased time (and therefore fee) an architect or landscape designer requires for a more thoughtful approach, as this will rarely have demonstrable impact on the planning decision or the financial modelling of the proposal. None of this is the planners’ fault, but a product of the system. As we consider a major overhaul of planning regulation here , it is curious that there is not more debate about this aspect. The primary effect of the proposed planning reform will be a more robust and streamlined system, but not one necessarily delivering better design.
It is time to consider using design review panels. These exist in many forms in various parts of the world. Some, such as those common within universities or major corporations, are specific to institutions, or to special planning areas, while in countries such as the UK these panels form part of the general infrastructure of the planning system. Design review panels bring together diverse specialisms to critique designs as they develop. A panel may include architects, landscape architects, housing experts, community engagement experts, and many more as required. These experts, paid for their time, review applications at early and late stages and provide non-binding feedback. Review events may resemble a design review in university, with a verbal presentation and conversational feedback.
The best design review processes are timely, occurring at an early design stage. They are proportionate, recognising that not every project warrants the process: perhaps key sites, streets or scales of work are identified as triggering a review. They involve rotating panels of diverse and skilled experts, offering objective feedback in a transparent and accessible manner. Most importantly, they are advisory: they do not act to design, but to inform a design process. However, their impact can be profound, allowing decisions taken early on to greatly improve anything from a proposal’s integration within an area, to the nature of housing layouts, and even aesthetic expression. Planners naturally draw on the transcripts of these sessions – and developers, knowing this, seek to bolster the design strength of their proposal. Conversations led by design review panels can, say, make a case for increased density coupled with clear qualitative improvements. In other cases, panels may act as powerful advocates against demolition, or champion the adjustment of early ideas to cater for the full breath of diverse needs that exist within our communities.
Design review can be malleable, recruiting and developing expertise across local authority boundaries and making space for arguments which may greatly improve the built environment over time. They also make explicit to applicants a requirement for skilled, adequately resourced designers. This impact ripples beyond the specific sites being reviewed and modifies the entire development eco-system over time. Substantial literature exists internationally on the benefits of the system , literature which will be vital in designing a successful Irish approach. Trials are key, to allow the new system to adjust and develop in light of how it is working.
None of the above is a panacea, but it might be a way to begin responding to the valid critiques raised by commentators left and right. Design review panels have the potential to positively reshape our cities and towns, setting out a new vision of our country for decades to come.
The current proposed reform of the Irish planning process will not necessarily deliver better design, argues Andrew Clancy – but design review panels could.Read
The COP28 climate talks in Dubai concluded one week ago at the time of writing. Astonishingly, it is the first time in COP's thirty-year existence that a 'transition away from fossil fuels'  has formed part of the final discussion. Experts argue, however, that despite the significance and potential ramifications of this outcome, we are still nowhere near to achieving our goal of a 43% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 .
In part, this problem arises from how we see value in our world. The traditional value systems which we have always adhered to create a dichotomy of what is and is not valuable. Case in point: we still value fossil fuels enough to accept the destruction that we know they cause.
We judge everything in terms of value: monetary value, historical value, cultural value, political value, and so on. And of course, value systems exist for a reason – they are the decision-making processes through which we determine where to focus energy and interest. However, the flip side of this coin is the invalidation of that which we have decided is of lesser – or no – value. The inequality inherent in these systems is evident when we consider which cultures are prioritised, whose traditions are supported, and what narratives are encouraged.
Considering value systems as they relate to architecture, that which is discarded also comes at high cost. Engaging with the built environment requires engagement with physical resources and materials. In the context of the climate emergency, how might we reassess architecture's value systems, perhaps in a way that might better equip us to address the crisis at hand?
We might first look to the existing value systems that prevail within architecture. Traditionally, we assessed built fabric for its historical significance, cultural importance, aesthetic qualities, craftsmanship, and so on. We rarely question the value of a 100-year old town hall made from local stone in the middle of a country town; and why would we? It's obvious.
In recent years, the lenses through which we measure value have diversified, from Assemble's Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool, arguing for community strength and pride as a value to be supported and strengthened through even the most everyday of housing estates, to Forensic Architecture’s studies of the built environment for its value as evidence in legal and political processes.
Or, to the value of architecture as a vessel for the accumulation of everyday collective memory, be that positive or negative. We, as part of CoLab81-7 , recently undertook such a study with students from the School of Architecture at UCD within the former Magdalene Laundry buildings on Sean McDermott Street, Dublin. Within the format of a month-long drawing workshop, the students were tasked with examining the constructed fabric of the remaining buildings, including any – and, importantly, all – traces of inhabitation that they observed during their visit.
To begin, students carefully surveyed a route through the convent building from public to private; from the heavy timber front door at street level, to the (almost) empty nuns’ rooms on the top floor. Along the way, the students recorded everything they witnessed: every tile, door handle, window, electrical box, light fitting and curved handrail, but also every scrap of newspaper and piece of detritus, even the long-dead pigeons littering the staircase. The study raised as many questions as answers: why, for example, the formica vanity sink with five inbuilt toothbrush holders, installed in the bedrooms of nuns expressly forbidden from ever starting a family?
The CoLab81-7 study fed into the efforts of a larger advocacy group known as Open Heart City; the name a reference to open heart surgery and its system of precise yet radical intervention. The aim of this intense and comprehensive survey was to unearth both the seen and unseen qualities and questions of the laundry‘s spaces, studying permanent and temporal traces made by both time and occupancy to examine how the building's architecture supported or facilitated its carceral past. The ambition was to identify some precise yet radical move that might bring new life to a lifeless place.
But what about the ugly 80's prefab office block on a lucrative city-centre site? Such buildings are routinely demolished due to market pressures and public disinterest; the effort, energy and material resources which went into their construction still falling on the not valuable side of our value coin.
The architecture collective Material Cultures argues that 'whenever we build, we either contribute to or counteract processes of change' . If we are going to address the looming climate disaster, the greatest change humankind has ever known, then we must act in radical and unconventional ways. We must start by seeing everything as valid – the 100-year old town hall and the 80s office block, the 90s housing estates and the abandoned institutional buildings with difficult pasts. As architects, we are in a unique position to both influence and facilitate this change; to act like physicians, working to identify the most efficient, least harmful way to treat the patient without ever debating whether the patient deserves saving in the first place.
As soon as possible, the world must free itself from fossil fuels, and we must recalibrate our understanding of what is valuable and what is not. We could begin, for example, by eliminating the idea that anything is without value; instead starting with a baseline of 100% value in our existing buildings, materials and resources and working backwards from there. Like a doctor presented first with symptoms and then with scalpels, we would endeavour to spend time understanding the 'patient' in their entirety, synthesising their past history and present condition, before using the tools available with precision to ensure a healthy future and a long life.
In the wake of the recent COP28 talks, it is increasingly necessary to challenge traditional value systems in architecture, with a radical reassessment required in the context of the climate emergency. This article delves into how our default judgements, often skewed towards certain structures, need reevaluation in light of environmental sustainability, drawing insights from various architectural examples and their historical, cultural, and material significance.Read
The immediate presence of the Atlantic Ocean is felt on any exposed edge of Ireland’s 7,678km coastline  where sea winds force their way many kilometres inland.
Physical systems acting on the geology of the western seaboard – from Malin Head, Co. Donegal to Bandon Estuary, Co. Cork – have created indentations which account for approximately 75% of Ireland’s coastline. These western indentations hold 203 of our 250 saltmarshes . A saltmarsh is a low-lying distinct ecosystem in the upper coastal intertidal zone that is regularly flooded and drained by salt water carried in by tides.
Approximately half of Ireland’s salt marshes occur on the north-west quadrant of the island, from Malin Head to Galway Bay. Along this stretch, counties Mayo and Galway share the most indented coastline, with ninety-one saltmarshes.
Many of these saltmarshes are on mud or sand, but almost a third are on peat. This is highly unusual, both nationally and internationally. Examination of these peat substrates – usually two metres deep and often embedded with tree stumps – suggests these landscapes were originally freshwater-fed blanket bogs fed, but rising sea levels approximately 2000 years ago altered their composition, creating saltmarshes. These wetlands are constantly being authored by myriad forces: physical, cultural, ecological, geomorphological, technological, and political. They are dynamic landscapes, always evolving to become something else.
In a thriving saltmarsh, sediment carried in by the tide becomes trapped by grassy swards and peat soils accumulate as plants decay, allowing the saltmarsh to rise in tandem with sea levels while absorbing tides, attenuating waves, and buffering the coastal edge. This process supports a carbon sequestration rate of 218 g/m2 per year (In comparison, a forest sequesters 4 g/m2 per year) .
Recently, however, saltmarshes have become anthropogenic landscapes. Humans have adopted the role of time and two resultant accelerated changes are at work: overgrazing is causing saltmarshes to sink, and climate change is causing the tide to rise. When we thoughtlessly speed up and slow down natural processes, the effects cascade through time.
Today, sea level rise is surpassing sediment building or ‘accretion’ capacity, and saltmarshes are ‘drowning’. When this happens, grassy swards die, habitats disappear, wetlands holding 40% of the world’s ecosystems tumble, and saltmarshes become mudflats, before disappearing beneath waters of expanding bays. The weight and force of the sea then breaks the sub-surface, releasing millions of tonnes of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.
Studies show Ireland has already lost 75% of its coastal wetlands  and we can lose no more. The saltmarshes come closer to vanishing with each tidal wash. This is a time of unprecedented change and urgency. Taking the view that problems get the solution they deserve, according to the terms by which they are created as problems in the first place, humans must repair what we have damaged and intervention is required. However, we must move away from our historic tactics. To quote architect and cultural geographer Dr. Anna Ryan Moloney, ‘when we see change happening, our language and actions tend to emerge from engineering. We try to “protect” our land and use “armour” to “defend” ourselves from the sea’ .
The Anthropocene demands a freshness of seeing and new ways of working. If we continue to adopt the role of time and if speeding up and slowing down landscape processes is a design challenge of our time, we need a structure through which theory and practice directly respond to each other. Interdisciplinary research should guide design-thinking when intervening in physical and cultural landscapes, or what sociologist and academic Barbara Adam calls ‘timescapes’ .
I am developing this theoretical and pragmatic structure while studying and working with the community in Mulranny – a historically, geographically and culturally significant village located on an isthmus between Clew Bay and Blacksod Bay in County Mayo. As a pilot Decarbonising Zone , Mulranny must reduce its carbon emissions by 51% before 2030.
Analogous to many coastal towns and villages, Mulranny’s coast has become culturally and physically estranged. Its saltmarshes, sand dunes and machair are depleting, and its pumphouse, causeway, bridges and pier have fragmented through neglect. Both as independent pieces and as a collective system, the wetlands and the associated infrastructural assembly have been pushed out of sync by anthropological forces.
However, there is still time for innovation. As a first step, I conducted a site-specific M.Arch. thesis which examined how Mulranny’s historic coastal infrastructure could be used to help natural processes in the wetlands meet decarbonisation objectives for the future. This ‘one good idea’ was explored by mapping, modelling, drawing and photographing the relationship between the seascape and technical infrastructural details, which contain embedded ideas from generations within the community and thus represent ‘material culture’ .This approach sought to balance Mulranny’s cultural and physical context to help the community meet its objective of creating a thriving biosphere for future generations to build on.
The proposition saw conservation interventions, guided by local ancestral constructive-logic, intended to attune the existing coastal infrastructure to today’s environment. For example, extending the pier landwards to protect a drumlin from tidal undercutting; raising the causeway level above spring tide; and fitting cross-drains to prevent saltmarshes from being flooded. Proposals at the bridges included flap sluice gates which mediate between, and respond to, the weight and force of the sea and river on either side, while mixing freshwater and seawater to form brackish water for the saltmarshes to thrive on.
These protection measures represent a starting point for more work to be done. There will be no ‘one-size fits all’ solution to every coastal challenge presented, as all landscapes, communities and built environments require their own site-specific approach. However, lessons learned from this thesis can be carried forward.
The protection measures demonstrate that when coastal challenges arise, rather than building imposing seawalls that stop the sea from entering the wetlands, or standing back and hoping natural processes repair human damage, we need instead to consider alternative protection measures which, in performing their function, could balance the cultural and physical context to ‘provide new spatial forms and experiences that combine use with beauty in ways paralleled by the historic lighthouse, harbour, pier, and promenade’ .
Saltmarshes are complex wetland ecosystems which perform a vital role in attenuating wave action, sequestering carbon, and buffering the coastal edge. Human-instigated overgrazing and climate change have accelerated the depletion of Ireland's wetlands. But by carefully studying and adapting our historic coastal infrastructure, we can work with natural processes to preserve these crucial landscapes.Read
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