development equality poverty sustainability technology

The importance of affordable architecture

Just to follow on from my last post, there’s a justice angle to architecture as well as an environmental one. By some estimates over a billion people have sub-standard or non-existent homes. But since I went for theory and stats in the last post, let’s have a case study for this one – the idea of affordable architecture is perhaps best introduced by the work of Samuel Mockbee. In the later years of his life, Mockbee worked in the impoverished southern state of Alabama, and was an architect with his principles the right way up:

‘Mockbee had become disillusioned with the elitism of his profession, with its cloistered, expensive architects chasing fame and wealth with little regard for the needs of others in the world, let alone the socially disadvantaged… Mockbee dreamed of the poor living in architecturally stunning new houses, and yet only the wealthy could claim to own an architect-designed home.’
(Michael Frost, Exiles, p177.) answer was to start an architecture school, the rural studio. Students would learn cheap, real-life, sustainable architecture by building houses for people who could not normally afford them. Working closely with the clients, the results are beautiful and unique buildings, in harmony with their surroundings and the needs of the people who will live in them – the opposite of the generic, soul-less, institutional architecture of most social housing. For his efforts, Mockbee was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects’ highest honour, the Gold Medal, in 2004.

copy-of-p1010240.JPGToday the Rural Studio has an interesting programme called the 2ok house. Their site explains the idea: ‘The impetus for the project is a Rural Development loan available through the federal government. The 502 loan is available to low income people in rural areas. People of very low income, for example social security income, are able to borrow a maximum of $20,000 for home repair or construction. At present there does not exist a precedent for a house that can be built for $10,000 materials and $10,000 labor and profit. The 20K house aims to create that precedent.’

Click here for loads more on the Rural Studio.

It’s this kind of architecture that I get excited about, projects that put people first, serve the dis-advantaged, and don’t exploit the earth in the process. This is, in my mind, ‘righteous’ architecture.

The Rural Studio aren’t the only ones doing this, I just think they’re a great example. For more, see Architecture for Humanity, Design for the other 90%, Practical Action, and Habitat for humanity.


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