Building Challenges: Housing Affordability
Urban Crossroads #102



This is the second article I am devoting to the challenges that face how we build, whether on the scale of the house or the city. The February article dealt with energy efficiency; this article addresses housing affordability.

Housing, along with food and clothing, make up the traditional list of our most basic necessities. Of these, housing is the most costly to satisfy. It usually is the single largest expense that households need to cover, usually in the form of rent or mortgage payments, and in running costs that include utilities, taxes, and maintenance. It is common for housing costs to take up about a third of household expenditures, and for many home owners, the house is their single most valuable possession. These general remarks more or less apply to households all over the world, except for the richest and the poorest of them.

Clearly, if housing costs are brought under control, new opportunities are opened up for improving people’s quality of life. Lower housing costs free up resources that may be used to support other expenses or to increase savings.

Much of what determines the cost of housing admittedly has nothing to do with building practices, and is more the result of factors such as the availability of credit and the cost of obtaining it, or the supply and cost of the land on which houses are located. Still, a good part of housing costs depend directly on construction-related expenses, which basically consist of the price of materials and labor.

The quest for bringing down housing costs has received significant attention during the modern period. This quest has taken on two opposing directions. One has emphasized the use of traditional materials as well as construction methods and techniques, an approach most famously espoused by the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (d. 1989). He presented his ideas in his design for the village of New Gourna in the Egyptian countryside, which was constructed during the 1940s, and also in his acclaimed 1973 book, Architecture for the Poor. The other direction is that adopted by the pioneers of architectural Modernism during the early part of the twentieth century. They argued that the technological changes brought about by industrialization, with its emphasis on standardization and mass production, will allow for building better and less-expensive houses. The French-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier (d. 1965), who for many is the primary architect of the twentieth century, effectively captured this new vision connecting housing and industrialization in the 1923 statement that a “house is a machine for living in,” which remains among the more memorable architectural quotations of our time.

Each of those two directions of course was intimately connected to prevalent socio-economic conditions. Fathy lived in a predominantly rural country and wanted to find decent solutions for housing rural populations. Le Corbusier and his colleagues belonged to countries undergoing rapid industrialization at that time and wanted to find suitable housing solutions for the rising and increasingly restive urban industrial proletariat.

Fathy created highly-admired housing examples that incorporated traditional forms made of sun-dried mud bricks. A main criticism of his work, however, is that it is labor intensive and largely ignores the opportunities provided by industrialization through mass production and standardization. His buildings therefore cannot be produced quickly and in large quantities, which is needed to accommodate the swelling low-income urban populations that have come into being throughout the developing world during the second half of the twentieth century as a result of high levels of population growth and migration from rural areas.

The overwhelming growth of urban centers in the developing world in fact makes the Modernist dream of capitalizing on the capacities of industrialization to develop affordable housing solutions more relevant than ever. This dream unfortunately remains largely unrealized. The pioneers of architectural Modernism did attempt to develop low-cost housing solutions that draw upon industrial mass production. A well-known example is the 1927 Weissenhof exhibition in Stuttgart, where a number of Modernist architects were given the opportunity to build housing prototypes that are inexpensive and that incorporate modern construction techniques and also materials such as reinforced concrete and steel.

One of the better-known examples of the Weissenhof exhibition is the house that Le Corbusier built, a version of the Citrohan House he had designed a few years earlier. The house’s name was intended as a pun on the French automobile Citroen. The car’s prices were going down, making it increasingly affordable for the French middle class, and Le Corbusier’s message was that, like the automobile, the making of houses should integrate industrial practices and strive for increased affordability.

It seems, however, that architects are more comfortable working for clients with considerable financial resources, whether individuals or institutions, and this was the case with both the pioneers of Modernism as well as Hassan Fathy, who all ended up primarily building for affluent patrons, while their dreams of developing high-quality affordable housing, whether based on industrial prototypes or romanticized visions of village architecture, were largely abandoned. Affordable housing accordingly has ended up being primarily associated with poorly-designed and poorly-built structures that are aesthetically deficient, that seem to fall apart as soon as they are completed, and that are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.

In contrast, the automobile industry, which Modernists such as Le Corbusier greatly admired, presents a different story. While some may feel a sense of nostalgia to the cars of yesteryear, it is generally agreed that with every passing year, cars are becoming better built, less expensive to buy, more energy efficient, and also require less maintenance. Unfortunately, the dream of developing housing along the same trajectory according to which quality goes up but prices come down, remains unrealized. There is much to learn from the automobile industry (and by extension industries involved in other transportation methods such as planes, trains, and ships) as they also create enclosed spaces that shelter us from the elements, but they even take on the additional task of transporting us. The closest we have come to realizing housing solutions that incorporate these technologies are trailers, but these remain poor-quality structures that most do not consider as acceptable housing solutions.

Interestingly enough, segments of the construction industry have successfully incorporated the process of industrialization. In the case of Jordan, a good example is the now-established kitchen industry, which heavily incorporates industrialized mass production, but nonetheless is able to bring to the market a wide variety of kitchen solutions in terms of shapes, colors, and styles that satisfy different needs and tastes. Individual carpenters simply cannot compete with the quality and prices this industry provides.

Such standardized construction methods, however, have not affected the construction industry as a whole. The architectural community and the building industry worldwide have yet to develop high-quality affordable housing solutions even though so many people all over the world remain in need of decent-quality housing. In this sense, they have failed society at a most basic level. The technology and knowhow for developing such solutions exist, but realizing them remains an elusive dream.

As with the challenge of energy efficiency in buildings, the architectural community and the building industry continue to lag behind when it comes to making the best use of available technological advances. Sadly, there do not seem to be any indications that this is about to change.

Mohammad al-Asad

March 04, 2010