Architects’ activism: How we can build a better 2021

With urban areas perhaps feeling the effects of lockdown most intensely, our built environment may seem an unlikely source of optimism in 2021. However, buildings have an unrivalled capacity to reflect our values as a society, so their design, planning, and construction can all represent positive action in our communities.

As we work together to overcome the impacts of Covid-19, we as architects should act to ensure the right values are being reflected. We should take steps to address insufficient housing stock for our most vulnerable, reduce construction’s environmental impact, and build to support Covid-stricken communities. Innovation, from cutting-edge construction methods to emerging technologies, can help us to create a better future. 

Make space for modular
Urgent efforts to rethink our use of space will continue to yield benefits after the coronavirus pandemic has passed. Even prior to Covid-19, the UK was struggling badly to meet demand for affordable housing, with the gap between supply and demand estimated to be as large as 1 million homes. Now, with social distancing requirements exacerbating the crisis, potential solutions to accelerate the provision of affordable housing have begun to attract attention.

Modular construction, for instance, could support a rollout of affordable accommodation at pace, by allowing different stages of construction to take place simultaneously rather than sequentially, as with traditional building processes. And with prefabricated housing units constructed in a factory setting while groundwork is carried out onsite, modular can reduce programme length by 50% and building time by more than 75%. 

Moreover, modular units offer flexibility of arrangement and façade treatment, quickly enabling schemes to deliver high-quality homes that are more than cookie-cutter copies of one another. astudio’s Sugden Way project in Barking, for instance, provides socially rented apartments that blend seamlessly into the surrounding brick properties – and are delivered in a much-reduced time period compared to a traditional build.

Utilised at a greater scale, modular building can help to provide vulnerable communities with robust, future-proof access to vital housing supply. What’s more, since this innovative construction method integrates eco-friendly materials and optimises energy efficiency, residents can enjoy the peace of mind which comes with a healthy home environment, as well as the security of having a roof over their heads. After all, everyone has a right to high-calibre housing, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

Sustainable cities
With environmental improvements seen during lockdown showing what can be achieved, sustainable design could help to make a more permanent change. 

Prioritising sustainability in our urban schemes means embracing innovation. We are starting to see increasing recognition of this in the building design and construction industries. Developed in partnership with Brunel University, astudio’s ‘living wall’ technology, for instance, helps buildings to get closer to carbon-neutral targets by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and converting it into biofuel. This works thanks to the walls’ ‘living’ properties – layers of algae compounds grown waste-free from fungi and integrated into exterior wall-systems.

But ambitious innovation can also be partnered with simpler solutions, such as natural ventilation and high thermal mass, moving towards a more passive heating and cooling solution. Both principles were incorporated into astudio’s redevelopment of St Paul’s Way Trust School, reducing its emissions by 60% compared to a typical school. We should seize opportunities such as these to make our buildings more sustainable.

Prioritising people
Covid-19 has presented us with an opportunity to place people at the heart of construction. This is important because a completed construction project is not really an end, but the beginning of a buildings’ life catering to the needs of local communities.

Communities now place an unprecedented premium on access to the outdoors, for example, with 59% of people in the UK going for walks to help alleviate stress caused by the pandemic. Indeed, experts have identified the experience of nature as an effective tonic for stress and anxiety, while it also reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Urban planners can use evidence such as this to inform the design of spaces tailored to the needs of their community, for example by prioritising public realm design and outdoor play spaces as part of residential schemes.

Building projects can also involve communities themselves before foundations have even been laid by leveraging technology such as virtual reality. This was astudio’s approach to the redevelopment of Kingston Academy, where pupils, parents and staff used VR headsets to explore the learning space prior to construction. Future occupants of buildings can thus be empowered to provide valuable input to ensure that meeting their needs is at the heart of the design.

Architects’ activism
While it may seem strange to think of architects as activists, it is a useful way of illustrating how powerful a force for good our built environment can be. Innovation isn’t just a way to cut costs and maximise productivity, but to put people and our planet first – from using modular construction to solve the UK’s housing crisis, through to weaving sustainability into the fabric of buildings.

A chaotic 2020 pushed us to think more about our health, environment, and community. Now  2021 could be the year we unleash architecture’s potential to facilitate social and environmental change.

Richard Hyams is founder and director of astudio