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The hidden city spaces for affordable housing

Even in the most crowded urban environments, there are square metres left without use or purpose. Spaces too small for traditional urban projects, perhaps, but city spaces nonetheless. If no “traditional” housing can be built, it doesn’t mean no housing can be built. And when there are people on the streets of our cities who desperately need housing, we have to think beyond traditional.

Archi Human, an association based in Brussels, targets these spaces to build quality, wooden modular housing. Their work is integrated into three frameworks: homelessness, urbanism and architecture.

Using the working principles of Housing First, the aim is to urgently provide independent housing to the most excluded – the chronically homeless and those with high support needs. Brussels, with 30% of its inhabitants under the poverty level, an 18% unemployment rate, 2,600 homeless people counted in 2015 and an infamous ten-year waiting list for access to social housing, is in a dire situation regarding poverty and housing exclusion.

"Archi Human acquired a corner in one of Brussels’ biggest communes for a symbolic €1 per year"

As a part of the local anti-homelessness campaign, Archi Human works with other local associations to receive guidance on how to integrate Housing First principles into its work and find suitable candidates for their housing initiative. Doing so helps the association assimilate into existing dynamics and take advantage of the local initiatives already in place to help the homeless. Complementing what is being done locally, Archi Human’s main purpose is to provide the houses themselves, the most needed and most efficient anti-homelessness asset.

The project integrates tenants participating in Housing First. A comprehensive approach to tackling homelessness, the concept has been gaining momentum around Europe, driven partly by its success in Finland’s proactive application of the programme, which allowed the country to become the only member state to have seen a decrease in homelessness in recent years.

The second framework in which Archi Human works is urbanism. The project aims to insert its wooden, ecological modular studios into the urban environment in a seamless manner. Unused, residual spaces can be located on the corners of streets, in between buildings, almost anywhere in the urban landscape, often giving a feeling of abandonment and dereliction, and can be places of public or private property.

Using emphyteutic leases, Archi Human acquires grounds at a very affordable rate and which last for a very long time, on which it can then build houses. It is also in municipal officials’ interest to give away these spaces, as they do not otherwise have any practical use and they add nothing to the urban landscape as they are. For its pilot project, Archi Human acquired a corner in one of Brussels’ biggest communes for a symbolic €1 per year across a 27-year lease.

Finally, architecture is also an important aspect. The architects’ studio from which the project is lead brings its own creativity in the process, with each studio designed to be unique.. Occupants can participate in the personalisation of their homes too by choosing a design for their own front door.

Wooden housing is trending thanks to its excellent environmental imprint and the continuously improving methods of construction, with cities even competing to see which can build the tallest wooden tower. Joining this momentum, Archi Human produces one-apartment modular “biosourcé” (biomass) houses, produced from locally sourced timber for a small price and a short construction time in situ.

"Occupants can participate in

the personalisation of their homes"

The simplicity of the houses’ design doesn’t negatively impact the overall quality of the buildings. These are high quality, comfortable, beautifully designed and integrated modular homes with added vegetation surrounding them. One of the aspects Housing First bases its successes on is that people are given a true home for them to rebuild their lives, and Archi Human’s work is dedicated to that principle.

The pilot project in the Brussels Region is a partnership with the King Baudouin Foundation, which helps with organisation and networking, and local bank KBC Brussels, which provides seed capital. The goal is to build four superposed structures composed of a ground floor and three studio apartments. The ground floor will be for technical appliances, and can incorporate a 17m² student housing. The three floors above will be 32m² studios suitable for any participating tenant. Housing will be managed by local Social Rental Agencies, and psycho-social associations will also help find suitable occupants and provide long-term support.

By integrating quality, modern housing into an urban setting with Housing First principles and occupying residual spaces in neighbourhoods, Archi Human has found a truly innovative way to improve housing provision and quality of life in the city, putting its most vulnerable citizens first.


IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Warren Talbot

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