Naked Houses

French novelist Gustave Flaubert was unimpressed by the advent of railways in the 19th century. He thought trains would only allow more people to move about, meet and be stupid. It’s easy to imagine what he would have thought of the internet. [1] Two years ago I unbookmarked myself from all architectural websites and have since lived without their compulsive addiction. It makes no difference if we hear of architectural ideas immediately or decades down the road because architectural ideas, and especially aesthetic ideas, never change anything because they’re not intended to.

  1. Ideas (such as off-form concrete as a final finish) that are inadvertently and immediately useful are quickly deemed passée and spurned.
  2. Ideas that don’t have immediate application disappear into a kind of limbo, neither forgotten nor applied until the conditions for their application come about, if ever.
  3. Ideas that are before their time are simply wrong ideas.
  4. Ideas that eventually come to pass are often mistaken for prophecies but it’s really the environment changing to make those ideas now useful. They then become like the first type of idea.

This all suggests that, if one wants to find potentially relevant ideas to solve current problems, it is more useful to selectively scan and re-evaluate the past than it is to mass monitor the present. That’s a big “if”. Mainstream architectural media content and the mechanisms for its delivery have evolved to continuously distract and prevent people from thinking about anything that needs thinking about.

Cutting myself loose from all this means I’ll never know what I’ve missed out on and that’s the point. There’s enough to think about anyway, and new things tend to find me anyway via conversations or as general news. Here’s an article that was already two months old when I first saw it.

nakedhouse.org [2] is a not-for-profit organization for builds housing not finished to the degree that new housing in the UK typically is. The objective is to lower that first rung on the property ladder. Most people will find nothing wrong with that last sentence. Naked houses check all the items misfits identified in a December 2015 post that pondered what else architecture could learn to do without. [c.f. Architecture Reductions]

Quality materials 

“The apartments will have no partition walls, no flooring and wall finishes, only basic plumbing and absolutely no decoration.”

This is good, because all these are superficial yet costly indicators of status and an obvious place to start. They’re the things people are most likely to change to suit their real or imagined individuality. In the UK one of the first things people do upon buying a secondhand property is strip the walls of any paint or paper. In new properties, providing surfaces with anything more than a base finish builds-in waste from the outset but does make sense for contractors to do that because of the markup involved. It’s this kind of functional redundancy that naked houses attempt to circumvent. Contractors accept a lesser return on lesser outlay and, if the product is successful, turnover is maintained and the financial threshold for home ownership is lowered. Whether this process will act wide enough or fast enough to make a difference is another matter. Jean Nouvel’s Nemausus Housing in Nîmes is forty years old now. It’s not that it had ideas before its time. Circumstances have changed to make those same ideas make more sense to more people than they did then.

MVRDV introduced plywood and oriented strand board (a.k.a. OSB, flakeboard, sterling board, aspenite) as A Thing, in their Double House of twenty years ago.

Giving aesthetic credibility to lower-cost and lower quality materials is a continuation of the same process that resulted a century ago in upmarket houses being made out of brick instead of stone. Low-quality materials once hidden can have a second life as a layer of history but new-build can’t have this indicator of age as status.

Cooking with low-cost ingredients requires more pre-preparation and time and care and so does building. This blockwork by H Arquitectes has been carefully set out to coordinate vents and switches with the joints and openings. The concrete floor has been precisely poured, ground and polished. It will look like this forever. The materials are inexpensive but the process requires thought and care.

This is not how our construction industry works. The general practice is to build cheaply and quickly using lesser quality materials and as little skilled labour as possible, and to then conceal any imperfections. I have my doubts about how beautiful naked houses’ naked walls will be. We’ll probably want them to cover up.

Rooms, Plans

Even if ideas in Nouvel’s Nemausus Housing never became how things were done, the idea of shell lofts did but had no great impact on the design of houses or apartments or the way we live in them. Apartments were sold as shells with a contractural obligation to complete their interiors within a certain period. However, as long as there was a source of heat, hot water and basic bathroom functions then no further completion was ever needed. Wholesome building fabric had totally fictional interiors inserted.

Naked houses are shell houses without contractural obligations, but not without a certain amount of social pressure to do it up. Getting rid of rooms has been a long time coming. We can’t really claim The Farnsworth House or Glass House as any kind of precursor but, over the past sixty years, living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens have coalesced into a single space in both downmarket and upmarket apartments, if not yet all houses.

Kitchens as a Concept

“The only recognisable part of a kitchen will be a sink.”

This idea has also been a long time coming. It’s been 22 years since Francis Soler’s 9-17 rue Émile Durkheim apartments. [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to PARIS]

000976

The first thing many people do after buying a secondhand home is rip out the kitchen and install a new one, most likely from Ikea. Ripping out the bathrooms is usually next on the list but open plan bathrooms are only just beginning to catch on, some ninety years after the idea was first floated.

villa savoye bathroom drain

Since 2009, hotels have been incorporating open plan bathrooms. The entire space looks less divided. Because it is.

Bathrooms added to houses that never had them in the first place can be unconventionally large and open but this is more of an upmarket trend.

001146

Downmarket, it hasn’t been all that long since bathtubs stopped being in kitchens and close to the only source of hot water.

Stripping a building back to its essentials is a good thing to do as there’s much that can be done without and that was never necessary in the first place. The absence of some accepted items only highlights what there is left.

Gratuitous Design Features: The image below doesn’t tell us much in the way of structural information but the lack of cross-bracing suggests it’s not the cheapest way to make what’s essentially an extreme mansard roof. Those non-structural corner windows aren’t going to help reduce the cost any. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio].

Sky: These are houses and not apartments with their sophisticated structures and servicing. The glass roofs tell us so. A one square metre VELUX window costs about £1,000, including installation into an existing roof, and will provide sufficient illumination for that floor area whatever the season. Anything larger is stylistic affectation. It seems like one set of status indicators is being discarded for a another. Living under a glass roof may be an attractive idea but it creates an ugly choice between spending money upfront on decent glazing panels or having higher heating costs forever.

Double-height Space: The most obvious scope for cost saving is to get rid of architecture’s favourite trope – a double-height space with a mezzanine and to not build unuseable volume from the outset.

Sure, people can put a floor in, and flooring too if they want, but building the potential to have a floor if one wants extra floor space is not in the spirit of a home without frills. The first publicized UK naked house encloses all internal volume to begin with, and the only potential present is dividing it into smaller units of liveable volume.

In the past, making more units of liveable volume would have meant adding an extra room at the back where a rear garden always meant the potential to be converted into more useable internal space. The potential to divide internal volume could indicate the potential to have a larger family or, these days, the potential to monetize that new unit of space via Airb’n’b or similar. It’s a long time since having more children meant adding more rooms. It more likely brings about the division of space or the sharing of space as it does most anywhere else in the world. Airb’n’b currently has 300+ listings in Enfield (UK) where the trial project is located.

enfield

“The upside of this spartan approach is a price tag of between £150,000 and £340,000, in reach for buyers on average incomes in a city where the average home now costs £580,000.”

A yearly season ticket from Enfield Lock to London Travelcard Zones 1–6 (with an average journey time of only 23 min!) will cost £2,408.00 – one sixtieth of the cost of the lowest priced house on offer. Who knows anymore if that’s a good deal or not?

Airb’n’b and similar sites attract much criticism for their role in encouraging people to see where they live as something to monetize. This graph shows it’s obviously better to own property than to have a job. It’s all the better if you don’t have to share a bathroom with the non-property owners you exploit, but that’s what makes the new microfeudalism different from the old renting.

Bourgeois Interiors, Design Features

“The idea is to strip out all of the stuff that people don’t want in the first place,” said Simon Chouffot, one of the founders of the not-for-profit developer, Naked House. “People want to do some of the custom building. We can make it affordable by people doing some of the work themselves.” 

Here, the first sentence implies progress. The dream of getting rid of an entire apparatus of unwanted finishings mediating between us and our buildings appears suddenly within our grasp. This opportunity to reject the entire economy-churning trap of home “improvement” will not be taken. If a person wants a house they’ll most likely want all the trappings that have conventionally gone with it. We can’t really claim any progress if the intention is still to have people admire what you’ve done to the space.

Paying less attention to our surroundings might enable us to simplify the relationship between us and the houses we live in. Very few aspects of living require conscious expression as architecture, as part of a building, or as an interior.

Just as the associate director who brings in the most new clients is the one first promoted to director, the shortest route to architectural fame is to create a new market for architecture and to offer it on a plate. The stated objective of Alejandro Aravena’s half-a-houses in Chile was to sell minimal volumes of inhabitable space that people could enlarge themselves when circumstances suggested and finances allowed. The projects achieved their stated objective of housing people inexpensively, and also succeeded in getting people to participate in an economic system. The market for architecture is expanded and with lesser returns but the important thing is that the system continues. (This should not come as a a surprise. Today’s architects don’t busy themselves with commissions for large country houses.) Lowering the financial threshold for home ownership and creating a ongoing demand for home improvements brings to the housing market the same pay-less-upfront-but-more-later plan that sells colour inkjet printers and Nespresso machines. Whether upfront or deferred, people’s lives are still equated to the amount of economic activity they generate [3]. Naked houses are the British incarnation of the half-a-house idea, but with completed exteriors for British suburbs not yet ready for favela chic.

• • •

  1. Here, I’m paraphrasing John Lanchester quoting Julian Barnes paraphrasing Flaubert in an August 17 London Review of Books review titled You Are The Product.
  2. nakedhouse.org
  3. This article is a lengthy but good introduction to how and why neoliberalism and considering the market as a mind is the defining concept of our age. There’s an intellectual elegance to the concept of regarding mankind as an entity whose every need, desire and action occurs within a system of survival as it does for every other living creature. The flaw is that it ignores everything that makes us human.

 

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4 thoughts on “Naked Houses

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks for that Ines! It seems like expensive materials and contrived finishes are always the first to go, but processes (such as polishing raw concrete) can still be used to add a decadence/sophistication to even the most humble of materials. I don’t think we will ever be able to move away from that. I don’t want us to go the other way and aestheticize coarseness or imperfection but just learn to not let it worry us. Graham.

  1. Kasper

    A sincere thank you for doing all this work on unconventional(=interesting) topics and most importantly sharing it with the world

Comments are closed.