Economic & Social Empowerment

Contemporary architecture is more than just form and function – when done right it can empower communities and inspire social change.

“A micro-Bilbao effect!” in Fifth LafargeHolcim Awards – Sustainable Construction 2017/2018

Holcim Awards Silver 2017 from Asia Pacific, Microlibrary in Indonesia constructs a territorial landmark reinforcing literacy, defines community, and provides economic opportunity for neighborhoods within Jakarta.

Transforming the way people interact with the economy

It has become quite apparent that sustainability practices and low carbon-built environment are already generating a whole range of new jobs, thanks to the innovative mindset required to implement green building and regeneration practices in the sector. But what can architectural design inherently do to unlock labor and economic opportunities through buildings, neighborhoods, cities and in general planning? How can architecture be a vehicle to transform the way people interact with the economy in urbanized contexts, afford dignified living conditions and livelihood means, and even generate occupant benefits such as profit from buildings? What is the role of sustainable development in granting equitable access to quality housing, sanitation, energy, and infrastructures in general?

There is no silver bullet to address this complex question. Solutions are systemic, and must be planned according to geographical, climatic, economic, social, and political contexts. Social housing, co-shared ownership models, energy and water decentralized networks, rehabilitation and improvement of informal settlements and slums are just a few of the possible facets to this complex problem. Empowering the building occupants to steer and influence the economies of buildings, through a greater participation to the living and thus operations models, enables economy of means and makes for invested users that care.

Low cost housing that overcomes land tenure challenges

Improving life in slums through architectural intervention is the proposition of Start Somewhere, a project that provides social and economic opportunity for slums, through auto construction and upskilling of the local labour force in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. An interlocking hollow concrete block system is produced in situ, with local materials and labour and results in a simple, low-cost solution that is also flexible. The end building retains modular characteristics, is dry assembled and fully demountable. If the land should be developed and the structure needs to be moved, homeowners can resettle without losing their homes.

Microgrid systems, which provide energy autonomy to neighborhoods, grant democratic access to energy, and ultimately relieve energy poverty, are listed by Project Drawdown amongst the 100 solutions for climate change. The added effectiveness of the solution on combating climate change assumes that renewable energies are used as primary source.

Civic infrastructure that builds the community

Grassroots Microgrid in Detroit, Michigan, is based on the concept of infrastructure as a civic project, with the aim of improving living conditions in a degraded area and ultimately making the area more attractive for renters and potential homeowners. This Net Zero Energy (NZE) project is achieved through participatory design but also through cooperative models of energy ownership and sharing. Renters become owners, and have more “skin in the game”, and are empowered to elect office holders and are more engaged in the community. The empty lots used in the development are deployed as collective infrastructure for energy and food production, generating a new economic paradigm. Grassroots Microgrid received the Holcim Awards Gold 2017 for North America and the Global Holcim Awards Bronze 2018.

Community-driven neighborhood planning, Detroit, USAd

Building on long-term engagement in Detroit, USA, the large group of collaborators proposes a pilot project for local energy and food production, water and waste management, and community empowerment.

Housing to improve worker conditions

An example of a project at the intersection of social housing and economic empowerment for workers, with a strong human-centric design perspective, can be seen in Upgrading Labor. The Holcim Awards jury for Asia Pacific praised this thoughtful proposal for how it addresses the serious issue of worker’s condition in Cambodian Special Economic Zones, providing dignified accommodation and fostering social inclusion or workers. Houses are clustered around courtyards, utility courtyards with communal kitchens, a series of closed and semi-open collective spaces and integrated services, such as shops, a crèche, which cater for comfort and wellbeing and turn the campus into a livable place, magnifying opportunities for social interaction. The project received a Holcim Awards Acknowledgement prize 2020 for Asia Pacific.

Social and cultural infrastructure for a favela

The Urban Remediation and Civic Infrastructure Hub in São Paulo, Brazil, received the Holcim Awards Gold 2011 for Latin America and Global Holcim Awards Silver 2012. The project reflects both a micro and macro scale approach, at the intersection between urban remediation and social equity, by providing a segregated favela area with its own social and cultural infrastructure.

Grotão – Fábrica de Música is clear and powerful: it expands sustainability beyond the management of natural resources and takes it into the realm of social sustainability. The design process is participatory in both its initial phase and in the end use of the space. By applying locally known construction materials and technologies, the project will create work opportunities for small-scale construction businesses in and around the neighborhood.

Global Holcim Awards finalist entry 2012 – Urban remediation and civic infrastructure hub, São Paulo, Brazil

Grotão – Fábrica de Música highlights the importance of public government engagement in creating places that are conductive to social infrastructures, rebuilding the social fabric, preventing criminality and alienation, and fostering economic opportunities.

The project will include a terraced public space with areas for urban agriculture, a water management system, a public amphitheater, a music school, a small concert hall, sports facilities, public spaces, and transport infrastructure. It will prevent further erosion and dangerous mudslides on the steep slopes and provide social and cultural infrastructure.

Urban transport for more equitable opportunities

Also deploying transport infrastructure as social policy is the Caracas MetroCable. Described in Urban_Trans_Formation, “Bridging the Formal/Informal City” describes an integrated transport system that proves how a conscientious urban planning strategy can increases equal opportunities. Through a public consultation where the informal community asserted their preferences and rights to shape their living context, a cable car system was chosen as the least disruptive mean of transportation, providing inhabitants with better ease of access to services of the metropolitan city.

Multiplying the availability of affordable housing through sharing

Cohousing is a model that significantly amplifies availability of affordable housing and energy and enables the economically just and sustainable commons transition. Uniting economic opportunities and affordable housing, house-sharing or what is now well established as a circular economy business model, can provide answers to emergencies but also influence the way we plan and design. In an essay by Yassi Eskandari-Qajar in Urban_Trans_Formation, “The Sharing Economy Meets Housing” explains the environmental and social advantages of co-housing.

A study by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality evaluated 30 green building practices and determined that reduced home sizes and multifamily living achieved the largest greenhouse gas reductions and significant improvements in other impact categories. Clustering housing around shared spaces and amenities can simultaneously counteract sprawl, mitigate the negative effects of increased density, and help cities meet sustainability goals. When housing is designed to facilitate sharing, it reduces waste, energy needs, and traffic and stimulates behaviors that promote sustainable living.

Shared living arrangements can also alleviate affordable housing shortages and the mounting economic pressures of mortgages, loans, and debt. Finally, because shared housing increases interaction and interdependence among neighbors, it strengthens community ties and builds valuable social capital. In sum, the sharing economy makes our households more ecologically sound, economically stable, and socially connected”.

A project that embodies the concept of collective as opposed to individualized housing paradigms is Transforming Collectivity in Belgium, recipient of the Holcim Awards Next Generation 1st prize in 2020. The housing project is made up by several layers of sustainability, starting from the proposal of adaptive reuse of different rundown building blocks in Brussels, to the concept of sharing as a means for sustainable and socially empowered living.

Transforming Collectivity in Belgium

In response to the current housing crisis and the increasing need for urban densification, Transforming Collectivity in Belgium revolutionizes the conventional idea of social dwelling by proposing a new habitat solution founded on the concept of “sharing”, here understood as a political, economic and social claim.

The Holcim Awards jury for Europe highly commended the maturity and pragmatic character of the project, which was perceived as the genuine commitment of a young designer to address two core issues that are central to sustainability: the transformation of existing building stock and the promotion of social sustainability. Housing is imagined as a new social institution that embeds several environmental features”.

Further updates on economic and social empowerment