The notion of solving homelessness fascinates many people. Everyone seems to have an opinion – and yet, on the ground, change is scant. BillionBricks was founded to see if we can walk the talk on solving homelessness, to question conventional practices and to review the issue from a different angle.
One stumbling block in tackling homelessness is that the definition varies widely between countries. That impacts the quality of statistics and the resources available. Social perception is another: assuming that the homeless are in that predicament due to personal issues. But by adopting this approach, we fail to see the macro issues of income gaps, rural-to-urban migration and displacement due to political unrest or natural disasters.
“If we ourselves wouldn’t use local materials, foisting those on the poor would short-change them and widen the social divide”
A common blind spot among city planners is thinking only about the infrastructure, rather than tackling fundamentals such as land economics and socio-political systems. From my experience, governments care, but bureaucracy slows things down. Singapore is an example of successful urban planning. The scale of home ownership is huge thanks to the affordability of public housing.
Another fascinating social housing solution is architecture practice Elemental’s project in Iquique, Chile. Elemental builds half of each unit – taking care of the most crucial and difficult parts – to keep initial costs low while providing adequate shelter. Home owners complete the remaining half.
At BillionBricks, our priority is to provide access to shelters to the largest number of homeless at the fastest pace. Everything else is secondary – that has also put me at odds with some peers. For instance, using local materials and labour may stem from good intentions, but may not always be practical. When quantity requirements exceed production capacity, costs snowball. Unskilled labour compromises structural safety, and mass production could be more efficient and cost-effective. And if we ourselves wouldn’t use local materials, foisting those on the poor would short-change them and widen the social divide.
Design studios need to think of themselves as consumer product companies, and the homeless as customers instead of beneficiaries. Social housing solutions should be agnostic to economic status; they should be led by design principles that have universal appeal. For example, our easy-to-assemble weatherHyde tent – which provides protection from extreme weather – has garnered popularity beyond the homeless to outdoor enthusiasts.