Alien Affordable Architecture, Modularity And The Challenge of Good-Hearted Politics

view across water of Expo 67's Habitat project
Habitat 67 photo by Karl Loeffler is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Alien architecture from another century: Habitat at Expo 67

The Challenge:

More governments, both local and national, are coming to grips with an affordable housing crisis using the fashionable tools of the day. They are finding those tools wanting. Public/private partnerships reward conventional housing projects with subsidies to produce mere handfuls of affordable housing. Evidence is mounting everywhere that this public funding and conventional private construction model simply can’t begin to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for affordable housing.

The Good-Hearted Response:

Recognizing that the need for affordable housing is enormous, political parties, both in and out of power, have begun to announce affordable housing programs promising new units in the hundreds of thousands. A typical example is a Canadian proposal that turns on the outcome of an upcoming federal election. Admirable intent, but . . . just how feasible are these mammoth projects? Try: Canada’s ‘Progressive’ Party Blue-Sky’s Massive Affordable Housing Election Promise


Faced with practical limits of the housing construction industry, well meaning, if naive, mega-projects such as New Zealand’s Kiwibuild have quickly embraced the idea of new construction techniques such as modularity to help bridge the gap between construction capacity and needed units.

Modular construction techniques, particularly factory-built housing modules using conventional techniques and materials, are proving to reduce the price and delivery times of new housing. Factory-built modules using conventional materials have become an international commodity. Try: Cross Border Shopping Now Includes Modular Housing Units

Alien Architecture:

While the conventional housing industry may be slow in recognizing alternative methods, the same can not be said for visionary gadflies experimenting with alternative construction techniques and building materials that might lend themselves to lowering the cost of affordable housing.

New ideas range from quirky materials such as the following proposal to use a byproduct of futuristic tunnelling projects. Read more in Popular Mechanics: What Are Elon Musk’s Dirt Bricks Actually Good For?

A more mainstream and frequently-proposed modular housing unit is the shipping container, retired from sea-going life and offering many years of land-based use. Shipping containers have been forged into spectacular vanity projects. Read more in: Wonderful Engineering: These 15 Amazing Buildings Are Made Out Of Recycled Shipping Containers

In a more practical vein, shipping containers are now being offered by modular housing manufacturers. Try: Idaho Company Mainstreams Tin Can Living

With surprising numbers of shipping containers available worldwide, it’s understandable that articles such as the following show up with some frequency. Read more in Business Up North: Are Shipping Containers the Future of Affordable Housing?

Whether shipping containers save the world from an affordable housing crisis or not, they do offer an interesting perspective on how a product, built for a completely different purpose, may be ‘force fit’ to serve another.

There are all kinds of reasons why a corrugated steel box is more valuable for its availability, rather than for its qualities as a housing unit.

For example, ‘naked’ shipping containers are entirely without insulation: a furnace in the heat and an icebox in the cold. Nevertheless, they would seem to be making inroads as innovative modular housing.

This suggests that governments, the public and the housing industry might do well to look away from the now familiar ‘alien architecture’ of shipping containers and consider some alternatives that appear on the horizon from time to time in other corners of the world.

What kind of a modular future lies in architecture designed to provide low cost affordable housing in steamy Cambodia? Can it possibly serve in temperate or sub-arctic climates? If the hopeless insulation qualities of a shipping container modular unit can be adapted, why not a strange-looking Cambodian project.

Is it time to combine an appreciation of ‘alien’ architecture with imagination and some practical ingenuity? Read more at designboom: Qastic Proposes Arched Tree Houses For Affordable Housing In Cambodia



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