A4, A104, D934, D10… from the roads in the Ile-de-France region, the gaze embraces the landscape of the Marne valley, from which the saw-toothed ridges of individual house roofs stick out.
Once past this rather conventional vision of the landscape, we cross a new urban area, comprised of residential housing estates that are more or less dense, fields, and new roads, that lead us gently to Chanteloup-en-Brie, where the asphalt finishing machines – on the edge of a field in its last hours – are at rest on a sunny Saturday. Despite a tiered traffic system, the impression of repetitiveness and standardisation remains like a disease.
Suddenly, some of the sixty housing units that Aline and Jean Harari built here rise up. The difference is glaring; something strange is happening here.
Yesterday on the edge of the fields, today, encircled by houses and small communities, this is an alternative piece of a city, an autonomous response with an intermediate density that sets itself apart from the repetitive housing estates, while preserving the house in the imagination. Without raising opposition, the result seems less dense and less tall than the residences surrounding it, while being much more efficient.
Two clusters structured around large shared gardens are separated by a central street, which divides the project while linking it with the neighbouring housing estate on a cul de sac.
The multiple entrances – through alleys, central gardens, stairways to the street – and the many landscaped areas – shared and private gardens, patios, walkways, pedestrian streets, central street – are as many invitations take a stroll. The variety of volumes – which all come from a repetition of 3 types – the quality of the materials and the care taken with every detail, and the ingenuity in combining simple components generously reflect a rich domestic micro-urban existence, a warm welcome for each resident in separate, non-standard housing units.
Social housing, through engaged sponsors, remains the shop window for architectural quality in France. Immobilière 3F1, the sleeping partner for the project, is one of these parties engaged in promoting contemporary architecture. The architecture competition process, still widespread in France for public contracts, also guarantees a certain architectural quality by placing several architects into anonymous competition.
Through this process, the Mayor, Marcel Oulesse, has become an architecture connoisseur in 10 years. He liked brick, and the jury had extolled the merits of siting, mixed wood and concrete structure, volume and the quality of housing units… over time, the elected official thus established an architectural culture: this complicity is an advantage.
The quality of the project also owes a great deal to the engagement of the architects. Since the sixties, in the wake of modern architects – The Atelier de Montrouge, Edith Girard, or the AUA, the heirs of Team X and the modern movement – Jean and Aline Harari, have fought for housing quality and its relationship to the urban structure, including in housing estates that are spread out and standardised. But here, as in Paluel, Cesson, or Montoire de Bretagne2, the quality of the project exceeds even the hopes of its sponsors.
A new type for a new density
Building 50 housing units per hectare here, versus 10 to 30 for the neighbouring residential estates, has an environmental significance, and saves fertile agricultural land that has been mistreated everywhere.
The client wanted a diversity of types, which the architects translated brilliantly. The small community of 20 housing units on the southern corner of the lot, structures the intersection of main roads with shops on them. This system frees up the centres of the clusters with an intermediate density for the rest of the lot.
Cars, which are omnipresent in these areas that are poorly served by public transit, are parked under the small community, or on the edge of the lot, partially protected under buildings, or in small parking areas that shelter 4 or 5 vehicles.
The 40 houses that share walls or are stacked on top of each other are organised on the edge of the ring roads, without being rigorously aligned. The gardens are on the inside of the cluster, sheltered by the built volume of the house, and open onto the shared gardens – a strictly planted continuum. Lawns, ditches planted with tall herbs, and copses of trees punctuate the promenade. Thanks to the many access ways, each entrance serves from 1 to 4 housing units, and successfully identifies each house.
Two types of houses are superimposed, linking two or three units, and combining to form clusters; and the ensemble protects domestic space, enhances the project, and promotes its economic and constructive rationality. This overlapping of houses orients the bay windows in the living rooms, articulates patios and private gardens – so that no housing unit overlooks another – providing privacy for each housing unit. This overlapping is daring: it makes the division of lots more complex, but guarantees a spatial richness.
Controlling heights also contributes a benevolent perception to the houses. The roofs with a single pitch offer high ceilings, but allow the occasional low ceilings – which are very atypical, and surprisingly pleasant. Thus, because it is much denser, the ensemble seems much less tall than its neighbours.
This typological invention helps successfully integrate the housing units into their context, and with subtlety in its domestic uses. In Lille for example, Sophie Delay added shared spaces in a collective building, departing from the order, to the benefit of all tenants3. In our case, the residents retain the feeling of a house even though their residence is smaller, and more economical.
Fight for quality built architecture
What is the right price for housing?
The size of these housing units is greater than the manager’s standard: 74m² for a three-bedroom unit, instead of 65m². This area, dictated by the sale price per m² and accessibility standards, has become the standard in a few decades, without however optimising housing unit dimensions.
The starting budget of €1500 / m² of usable area4 is incompatible with sufficient quality, especially with so much outdoor space. The architect sent many letters and arguments, and fought for the right price.
Is ensuring a good margin through public financing legitimate? Or should we aim for continuity, and proper use?
Within this balance, what can architecture do? Simple architectural choices can compensate for clever and sophisticated details. The repeated construction system is economical.
Investing sufficiently is not superfluous. Solid construction will stand up over the years. Accordingly, the budget was revised upward, to €1683/m2, €1887/m2 including outdoor areas. Taken to the last step, this cost is similar to that for other I3F operations in the end.
This optimisation will pay for itself through costs avoided in terms of upkeep, maintenance, and renovation. Once the price of the land, loan amortisation, and upkeep over fifty years is incorporated – the share for construction is much lower. This is also the case for fees: if better thought out at the start, they can reduce the long-term cost. The current trend, symbolic fees, mediocre construction – runs counter to this self-evident fact.
The construction site, preserving know-how
Three major industrial groups have traditionally shared the market. Their unfamiliarity with wood framing helped a company known to the architects – ETI, together with two others5 – to win the contract.
The construction site started with a general contractor that had invested and qualified subcontractors. Their participation could not be negotiated at a discount. This is not common. Day-to-day work with its companies was carried out over eighteen months, and their know-how was promoted.
Seven facade prototypes were required to approve the best solution. Embedded gutters, thresholds, integrated letter boxes, wood soffits on parking spaces, brick slab layout: the architect’s design guided the precise construction of these structures. Corner windows and the “doomsday machine” serving as a shutter on the ground floor were constructed brilliantly: Franck Lemoine, architect and project manager, motivated the companies to make these adjustments, which were not necessarily planned from the beginning. The landscape architects were not to be outdone. They successfully saved the existing trees and planted already developed trees together with dignified pavements according to a perfectly managed design and execution.
The last finishing touches were being completed when the tenants arrived, all on the same day, and visibly happy to be moving in. A few years later, some who had come with the goal of buying in the area are still tenants: life is better here.
The omnipresence of argumentative architects, the experience and willingness of the companies contributed to the successful construction, which was less costly than its neighbour, which was done with much less care.
The city’s new modes of construction
Housing construction in France today
Large French cities lack housing today. This leads to strong pressure and unrestrained competition. Tax mechanisms have accentuated the financialisation of “housing products”. Unlike in other European countries, housing units in major cities are bought by individual investors, who re-let for a tax deduction6. Rare are the public bodies who build housing for themselves, as in the case of I3F. Others entrust construction of their operations – or even entire parts of cities – to private managers, with much less demanding specifications and counterparties.
On one hand, social housing, accompanied by motivated stakeholders guaranteeing quality – maintains an exemplary way of operating – On the other, private housing – where the margin guides the client’s choices. Faced with this duality, an additional path is starting to develop. The residents themselves are taking on their own housing, to control its costs, environmental challenges, and programmatic and sociological choices7. We are well behind our European neighbours: recent laws in favour of cooperative residents (Duflot, 2014) have been amended and actively ought by many members of parliament, supported by real estate lobbies.
New models are possible
These alternative models, still experimental in France, but better recognised among our European neighbours, are based on the user’s own energy. They are emerging throughout Europe, and offer other economic and social perspectives.
There are two paths: participatory housing (the residents are their own developer), and self construction (the residents carry out all or part of the work themselves).
The cooperative model is the most ambitious. Each person holds shares in the cooperative, and no longer square metres, has a residence and other shared areas – guest room, laundry, cinema, game rooms. Loans are no longer individual but grouped. The fixed share price limits any speculation. The cooperative acquires its own, profitable economy for its occupants, and often for the neighbourhood.
On the borders of these new models, more traditional models can also contribute additional “wealth” to their neighbourhood. For example, the building designed by the Ram Dam firm was the result of a private investment: a small developer wanted to renovate a building “immortalised” by Robert Doisneau, the icon of the Canal de Saint Denis. This simple but well managed project was concerned with social continuity and collective memory. During construction, the neighbours were invited to events to “acclimate” to the transformation in this very heterogeneous fabric of the northern suburbs of Paris. This (too-) rare assembly only benefited from some small subsidies from the ANAH8: it is proof that modest actions can do a great deal: it is also a front…
What do these experiments have in common? They change the economy of traditional schemes (large investors, assisted transactions). The residents, accompanied by their contractor, take a real role in developing the project, improving the global economy without letting go of the essential. It is a condition for establishing new wealth, from which everyone can benefit.
Architects and communities mobilised
These openings would not happen without determined public policies, and without commensurate commitment by architects.
The city of Lille launched experiments with cooperative models: one with a sponsor, another with a developer to manage the operation, and the third directly with a group of residents. In Paris, some small scale participatory housing projects are under way; unfortunately, no projects from the famous “reinvent Paris” proposed alternatives to the dominant model. Paradoxically the traditional developer remains master of the house! All that fuss for nothing… so what?
In areas subject to high real estate pressure, these alternative paths encourage social diversity and the local economy, and restrain speculation. They also guarantee maintenance of the middle class, which is increasingly affected by a capitalist economy in which Heritage and real estate speculation are increasing wealth gaps in relation to income from work, which is becoming more marginalised.
The architect can stimulate these processes, change habits, and take the initiative. For example, Nicolas Michelin has engaged in cooperative housing, at the risk of questioning the limit between architect and client. Can’t architecture contribute its due to societal changes?
We know that in Europe, these alternatives have been proven. In Germany, participatory projects are widespread. In Switzerland, the first Kraftwerk9, bringing together three hundred young people doing national service and many shared spaces, were started in the 1990s. France must now catch up. In his Postface to the work on Kraftwerk, Valery Didelon summarised this challenge well: “While twenty years later, in Switzerland and even more so in France, housing designs seem more than ever locked in by economic and regulatory constraints, a similar burst must necessarily be possible. It is up to the young generation of architects – and of residents beyond that – to take inspiration from this surprising mix of idealism and realism shown by the main players in Kraftwerk, and to give meaning to the production of the space in which they remain major players.”
- Jean & Aline Harari
- Immobilière I3F
- 60 housings
- 5300 m²
- 8,6M € HT