Architecture of Isolation

Can social architecture find an optimal balance between privacy and community?

By Ted Mitchell
Published January 18, 2008

This essay is inspired by the ideas presented by Diamond and Schmitt Architects in the first annual Spirit of Red Hill presentation two years ago on the proposed McMaster Innovation Park.

At the time, I thought that Donald Schmitt's ideas were more style than substance, but I have revised that opinion.

Their plan for MIP involves mostly three and four story buildings with considerable attention to common meeting spaces and easy pedestrian connectivity between buildings.

In other words, using human-scale design to facilitate exchange of ideas and create a pleasant and productive working environment. Common sense perhaps, except can you point to any other good examples?

North American society must lead the world in terms of poor social connectivity. At home, school and work, human interaction seems to be out of balance. At home, there is too little social interaction and we try to compensate with electronic pastimes.

Conversely, crowded schools and workplaces intrude on privacy, leading to stress and decreased productivity. Only a few people have the luck or ability to find a good balance at work.

I suggest that almost nobody achieves this balance at home. The reason for this is an isolating residential built environment, coupled with increasing trends to smaller families, single parent families, and isolation from extended families.

Dysfunctional Little Boxes

If you look at Hamilton or any other North American city, you see three dominant forms of housing: single detached houses, high-rise apartments, and semi-detached multiplexes.

The most desired of these, single detached, is not what it used to be. It has been getting bigger but with fewer occupants. Neighbourhood kids no longer band together for adventures because it isn't safe to let kids compete with ubiquitous hurrying cars. Can you trust your neighbours to look out for them when your street has no sense of community? Many teens consider the isolation of their houses and forced cohabitation with their family to be their own little piece of hell.

Adults congratulate themselves at first for the achievement of owning their own home, then quickly grow weary of it and start chasing home renovations, automotive trophies and HDTV's in the elusive search for fulfillment.

High-rises are even less human scale than single detached homes.

Dominated by cold concrete, there is little opportunity for customizing your space. Corralled by elevators and lofted to heights more suitable to birds, there may be a good view but no authentic contact with nature on the outside or with neighbours in the tiny shared sterile hallways.

Common spaces exist but often sit unused, as the other occupants are so numerous as to essentially be strangers.

Semi-detached homes hold the promise of something better, but in reality are usually even worse than either of the above, locating families in close proximity but rarely sharing common space. Consequently, the intrusion of privacy, exacerbated by cheap shitty construction, outweighs any opportunity of building functional social neighbourhoods.

So you may have friends, but you probably do not have helpful, trustful, and respectful neighbourly relationships. If you do, it is owing to the unusually developed social skills of yourself and your neighbours, in spite of the built environment.

Tribal Architecture

I think it is enlightening to be aware of basic human instincts like the need to be socially attached, sometimes called tribalism. It is hard to fight millions of years of natural selection, so we might as well give in and start building our dwellings to be compatible with a "tribal" neighbourhood community.

Humans are creatures of contradiction, and there are two competing needs: privacy and companionship. Each of the three dominant architectural forms we inhabit fails to provide both, in varying degrees.

I envision cutting edge design of living spaces consistent with the historical tribal organization of people.

One method is a building of perhaps three stories in height to support a couple dozen people, with segmental private living areas circling a central common area.

Basements are common areas for shared tools, sports equipment storage, and recreation. A green roof area might have a common garden, deck and barbeque, which with some thought could be useable for four seasons.

Using state of the art windows, insulation and efficient design, privacy could be better than that achieved in the typical detached home which is very leaky to heat and noise.

When you get lonely, bored, or need a hand, there would always be some neighbour a few steps away.

It is, perhaps, an extension of the better designed university dorms, only with much greater amenities and common spaces, building a small community supporting people of all ages.

The advantages for child care are enormous, as are the ability to live close to elderly parents or university students feeling the need for enhancing both privacy and closeness at the same time.

I believe that a healthy neighbourhood community will also be much more engaged in the larger local community.

Clearly, not everyone has the ability or desire to live in close contact with neighbours, but perhaps that is because they were not raised in such an environment and failed to develop their social skills beyond a juvenile level.

The Solutions Converge

There is the concept of getting "two birds with one stone". It happens frequently when ideas are based on observation and practicality instead of ideology and selective denial.

There are many more than two useful side effects of social architecture. Increased density promotes neighbourhood walkability and health. Much lower energy consumption follows not only better building efficiency but better utilization of shared resources.

Green energy alternatives can be used that are non-economic on a single dwelling scale, such as heat pumps, cogeneration, solar, and wind. There are options for easy sharing of automobiles (both shared ownership and carpooling), wireless internet, and low utilization appliances such as power tools, laundry, lawnmowers and snowblowers. Even books and movies are easily traded.

It would be easy to reduce total energy use by a factor of four compared to the status quo, and with some effort a factor of 10 is achievable.

This would be impossible with conventional architecture, as even a zero energy consuming detached dwelling in a rural area usually requires enormous extra mileage and energy consumption in a private automobile.

This type of imagined architecture may sound extreme and impractical, but I predict we will start seeing this kind of building soon, probably following the next major recession or spike in fuel prices. There are simply too many advantages to ignore, and sometimes, less is more.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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By Douglas Hvistendahl (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2008 at 12:12:57

It is easy and inexpensive to modify a south roof for solar thermal collection. It only adds maybe 20% to the reroofing cost. If in addition, one uses "annualized geo solar" seasonal heat storage, the extra summer heat is put to good use. This can be and is done on discrete houses, but would work better on the type described here. A south facing greenhouse/living space is one good common area.

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By Trey (registered) | Posted February 01, 2008 at 10:11:08

Good article Ted....

I have one issue with a certain phrase. "human-scale design". This is probably the worst terminology/coined-phrase to explain what new urbanism is trying to develop. For lack of a better term, I refuse to use this term when making an argument for 'human-scale' architecture. Why? The 'term' will stop the conversation dead in its tracks because it doesn't mean anything to anyone or it can mean so many things to everyone that its meaning is lost.

The problem I have with housing in general in NA is that we basically have 4 choices from the current home builders' business models. 1. Single-detached 2. Semi-detached 3. Apartment (condo or rent ownership makes no difference) 4. Townhouse ... and the choices from these 4 options are very limited. They are pretty much the same in every city across Can/US. And to make the matter worse, they define a class of people... the wealthy or the apparently wealthy live in the detached home etc… and become upset when townhouses or apartments are planned to built near them. Eg. The Scenic debate. The snobs think the poor will be moving in, because a builder is building townhouses.

The other problem I have with the anti-high-rise argument or anything over 6 floors is there is no difference living on the 6th floor or the 26th floor... other than how long your elevator ride is. And the street doesn't appear different if it is walled by 6-floor buildings or 26-floor buildings.... unless your walking with your head looking up.

If the term ‘Human-scale’ is ever adopted by the home-building industry will be used to their advantage to continue builidng low-density sprawl. I can see their adverts now... "Live next to parkland in a human-scale neighbourhood". Most of these so-called neighbourhoods today, lack all the amenities and planning to make them anywhere close to a real neighbourhood... but that doesn’t stop them from calling them ‘neighbourhoods’. The houses face-backwards, the living space is congregated at the rear of the house looking onto a private walled-in backyard, no front porches, most of the windows face the backyard, the streets are muddy for 10 years, strewn with debris from the houses under current construction. and if you happen to purchase the very last lost backing onto glorious ‘greenspace’, the next "Phase" is started, to make you feel like you're living in a construction zone for 15 years of your life... unless you gather at the back of your house and look onto your lovely green unused backyard with privacy fence to make sure you never see a neighbour in your 'neighbourhood'.

Human-scale is the next term to be bastardized. Some developers have already co-opted the term ‘new urbanism’. So-called new urbanism development the Markham/Richmond Hill area are as car dependent as Mississauga’s City Centre.

Lastly... Human-scale also implies wasted land for so-called 'greenspace' that has no function except to further spread the destinations and make car use more likely. Leave the 'green' stuff in nature and build the urban stuff in the city. The little shrubbery buffers and patches of landscaping don't make people feel like they're in nature and often collect blowing garbage and need chemicals to keep the unnatural nature alive.

What is human-scale? Manhattan and the boulevards of Paris are built extremely different. Try to find one thing in common with these two urban areas, but these are both ‘human-scaled’. If we are going to communicate, educate or make awareness to what it is we are trying to advocate for… we need better terminology. Perhaps dropping the terminology all together and just say what we’re trying to say.

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By raveen (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2011 at 13:37:54

i'm a second year architecture student in sri lanka and i'm supposed to do a report on how to design a COMMUNITY SPACE , treating privacy as an important factor in design and how people and spaces tend to get isolated from each other.

to be honest i'm rather confused with the term community space to start off with because from what i see its a very broad subject... can be either housing schemes or town halls... etc

can anybody help me with being more specific with the type of space referred in the brief and what kind of privacy do people normally expect in these spaces and how does it tend to get isolated ?

thankyou, and sorry in advance if my question is totally inappropriate to the discussion

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