Where is the profit in pleasurable living conditions?
Construction is a cultural tradition that is intended to innovate, refresh and renew, It is intended to create added value that can be passed on. This requires vision and conviction, both on the part of the architect, and the client. They need to be able to find common ground in their dialogue about creativity, solutions, and design directions. They have to trust each other’s ideas about how a good plan can be achieved for the determined price. This is also true, perhaps particularly so, for residential construction.
During the development of residential buildings in the Netherlands, the client played and continues to play a central role. On the one hand, there are the housing corporations which made their mark from the second half of the 19th century onwards. They set the standards for the development of residential blocks, a style of construction that little known among architects at that time. On the other hand, ‘the manager’ has been an important driver for residential construction ever since the Golden Age through the construction of homes for manual workers.
The architect’s contribution has changed. During the first half of the 20th century, architects added a recognisable signature to the development of residential neighbourhoods with their vision on the construction of homes and the lifestyle of users. From the second half of the 20th century onwards, the phenomenon of housing shortages overturned this manner of development. Homes now have to be built quickly and efficiently. Uniformity in the form and materials have to keep costs down, and the design of the neighbourhood and the home are subordinate to this. The urban planner is gaining priority over the architect. This breaches the necessary balance between the client and the architect, which is detrimental for residential construction and somehow disrupts a country such as the Netherlands that is made up of courtyards, streets, and residential areas.
The historical importance of Margaret Staal-Kropholler
We place value on the notion of building with a focus on the target group. That sounds very obvious, but strangely enough it is not. To make explain that, we have to go back to the source, and back to the Netherlands’ first female architect, Margaret Kropholler. She was an architect from 1913 until her death in 1966.
She is noted for her original ideas about residential construction related to the specific requirements of housewives. In other words, family homes should be designed so that the use of the house makes housewife’s life as comfortable as possible. Facilities such as an intelligently planned kitchen, space to do the laundry, an attic to dry it, and electricity in each room to be able to vacuum, meant that the housewife could spend her time more efficiently. This would allow her to create time for her personal development: “So that the stay-at-home mother does not degenerate into an overworked, over-sensitive skivvy, sparing her husband and children’s nerves, and her own nerves.”
What makes the ideas of Margaret Staal-Kropholler relevant is that she is able to specify the use of a home by and for her target group. You can put yourself inside it and specifically design it on this basis. Therefore, although it is not really a revelation, the more precisely that you can define a target group, the more specific the design. This means that the building or home can be more meaningful for the user.
In other words, if we can identify a target group that would like a bathtub in the living room, then that can be arranged.
The difficult of focusing on a target group when building lies mainly in determining that target group. First-home owners, families, empty nester adults, senior citizens, and dependants are all target groups, but are so generic that they sometimes only have one or a couple common denominators. It can help to determine a target group based on the living values that people would like to have and which they may share. Take for instance the spatial context of a neighbourhood or home.
By using insight and creative reasoning, it should be possible to bring together living values and living requirements and help end users increase their chances of finding happiness in their living environment. Is that idealistic? Non-commercial? Fanciful? It probably is if you project these thoughts onto large housing development projects. But not if you are starting from a niche project in which the client and the architect trust one other and can find common ground in the design and the commercial necessity.
A good plan
Building is impossible without innovation. It starts with the way that you think about designing and constructing, materials and techniques. It also involves sustainability. It is a form of thinking, that is summarised in a plan based on common sense and responsibility. This is certainly the case when it comes to sustainability. For social, civic, economic and ethical reasons, we are all required to reflect on the way in which we use locally available raw materials, local craftsmanship, and local manpower.
When seen from that perspective, innovation in itself is not a matter of technological progress either. The construction sector likes to be seen as the driver of the economy, sustainability, and employment. Searching for and using people, resources and possibilities that are locally available is an innovative way of also applying those effects locally in terms of stimulating employment and the development of knowledge.
Technology It is at the service of the architect, and the house. However, we should never become dependent on them. Architecture that depends on technical limitations is a rigid form of thinking. That is not our intention, as architecture is about the use of common sense, and not about a fervent belief in technology. More specifically, the less technology needed to build a house and live comfortably in it, the better.
The reason for this is simple. Technology becomes obsolete and is always superseded over time. Today’s latest fad is out of date tomorrow. Managing the presence of technology in designs makes the lifespan of a house of building less dependent on that technology, which extends the lifespan.
The form of a house should also not be limited by the presence of technical installations, nor should the condition of the installations determine its value. The tricky part is making a house adaptable to technology and the development of technology. Installations should not be embedded in the construction, but rather should be modular and replaceable. The more detachable, the better. A separate individual unit, that is ready in advance to be simply exchanged for an improved version or something totally new.
Your home is the place where you feel safe and comfortable. That house is in a street that feels pleasant and provides security. It is where you do not feel like just a number. The design of a residential area – home, street, and neighbourhood – is at the heart of pleasurable living conditions and occupant happiness.
It is essential to know about the occupants. The first thing is to immerse yourself in their wants and needs. We look for the unique similarity in the living requirements of a target group, and design that. After all, the more specific the design, the more the design will have meaning for the user. The second thing is to leave space for individual choices. Building with the focus on occupants, and in that sense delivering made-to-measure projects, is also about giving people choice and offering them freedom where possible.
However, the freedom of movement of the occupants goes beyond the initial moment of completion. A design should also be able to shift the horizon by ten years from now, to a second occupant, a third owner, a fourth user. They should also enjoy the greatest possible freedom to adapt a home to their own choices in terms of the layout and use of a house.
Character of the surroundings
Living is also about context, and context is about value and pleasure. People want to get value for money. A house has to meet the quality and comfort requirements that in all reasonableness are legitimately connected to the price paid for living there.
A house is also a place where people are safe, interact, and can be together. The conditions for these to occur is also determined by the character of the surroundings. That character can be engineered, which is our responsibility. We have to be aware that people are not looking for a roof over their heads with a house number, but rather a place to live and to make their own.
A design of a house or building may cause wonder in people and may them a reason to tell others about it. The design has to have ‘something’ that makes it possible to see that original thought was given to the way in which a building embraces occupants and users and organically connects them to their environment. It has to be a reference point; it should be a reason to create associations and it should be a story in itself.
To bring this about, an architect needs to do more than design. He or she should be involved with the building from start to finish and take part with the kind of contagious enthusiasm that ensures that the structural engineer, building contractor or joiner can also identify with a project’s ambitions. This should be in such a way that makes not only the client and architect, but all people involved take ownership of the design. By attempting together to become more involved, boundaries get pushed further. By sharing visions, ambitions, and emotions, the design and implementation become more thrilling. In this way, value is created in that beautiful country of courtyards, streets, and residential areas.