Making do is about using what we already have. It is about considering the existing as a valuable resource, not as unsatisfactory or constraining. Each existing situation is an opportunity consisting of elements, qualities, and capacities that can be integrated, reactivated, and reused. Each existing structure offers materials that can drastically reduce the need for new materials. Each site permits invention and imagination.
It is necessary to observe an existing structure from within in order to reveal its qualities and how to use what is already there, instead of systematically replacing and remaking. Today, the existing is the new material. It is always more sustainable to add onto, join, expand, and span what already exists than to empty a site and start over. The existing is the basis and the material, or rather the found material, of the majority of our projects at Lacaton & Vassal.
Make do with nature
In 1998, we were asked to build a holiday house in Cap Ferret in the southwest of France. We first looked at the location carefully. It was an exceptional and fragile place – a sand dune with almost fifty pine trees among the vegetation. We decided not to cut down any trees and to build the house as lightweight as possible in order to not change the dune. We used a simple and standard steel construction with elements that could be easily brought on-site and a foundation that did not require excavation or damaging the ground. The house was built four meters aboveground and accommodates the trees. From inside looking out, the construction disappears, giving place to the landscape and foliage.
Another way of making the city
Saint-Nazaire in the west of France held a competition to build 300 separate houses. As we inspected the site, we were struck by the wonderful forest that was being continually diminished by development. So instead, we proposed to build a collective housing unit with a lightweight structure twelve meters aboveground in order to give the forest a chance to recuperate and continue growing. The simple construction also freed up the ground for public use.
Make do with the climate
Our practice has learned a lot from agriculture, greenhouses especially. These intelligent constructions efficiently manage the climate, using a minimum amount of materials to capture the warmth of the sun and provide natural light, natural ventilation, and simple shading techniques. Greenhouses led us to develop the design of the double-envelope construction, which saves energy while also creating pleasant climatic conditions and extra space.
Make do with abandoned buildings
In 2013, we participated in a competition to turn an old industrial building in the French city of Dunkerque into a contemporary art center. The building stood alone in a shipyard that had been demolished in the 1980s. We were fascinated by the void within the building and felt that it would be a mistake to fill this wonderful space with floors, to isolate it and install air conditioning, which would radically change the building. We proposed saving the void and building a twin building right next to the existing building. The empty space of the existing building would remain unaltered and could be used for exhibitions or other public events, while the new building offered the structural conditions required for the art center. The double envelope of the new building is very thermally efficient and provides extra space on the top of the structure, allowing for a view of the surrounding landscape, the harbor, and the seaside.
Make do with a minimum of materials
For an architecture school in Nantes, we wanted to provide as much space as possible for the students and school to use as they liked. Our intention was to use the least amount of materials possible. The materials make up around 8 percent of the entire volume of the building; 92 percent of the volume can be given to the space and its use.
We think it is important to use only the material necessary and nothing more. The city of Bordeaux asked us to propose a project to embellish a square in the city. We carefully observed the square twice a week over a period of four months, and our feeling was that it already had quality. The proposal we delivered to the city was to do nothing.
Make do with housing blocks
We conducted a study of large modernist housing developments from the 1960s and 1970s. At the time they were built, these structures held an optimistic, utopic vision: a modern way of living that was affordable to everyone. But today these buildings are mostly neglected and viewed with disenchantment. In the mid-2000s, a national project of urban renovation was launched in France to demolish and rebuild almost 200,000 of these flats, which required relocating their inhabitants. Faced with this project, we teamed up with the architect Frédéric Druot to study the situation carefully. In 2004 we released our report, entitled Plus, which was based on the opposite approach to demolition: transformation.
In France, between 2006 and 2015, some 125,000 dwellings were demolished and 100,000 rebuilt – a loss of 25,000 units. The cost of the demolition and reconstruction of one dwelling amounted to 165,000 euros. Our alternative approach showed that it is possible to significantly transform a dwelling for the cost of 55,000 euros. Our approach is never to demolish, subtract, or replace, but always to add, transform, utilize, extend, give more to do better. We studied these modernist housing developments from the inhabitants’ point of view, considering the basic qualities that every dwelling should have. Our goal was to transform each dwelling to give it the same qualities as a villa – a home that is not just a box with narrow windows but that can open up to provide a better quality of life and a relation with the outdoors.
Transformation means openness, extension, more space, more light, more freedom of use. In 2017, with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin we completed a project of transforming a series of 1960s social-housing blocks in Bordeaux. From the outside, the buildings might be considered ugly and without value; demolition had been envisaged by the city. But from the inside, one can see that these buildings are made of individual situations, all of them different. Every inhabitant in the 530 apartments gave personal value to the interior space with their own decoration, furniture, and plants. Our starting principle was that the outside didn’t matter; the transformation starts from the inside. So we proposed a four-meter extension on the south facade, which benefited each dwelling. This extension and the renovation of the interior could be realized without having to relocate the inhabitants – a construction process that is integral to the design.
Based on an inventory and detailed studies, we have identified 450,000 existing dwellings that can be transformed and see the potential to build 135,000 new dwellings on plots already built upon, equipped, and connected to public transport, which is extremely valuable for the city economically. But these projects require a big change in thinking about materials and planning methods. They require adopting a case-by-case strategy that looks at each site carefully to propose specific projects based on the given conditions — the opposite of a master plan.
This text is extracted from the keynote address Make Do presented by Anne Lacaton at the LafargeHolcim Forum for Sustainable Construction on “Re-materializing Construction” held at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. The full text is available as a flip-book via the link below:
Inspired by the discussions by 350 leading thinkers from architecture, engineering, planning, and the construction industry from 55 countries, Ruby Press Berlin has published The Materials Book that evaluates current architectural practices and models, and introduces materials and methods to maximize the environmental, social, and economic performance of the built environment in the context of “Re-materializing Construction”.