Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Grenfell Tower: Building to Reap the Whirlwind

image by Chris Barker

With the global economy hurtling toward a greater and more insurmountable chasm between the rich and poor, symptoms of these societal structural inequalities will continue to occur. The deadly and terrible fire in Grenfell Tower is just one more in a chain of tragic disasters that continue to impact the most vulnerable people in disproportionate measure.

Public and affordable housing remains a hotbed of political and social strife, in no small part due to the continual implementation of disastrous policies, lack of oversight and regulation, and straight-out malevolence from the governments and landlords of these properties toward those people these projects are meant to serve. The US has more than a few particularly infamous housing projects, many of which have been vacated or demolished as unsalvageable failures.

By now there has been a great deal of press about the flammable cladding, the single stairwell for a 24 story building (completely legal per British building code and ASTONISHING to this US architect), the misinformation given to residents, the previously-aired fears of a disastrous fire, and the overall heartless deregulation to give financial advantage to landlords and disregard the health, safety, and welfare of tenants.

(And you thought this speech by Rik Mayall on "The New Statesman" was satire.)

Perhaps what is saddest and most infuriating is that this largely-preventable tragedy was not the first of its kind, and won't be the last. Remember the Ghost Ship fire - less than a year ago? This fire, in a building that was not intended to house residents but was home to dozens, killed 36 people in Oakland, California.  And like in Oakland, the survivors in London are without much hope of finding a new place to live within the city. London is suffering from its success - in a booming economy and with increased population growth, affordable housing has been sluggish to keep up, resulting in a severe gap between the median home price and median salary. These are not "market forces" at work - this is the deliberate policy of the government choosing not to invest in this desperately-needed sector. This is in stark relief to the "Billionaire's Row", a street of empty and derelict mansions worth millions of pounds. 

While there has been an outpouring of funds and donations from around the world to help alleviate this situation, this is merely a bandaid on the open wound of unjust housing. What would it mean to the UK (and the US, and the rest of the world) if the government were to adopt a Right to Housing as part of a bill of rights for all people in these nations? Not just nationalists, not just citizens, not just legal aliens, but every person would have the right to access adequate housing. How would this be defined? How would it be supplied? How is it to be believed that some of the wealthiest nations on the face of the earth are unable to afford the basic sheltering of their people?

Perhaps I am being hypocritical. I'm an architect that designs in the luxury residential market - highly specialized and profitable, and for the most part ignores the need for affordable housing by building single family residences on oversized lots in the wealthy suburbs and rural landscapes. Then again, the city of Chicago where I practice has an Affordable Requirements Ordinance which demands that residential developers building in the city provide either affordable units within the project itself, or build affordable housing elsewhere in the city. This does not apply to every project, but it does apply to a substantial number of them, one of mine included. While this does not address a right to housing, it does help to ensure that affordable housing exists in the marketplace and is available for those who need it. It's a small step in the right direction.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What the...: An Ongoing Series

Thing I just said to my coworker:

If I ever correctly guess what this client is going to decide, remind me to buy a lottery ticket that day.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Monica Ponce de Leon at the Art Institute

The Art Institute of Chicago, with co-sponsorship by Chicago Women in Architecture, recently hosted Monica Ponce de Leon for a lecture to discuss her work and her approach toward architecture, particularly with respect to digital fabrication. Ponce de Leon took us through a sample of her body of work with particular focus on materiality and experimentation. This is an ongoing theme in her work that extends across the built spectrum from art installation to sculpture to building and back again.  What particularly captured my imagination was the idea of digital fabrication as a natural evolution and extension of hand craft, and the notion that architectural design can be an act of discovery through the exploration of materials.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Learning from Experience: Pack a Sandwich

Two weeks ago I visited a window company plant to observe some air and water penetration tests of the assembly we're using on a new project. As with many factories, this one was in the middle of nowhere. I had to take a 7am flight from an airport that is about 20 miles from my house (instead of the one that's only 10 miles from my house), to an airport that was two and a half hours' drive from the plant. I couldn't eat the lunch the company offered (religious reasons), the company had the wrong sill installed in the test assembly, the assembly failed two of the three tests, our long drive back to the airport prevented us from eating anywhere but in the airport, the airport bar where we had dinner only had two things on the menu that I could eat, and as I discovered by biting into it, one of them I actually couldn't eat. If there hadn't been beer, I don't know what I would have done. All told, I was on the clock for almost 17 hours with just an iceberg salad.

Next week, I get to go back for the retest, with the correct sill, and some modifications to the assembly to help it pass. This time, instead of a 7am flight from the airport 20 miles from my house, we're taking a private plane at 7am from an airport 40 miles from my house.

I'm packing a sandwich this time. And probably a flask.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

What the...: An Ongoing Series

New favorite typo (regarding carpet thicknesses):

"Do all of these dimensions include pudding?"

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What the... : An Ongoing Series

Client: We're very concerned about sound transmission between the bathroom and the office.

 Architect: Okay, we have sound batt in the wall, Quietrock on the walls, and we can add caulk at the framing edges.

Client: Also, we want to recess a television in the wall right at the water closet. Literally, as close as possible to the plumbing stack, without moving the plumbing.

Architect: *facepalm*

Monday, January 23, 2017

Building the Resistance

On Saturday I had the great privilege of marching with 250,000 people in Chicago in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington. It was a tremendous demonstration of the country's (and indeed the world's! All 7 continents were represented - including Antarctica!) opposition to the new administration and a loud and many-voiced criticism of the United States as it stands now. I saw signs against Trump and his cabinet of cronies, heard (and joined in with) cries of "Black Lives Matter!" and "This is what democracy looks like!" and "No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!", saw signs fighting against threats to women's body autonomy, against transphobia, in defense of sex workers, in defense of public education, in defense of the environment, against the repeal of the ACA, promoting gun control, signs declaring "I can't believe I still have to protest this shit!" and "Nasty Woman" and "This is what a feminist looks like!" I saw tens of thousands of pussy hats, in all different hues of pink and red - some sewn, some knit, some crocheted, but nearly all handmade and distinctive.