As urban housing gets squeezed, it’s time for smart street furniture

Link NYC provides wifi in the streets of New York. Image: Getty.

Increasing urbanisation, denser city living, more expensive apartment prices and higher rents are reshaping our access to and use of urban space. Room-sharing websites are one sign that the cost of city living is driving people to consider sharing rooms with strangers out of necessity. Those flats are not homes anymore.

If people can’t spend time in their flat – because it is too crowded, too noisy or not safe enough – they end up spending more time in public spaces like libraries or quasi-public spaces like gaming arcades or shopping malls. Dutch Prizker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas calls this Junkspace. Others are spending more time in the street, plazas and parks.

How does the city cater for people in these places? Imagine a home furnished with the kind of furniture we typically see on the street. Would it feel comfy?

Generally the design of this kind of public furniture has a strictly defined scope. It has to be vandal-resistant, easy to install, require little to no maintenance, not encourage littering, tie in with the style of the precinct, etc.

Public furniture also has an established typology – benches and seats mainly. This restricts what we can do in public (sit down with a straight back, we can’t lounge). These are part of the design considerations to provide a bench for people to sit on.

What if we want to do more than just sit?

The spacing, positioning and location of furniture in public space play a big part in deciding what I can look at, with whom, for how long and how I’ll feel while sitting there.

But what if I want to do more then just sit there? Where, for instance, do I plug in my phone or laptop to recharge?

It is also not easy to wash my hands in a public space. For example, I’ve sat down and eaten an orange on a bench, my hands are sticky and I’d like to wash them. Perhaps I’ve also taken off my coat while sitting there. What now?

I’ve got to seek out the nearest public toilet and use the hand basin, but where to put all my other belongings while doing that? On the toilet floor?

A basic human right is access to water and utility services. We need to provide this access in the public sphere, and not just in commercial environments like coffee shops.

Filling up a water bottle is not easy, buying water is – if you can afford it. This is not an equitable solution. It adds to the already significant financial burden of paying high rents and city living.


Think about how design can expand our options

While we have furniture for the street, the street, parks and plazas lack other services. Design embeds a narrow social script in the current range of street furniture. The design of new public furnishings needs to adapt and offer citizens a wider, more diverse range of options for being in the city.

For example, people should have access to facilities to carry out basic healthy living practices, such as washing hands. They also need access to power – perhaps even a facility to heat up food, like a home-made lunch, or a pre-prepared meal from the supermarket.

Furnishing a public space with such new public appliances could transform it, soften it, bring familiarity, comfort and a sense of domesticity to it; a public backyard. The opportunities for a smart city are not just large-scale infrastructure, public transport and traffic monitoring, but also exist at a finer-grained level.

These new kind of street furnishings can be made available to users via a contemporary, digital version of the old city gate. It can require them to log in or authorise them to use equipment via a unique identifier. We already practise this on e-commerce and sharing economy websites.

This new kind of public street furniture can have sensors embedded that monitor and respond in real time to their use. Interactive furniture can be part of a larger dedicated data system. It can inform relevant authorities if the power point is drawing excessive power, or if the noise level at this power point is too loud for the time of day and, in response, turn off the lights and the power.

Parameters can be tested and the calibration of use and user patterns can be explored in line with neighbourhood expectations. The system can then autonomously react to the data gathered.

The ConversationStreet furniture can be reconceived as connected and interactive appliances. These would then provide a gateway that gives people access to everyday utilities. And, by doing so, these new facilities could provide quasi-domestic-style amenity in the public realm, making the city a more equitable and welcoming place for all.

Christian Tietz is senior lecturer in industrial design at UNSW.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.