Architecture and the Kindness Economy – learning from Mary Portas

“Architecture is not just about what we build – but how we live.”

We have been captured by Mary Portas’ work on the Kindness Economy. This new value system requires businesses to understand the fundamental role they play for the wellbeing of people and the wider fabric of our society. At the heart of this approach is the need to balance commerce with social progress. We also see the need to balance our architectural and design business with the environment. In this post, we reflect on what we have learned about the Kindness Economy that resonates with our work at RISE Design Studio.

Mary Portas ii

Our shifting relationship with buildings

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we are realising just how much buildings influence every part of our lives. After spending more time in our homes and immediate neighbourhoods than ever before, we have become more aware of how we interact with the buildings we inhabit and how nature is reflected both internally and externally within and close to our homes.

In her recent podcast with Amanda Levete CBE, Mary Portas suggests we are going through a radical shift in our relationships with buildings. Architects are therefore at the forefront of designing our world post-pandemic. Buildings are the greatest expression of the idea of community and we need to understand who we are building for, particularly as different communities have different values, which need to be reflected in the architecture that surrounds them.

Lead by example

There is growing concern that volume housing is often built cheaply, with a focus on maximum profit for the developer, rather than on achieving maximum impact for the people who live there. As architects, we need to understand who we are building for and tailor designs accordingly. Different communities need different buildings, and housing should be designed around shared values not the value of a project or the resulting profit.

In an era of spending more time living and working in the home, it seems conceptually inappropriate that the design is in many cases driven by profit for someone who is not rooted in, or connected with, that community. This raises questions about how to encourage a shift in approach – Mary Portas would argue that this can be done by leading by example and showcasing successful projects for others to take inspiration from.

Between office and home

What will change as many of us start to return to the office? It is perhaps hard to predict but within the Kindness Economy there lies potential to re-imagine the office as a family home. Small companies may move from warehouses into townhouses, creating a homely office or a neighbourhood co-working space. It will be important for companies to have conversations with their staff about the future, to achieve a more positive work/life balance.

Attracting people back to the office will also require more thought about what kind of spaces people want and whether they want to work in those spaces. There is an opportunity to design buildings from which everyone has access to some outdoor space, nurturing the connection between inside and outside, and the local environment that we have all got to know so well when our movement was restricted.

Nurture community and connection

Although we live in an increasingly digital world, we are arguably more disconnected than ever before. Enforced remoteness and distance has negatively affected the culture and connectedness of our lives. As we re-emerge, we need places to meet, to learn new skills, and to feel a sense of culture around us. As we look to new ways of living and working, social interaction will be very important. How can people be put at the heart of buildings?

As many town centre properties lie empty, there is now an opportunity to begin a transformation but this will need risk-taking, innovation and creativity. Mary Portas points out the immediate opportunity to re-purpose these buildings without extensive demolition, in a way that exploits the characteristics that make a building so difficult to convert – a large central atrium, perhaps, or large indoor spaces with no natural light.

While challenging, these are exciting opportunities for architects – perhaps we can convert old department stores into spaces that are home to community functions and activities that will help to bring us all together again? Perhaps they could become places where people can grow food, making use of the latest technology in hydroponic farming? People’s concepts of a shop have changed and there is growing agreement that we need to re-purpose and re-vision these properties to create spaces and activities to bring people together.

You can visit one of Mary’s Living and Giving Shops across the UK.

 

New build in the countryside – dream or possibility?

 

As the world tries to move on from the Covid pandemic, there is anecdotal evidence that we are increasingly seeking life outside the city. Building a new home in the countryside and becoming a rural dweller may seem like a impossible dream but it is becoming an increasing reality for some. One reason is that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) allows new, isolated homes to built in rural areas, if they are of exceptionally high quality of design. We explain the rules below.

RISE Design Studio - new build in the countryside

The right house in the right place

Current NPPF policy recognises that new housing can be very homogenous – the ‘cookie cutter’ developments that have been all too common across the country. This has led to a push to improve the design quality of new housing, particularly in terms of environment considerations.

In the new NPPF, paragraph 79 encourages local authorities not to approve new developments on unbuilt land in the countryside. However, there are some important exceptions to this rule. These include where a house is designed to exceptionally high quality, helping to “raise standards of design more generally in rural areas”. In addition, a house would have to “significantly enhance its immediate setting, and be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area”.

No single route to success

The requirement for “truly outstanding or innovative” design means that there is no ‘right’ type of house that would receive planning permission. Instead, there is the need to focus on the individuality of a project and be aware that it is likely to be a long and intensive process.

It is clear that the sustainable design elements of the new build are key. Using natural, local materials can help the property to ‘take root’ in its local context. Equally important is how the property would positively impact the site, complementing and enhancing the existing landscape. Planning committees are more likely to approve houses which ‘belong’ in a landscape and use sustainable building technologies that are unique to the site.

Chances of success?

It is worth noting that the number of applications and the corresponding success rates are both quite low – a study found only 66 approvals between 2012 and 2018 (this was a 58% success rate, compared to an 88% success rate across all residential applications). Each case tends to have it own unique circumstances and the rules may be applied differently in different local authority areas. Engaging the local authority and any local communities or stakeholders early on in the project is very important. This will help to ensure that those making the final decisions about the build are confident in the quality, suitability and acceptability of the design and location.

We considered a lot of these aspects in the design of our Clogher Forest Village project.

Spotlight on Lina Bo Bardi

 

Recycling or converting buildings came naturally to Italian-born Brazilian architect, Lina Bo Bardi. Inspired by the use and reuse of basic materials, she devoted her working life to engaging with every facet of culture and designing ‘people-friendly’ buildings. Described as “the most underrated architect of the 20th century”, it is pleasing to see her finally receive the attention she deserves. We take inspiration from Lina Bo Bardi here at RISE Design Studio, particularly her respect for authentic objects and how to preserve and celebrate them in the home.

RISE Design Studio - Lina Bo Bardi

Buildings flowing with the natural environment

In 1951, Bo Bardi created the ‘Casa de Vidrio’ in the rainforest surrounding São Paulo. An early example of the use of reinforced concrete in domestic architecture, she found a Brazilian context for the Italian modernism she was trained in. The landscape ‘flows’ underneath the building and the main living area is almost wholly open, apart from a courtyard that allows the trees in the garden to grow up into the heart of the house (perhaps a source of inspiration for Sverre Fehn’s Nordic pavilion). This celebration of the local environment is a theme that runs through her work.

Engaged public places

Bo Bardi’s designs were used in the the Solar do Unhão cultural centre in Salvador, and the Museum of Art, the Teatro Oficina, and Centro de Lazer Fábrica de Pompéia in São Paulo. In what she termed ‘poor architecture’, she sought to design public spaces that embodied a simple form of monumental architecture. The São Paulo Museum of Art is formed from ‘raw and efficient’ pre-stressed concrete, allowing unobstructed views to the lower-lying parts of the city.

She expertly restored buildings in a manner which neither pandered to nostalgia nor ignored context – the restoration of a 17th century sugar mill into the Solar do Unhão left the colonial exterior intact, with a modern staircase added. This reflected her belief that a museum should be a place for education – an active site of knowledge rather than a mausoleum of the past.

When she was commissioned in the 1980s to turn a burnt out office building into a theatre, she designed the new space almost completely out of painted scaffolding. The intense theatre space is designed to make the members of the audience feel as if they are engaged with the act on the stage.

Simplicity and the historical present

Lina Bo Bardi also designed furniture and she often used plywood and native Brazilian woods in her design. Wanting each object to display its own ‘natural logic’, her designs embodied simplicity and reduction and rawness of material.

Bo Bardi’s work has become much more widely acknowledged in recent years and support has grown for the proper preservation of her buildings. In a lecture at the University of São Paulo in 1989, she was asked to describe her ideas for the preservation of historic buildings. She replied that she sees no such thing as ‘the past’ in architectural practice. Whatever still exists today is what she termed ‘the historical present’ – you have to preserve the typical features and characteristics of a time that is part of our human heritage.

Kitsungi – the art of repair

 

Celebrating the beauty of a naturally imperfect world is a tenet of our work here at RISE Design Studio. By embracing impermanence and accepting that we are always in a state of flux, it becomes easier to appreciate what we have, rather than compare ourselves to others. It is this mindfulness and ‘living in the now’ – with all its imperfections – that we try to capture in our work. An important influence on our approach is the Japanese art of kitsungi – ‘golden repair’ – which respects the unique history of an object.

Reclaimed bricks RISE Design Studio

An accidental art form

It is thought that kitsungi was developed in the 15th century when a Japanese shogun broke his favourite tea bowl. He was disappointed that the repair involved stapling the pieces together, which left the bowl looking unattractive. Instead, local craftsmen filled the crack with a golden laquer. This made the bowl more unique and valuable, and prompted a new style of repair. As the style developed, the lacquer was likened to natural features like waterfalls, rivers, or landscapes.

The need to accept change

We often feel regret when something breaks or is wasted. For the Japanese, this is ‘mottainai’, a feeling that dates back to the original era of kitsungi and remains present in contemporary Japanese environmentalism.

In London, we are tackling the challenge of developing a circular economy to support net zero targets – mottainai and kitsungi can provide us with the inspiration we need. In our ‘throwaway culture’, we often miss opportunities to transform broken or used objects into something new, perhaps even making those objects more rare and beautiful than the originals.

This is the essence of resourcefulness – making the most of what we already have (or what already is) and highlighting beauty alongside any flaws. The perfections and imperfections are what gives our surroundings a story and meaning.

Embracing the past in the home

What does this mean at home? It can include choosing authentic furnishings that create a lived, harmonious space. It might also mean sourcing used furniture and allowing each scratch to add to the narrative of an item’s history. It might mean repairing walls, floors and external materials to reflect the history of the building and the changes it has seen through the years. Sourcing local or reclaimed materials might also help to root the home in its local environment and landscape.

Imperfections are gifts

The art of kitsungi is not only about objects – it is also about how we live our lives. It helps us to realise that we, like the tea bowl, are all fallible. We heal and grow, and we often survive emotional blows and live to tell the story. However, it can be hard to admit our failures and accept that bad things can happen. If we are to learn something personal from the local craftsmen who repaired broken items with gold, it is that imperfections are gifts to be worked with.

We take pride in working with imperfections in our projects, whether those be in buildings with a story to tell, with materials that reflect the local landscape, or with furniture and other fittings that have existed for several generations.

Imperfection and the pursuit of happiness in architecture

 

2020 has definitely not been a perfect year. But what if we accept that any feelings of suffering we experience are a part of life? What if it is not in our remit to be completely and enduringly happy all the time? What if, in embracing imperfection, we can find happiness? These are questions that have been explored by philosophers and expressed in architectural approaches and styles.

RISE Design Studio - Mak and Bium

A philosophy of comfort

Philosopher and author, Alain de Botton, has suggested that ‘the greatest enemy of contemporary satisfaction may be the belief in human perfectability’. In today’s society, we often feel that it is in our remit to be completely happy. However, throughout history, life’s milestones and endeavours (marriage, raising children, pursuing a career, etc.) have been understood to be difficult as well as sources of happiness. Buddhists have perceived life as a ‘veil of suffering’, while the Greeks believed in ‘the tragic structure of every human project’. Christianity has also measured ‘each of us as being marked by a divine curse’.

Seeking a way forwards, de Botton argues that what we can aim for is consolation – accepting that life is a hospice rather than a hospital. Seeking to make that hospice as comfortable, as interesting, and as kind as possible. We should also seek to grasp what our problems are and know that we are not alone with them.

Embracing imperfection

In an earlier post, we wrote about the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi – an acceptance of transience and imperfection. By living in the now and embracing the impermanence of life, we are more likely to learn, grow and feel more content. In architectural designs that embrace wabi-sabi, finding beauty in asymmetry and connecting with natural materials brings balance and serenity to the home. The approach also encourages us to appreciate what we have, rather than compare ourselves to others.

Spontaneity can also be a source of happiness, realising opportunities as they arise and developing a fondness towards the unexpected. The Korean architectural aesthetic of ‘mak’ embodies this approach, embracing compassion for the context in which a building or object is realised. Where buildings may seem raw and unfinished, this is instead an aesthetic statement, acknowledging an innate tactility that is enshrined in Korean culture.  Diverging from the Western architectural focus on symmetry, the concept of ‘bium’ (literally translated as ’emptiness’), allows haste to overcome perfection, perhaps in misalignment of materials or uneven arrangements.

For example, in a traditional Korean house (a ‘hanok’), a courtyard provides a void of calm vacancy and an acceptance of the constraints and conditions of the house’s location. Instead of seeking perfection, rafters may remain unprocessed, or opening/doorways may fit between the warped wooden contours of beams. The unique personality of this type of home acknowledges the natural surroundings of the building.

A series of moments

Despite life’s imperfections, moments of true happiness are always possible. And what more is life than a series of moments? In architecture, we are presented with an opportunity to embrace imperfection. By welcoming the irregular and broken features of existing structures and refurbishing them in a way that incorporates the building’s history, we can acknowledge both the past and present to create the comfortable, interesting and kind life that de Botton supported.

The future of shared domestic spaces

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought how we use our homes into sharp focus. As we spend more time than before working, socialising, exercising and resting at home, our shared spaces have taken on new functions. No longer is the kitchen only a place to cook or eat – it may now be where at least one member of the family conducts their daily online meetings. This means that many of us have had to think about how our shared, domestic spaces can accommodate more aspects of our daily lives.

RISE Design Studio casa plywood London

Reinventing the workspace

Working from home has been a journey of discovery for many of us and it looks to be here to stay, at least in the short to medium term. Although time is saved on the non-existent commute, the experiences of remote working in 2020 have been psychologically and socially challenging. Online meetings enable regular contact with colleagues, yet this method of communication has been found to lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety and disconnection from others.

As many of us continue to work from home, it may help to think about how to adapt our domestic working spaces to address some of these issues. Like in the office, sitting in one place all day can cause health issues (bad posture, etc.), and too much clutter can create a ‘fuzzy’ mind when focussing on difficult tasks. A good chair that gives an optimal sitting position is crucial, as is a desk at the correct height, in a well-lit, clear space.

Bringing the outdoors indoors

With the outside world ‘off limits’ or presenting a threat to those most vulnerable, it has become crucial to incorporate more nature into our homes. With a boom in gardening among those with access to a garden or other outdoor space, integrating living plants into our homes has become more popular. Although hygiene is key, our personal living spaces still need to be physically enriching and remind us that the natural world still exists ‘out there’.

Testing architectural and design assumptions

The recent situation has also challenged how we use public spaces. As government requirements mean more ventilation and regular cleaning regimes, those places that are more modern, with transparent architecture and interior design, may have an easier road ahead. This is not dissimilar to the reasons behind the development of modernist hospital architecture in the early 1900s to combat widespread tuberculosis.

It has been predicted that the way in which we design our homes is likely to change. Instead of browsing showrooms, most purchases are now made online. The development of online consultation services and the use of simple digital planning tools is becoming more widespread, and some companies are even bringing materials to people’s homes for them to test, rather than requiring them to come to a showroom.

At the end of the day, spending endless time in our homes may have brought us down to earth somewhat. We have had to focus on what works and what doesn’t, as well as what our priorities and design choices really are. Perhaps we have also discovered some simple pleasures about our home that we hadn’t noticed before. What we learned about our homes during 2020 will be crucial for planning ahead to the ‘new normal’ and how to maximise our enjoyment of time at home in the future.

Drones and architecture

 

Drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs) are being used more and more for a range of purposes, from surveying and mapping, to delivering Amazon parcels to remote communities. For architects, there are many exciting possibilities. Drones offer immense potential for capturing images and data about a building or site. They also offer us a new point of perspective and the ability to save the time otherwise needed to send in a team of surveyors to navigate complex terrain.

Drones and architecture RISE Design Studio

Capturing data and optimising design

Drones have become an incredibly useful surveying tool. They are small and generally easy to manoeuvre, making it easy to access parts of a site that might otherwise be unsafe/challenging to access on foot. A drone can be used to provide close-up footage of any potentially unsafe structures, sent back to the architect in real time during the flight.

Drones can also assist with mapping work. Although it is very common to use satellite imagery for site planning, the quality of the images can often be too low and not yield enough data to work with. Images and data collected from drone flights are generally very high quality and can be used to create accurate 3D models of the site in familiar software programs.

Flying safely and legally

It is the responsibility of drone owners to fly their drone safely and within the law. This includes keeping the drone in sight and below 400ft and not flying too close to airports, over congested areas or within 50m of a person. It is also important to ensure that any images obtained by the drone do not break privacy laws. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has created a ‘Drone Code’ which sets out the rules for all drone users.

Using a drone in the UK for commercial purposes requires permission from the CAA. Commercial drone users are required to attend an accredited course that will ensure they can operate a drone safely.

At RISE, we are always eager to implement the latest technologies and to better our practice with the tools that are available to us. We have used drones in the past in order to gain better visual access to difficult sites, especially in larger projects, and for photographing completed work from the unique angle only drones can offer.

Showcasing work and looking to the future

Not only is a drone immensely helpful in the design stage, it can also be a real asset when showcasing completed projects. Drones can carry very powerful cameras which can take footage of the completed work and how it fits into its surroundings. The footage can be used to compile engaging and impressive photography and films of the architect’s work.

Looking forwards, drones are likely to be here to stay and there are many exciting opportunities for architects who use them. There are examples of drones being used to carry materials into sites (light materials, at this stage), and using heat-sensing/infrared technology to monitor the real-time effects of a project on the surrounding environment. Some architects even dream of using drones to build a building, but this is perhaps a while away yet!

How will architecture adapt to Covid-19 and beyond?

 

The global Covid-19 pandemic has created a new world for all of us. While the fight against the virus continues, we are all learning to adjust to life in a socially-distanced society. How we move through our cities, towns and villages has changed, and we have had to refamiliarise ourselves with adapted indoor and outdoor spaces. What will these changes mean for the design of housing, work spaces and placemaking in the future? We think there will be some key changes that architects will need to respond to.

RISE Design Studio architecture and Covid-19

Seeing our homes in new ways

Even those of us who have always loved spending time in our homes will feel, after many weeks of lockdown, overly familiar with our own living space. Bedrooms have become the office or the home gym, kitchen tables have become the home school, and the quiet space that was once a reading nook may now be overrun by all members of the family seeking that rare moment of solitude.

As we contemplate the reality of more time in our home in the weeks and months to come, we are valuing our homes more than ever before and thinking about how to maximise the space. Storage has become more important as we appreciate the simplicity and order of life at home while the world outside seems increasingly complex. What was originally a temporary workspace may become a permanent feature and this presents an opportunity to create a soulful space that inspires creativity and productivity.

Even the tiniest bit of outdoor space has provided a huge boost for those lucky enough to have some. For those without, sunrooms or spaces with good quality natural light for urban farming provide a welcome alternative.

Perhaps the most important question is about how we delineate the spaces in our home that we use to rest, eat and play from those in which we now work. How can smaller spaces be used to perform these multiple roles but still allow a separation of home and work life? The creative solutions need to flow.

The importance of our local surroundings and supply chains

The pandemic has made us all acutely more aware of our local surroundings and what effect these can have on our health and wellbeing. Encouraged to walk, run and cycle close to home, we have become very familiar with our local streets, paths and parks, perhaps much more than we could have ever imagined.

As many of us continue to spend more time at home during the working week, there is an opportunity to implement energy-efficient standards, and push for faster decarbonisation of heating systems to ensure the carbon footprint of the home is reduced and energy costs are manageable.

New developments will need to adopt strong placemaking principles likely walkability to local social infrastructure. This will be crucial to ensure that local businesses can be accessed quickly and safely, particularly as home workers are likely to make these sorts of trips more regularly than in the past.

The longer we spend without regular social contact, the more important our greenspaces become for our mental and physical wellbeing. There is a need to embed these spaces in our local communities and look after them for the years to come.

Adaptable and healthy cities

Perhaps most striking has been the decline of the use of cars in our cities. Streets have been left empty and air pollution levels have dropped significantly. As people are converted into ‘full-time pedestrians and cyclists’, the benefits of making streets safer for those of us not in vehicles couldn’t be more apparent.

There is likely to be a greater focus on health in city planning and development. For example, in Singapore, therapeutic gardens have been built into public parks, and in Tokyo citizens are working with urban designers to create more greenspace in their neighbourhoods to improve their health.

Across the world, architects have been working hard to identify and adapt buildings and other spaces into temporary health care facilities. The pandemic has highlighted the need for fast design and build projects, which has made the use of modular construction – buildings assembled using prefabricated modules – more common.

Perhaps most exciting is the growth in the adaptive reuse approach to design. Using existing structures to serve new purposes, this is a real opportunity to use a sustainable and efficient approach to upgrading our living environments in this new world.

Christo & Jeanne Claude

 

Christo and Jeanne Claude RISE Design Studio

“The work of art is a scream of freedom.”
– Christo

It is with both joy and a tang of sadness that we present this post today. With joy because of the incredible work that the couple carried out; a lifetime of art full of brightness. And sadness because, now that they are both gone, it has left us wondering – who will fill their void? Who will be as inventive, as playful, and as daring?

Christos and Jeanne Claude’s wrapping of landmarks was a breath of fresh air. An idea both monumental and ephemeral which never failed to trigger a sense of awe. The work was particularly powerful because it went beyond talking about itself to talk about us.

It talked about us and our monuments and buildings, putting in perspective our place in history and our scale in the world. It made us realise that we are not gods, that we come and go and that our creations are only a little sturdier than we are. Like Christos said on one occasion: “We believe that nothing exists that is forever, not even the dinosaurs; if well maintained, it could remain for four to five thousand years, (…) that is definitely not forever.”

There is a great relief in the realisation that, however long our temples or bridges have been standing there, it is comparatively little when regarded in cosmic time. The gift wrapping of these awe-inspiring monuments made them objects again; and us, children. The lightness that comes with knowing that there are much bigger things than ourselves, that we are relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things is a burden taken off humanity’s shoulders.

Christo and Jeanne Claude changed our cities and our landscapes, covering them up to show them in a new light. They made us think about the world we live in and the world we build in a quiet way that harnessed so much power. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many never got to see their art in person – some of the installations lasted weeks; others, only days. But the playful way in which they wrapped the world and let people walk on water remains documented for everyone to be inspired. For us, as architects, it is an immense gift that has allowed us to think about our own creations in a completely new light.

Sketchbook Chronicles N.005

 

RISE Design Studio Birch Clay Refugio

– RISE on Houzz: how to work remotely like a pro.
– Springtime means colour! – Architecture interiors and garments.
– Prefab Architecture: do-it-yourself kits and modular buildings.
– 3D-Prints: Foster + Partners printed steel truss.
– Social Distancing in style.

You can read the full version of the Sketchbook Chronicles issue N.005 here.