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Downloadable construction and accessible architecture in Lisbon

For the last few months I have been conducting research into how the barriers to housing construction can be brought down in order for everyone to have access to high-quality architectural design. As part of that process I’ve been involved in WikiHouse, a community dedicated to developing freely downloadable construction kits, and so a few weeks ago I was invited to InSitu 2013 in Lisbon to help run one of their workshop groups and speak about my work at their conference.

This year InSitu, a collaboration between Universidad Autonoma de Lisboa (UAL) and University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE), is looking to assist with improving day-to-day living conditions in a small informal neighbourhood south of Lisbon. The workshop was split into five groups of around five to ten architecture students and our team of eight were tasked with coming up with solutions to the waste management problems, with a particular focus on the dumping of large items in public space.

The first three days we focused on getting to know people in the community to make sure that what we might propose would be appropriate to the needs of locals. Contrary to the tag line of the workshop, Laboratory of Architectural Intervention, I believe that intervene is a risky word when working with people to improve their local environment and a more systemic approach than purely building should be rigorously explored. Through teaching our group to use participatory techniques to gather information, we assembled a small table using WikiHouse joints so that we could demonstrate to local people a different type of collaborative construction. Using the table to map opinion and gather people together for conversation we began to find the areas which were most effective, why the rubbish had gathered and who might be willing to help clean up.

With two days remaining until the presentation, the students worked tirelessly to create a project out of the information gathered and began to structure a very compelling argument which pivots around a campaign for a neighbourhood clean-up event and a cultural change towards recycling assisted by commitments from the municipal government. Provocatively, the students suggested that if every adult in the 600-strong community paid 75 cents a month, they could collectively hire someone responsible for keeping the streets and public spaces tidy and therefore make the clean-up efforts sustainable. Using donated material, the group also designed small bin storage structures using a simple boltless joining system which could be slotted together by children through to the elderly without any construction knowledge. The aim of also having a physical output to the project is to reinforce the connection between recycling efforts and the ongoing maintenance of safe and healthy streets.

The proposals were met with enthusiasm from local people and the architectural jury alike, with particular interest in the idea of employing someone to collect rubbish. The bin-stores have to be refined to use as little material as possible and the timber be prepared for cutting. The project will be developed over the next few weeks in response to suggestions and begin with the clean-up day on 9th October.

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