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Cheap housing in London? Award-winning project by Polish team

25 of August '20

Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzinska, Michalina Debska and Kaja Kirilenko, graduates and students of architecture at Wroclaw University of Technology, for their project titled "The Social Language. "The Social Language" received an honorable mention in the internationalRE-Stock London Housing Competition. The task of the competition, organized by the Bee Breeders platform in cooperation with the Bartlett School of Architecture, was to create a concept for developing a selected London development into affordable housing.

The goal of the "RE-Stock London Housing"competition was to propose innovative ideas that could help mitigate the negative effects of London's housing crisis. The organizers gave participants complete freedom to submit proposals - from designing new buildings, to transforming and expanding existing ones, to creating a completely new housing strategy for any part of London. The judges expected clever solutions adapting existing infrastructure to new tasks, and taking into account issues such as integration of residents, reduced energy consumption or innovative construction methods. The competition was conceptual in nature, but the project evaluators paid attention to the flexibility of the proposed solutions - so that they could be adapted to different locations and types of housing units.

Osiedle Robin Hood

The team proposed the revitalization of the Robin Hood Gardens estate

© Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzińska, Michalina Dębska, Kaja Kirilenko

Save the Robin Hood Gardens estate

The Polish team, which won the competition, decided to tackle the topic of social housing using the example of the revitalization of the Robin Hood Gardens estate in east London. Built in the 1970s to a design by Alison and Pieter Smithson, it consists of two, distinctive buildings with so-called streets in the sky, i.e. wide balconies-corridors that circle the structures every three stories. The development has been included in the Blackwall Reach program, which will bring 1,500 new apartments to the site, spelling the end for the modernist buildings. The first, western one has already been demolished, and the second will soon face a similar fate.

Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzinska, Michalina Debska and Kaja Kirilenko decided to create an alternative solution, preserving the eastern block. Inspired by a book by architect Christopher Alexander, the team developed a concept to improve the living comfort of residents and revitalize the estate's space by developing empty, no-man's-land spaces and creating various zones for integration. The authors also proposed the addition of balconies to increase private space, the development of part of the garages into commercial units, and solutions to facilitate everyday life. The revamped two-level apartments would consist of a living room with a kitchenette, a toilet and an additional room, as well as two bedrooms, a room, a bathroom and a large balcony on the first floor. Meanwhile, in front of the apartments, on long balcony-corridors, small gardens were created to warm up the austere space.

Długie balkono-korytarze

The estate's long balcony-corridors

© Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzińska, Michalina Dębska, Kaja Kirilenko

Dobrawa Bies: What was the main inspiration for the project?

Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzinska, Michalina Dębska, Kaja Kirilenko: We were directly inspired by Christopher Alexander 's book A Pattern Language, in which the author created a kind of language of urban relations composed of universal templates, so-called patterns. The templates are observed spatial situations at different scales, starting from the scale of the city and ending with the interior, which, used together, can create specific situations and respond to the needs of the community. This is a proven and classic position for theorists of architecture and urbanism, where the most important value is the simplicity of the procedures used. Therefore, we decided to create a continuation of this project, with reference to the social housing system.

Projekt pt. „The Social
Language” patterny

The team was inspired by Christopher Alexander's book A Pattern Language.

© Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzińska, Michalina Dębska, Kaja Kirilenko

Dobrawa Bies: What was the most important project goal?

Team: The most important aspect for us became understanding the multi-layered nature of the topic of social housing in the UK. Extensive recognition of the topic was the basis for us to build the pattern system on which our project was based. We were keen to gain an in-depth understanding of the history of social housing, previous solutions, the reasons why this type of housing is notorious, the legal aspects of housing allocation and buyout, and what the consequences are. In addition, we realized how much matter has already been created over the years, and as architects we would like to propose a solution on how to benefit from this legacy. Therefore, in our design process, we focused on working from the ground up and building a new, alternative system that corresponds to modern times and the beneficiaries of this type of housing. We achieve the new quality by fixing what has historically failed in this type of development and adding observed best practices.

Rzut mieszkań

social housing projection

© Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzinska, Michalina Debska, Kaja Kirilenko

We approached the idea of rehabilitating social housing in the Robin Hood Gardens complex by preserving the only surviving building and thoughtfully adding missing elements. By preserving the western structure, we are joining the so-called life cycle of the building, rather than interrupting it. The renovation is being done in a sequence that provides replacement housing for those who would otherwise be affected by displacement and ensures the preservation of the neighborhood community. In addition, it is the treatment with the lowest possible carbon footprint, even compared to replacing an old building with a new one with better energy efficiency ratings and environmental certifications. By using building additions and superstructure, the old structure gets new life - we preserve the cultural legacy of Brutalist architecture and lower the price of the investment. The lower price is also ensured by the use of low-cost and easy-to-maintain materials such as rscp panels, polycarbonate and lightweight steel construction, not threatening the currently existing reinforced concrete solutions. We envisioned that the new elements are made on a common module, which simplifies logistics and installation and gives the project versatility. By design, "The Social Language" was intended to be versatile enough to be applicable to various declining London social housing estates.

Aktywności społeczne

The project revitalizes the space of the estate

© Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzińska, Michalina Dębska, Kaja Kirilenko

Dobrawa Bies: What are you most satisfied with, and what was the biggest design challenge?

Team: We were most surprised by the tremendously positive reception that our project has achieved. This is incredibly satisfying for us and gives us food for thought - perhaps this type of approach has a future and people are ready for anew stage in thinking about social housing. We are also proud of the reconnaissance we were able to conduct, especially at the beginning of our creative work. It was a very developing and interdisciplinary process in which each of us learned a lot. Because of precisely the multi-faceted nature of the problem, acting on the social housing system required us to have a good understanding of both its history and today's situation. We consider the biggest challenge to be the remote work that the pandemic forced us to do, but also the fact that at the time Kaja and Michalina were on exchanges in Spain and Portugal. Fortunately, we were able to develop a working system that works well, which we will definitely use for future collaborations as well.

Dobrawa Bies

illustrations courtesy of Jakub Biernacki, Weronika Dardzinska,

Michalina Debska and Kai Kirilenko

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