Self-organising Trends in Building and Design—a Conference in Derby

Stefano Serafini

by Stefano Serafini

I was worried that the symposium “Self-build processes and self-organising communities. Reflections after a year since the completion of B.E.S.T. Leonardo Partnership Project” could result in a terrifically boring and rhetorical academic event. In fact, what professor Eleni Tracada organized at the University of Derby last June 19th 2014 has been a very interesting meeting with a productive share of new ideas.

The mix of senior lecturers and master students was refreshing, and it contributed good energy and a smooth outcome. Even if discussion couldn’t be long, it looks like most of the points had been fruitful.

Benoit Debuigne from Habitat et participation (Belgium) presented the current situation of self-build practice in Belgium realistically, showing the difficulties his association has to overcome on a daily basis. Among them, it’s noteworthy that Belgian law doesn’t allow unemployed people to build their own house – as home owners are supposed to be wealthy, unemployment status sounds contradictory to the public authority. People who contribute to build a house in common is seen as suspicious. Professional builders see them as unfair competitors, whilst the law tend to assimilate their activity to undeclared work. These, and other practical issues, made Debuigne declare that even if a self-built house may cost around 37000 € only, the final cost of the operation is not inferior to that of a standard house, because it requires an extra educational, law and administrative support that is pretty expensive. The advantage of this way of building is rather social, because it promotes autonomy and responsibility of the urban stakeholders, and help building local social relations.

The evident conclusion is that, likewise other problematic shared-economy phenomena (e.g. Uber or Airbnb), self-build doesn’t match the consumption society we all live in. The problems Debuigne listed, point out that our society still doesn’t envision the possibility of a collaborative, bottom-up, and trust-based activity of individuals who work together for a common good.

Martin Adlington, who has been a self-builder, stressed the pluses of self-building in England, where the share of this practice is still much under the European average. Facing the decline of social housing due to economic climate, and many practical difficulties, self-building is unfolding well in UK. The National Self Build Association has been established in 2008, and it promotes the growth of self-build industry, including half-way solutions like agreements with professionals. These latter usually design and build the most part of the house, when owners take care of the interior and of details.

Ready-made kits for house building are available on the UK market. They are easy to use, and can save lots of mistakes, time and money. On the other hand, they constrain the design possibilities, sweeping away the best asset of self-building, that is the possibility of creating a tailored home according to one own needs and taste. Professor Adlington showed some beautiful and very creative examples of houses designed by people for themselves, without any architect help.

Dmitrjs Sulojevs, master student, talked about his participatory experience in Osmaston, a neighborhood of Derby that went in dire straits after Rolls Royce moved its plants to another area of the city, and left an urban void that cannot be replaced easily. Part of this area has been occupied by gipsy families, while most of it stands abandoned. Sulojevs enthusiastically witnessed the self-organization of inhabitants into the Osmaston Community Association of Residents (OSCAR), whose goal is placing residents at the heart of urban decision making. He reported about the difficulty of mediating between these self-organised citizen and the administration of the city. It’s noteworthy that failures in previous  “sustainable” experiments brought forward by professional architects made Osmaston people distrust contemporary  design, and push for tested, traditional solutions.

The contributions by myself, Antonio Caperna and Luca d’Acci apparently changed the color of the conference. We talked about self-organizing paradigm in both analysis and design. As I like to put it, self-building and thus self-design, is not about things, but about relations. It brings in an organic, connected and  cooperative vision of society, that cannot exist but in harmony with the context. Life sciences have been affected by a major paradigm shift during the last 20 years, carried on by the return of the laws of form, epigenetics, systems biology, and the constructal law. The common horizon of these new contribution to our vision of life may be labeled as self-organization. Biourbanism is the effect of such a change in the domain of design – from self-organization phenomena in nature, to self-building. Patterns and feedback are the key to design an efficient self-built environment, by learning from natural systems. Natural systems, unlike engineered systems, are ecologically resilient, that is, able to withstand unexpected shocks.

Luca d’Acci introduced his concept of “isobenefit”, or a way of representing the environment from the point of view of social attractiveness. He offered a mathematical tool for measuring the benefit fields of a city by considering the real feedback of population. His approach reminds me of Kurt Lewin’s field theory and of Situationists’ psychogeography.

Finally, Natalie North, master student, presented her project for developing a tactical placemaking proposal in Derby. She wanted to change places’ perception and affordances by the means of art. I really liked the way she faced the local constraints until the point of modifying her project flexibly and even dramatically, in order to adapt it to the real situations. These included weather, people reaction, and misunderstandings – things that traditional top-down designers don’t much care about, and mostly can’t deal with. In fact this young lady could it pretty well, and her work elicited good reactions from the locals.

The symposium finished with the vision of a documentary movie on the heritage of the famous Italian architect Giovanni Michelucci. This good piece of documentation showed one of the masters of modern European architecture carrying on a totally different approach than those presented beforehand. Michelucci worked as a “maestro”, focusing on his own creativity mainly. Nevertheless one can read in his work an attempt to get in touch with people.

P2P urbanism and P2P design were at stake during the whole symposium. It’s clear that this is a new emerging trend in urbanism and architecture, likewise the growing economics of the commons, and several disquiet political movements all around the world. Society is going towards a more active bottom-up engagement. It’s questionable if the old system can manage this change without a radical transformation.

The most interesting thing about such a trend in architecture is the body’s role, in my opinion. It seems to me that human bodies are claiming back their role after the exaltation of aniconism, abstraction, individualism and dematerialization. People like to work physically, doing things with hands, getting dirty, making mistakes, experiencing, and sharing. It’s not all about saving money. They like to work with space, to shape it according to their real needs. And they like to do it as a way of getting in touch with and building a community. This has a place, and it’s thus outlining a newborn form of citizenship.