Urban versus Rural. Which one will win? lifestyle
It may be that those who designed our homes in the past were not as well-known as the architects who do it nowadays, but they were probably very efficient master builders.
It may be that those who designed our homes in the past were not as well-known as the architects who do it nowadays, but they were probably very efficient master builders. With age-old intelligence that was tried and tested to the point that we now look back and realise that not everything in the city is bad nor is everything in the country good. Somehow, we will have to apply rural knowledge and practices to urban contexts, and vice versa, in pursuit of this new sustainable way of living that is to come.
Sustainability is a word that has been on our lips for decades. Specifically, we are talking about safeguarding the balance between humankind and nature. It applies to all aspects of life, our economy, our politics and, of course, our urban planning and architecture.
But it has been during this last year —as a result of the recent pandemic that confined us to small, unsuitable homes— that a shift in this situation has taken place. For the first time in centuries, perhaps, we are seeing a return to the countryside from the cities.
Let your imagination run wild if you want, or get technical with the official statistics. Either way, you can see that these changes are the result of nothing more than fear of further lockdowns, the need for more space and contact with nature, and, naturally, new routines that enable us to work from home.
The truth is that homes, both rural and urban, will change and embrace new customs that are here to stay, in terms of space distribution, climate control, the materials used, energy savings or the introduction of new elements. Our habits are changing.
Gone are the days when city-dwellers and country folk were at odds with each other, due to the differences in lifestyle between the two environments, the rural exodus, work, or the lack thereof. Now, what we will see is people pitching in and helping to pick tomatoes or to set up a neighbour’s Wi-Fi, no matter where they live…
And to really find out about these new norms being generated in homes, we approached two architecture studios that have been implementing them for some time and that give us an idea of what is to come.
Rubén Picado and Maria José de Blas are two professionals with extensive experience and recognised contributions in the form of works, biennials and publications. They are also involved in teaching, combining their work at the Picado de Blas Studio with working as professors for final degree projects at the School of Architecture of the Universidad San Pablo CEU. From their home-studio, they explain what they believe is on the way in terms of urban planning and housing, both in the countryside and in the city.
“Sainz de Oiza”, explains Maria José de Blas, “said that ‘the house is the Mother and the place where you take refuge‘, something that became more than evident following the lockdown”.
They explain that there is a brutal conflict between the pseudo-intelligent house that was going to be the perfect future, designed for greater energy efficiency, and the sustainable vernacular house (the one that is truly smart according to them, due to its orientation, wall thickness or ventilation), so criticised for being old-fashioned and which turns out to be the looking-glass through which we now see near-zero consumption eco-friendly houses. “Now we have realised”, continues Maria José, “that we must ventilate because that so-called ‘energy efficiency‘, all hermetically sealed, might even kill us”.
Indeed, the so very sustainable, popular architecture was linked to two factors: expertise and time. As these two concepts were lost due to the demand for urgency, everything became fast and cheap —practically single-use— and with criteria contrary to sustainability in the sense of simple, settled, quality and long-lasting.
“If we build like this”, Picado predicts, “we will have architecture that, while meeting all the regulations, will not transcend time. And even if they give those buildings all the LEED certificates in the world because of their near-zero consumption, they will be bad, uncomfortable and, sometimes, absurd”.
“The pandemic”, adds Maria José, “has led people to reflect: ‘why don’t we have awnings that protect us from the sun?’ or ‘why did we cover up the radiator back then?, ‘why did we never realise how much the quality and intensity of light affects how relaxing the space is? or ‘what ever happened to that terrace?’. People have noticed the discomfort because they have spent more time at home”.
“But we have three things that have worked perfectly for more than 30 years:”, adds Rubén Picado with a touch of humour, “the car, the blender and the house”.
Their house, designed and carefully thought out in the 90s, has aged like a fine lady with just the occasional face-lift. Designed to accommodate the newlywed couple, the babies that came and turned into kids, and then it also hosted their friends and became a home-studio for two seniors with adult children. Everything has moved around and has been converted with the minimum of interference. A well-thought out property.
They view the future as the need to do less but better, with natural materials and technology, with good workmanship, making the most of those spaces that the city gives us. The principles of the early 20th century were very progressive with that advanced idea of cities and garden houses. Nowadays, city councils should be helping in the greening of homes, making the most of the terraces that were covered up at the time, to create a bio-climatic barrier. Meanwhile, village councils should be receiving subsidies to introduce new technologies to facilitate energy saving.
“But the house of the future”, declares Maria José, “must be a house from which you can see the stars, whether in the city or the country”.
And do to this, we must not lose sight of our control and development of those materials or those new technologies, encouraging Spanish companies to continue investing in research. Here, we highlight initiatives like Save The Water Forest from Noken intended improve responsible consumption and water savings with the introduction of pieces like the taps with aerators or double-flush toilets (70% of water consumption in Spanish homes is used in the bathroom). There are also the proposals from Krion K Life, with its recycled kitchen countertops, floor tiles and ventilated façade systems that save up to 30% in energy consumption and improve air quality, reducing pollution.
At Estudio Lucas y Hernandez Gil, headed by Cristina Dominguez Lucas and Fernando Hernandez-Gil, another couple of experienced young architects with revolutionary projects to their names, they tell us about the main points of what is to come and what the immediate future holds, in their opinion.
“This year we have been able to work on two projects that were true gems: A house in the region of Tierra de los Barros, in the historical centre of a small village in Extremadura. We remodelled it and converted it, according to traditional guidelines, into a home and a cottage with a few bedrooms. We also transformed an extremely old electrical warehouse in Malasaña into a home with a workshop, even adding a sauna, gym, wine cellar and garden”.
Proponents of the theories of Michael Braungart, the two architects give us two examples of urban and rural in terms of sustainable remodelling.
Following the Paris model, they say, we must try to rescue old buildings that have been abandoned, giving them new uses or improving their spaces and environmental and energy-saving properties. According to them, we must try to work with the existing material. When introducing new elements, we must consider the cradle-to-cradle method, i.e. the circular economy. In this way, we do not generate waste during the construction, thus avoiding recycling from destruction. No waste, no leftovers, no non-biodegradable materials.
“There are two parallel paths”, Fernando Hernandez-Gil tells us, “on the one hand, the understanding of passive systems related to all traditional architecture, including knowledge of the place, dominant winds, orientation, materials, thermal inertia, all the systems implemented for the last 2000 years. And, on the other hand, implementing the technological route, which is increasingly effective and efficient, and it concerns water saving, solar auto-generation, geothermal or aerothermal energy. These have been around for many years, but they are increasingly applied to hot and cold generation systems that are much more effective than the boilers we have been using and that we still use.
We also need to value soft areas and surround ourselves again with plants in our pure-concrete buildings, as they are doing in Milan or in China, or making the most of terraces and rooftops, as should happen in Madrid, helping the city stay cooler and creating a natural climate control barrier.
“I don’t know if there will be mass relocations to the country”, says Cristina, “but we will definitely choose to stay in the city, which must also become sustainable. We should try to recover bigger houses. We will probably have many more co-working and co-living spaces, but they might be designed as satellite spaces for offices, and many commercial premises will be cleared out, which must be given new uses. In the long-run, these are the places that give life to cities, making sure that, above all, energy consumption is kept in check”.
But things take time, “it’s like baking a cake”, says the architect, “you can’t rush it”.