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Notes: Housing 2.0

I’m finally finishing the article that was due a few days ago – hate being this late. Prompted by what I came across in several articles recently, it’s about housing for people who are homeless. Except I’m looking at this as a “2.0” issue (yes, I know we all have two-dot-oh coming out our ears, or are hearing it as “two-dot-uh-oh,” but…).

A Vancouver architect wants to use companies like Britco and Shelter Industries to churn out the kind of modular housing they usually build for workers up in the Alberta tar sands (which are also in recession, hence the demand for worker housing has receded, hence Britco and Shelter Industries could instead crank out housing for the homeless).

The crux of his idea hinges on speed: it currently takes months if not years to get a social housing project off the ground and into the ground, built. Part of the hang-up has to do with the red tape around permanent housing: try to build anything permanent around here, and you’re tied up at city hall forever.

Modular housing, however, is temporary – the word is in italics, because of course you can apply to renew the temporary permit every 12 months, rinse and repeat as needed.

Point is: modular housing could go up really quickly and actually provide help immediately. It’s not rocket science.

While I was reading about the many variations of modular and mobile and microhousing, I was also thinking about Mark Surman’s A city that thinks like the web, and about other ways in which that two-dot-oh thing has changed engagement, turning people from passive consumers into producers (naturally, Larry Lessig’s TED talk came to mind – if you haven’t seen this, WATCH IT NOW, it’s great).

So then I wondered about learned helplessness, and how we prevent people who are homeless from housing themselves – we make them wait for government action, and we forbid them from constructing their own shelter (largely because they can’t meet the permitting and code requirements). This is kind of the opposite of the two-dot-oh thing that has done so much to revolutionize the way we interact with intangibles. Houses, however, are still mired in …well, in real estate, right? What if houses were tools, instead, the way blogging software is a tool for publishing, or slideshare is a tool for content sharing, or …(fill in the gap with your favorite tool).

Or consider people like Keith Dewey of Zigloo, right here in Victoria, who went past the notion of a traditional house and built his own out of cargo shipping containers in Victoria’s Fernwood neighborhood. Repurposing cargo containers in turn got me thinking about all the other innovators out there. If the change from “houses 1.0” to “houses 2.0” is going to happen, it’ll happen first on the edges, whether with creative innovative individuals, or marginalized groups (people who are homeless). Early adopters for “houses 2.0” are going to be artists and dreamers, or people who can’t afford traditional housing, but who really don’t want to stay mired in learned helplessness, either.

Finally, the creatives aren’t inventing the wheel here. There are historical precedents (there are always historical precedents), but the grooviest, most far-out one was probably Archigram (google it, or see the recent BBC audio slideshow here).

Archigram was ahead of its time, otherwise it would have had the web and mobile technologies, but it didn’t. Archigram proposed ideas like the “DIY Plug-in City,” or villages contained in hovercraft, which would descend on “action points” at certain destinations. As I write in my article, the need for that kind of mobility where the place moves to different locations) doesn’t exist anymore as prerequisite for change or a dynamic, active culture: the internet brings “action points” to you, and we don’t need to move villages (or dream of doing so). But Archigram’s underlying purpose in conceiving of a mutable moveable architecture? Now that’s something that overlaps to a couple of degrees with temporary housing, which in turn overlaps a couple of degrees with unlearning learned helplessness, which in turn overlaps a couple of degrees with mashup culture, which overlaps a couple of degrees with the mobile city, which overlaps a couple of degrees with …a DIY plug-in city.

I have no idea what “houses 2.0” will actually be – I’ll leave predicting the future to others. But somehow I can’t imagine that we don’t have some version of it heading our way.

(For some thoughts from high end architecture – i.e., not necessarily the “houses 2.0” aspect – on the impermanence of architecture, see Asian Designers Are Schooling America. Changes are coming from all angles.)


  1. I have to wonder how temporary these facilities would be. I would wager it would be somewhat difficult to promptly have homeless people leave to the streets because the term is up. Where do they go at that point? Or is it to be a bridge to something bigger like the construction of a View St. Tower, for example?

    Comment by davin — January 7, 2009 #

  2. I’m thinking of one the most common use for modular units I’ve seen–school annexes.

    Intended as a stopgap measure many of them seem to be there for years, if not decades.

    Is this an example of wise spending? Or is it cheaping out when we should be investing in more substantial architecture?

    On the other hand, if portable units have a life expectancy of several decades, about the same as conventional architecture before it needs reconstruction, maybe modular is the way to go.

    But can modular be stylish. I think so. Housing for the homeless needn’t look like a Fort McMurray mining camp.

    Comment by Robert Randall — January 7, 2009 #

  3. This is all sounding suspiciously familiar. So what you’re suggesting is that something that is modular and inexpensive can also be stylish, correct? Are there any templates for this that we can reference?

    Comment by Davin — January 12, 2009 #

  4. Sorry I’ve been remiss in attending to comments!
    Let’s see…
    Questions / concerns around: temporariness, life-expectancy, looks (stylish or not)…
    I was thinking of this along a fairly small scale, as one of many strategies for getting at the problems we face around homelessness. IOW, not as a single solution in the sense of setting down a huge number of modular units.
    Also, they would be temporary until the land they sit on has to be used for something else. Because they’re temporary, they would have to be incubators for self-sufficiency and teaching skills to get people out of the vicious circle of “learned helplessness.”
    The people who live there have to make their own style, whether by opening up an entire side of the unit to the outside (for those who can’t yet abide being enclosed by four walls) or whether through inventive / expressive painting (exterior, interior).
    My hope would be that as incubators, they would be a temporary place from which people can jump off to regain control of their lives, to learn how to help themselves and not be thwarted trying.

    Comment by Yule — January 12, 2009 #

  5. Hi Yule,
    I enjoyed your article on Victoria’s urban forest, particularly the emphases on architectural concepts like spatial planning, urban form and function and who will do the “heavy lifting”.

    Thanks for showing up at our workshop and feel free to give Judith and I a call for coffee if you feel the forest beckoning…



    Comment by Jeremy Gye — March 3, 2009 #

  6. Jeremy – thanks for the comment! Sorry I wasn’t more talkative (with you) at the workshop(s), I was probably already ‘writing’ in my head or something. I don’t think I actually mentioned your consultancy by name in the article (I have a word limit, and you wouldn’t believe how much and how often I cut, cut, cut to reach it), but soon I’ll be putting it up on, at which point I’ll blog it.
    I’ll make sure to post a pointer to your work/website then. And I’ll keep the invitation to continue the conversation in mind!
    And yes, re. the “heavy lifting” – last night I went to hear Jim Diers give a presentation at City Hall on community building, and he too emphasized how it has to come from the bottom up. But of course he got questions from the audience, along the lines of this: “We have the most right wing government on earth [the speaker meant the BC Liberals, lol] and I’d like to hear from you how we can move forward while this hangs over us, blah blah blah…” Bless Jim Dier’s heart, he told that woman that he lived under George Bush for 8 years, and if he could move forward under those conditions, then we (meaning the blamer, the one who always complains that everything would be fine if we just had some perfect alliance of politics) should just STFU (he was much kinder in formulating it) and put our shoulders to the wheel. How true. I sometimes can’t believe how ridiculous people are around here, thinking that the BC Liberals are the “most right wing government on earth” or that if only the NDP were in power at every single level (municipal, provincial, federal), all would be well, and that basically the city or the province or the feds should be doing it for us. We rely way too much on government in Canada.
    Of course, Diers’s examples came almost all from the US. He talked about guerilla park-creation, National Park(ing) Day, erecting another country’s defunct public sculpture on public land in one’s own municipality, and all sorts of free-wheeling stuff – and I could see some of our city councilors (including Madoff) in the audience, and I wondered, “yeah, we can’t even get a well-funded citizens’ group to get a statue of a major civic donor – Michael Williams – erected on a splotch of boulevard grass without the entire city bureaucracy having a cow …I can’t imagine what would happen if we managed to get hold of an old statue of Lenin (like these Seattle-ites did) or maybe Saddam and put that up on public property.” (Not that I’m a fan of the aesthetics of the Michael Williams sculpture – I think it’s as kitschy as the Lenin sculpture – but I couldn’t believe how uptight the city was about letting it have a place. Canadians are more like the “g-d organizers” Diers mentioned: grim & determined, everything has to be done by the book, and exceptions are always rejected on the basis of the old “slippery slope” argument (“if we let X do this, then everyone will want to do it, too” – as if everyone will want to go and erect sculptures on public land just because one group does so…). Sad, very unfun. We’re strangling ourselves in red tape.
    Ok, end of rant…! 😉

    Comment by Yule — March 3, 2009 #

  7. […] I also, in this article, try to get a “2.0″ kind of thinking focused on bricks and mortar (literally), which is something that’s badly, badly needed in land use and development. There have actually been some great historical precedents for that kind of fluid thinking, in particular Archigram’s DIY City concepts (I blogged about this and my ideas and responses around “housing 2.0″ here). […]

    Pingback by » February article: Housing 2.0 Yule Heibel’s Post Studio © 2003-2009 — April 13, 2009 #

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