Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: Growing Urban Habitats and HoCo

Growing Urban Habitats: Seeking a New Housing Development Model by William R. Morrish, Susanne Schindler, Katie Swenson
William Stout Publishers, 2009
Paperback, 256 pages

HoCo: Density Housing Construction & Costs by Aurora Fernandez Per, Javier Mozas & Javier Arpa
a+t architecture publishers, 2009
Paperback, 464 pages

The design of housing in the 21st-century is as exciting as -- if not more than -- single-family houses, the typical domain of experimentation and investigation by modern architects. While houses for individuals or families still get their fair share of press, many of the topical ideas explored by architects today (social justice, sustainability, urban regeneration, etc.) are better suited to the large scale of multi-family projects. These two books provide numerous examples of how architects are pushing the boundaries of housing in various ways. Neither is exhaustive, but each stakes out a niche and finds overlap in the subject and some shared sensibilities.

Growing Urban Habitats documents the 2005 Urban Habitats competition, organized by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville and the Charlottesville Community Design Center, but it goes beyond merely presenting the winning designs for reworking a trailer park in the Virginia city. The book aims to be a resource for designers, developers, city officials, community groups and residents. It does this by using the competition as a structure for presenting other multi-family housing projects in the United States. Each project is fitted into one of four chapters dedicated to an urban habitat goal (affordable, dense, compact, sustainable), with each chapter further broken down into four different mind sets for achieving the goals. In effect a spectrum of categories is created, highlighting different approaches and areas of emphasis for the projects included, allowing urban actors to use the book as a guide for rethinking problems of urban housing. What this means after 75 pages of material almost exclusively devoted to the competition is that the winning entries get lost in the mix, since the book's design puts all projects on an even plane within the 4x4 framework. So as a competition document the book is flawed, but as a resource for "growing urban habitats" it is an exemplary collection of built and unbuilt projects diverse in character, geography and demographics. It's a refreshing collection of designs that stresses ideas over eye candy. The book also draws attention to some up-and-coming architects in the competition entries; that they creatively address problems of urban housing bodes well for the typology and the profession's future.

HoCo, on the other hand, presents the primarily European examples of completed housing on their own terms, within the framework of a+t's consistent and high-quality graphic design and drawing standards. The projects are ordered, like other titles on housing by the publisher, but instead of density ruling it is costs. So as one moves from front to back the budgets increase, from $436/sm ($41/sf) to $2,248/sm ($209/sf). Other data is illustrated (density, area, #units, demographics), but as the title indicates, the latest entry in the Density Series investigates the relationship between cost and construction. Within each of the 32 projects this relationship is not always clear, as it depends on the text supplied by the architects as much as the objective data and the excellent construction details provided. An appendix with "construction solutions" compares the facades and roofs in as close an apples-to-apples manner as possible; brick facades are presented side by side, green roofs are done in the same manner, etc. All tolled the information provided goes well beyond what other publications fail to take the time and effort to produce. The extras allow a fuller understanding of the individual projects but also a means of seeing how they relate to each other. What becomes particularly important in these collections is the editorial selection of projects, and the fairly narrow geographical reach is not surprising from a+t. Here it is a limitation, as the interrelated factors of construction and costs still reflect local conditions as much as global markets and migrations.