System for Connected Living
Combating a hidden epidemic through urban housing.
Open House is a design research project that seeks to challenge prevailing urban housing models and investigate the capacity of residential environments to alleviate loneliness and social isolation. The project approaches urban housing design through the lens of environmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience, exploring parameters of geometry, ecology, and modularity as means to forge connection and build trust among residents. Open House aspires to serve as a prototype for a new typology of housing that foregrounds social inclusion, connection, and wellbeing.
The Lonely City. Humans are the most socially dependent species on the planet. Our need for connection and belonging is part of our genetic code, making social interaction an essential part of our wellbeing. Research has shown that the sensation of social pain is as real as physical pain – social rejection activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain. The inverse is also proven to be true: social contact reduces physical pain .
Data suggests that social isolation and loneliness are growing public health issues in many parts of the world. Research has linked chronic loneliness to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general of the US, has compared the health impact of loneliness to that of obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Similarly, a meta-analysis at Brigham Young University found that people classed as lonely had a 26% higher risk of dying (accounting for differences in age and health status). Due to its serious medical consequences, the Red Cross refers to the rise of chronic loneliness as a hidden epidemic . Hidden, both because of the associated social stigma , as well as the subjective nature or loneliness. In addition to the public health implications, there are also substantial economic costs linked to the issue. In a 2017 study, AARP and Stanford University estimated that a lack of social contact among older adults in the US, cost $6.7 billion in additional federal spending annually. Relatedly, the CDC and NIMH have found that major depressive disorder, suicide, and addictions cost the US approximately $960 billion annually .
Wall portrait by Meybis Ruiz
In her book, “A Biography of Loneliness”, Dr. Fay Bound Alberti argues that chronic loneliness is a relatively new condition . In the not too distant past, our survival was dependent on maintaining close social relationships. The word “loneliness” barely appears in English literature before the 19th century, but has seen a drastic increase in the last hundred years, in parallel with the many socio-structural changes of modern society. (The notion of privacy follows a similar arc). New divisions and hierarchies have fundamentally altered the social systems we as humans have cultivated and relied on since the dawn of time. The changes can be identified in contemporary systems of economy, ideology, and technology. Alberti argues that modern loneliness is an offspring of capitalism. The pursuit of endless growth and the order of consumerism has shifted our attention from social relationships to material ones. Through forces of globalization, zero-sum economic systems have fueled competitive self-interest and individualism around the world. Technology – a catalyst for this development – is, similarly, a double-edged sword. While the automobile, telephone, and social media have connected us in unimaginable ways, they have simultaneously driven us apart. The car has congested and dispersed our cities, while the smartphone and social media have instrumented quantification and ranking of social value, deepening divisions and fueling loneliness. It is perhaps not too surprising that Gen Z – the most digitally-connected generation yet – is also reported to be the loneliest one .
Inspired by the Taylorist efficiencies, the Modernist movement helped to spatialize the changing societal values during this period. Proposals such as Broadacre City and Ville Radieuse epitomize the idealized (although controversial) visions of urban life during the first half of the twentieth century. While ultimately never realized, the phantoms of projects such as these live on through the Euclidean zoning regulations of our time (as well as in Brasilia), establishing ground rules for how cities can develop. The prevailing ideas of functional separation may have been sensible in the midst of an industrial revolution, but they are less compatible with contemporary ideas of healthy urban development. Author Jane Jacobs, wrote extensively on how zoning often leads to decay of municipal infrastructure and social capital . This illustrates how design and architecture are complicit in the production of urban environments that contribute to social disconnection and isolation. The home environment – the place where we spend most of our time – is also a product of these forces. Urban housing today is primarily a financial vehicle – a commodity designed and constructed to maximize profit per square meter. This drives property developers to prioritize cookie-cutter studio and 1-bedroom apartments, to maximize rentable square meters and minimize common areas. This also greatly contributes to the urban affordable housing crisis of our time, in which house prices and rents in city centers are prohibitively high, excluding a large portion of society from residing in these areas.
Before the 1960s, solo households in the western world rarely rose above 10% . Today, the majority of households in cities such as London and Stockholm are single-person households. An embracement of a culture of individualism is largely driving this trend. While solitude is different from loneliness (which is a subjective feeling of disconnect and abandonment), solo dwellers are more susceptible to loneliness.
Despite the explosive technological advancements of our times, our homes remain relatively ‘dumb’. The little technological attention invested into the domestic environment is mainly directed at ‘smartening’ kitchen appliances, air-condition systems, and door locks – primarily catering to the bolstering of homes as commodities to be sold. Meanwhile, little attention is given to elevating our homes as habitats to nurture the human species.
Modularity in conjunction with procedural site analysis enables the project to respond to and reconcile external and internal design factors, as well as local zoning regulations.
The Geometry of Conviviality. A growing body of research within environmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience have been uncovering the central role our environment plays for our well-being and social behavior. The spaces we occupy affect our perceptions, emotions, moods, sociability, – even our sense of identity . As noted by environmental psychologist Gary Evans, “the spaces we occupy can facilitate or inhibit the formation and maintenance of social ties” . In other words, our environments are instrumental in shaping our interpersonal relationships. These findings provide a robust framework for reimagining the role of our home environments in supporting meaningful social inclusion and combating loneliness.
Open House is a project developed through the translation of these findings into a series of design strategies aimed at strengthening social bonds within the residential environment. The project aspires to serve as a prototype for a new typology of urban housing.
“Good housing offers protection not only from the elements but also from negative social conditions.”
Gary Evans, environmental and developmental psychologist
In 1992, psychologist Robin Dunbar proposed that humans have a cognitive limit of 150 for how many stable social relationships we can maintain . This figure was part of a series of numbers – 5, 15, 50, 150, ... – a geometric sequence of human community sizes, with incrementally weaker social cohesion. While 150 corresponds to the number of casual friends, 5 corresponds to the number of intimate friends one is able to maintain a relationship with. From a social cohesion standpoint, the ‘sweet spot’ for a residential project is estimated to be around 50 (but can be as low as 15) – ensuring optimal social functioning and coherence within the community. However, the density and distribution of residents are also key contributing factors. A recent survey in Vancouver found that people living in buildings higher than five stories reported significantly higher difficulty in making friends; felt less welcome in their neighborhood; were less likely to know their neighbors; and were more likely to avoid interaction with strangers, compared to other building types. At an urban scale, a critical density of human life is another crucial factor in ensuring social cohesion . Urban decentralization and fragmentation is found to severely hamper the potential for social interaction.
In order to foster connection between the building residents and its neighborhood community, size and density are important first steps. But, the nature of the interface between them also carries significance. As means to minimize the barrier between these two social spheres, the inclusion of “soft edges” – a concept coined by Jan Gehl – is essential. (This is in stark contrast to the ‘fortification’ of many new housing projects today). Studies show that ‘soft edges’ between the residential / private realm and the public realm help to connect residents, neighbors, and passersby. This softening also promotes passive surveillance, which increases feelings of safety and trust, and reduces feelings of isolation and fear of the public for the residents. Open House provides a generous transition space between the housing environment and the street, that includes seating, planters, and bike storage – serving as an in-between zone designed to maximize the potential for social encounters.
To galvanize connection, the entrance area features a large stoop area with seating and planters — acting as a soft edge between the street and the building. The ground-floor exterior corridor provides direct access to the backyard.
Circulation typically comprises 15 - 25% of the total usable area in new construction. Open House proposes to transform this area into multi-purpose space, serving not only circulation, but also social functions – areas for leisure, meetings, and celebrations. Hallways and stairwells have been widened beyond code minimum requirements and expanded with pockets of space, serving as natural ‘collision points’ for social interaction. These spaces have been accentuated with seating, reading nooks, shelving, and art, and have been given favorable views and lighting conditions to encourage social engagement between neighbors. Studies have found casual encounters to be just as important in fostering a sense of belonging and trust as contact with family and close friends . The apartment entrance area has been given extra attention. Here, the ‘soft edge’ strategy is applied again to create a gradual transition between the common space and the individual units. This also allows each apartment to ‘spill’ into the shared space and express the individual and cultural character of the household. The partition is made up of a retractable wall, enabling the resident to regulate the ‘softness’ of the boundary. This allows residents to moderate the level of interaction without having to retreat entirely. This element can operate as a regular door, to maintain full privacy, and can be opened up to create continuity between the semi-private zone and the apartment – inviting neighbors to stop by for a coffee or saying hi to people passing by. In transforming circulation space into a string of semi-private, ‘in-between’ zones, this area serves as soft extensions of the units – distributing care and upkeep of the shared space while effectively increasing the size of the apartments.
The softness of the boundary between the apartment and the semi-private common space can be regulated with a series of retractable walls.
The project takes cues from co-housing schemes, offering individual units in conjunction with a series of shared amenities. In addition to bike storage, the project offers shared laundry facilities, flexible work spaces, and dining space for larger gatherings. The separation of these spaces are intended to incentivize social encounters among the residents, while also enabling a drastic reduction in energy. It is also key to distribute these spaces throughout the building. When shared social spaces are located too far from the apartments, it affords insufficient residential control and feeling of ownership . The shared spaces also need to serve different kinds of social groupings – from intimate conversations, formal meetings, to larger, more casual get-togethers. In shaping and locating these spaces, principles of territoriality need to be carefully considered in order to afford high levels of psychological comfort and safety. This includes thoughtfully placed sightlines, ample space for access, and sufficient daylighting.
The individual units are organized into two zones. The Parlor is the ‘front-of-house’ portion of the apartment, containing kitchen, dining space, and a social area. Ample storage space is also provided to make it easier for the residents to keep their space tidy and be comfortable welcoming people into their home. When the retractable entrance wall is fully opened, this area becomes a seamless extension of the common space. The second zone of the apartment, the Refuge, allows the resident to balance sociability and privacy. This space is optimized for rest, relaxation, and recovery from stress and fatigue. It contains the bathroom and sleeping area – with blackout curtains and padded walls to enhance soundproofing – and offers direct access to the vertical garden.
The system is comprised of a modular kit of parts made of cross-laminated timber which can be assembled into an endless number of configurations, supporting internal and external needs.
The Faculty of Nature. We spend roughly 90% of our lives indoors . This is a relatively recent phenomenon and a major departure from human behavior throughout history. Since the beginning of time, the human species have been fundamentally dependent on and adapted to the natural environment. We are hardwired to find nature calming and restorative. Consequently, the separation from nature in modern life affects our health and happiness. In the 1980s, biologist Edward O. Wilson formulated the so-called biophilia hypothesis, defined as humans’ innate need to affiliate with other life forms such as plants and animals . Around the same time, another landmark study was conducted in Sweden, documenting the improvements on recovery rates of hospital patients who had a view of a natural scene . However, nature not only makes us healthier and happier, it also positively affects our interpersonal relationships. Studies in Chicago found that exposure to nature lowered crime levels and made people more generous . In Los Angeles another study found that people who were living near parks were more helpful and trusting than people who were not. It is hard to overstate the significance nature carries in strengthening our sense of connectedness.
Wall portrait by Meybis Ruiz
A key ambition for Open House is to facilitate a greater connection to nature. Pockets of outdoor space have been scattered throughout the building and private outdoor areas have been included in each apartment unit. Efforts have been made to make this integration as seamless as possible in order to ‘pull’ nature inside and blur the separation between exterior and interior. This also makes the indoor space feel larger than it is. The most significant element of nature in the project is a vertical, cooperative garden, which connects all apartment units. The garden continues into the backyard, where it provides a space for the residents to host dinners and farmer’s markets for the neighborhood. Evidence shows that our sense of belonging is strengthened when we work or play together. This brings us together by building mutual trust and providing a sense of safety and belonging.
The vertical garden makes use of aeroponic growth systems. This is a process for growing plants and vegetables in mist environments, rather than soil. Aeroponic systems have a comparable crop yield to traditional, geoponic cultivation on 10% of the area. These systems are also extremely water-efficient – requiring less than 10% of the water necessitated by traditional, geoponic cultivation, while allowing the use of fertilizers and pesticides to be drastically reduced. Open House makes use of a closed-loop, greywater recycling system. Rain water is harvested, filtered, and stored for domestic use. The water is then used for vertical garden irrigation, where microorganisms break down the nutrients (mainly nitrogen and phosphor) in a filtering process of the water to produce vegetables.
A modular catalogue of units measuring 11' x 11' x 5'-6" affords greater levels of flexibility and easier transport and logistics compared to current practices.
Most apartment buildings today rely on electrical and mechanical systems to provide lighting and manage air flows. Open House taps into nature’s own processes. Through the use of daylighting strategies, natural light can serve as the primary interior light source. This includes multiple faces of exposures, limited apartment depth, generous ceiling heights, and material finishes that diffuse and ‘pull’ the light in. In addition, glazing is strategically located to track the path of the sun throughout the day. Exposure to the natural light cycle is important for human biology. This helps to reset our circadian clock each day, improving sleep and health.
The apartment units are furthermore designed to rely on passive systems for heat transfer. During summer, the building makes use of pressure-differences to encourage cross-ventilation for cooling and air circulation. In the winter, the system leverages heat recycling with limited incoming fresh air, but instead makes use of the vertical garden as an air purifier and humidifier. The variability in temperature and airflow, which comes from using passive systems, have been found to have positive effects on focus and in reducing stress.
In addition to integrating and adapting to nature, Open House is also made from it. Wood is the primary building material for the project – with a structural system of cross-laminated timber (CLT), and panels of locally harvested birch for floors and walls. Studies show that human biology responds positively to wood as a building material. Research at Norwegian research center, SINTEF has found that wood in interior environments can lower heart rate, reduce pain, increase quality of sleep, and reduce infection risks.
Wood also carries significant environmental benefits. Researchers in British Columbia found that the environmental impact for a typical North-American mid-rise building constructed with laminated timber was less than a third compared to a similar building made with steel and cast-in-place concrete . In addition to the lower energy consumption in construction, buildings made out of wood have the added benefit of long-term carbon sequestration. While conventional wood framing has limited building heights to about five stories, the advancements of CLT technology and corresponding building codes will allow timber construction to reach much higher.
Open House can accommodate a range of different household typologies. Through a series of retractable walls, each unit can either function as a separate apartment or be part of a larger shared household.
A | Apartments designed to take advantage of natural ventilation.
B | Solar power gathered and stored through roof-mounted photo-voltaic panels
C | Rain-water collection & grey-water recycling for the aeroponic system.
The Morphology of Connection. Open House is a system of prefabricated volumetric modules. Offsite construction yields significant cost and energy savings and shortens construction time by up to 50% . Another significant advantage to this approach lies in its ability to future-proof buildings by activating time as a key design parameter. Modularity enables the building to change and evolve through its lifespan by adapting to ever-changing needs and wants. As an urban housing project typically will have a multitude of tenants moving in and out of apartments through its lifespan, modularity, in conjunction with mass-customization, enables the tenants to fit the space to their needs – effectively turning the residents into co-designers of their own home environment. This process of participatory design does not only offer benefits of practical use for the resident. The World Health Organization found that participatory decision-making processes are critical for community mobilization . Participation enhances self-reliance and builds social capital. Through processes of consensus-building, the community increases its capacity for resilience and diversity. Furthermore, mass customization enables personalization of space, empowering the residents with a greater sense of control and ownership. This agency lets the resident ‘leave a mark’ and express themselves through their space, which in turn instills a sense of belonging and forges connections with neighbors and the community. The co-housing model can also serve as an important instrument in making urban housing more affordable.
“If we can judge the personality of objects from apparently minuscule features, it is because we first acquire this skill in relation to humans, whose characters we can impute from microscopic aspects of their skin tissue and muscle.”
Alain De Botton, the Architecture of Happiness
| Laundry Room & Storage
| Water Pump & Solar Power Storage
| Bike Parking & Charging Station
| Waste Management Room
| Aquaponic Farming Unit
| Exterior Corridor
| Entrance Hall
| Retractable Wall
| Kitchen Area
| Waste Chute
| Services Chase
| Bedroom (Murphy Bed) & Living Room
| Wardrobe & Kitchen Storage
| Walk-In Closet
In 1977, psychologist James Gibson coined the word affordance, which he defined as “an action possibility formed by the relationship between an agent and its environment” . While this concept has been productively adopted in fields such as product design and advertisement , architecture has not embraced the concept to a similar extent. Part of the explanation lies in the overwhelming richness and complexity of space and the limited available processing power required to analyze the associated data points of human-space interaction. Cognitive neuroscience has recently been able to shed sufficient light on these sets or relationships to deduce paradigm-changing findings. A recent research project has been studying the concept of emotive affordance – the potential emotions triggered by environments, and how visual properties such as spatial frequency and contours can elicit certain emotional responses . At Harvard Medical School, an fMRI study showed that the amygdala (a brain structure that is involved in fear processing) was significantly more active when a person was shown a rectilinear object, compared with a curved contour counterpart . Another study at Texas A&M University found that curvilinear forms are perceived as more private and safe than rectilinear forms , while a recent MIT project, through associating characters of lines; form; rhythm; and direction with emotive responses, effectively built a geometric framework for emotive design .
The design of Open House has been guided by the findings from research projects such as these. While the private spaces of the building have been formulated to create a sense of calmness and safety, the shared spaces have been located and shaped to stimulate social interaction, build trust, and forge connection. The key threshold conditions integrate curvilinear form with geometric attributes calibrated to create continuity of space, modulate sightlines, and elicit emotions of warmth and friendliness – strategically activating moments within the interior to bring the residents together.
Alain De Botton has written about the underlying mechanisms connecting our identities and environments . The human cognition has a finely calibrated set of sensors to register and comprehend the three-dimensional space around us. This innate, hard-wired apparatus has been vital for humans throughout history to intuitively process opportunities and threats around us. Through thousands of years of evolution, the refinement of this subconscious intelligence has accumulated a rich catalogue of cognitive responses to geometric, haptic, spatial, and chromatic attributes. Open House is a project designed strategically within the framework of this intelligence, shaping our most important environment around human's fundamental social needs.
On a parting note, it is important to note that this project is an attempt at addressing a very complex issue – an issue that is intertwined with deeper, structural issues of modern society. We did not arrive at this point by accident, but through an assemblage of technological biases, financial incentives, government priorities, cultural shifts – self-reinforcing processes which over time have reprogrammed social identities, family structures, and sociocultural norms. Adjusting course will require equally monumental and joint efforts. At this point in time, however, we are equipped with a more extensive and effective toolbox. We have a deeper understanding of the issues at hand and new intelligence on how our spatial environments shape our social behavior. Equipped with this knowledge, it should be more manageable to blaze a trail towards urban environments capable of bringing us closer together. It is also worth mentioning that loneliness and weak social ties often are root causes for other pressing societal challenges of our time. By addressing this issue, we may be able to topple a lead domino, positively impacting a host of linked issues, such as drug addictions, obesity, suicide, and crime.
Design alone cannot solve the issues at hand. The design discipline is just one out of many required to respond to the situation in order to drive effective change. However, the design discipline is able to punch above its weight by recognizing the larger context, creating awareness around the issue, and imagining what change might look like.
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At the turn of the twenty-first century, sociologist Robert Putnam observed that despite decades of economic growth, the US experienced a significant drop in social capital. The average American in 1985 reported to have 3 people to confide in within one’s social circle . In 2004, this number had dropped to 2 – indicating a remarkable decline in social connection. Two decades later, Putnam’s findings still have merit. A 2019 survey , showed that three in five Americans report feeling lonely, reflecting a steady increase in loneliness and social isolation. People are increasingly solitary – not only in the US, but throughout the Global North. While solitude and loneliness are two different phenomena (the former is objective while the latter is subjective), there is typically a close correlation between the two. Former prime minister of the UK, Theresa May, noted that “for far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life” . In 2018, the country appointed a minister for loneliness, the first in the world.
The world today is urbanizing quicker than ever before. More than half of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas. The UN projects this figure to increase to 68% by 2050. Consequently, the urban environment is increasingly the stage in which life plays out for most people. Loneliness is, however, not limited to cities, but it is exactly this density and proximity of people that, perhaps ironically, can intensify loneliness. Through recent developments in cognitive neuroscience, we now have a deeper understanding of the many ways our environment shapes our wellbeing and social behavior. The way we organize our cities can help or hinder social connection .
The home is arguably the most important indoor environment in our lives . A home is more than a shelter from the elements, but plays an important role for our social, developmental, and cognitive processes. This space is closely related to our senses of trust, safety, and belonging. However, in most cities today, housing is less treated as a social good, as it is a financial vehicle. While cities around the world are struggling with providing enough housing for its rapidly growing population, quantity is not the only factor of this housing crisis. We also need adequate housing that can support, nourish, and enrich our social and cultural identity and diversity .
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