Join the dots... 100 small ideas for sustainable change

Housing Unlocked

Join the dots... 100 small ideas for sustainable change, our installation for the Irish Architecture Foundation and The Housing Agency’s Housing Unlocked exhibition ran from 13th October 2022 to 17th February 2023 at the Science Gallery, Dublin.

We looked at Mountrath in county Laois, as a testing ground for ideas for housing that could be applied to any Irish town. Our installation explored a number of modes of living, typical to towns, in order to draw out their potential in an inventive and pragmatic way.

It identified 100 small ways to make a difference; decisions and actions that could be employed incrementally over time. Ideas that can invigorate existing communities and bring fresh thinking to our squares and spaces to create an integrated, and a better, way of living.

Vacancy and dereliction blight the centres of our towns and villages. Why? Because nobody is thinking about them with imagination as the brilliant spaces they could be... Post-pandemic, people can now work remotely - housing themselves in towns and bringing life back to these amazing instant environments, invigorating existing communities and bringing fresh thinking to our squares and spaces to create a new/old (and better) way of living. We propose to take disused frameworks of habitation and infrastructure and re-imagine them in innovative ways to help solve our housing shortage by using what we have and making it brilliant for now and the future. We would also be making the best cultural / community spaces of the future at the centre of our towns because those spaces would be inhabited by people - the wall of faces in a theatre - towns are our theatre of the everyday.

Vacancy and dereliction blight huge numbers of Irish towns, which were among the best environments in Europe, getting scale, community and materiality just right. 50% vacancy on average … a housing shortage… - untapped potential waiting to be unlocked. The pandemic made us question old models of continuous expansion. New plans for our towns need to be about small scale brilliant ideas in all kinds of places. No magic bullet, no grand gesture – just imagination. Using what’s there, being ingenious, imagining it into something fresh for now.

Housing - the perfect use for vacancy of upper floors and to expand into backlands, crossing plot boundaries or remaining within them, generating interesting interlocking sites and atmospheric spaces – new models of habitation which suit intergenerational living and working from home. Agency returns to people themselves, they take control of their own environment, choosing what new/existing housing model suits their chosen lifestyle.

Understanding we are inheriting a unique cultural landscape in towns into which we should intervene with care. Town centre spatial containers give us beauty and materiality - amazing results we could never achieve starting from scratch. The spark between new and existing fabric delivers radical conservation – full of innovation and ideas. We unlock our housing shortage by re-imagining these disused frameworks - tackling challenges created by regulation and no vision.

The idea is delivered by assembling like-minded, experienced people determined to to remove historic logjams which have systematically challenged making new and interesting spaces in our towns:

Activity - We’ve seen one shop change the landscape of a town – a brilliant bakery, fantastic coffee shop, new bicycle rental hub – capturing that community element for the town which makes a bright prospect for young and old.

Connection – We connect new and old frameworks – sustainable paths to new walking and cycling trails, bringing nature into peoples lives – rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, coastlines. Towns have strong geometric plans, an organic pattern established on landscape with spaces for growing, for markets and for animals – people hinge between these elements. We deliver healthy interaction with nature through looped walks, establishing new parks and forest zones for creative play and meeting.

Health /Shifting modes - from cars to pedestrians and bikes: existing and new lanes remove traffic from main spaces, devolving to backlands, integrating car parking into the design of backland houses so so we have a joined-up system, reducing traffic in the future until cars are unnecessary. Making healthy spaces with clean air and sustainable movement, taking car parks out of our brilliant and unique town centres.

Finance – how energy refits needed in our existing building stock can be made affordable, how fire regulations can be thought through innovatively.

Materials – what materials are appropriate, what methods of construction work to our climate challenged, post pandemic world of labour and supply chain shortages – CLT, rockwool, stone, brick, timber.

Design ideas unlock these challenges - proposing small radical moves within existing fabric, catalysts for change and innovation. Making spaces where people feel a sense of belonging. 

We chose Mountrath in Laois, but it could be anywhere. The town, founded by the Cootes in the 1620/30s, expanded rapidly. It’s full of beautiful houses, including 17th century ones, relatively intact. A 1950s photograph by aviator/photographer Alexander Campbell Morgan crystallises the town before suburbanisation blurred its edges. There was a market house on arcades in the square: demolished for traffic flow in the early 1960s, the town lost its centre.

Our image shows how things could be: a focus on town as urban and social theatre, partly new, partly re-used empty frameworks of habitation. Old buildings become valued resources. Upper windows around the square are occupied; space is repaved. The Market House is rebuilt on its original footprint as a contemporary public building of a new type: public hall over open market/party space –perhaps a Bike shop with coffee – new community/retail model – supporting a sustainable healthy lifestyle.

The image shows backlands developments, people building new houses and gardens behind Main Street, new models of housing adding density and interest to experience of the town – ‘placemaking’ not required; it already exists, infrastructure is already there, reducing lifecycle costs.

In parallel we tie the revitalized town to existing infrastructure and new green networks – river, connection to nature; looped walk around old core of the town; new deciduous forest planted for the future. Connecting cycling and walking routes through the countryside to existing heritage in boglands.

New models of housing:

- living over the shop, extensions take burden of bathrooms/stairs/futureproofing - soft spots for lifts - access via archways/lanes.

- infill derelict sites to rebuild spatial containment

- two/three units combined - housing units run horizontally across existing plots, one family each floor. - live-work housing developed in site depth.

- new backlands development–shell and core – people choose size/extent/finish – loft style living. 

The Housing Unlocked exhibition closed after an 18 week run at the Science Gallery. It went on to be exhibited as part of the Architecture At The Edge festival at the Festival Printworks Gallery, Galway in Sept/Oct 2023.

Thank you to all our collaborators:

Irish Architecture Foundation

The Housing Agency

Barry Durkan, Durkan Residential

Graeme Hansell

Jack Carter

Katie Galvin, Presentation Models

Jan Watte, Watte Woodwork

Barry Hanratty, Light Systems

RTE Archives

Laois County Council 

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