In the lively world of the early 90s, a seemingly simple computer game nudged me toward my future in architecture and design. That game was The Sims. It wasn’t just a way to pass the time; it sparked a creative flame that would illuminate my path to adulthood.
I vividly remember the excitement of unwrapping “The Sims Superstar” expansion pack one Christmas Eve. But life had its own script – a broken computer delayed my entry into this new virtual world for three long months. The game’s manual and guidebook became my closest allies during this pause. I’d spend hours reading to my parents, letting my imagination run wild, painting mental pictures of what lay in store. This waiting period, brimming with dreamy plans and make-believe gameplay, clearly showed how much The Sims had captivated my young mind.
The Sims wasn’t just about building and designing; it was also a playground for exploring the limits of human possibilities. Who hasn’t whimsically removed pool stairs or created humorous traps for their Sims to die in a weird way? These playful endeavors were part of learning about the game’s mechanics and understanding the consequences of design decisions in a fun and engaging way.
As more expansion packs were released, my aging computer struggled with the game’s growing demands. This limitation led me to delve deeper into the architectural elements of the game. Building detailed, fancy mansions became my main interaction with The Sims, shifting my focus from playing the game to crafting designs. This subtle shift in gameplay was the first step in steering my interests toward architecture.
Looking back, I can see how The Sims was my initial, unintentional step into the world of architecture. It was in this digital realm that I first played with the balance of form and function, the necessity of inclusive design, and the thrill of creative exploration. These early lessons in virtual design have shaped my professional approach and ease with today’s architectural 3D modeling standards.
This journey from a child entranced by a digital world to an adult shaping physical spaces shows the unexpected paths that can lead to our life’s work. For many in my field, The Sims was more than a game; it was an early inspiration for a lifelong love of design and creativity. The educational value of games like The Sims is increasingly recognized in the architectural community. Dr. Russell Lowe, for example, views these games as a form of “productive leisure,” nurturing essential skills for budding architects. This concept resonates with my experience; The Sims was where I first learned about design thinking and the importance of aesthetic balance in architecture.
The Sims encouraged the exploration of diverse architectural styles and creativity. It was a virtual sandbox where I began to shape my early design philosophy long before I entered the professional world. The influence of The Sims extends beyond personal stories to the broader field of architecture. World-building games can foster essential architectural skills and design thinking. The Sims, with its focus on creativity and inclusivity in design, reflects many principles central to modern architecture and landscape design.
In the wider architectural world, the imprint of The Sims is evident. Design firms are integrating gaming elements into their processes, and roles like virtual architects have emerged, showcasing the game’s enduring impact.
This blend of personal experience and industry trends highlights the remarkable influence of virtual worlds on real-life professions. It shows the diverse and often surprising sources of inspiration that fuel our passions and creativity in architecture and design. The Sims played a crucial role in my journey, leading to the creation of HAS Architects, where the boundaries between physical architecture and the digital world blur.
So, if you’ve ever harbored an underlying skepticism towards The Sims or simply brushed it off as child’s play, I dare you to give it a whirl. Who knows? You may discover an untapped love for virtual architecture or, at the very least, find a new way to creatively procrastinate. Trust me, it’s more addictive than you think – and if you start demolishing virtual walls or trapping Sims in a pool, that’s just part of the architectural journey!
As we walk into an era of acceptance, we understand more than ever that diversity is the beautiful mosaic that crafts our society. Architecture, too, has an essential role in reflecting this diversity. It can create spaces that accommodate and celebrate the LGBT+ community, embodying the ethos of inclusivity and equality.
Architecture has often mirrored societal norms, inadvertently imposing a binary perspective on spaces: homes, restrooms, and urban layouts – all designed with the traditional understanding of gender roles. Consequently, the unique needs and experiences of the LGBT+ community were overlooked, leading to spaces that did not align with their lived realities.
However, as societies evolve, so do their structures. Architects today have a profound opportunity to redress past oversights and create inclusive, equitable, and empowering spaces for the LGBT+ community.
One such area of exploration is housing. Traditional housing models are based on family structures that may not reflect everyone’s living situations, including those of many LGBT+ individuals. Exploring diverse housing typologies—such as cooperative housing, mixed-use developments, and multi-generational homes—can foster more inclusive and adaptable living environments that accommodate diverse lifestyles.
Public spaces, too, have the potential to either empower or marginalize. Well-designed public spaces that promote safety, inclusivity, and interaction can become important hubs for the LGBT+ community. Design elements like well-lit areas, clear sightlines, inclusive signage, and gender-neutral restrooms can contribute to more inclusive and comfortable spaces.
Beyond the physical elements, architects also play a role in shaping the narrative around LGBT+ inclusive design. By advocating for inclusive design principles, architects can raise awareness about the importance of diversity in architecture. This advocacy can pave the way for more inclusive policies and design standards, fostering an architectural landscape reflecting societal diversity.
Collaboration with organizations
Architects can partner with local LGBT+ organizations to understand the specific needs and aspirations of the community better. This collaborative approach can result in design solutions that are not only inclusive but are also deeply connected to the community’s identity and spirit.
Architecture can serve as a powerful ally in the quest for LGBT+ rights and acceptance. By creating spaces that respect, celebrate, and advocate for diversity, architects can contribute to a more inclusive and accepting world.
Architecture is more than the creation of spaces; it is the creation of experiences. As we move forward, the role of architects in shaping those experiences becomes increasingly crucial. Through thoughtful, inclusive design, architects can craft spaces that embody our society’s diversity and vibrancy, creating a world where everyone, including the LGBT+ community, feels truly at home.
Let us kick things off on a foundational note. Architecture, at its core, is about creating structures. However, you seem to have a slightly different perspective at HAS Architects. Could you share a bit about that?
It is a common perception, but we see architecture as more than just crafting structures. It is about creating environments that foster connections, inspire interactions, and build communities. We are designing buildings and spaces that enrich societal harmony and well-being.
So you are designing not just buildings but essentially interactions. Could you shed some light on how you bring about this interplay between design and social interactions?
Of course. Think about how you might arrange a residential space. A well-placed bench, a communal garden, or shared amenities can spark interactions, creating a platform for conversations, friendships to blossom, and, ultimately, for communities to flourish. They may seem small, but these design decisions profoundly impact fostering a sense of community.
That is easy to understand example to take on residential design. What about larger public structures, like libraries or community centers? How do they factor into this philosophy?
Public structures are, in many ways, the epicenter of communal life. They host a multitude of activities that inspire social interaction and cultural exchange. At our studio, we aim to weave the spirit of the community into these structures, ensuring they reflect communal values and cater to their unique needs.
I am intrigued by the idea of inclusivity in design. How do you ensure that your designs cater to all sections of society?
We believe in creating spaces inviting to all, regardless of age, ability, or background. We adhere to universal design principles, ensuring our designs are accessible and comfortable for everyone.
Architecture plays a crucial role in fostering social cohesion. Beyond that, do you believe it has any other societal implications?
Indeed, architecture also preserves narratives. Historic buildings, local architectural styles, and monuments link to a community’s past and heritage, providing a sense of continuity. It is like the community’s diary, if you will.
Any final thoughts?
Architecture is not merely a backdrop in community life—it is an integral thread that adds depth to the social fabric. As architects, we are responsible for wielding this tool with a deep sense of social commitment. And that is precisely what we aim to do—shape vibrant, inclusive, and resilient communities, one design at a time.
Steeped in minimalism, echoing with simplicity, and singing in harmony with nature, Scandinavian design is a serenade to the senses. As the architects at HAS studio, we have always been enchanted by this melodic interplay of form and function, aesthetics and practicality.
Let us embark on a journey to the heartlands of Scandinavia—the Nordic countries where this design philosophy was born. Here, against long, harsh winters and fleeting summers, the tenets of functionality and simplicity took root. Spaces were envisioned as sanctuaries of warmth and light where residents could find solace and tranquility amidst the frigid climate.
The Scandinavian lifestyle
Delving deeper into the Scandinavian design, we find that it is not mere ornamentation but rather a reflection of a lifestyle, a set of values. At the core of this design philosophy lies minimalism, the art of making the most out of the least. There is a conscious effort to strip away the excess, leaving behind light, breathable, and clutter-free spaces. This approach celebrates the beauty of ‘less is more’, allowing the fundamental essence of space to shine.
Functionality, another pillar of Scandinavian design, waltzes seamlessly with aesthetics. Every object—whether a piece of furniture or a decor item—is selected carefully, serving a defined purpose while adding to the overall visual appeal. There is an honesty to the materials used and a preference for natural and durable elements such as wood, stone, and wool, which foster an organic harmony with nature.
Proper use of lightning
The clever use of light is an essential symphony in the Scandinavian design orchestra. Given the long, dark winters of the Nordic countries, interiors are crafted to optimize natural and artificial light. Color palettes sway towards the lighter spectrum, favoring whites and creams, punctuated occasionally by vibrant hues inspired by nature.
Our designs carry the echoes of these principles. We believe in creating spaces that resonate with the beauty and simplicity of Scandinavian design and reflect its philosophy of enhancing life quality. By fostering an environment of tranquility and well-being, we aspire to turn each space into a testament to the Scandinavian lifestyle.
Adopting a Scandinavian design approach reaps multiple benefits. Beyond an aesthetically pleasing exterior, this style cultivates spaces that are easy to maintain, breathe simplicity, and embody functionality. Using natural materials and light color, palettes engender an ambiance of serenity and calmness. Above all, it cultivates an environment that enhances well-being, mirroring the tranquility of the natural world.
In the grand scheme of architectural and interior design, Scandinavian design is not merely a style but a philosophy, a way of life. Its principles guide us toward creating harmonious living spaces that cater to our functional needs while soothing our senses. As we continue our journey, embracing this minimalist mastery, we hope to create spaces that reverberate with the soothing symphony of Scandinavian design, as beautiful as they are meaningful.
Imagine a canvas that stretches out under the open sky, its parameters defined by the rustling leaves of towering trees, the chirping of birds hidden within thick foliage, and the gentle dance of flowers bending to a soft breeze. This is the realm of the outdoor space, a domain teeming with life, possibility, and nature’s raw beauty. Here, architects, landscape designers, and urban planners—including our team at HAS Architects—strive to create harmony between the human-made and the natural world.
Our surroundings shape our experiences, our emotions, and even our behaviors. This reality holds whether we are within the confines of our homes or stepping outside into our gardens, parks, and community spaces. How we design these outdoor spaces can make a difference in the quality of our everyday lives.
What does it take to transform a plot of land into an oasis of tranquility, a hub of community activity, or a sanctuary for local flora and fauna? Like indoor spaces, outdoor environments also need to cater to human needs while embodying a sense of aesthetic charm.
In private gardens, for instance, the creation of ‘rooms’ or distinct zones for different activities can make the space more functional and inviting. It could be a serene corner for meditation, a vibrant play area for children, or an elegant outdoor kitchen for family gatherings. Incorporating elements like water features or a well-placed bench can elevate the sensory experience, making the garden more than just a visual spectacle.
Designers have a broader canvas to craft engaging experiences in shared community spaces like parks and plazas. Innovative ideas might include multi-generational playgrounds encouraging interaction across ages or edible landscapes where residents can forage for fruits and vegetables. Community spaces can also serve as platforms for showcasing local art, providing interactive installations that engage visitors and celebrate local culture.
Green rooftops are another innovative approach to transforming outdoor spaces in urban settings. These elevated gardens provide residents with a private sanctuary amidst the city bustle and contribute to improved air quality and reduced heat island effect.
When we consider the transformation of outdoor spaces, it is essential to recognize their ecological role. Creating wildlife-friendly gardens, for example, can provide habitats for local species, promoting biodiversity. Incorporating native plants enhances the landscape’s local character and supports the area’s natural ecosystem.
In all these designs, the principle of sustainability should be paramount. Whether by managing rainwater runoff, reducing heat absorption through green cover, or creating habitats for local wildlife, the transformation of outdoor spaces offers numerous opportunities for environmentally-friendly practices.
The task of transforming outdoor spaces is a delicate balancing act. It is about nurturing nature, creating functionality, and shaping experiences—all equally. Every outdoor space presents unique opportunities and challenges, whether a small private garden or a sprawling public park.
As we at HAS Architects continue to explore and experiment in this field, we do so with a sense of respect for nature and a commitment to sustainability. The transformation of outdoor spaces is about enhancing the human experience and preserving and enriching our natural environment.
Indeed, creating outdoor spaces is a journey of discovery, creativity, and responsibility. It is about shaping the future, one green space at a time. The possibilities are as vast as the open sky, and for architects, designers, and urban planners willing to embrace this opportunity, the journey is just beginning.
Welcome to a world where imagination takes flight—a world unencumbered by physical constraints, gravity, and the limits of tangible materials. This is the metaverse, a boundless digital expanse blending virtual reality and augmented reality, crafting an endless canvas for creation. It’s here that architects, including our team at HAS architects, are learning to navigate this new landscape, mastering the art of shaping the invisible.
The metaverse presents a profound question: what occurs when hundreds, or even thousands, of people, begin to inhabit this digital realm, treating it not as mere escapism but as a functional extension of their lives? It’s one thing to design an appealing virtual environment for casual exploration, but how do we ensure it can provide the same functionality as our real-world urban spaces?
The role of an architect
At its heart, the role of an architect—whether in the physical world or the virtual one—is to create environments that serve the needs of its inhabitants. This means understanding how individuals interact with their surroundings and with each other. Even in the boundless expanse of the metaverse, these fundamental principles of architectural psychology remain relevant.
Architects are in the business of designing experiences, not just structures. This means creating spaces that are intuitively navigable, that promote meaningful interactions, and that provide comfort and delight. Just as we wouldn’t design a physical building that confuses or alienates its users, the same philosophy applies to the virtual buildings we create in the metaverse.
New world, new possibilities
But while the basics remain, the metaverse also offers a new set of possibilities. As architects in this digital frontier, we can create responsive environments that adapt to users’ needs. We can craft spaces that shift and change with time, reacting to their inhabitants’ collective moods or individual desires. It’s not just about designing static structures; it’s about creating dynamic, immersive experiences beyond what’s possible in the physical world.
One exciting example is the “Mars House,” the first NFT (Non-Fungible Token) digital house ever sold. It’s a testament to the creative potential of the metaverse, a showcase of an environment that is both surreal and serenely beautiful. More importantly, it underscores a seismic shift in our understanding of property and ownership in this digital age.
This brings us to another thrilling development: digital land ownership. In the metaverse, land ownership is no longer confined to physical geography. Platforms like The Sandbox have commoditized virtual land, allowing users to buy, sell, and monetize digital real estate. It’s a mind-boggling concept but one that presents enormous opportunities for architects.
As these digital lands are developed, there will be a rising demand for architects who can design compelling virtual spaces. This could be anything from an immersive art installation to a virtual storefront to a private digital retreat. In this new market, architects have the opportunity to monetize their skills in fresh and exciting ways.
However, with new opportunities come new challenges. Despite the limitless potential of the metaverse, it’s not uncommon to encounter subpar virtual architecture. This is likely due to the unfamiliarity of the medium. Just as the first skyscrapers were met with skepticism and fear, so too is the concept of virtual architecture met with a period of adjustment.
Yet, each misstep is a lesson learned, each failure a blueprint for success. As we journey through this new landscape, we are slowly but surely building a foundation of knowledge and expertise. And while there’s still much to learn, there’s also much to be excited about.
Indeed, the advent of the metaverse heralds an exhilarating new era for architecture. As we at HAS architects continue to explore and experiment in this field, we do so with a sense of wonder and anticipation. The metaverse invites us all to become pioneers, visionaries, and dreamers. It encourages us to re-envision our future, to shape a world that transcends the limitations of the physical and ventures into the realm of the limitless.
As we design and build in this expansive new medium, we’re not just architects of structures but of experiences, stories, and entire worlds. We’re at the helm of a voyage into the unknown, shaping the future one virtual space at a time. The possibilities are as endless as the metaverse itself, and for architects willing to embrace this brave new world, the journey is just beginning.
Oslo’s great ambition is to become a leading sustainability capital in urban life and the environment. One of the fundamental missions is to develop a city that holds the dialog between local residents and private and public partners to create a democratic, vibrant and engaging city. Bjørvika is located in the heart of Oslo’s city; new development aims to reach these goals and provide high-quality architecture and public space that meets the Norwegian fjord. It is a typical post-industrial urban development located on top of the country’s largest transportation hub – Oslo S station. This extensive urban project wants to prove that living in the city center in a dense area can be attractive, safe, and sustainable.
Bjørvika is located at the very core of the city of Oslo that become a symbol of smart growing city planning strategy in Norway. The district strives to diversify new developments with several different building typologies linked together in the form of a sloping volume towards the fjord with access to high-quality public space for all residents. During the planning and construction process, indicators of carbon footprint and environmental sustainability goals (UN goals) were influential in designing the buildings and the city itself.
It is a public and private partnership to develop the city into a democratic, vibrant, and engaging space. As part of the smart growth strategy that prevents urban sprawl, one of the primary missions was to “invite children to the city,” demonstrating that raising a child in the city’s core can be as safe and exciting as the conventional way out in the suburban landscape.
It is a typical post-industrial urban development that started in the 80s when the main Port, strategically located in the city transportation hub, was moved to a new location, allowing the city to grow. Urban planners, from the beginning, aspired for a new image that defined that at that time was yet to come.
Bjørvika is intended to reach new standards as a public space, environmentally positive development, and a place where the city defines its new character. Since 2000, it has undergone constant growth; however, its final stage is expected to be reached in 2025. In order to attract Oslo residents to fall in love with the new area and explore it, the municipality has decided to establish several cultural destinations to attract them and stimulate them to explore new urban development.
We will start our journey at the Deichman National Library, which opened its door in 2020. It is the newest – and most important library in Norway that strives to be where cultural events occur, and anyone is welcome to use the library’s resources. However, the government set strict goals regarding construction and materiality to show that it is possible to develop climate-neutral buildings in urban areas.
Despite the exciting interior and modern facade, our focus goes on the roof. It is a robust, long-lasting structure that cleans the air throughout the roof’s lifetime. The concrete is treated with technology that cleanses the air with the help of sun, wind, and rain. Environmentally harmful particles mainly come from burning fuels such as oil, diesel, and gas that get converted into harmless nitrate. When UV rays from the sun hit the roof, more than 85 percent of the harmful particles are neutralized. The rain then washes them away. In order to understand the impact of the roof, we can compare it to driving a car. When we drive 2,000 kilometers in the city of Oslo in a year, this greenhouse gas emission is neutralized with the help of 50 square meters of such structure. The roof at Deichman is 2,600 square meters and thus makes up for over 100,000 kilometers of driving older diesel cars in one year. There are still too few such designs in Oslo; therefore, the new Deichman in Bjørvika can inspire other projects.
The development of “Barcode” – a set of several high-rise buildings signifies a popular trend of developing cities in the spirit of a sustainable way of commuting and densifying around urban “hubs”. The development is located at the edge of the main railway station Oslo S, Norway’s busiest railway station. Barcode represents environmentally friendly urban development in Oslo. With Oslo S within walking distance, the vast majority of people who have a workplace here can travel by public transport to work from any place in the city and region. Few parking spaces have been established in the area to promote public and soft mobility. In addition, the main street through Bjørvika, Dronning Eufemias gate, runs parallel to the iconic buildings and has good public transport solutions.
One of the visions was to create a vibrant street life with a varied offer of places to eat, trade, and have cultural life. To achieve this, all the buildings in the row have been given commercial and business premises on the ground floor. 80% of the space is for commercial use, while 20% is residential. The idea behind the Barcode concept is to build high and close while simultaneously safeguarding sight lines from the city towards the fjord. This unique concept has won a number of awards and is attracting international attention. Aiming to create many job opportunities in the core of the city center strengthens public transportation investments and attracts people to stay in the city; thus, daily commuting is not that impactful, and suburban living is not that attractive. Despite being so central, walking conditions are enjoyable, and the traffic is low.
Vannkunsten residential housing is another step on the journey. It is a cluster of buildings that perform “sustainably” on various scales: in terms of building performance and high-quality living standards, Scandinavian materiality heritage, and in urban scale – an urban village that introduces attractive public spaces to all citys residents (it is not a gated community) where people, water, services, and art meet.
The “urban floor” became the main focus around and between the tightly spaced buildings. In general, such low and dense volumes allow residents to connect with the street level and increase interactions among people by “grounding” them; thus creating a sense of community. Vannkunsten strives to resemble Scandinavian boathouses by the shore, revealing the archipelago in which the merging of sea and land occurs as an open semi-public waterfront habitation area. Carefully placed, irregular nine cubic structures of varying size and height are turned and rotated to create spatial tensions between the buildings and protect from the wind. The concept is strengthened through water channels penetrating the city’s promenade where new habitats of reef are established and maintained.
Vannkunsten offers a home with the sea as the nearest neighbor through water exposed between the houses and intimate alleys surrounding them. The idea is that residents should feel a close connection to the water. The characteristic of the archipelago is that it mediates transitions, from the open fjord and into the calm inland waters, via reefs and islets. The settlement illustrates this narrative and creates a hierarchy of transitions.
Despite its price tag and national prestige, which may be alarming to architectural critics regarding affordability, I believe that the Vannkunsten is still more of a pilot project in Norway that challenges contemporary architectural aesthetics, intelligently reveals the landscape, and invite city residents to stay, with qualities discussed by people like Jane Jacobs or Jan Gehl.
Sørenga underwater landscape
Bjørvika is not only built on land, but numerous projects aim to develop underwater marine life. A comprehensive, long-term, and holistic general plan is developed to utilize the built environment and underwater landscape to establish biological diversity and form suitable habitats. Among the proposed measures is offering three-dimensional habitats for local species, such as marine hanging gardens and houses for crabs and lobsters on the seabed. Water quality is constantly measured to ensure safety for plants and species and for people who come to the neighborhood to enjoy swimming in the fjord. Visitors along the promenade can experience various waterfront edges providing direct contact with water. Collaboration between landscape architects, oceanographers, and marine biologists is a rare commodity. Through the work, the project group has established a number of new concepts and approaches that are essential contributions to the field that will be useful when other cities and port areas also have to think and act blue-green.
Losæter garden is a modern community park established in 2011 as a community art project in the upcoming new district, namely Bjørvika. The art design “Victory Gardens” in San Francisco, led by Amy Franceschini and Futurefarmers, inspired the Oslos version of city farming. For many years, the ground surrounded by freeways and tunnels has been an urban wasteland where no one would imagine anything could grow. In 2015 farmers from more than 50 farms across the whole country gathered barrels of soil and, together with local activists, residents, and farm animals, transitioned the ground into an arable field.
Losæter has grown over the years and gradually become a symbol of community and identity that takes over dead “in-between” space and transforms it into a thriving agricultural and social arena. The City of Oslo created a new job position – an urban farmer as part of the city management. Locally the site facilitates local gardening by allowing residents to have their parcels for planting crops and promotes sustainable choices through numerous events. It is a prevalent destination for nearby kindergartens and schools that educate children about ecological farming. During harvesting time, food produced locally is eaten at events and open dinners. Anyone is welcome to visit Losæter; however, guests cannot pick crops without the farmer’s permission.
The Japandi interior design aesthetic combines Scandinavian and Japanese design ideas to produce a simple yet hospitable environment. Clean lines, organic materials, and a neutral color scheme define this style.
Furniture in Japandi interiors frequently has a low profile and emphasizes simplicity and utility. Pieces frequently have simple lines and a minimal look and are composed of natural materials like wood, bamboo, and wicker. Another crucial component of Japandi’s interior design is lighting, which emphasizes natural light and soft, warm lighting to create a tranquil atmosphere.
Japandi color palette
Japandi interiors frequently combine traditional Japanese and Scandinavian design features. This can incorporate items like bamboo blinds, shibori fabrics, Japanese lanterns, and simple, geometric designs in addition to natural wood finishes and simple, ethnic textiles.
Artwork “The face” made by HAS architects AS
The simplicity, calm, and warmth of Japandi interiors can be felt throughout. They are made to be both aesthetically beautiful and both comfy and practical. This design is ideal for those who value the beauty of natural materials and straightforward, clear lines and want to create a minimalist and welcoming room.
Artwork “The moon” made by HAS architects ASOur proposal for Japandi kitchen. HAS architects AS
In the past decades, California experienced a rapid population growth that initiated a shortage of affordable housing crisis. Housing affordability has been at its lowest in the past for about 15 years affecting many. The American dream of owning a home became simply too expensive in the market, driven primarily by the economic gain intertwined with social injustice and segregation patterns for decades. The State decided to take action and suggested introducing the Home Act bill, commonly called SB9, that aspires to promote strategic infill growth by adding more units to the already built-up suburban landscape. The main goal is to simplify the process for homeowners to subdivide an existing lot and create duplexes or ADUs. In this way, the legislation enables homeowners to create intergenerational wealth and simultaneously ease the rental market by providing more accommodations for potential tenants.
In this article, I would like to discuss the origin of the American dream and how this concept of owning home projects on the issues of today related to the lack of affordable homes in California. Through interviews with locals, people who want to buy their first home, or tenants who cannot find affordable rent, I attempted to understand how people feel about the SB9, wondering if it may actually change somebody’s everyday life. Furthermore, with my architectural background in mind, I aspired to investigate the legislation’s impacts on the environment, social justice, sustainable urban planning methods (the Planners Triangle), and the need for smart growth in our cities.
The American dream of owning a home
The American dream is about owning a home with a yard. Before World War II, living standards in the United States were poor. Most people lived in farmhouses in rural areas or tightly packed in city apartments where comfort life was not for everybody. About half of Americans had access to running hot water or a toilet. During the 1920s, new progressive reforms were transplanted from Germany, providing new zoning for working-class families. It opened up possibilities to build low-density housing on the city outskirts. In the United States, it became a tool to exclude and segregate people by race or ethnicity and allowed land use building types to be classified. Single-family zones were endorsed “on the grounds that they excluded “parasite” apartment buildings that blighted neighborhoods and lowered property values.”
Things started to change after the war when about 15 million soldiers returned home from long and drastic battles. In their imagination, all it mattered was with family at home, which represented safety, comfort, and love. In the psychological sense, after seeing some much death, disruption, and sacrifice, it is natural to seek stability in a place that one can proudly say is “my home.” However, the problem is providing enough housing for such a great demand. At that time, about 10,000 houses were built for million dreamers that wanted one. Years later, baby-boomer contributed to even higher demand on the market, all during the Great Depression.
The need for change was evident; therefore, developers, urban planners, and architects desired to find a solution to keep up with production by exploring how to produce components that make up a house efficiently. The inspiration came from the auto industry, where several parts make a car; thus, houses can be prefabricated. From now on, the suburbs we know today were born. In 1944, developers built 114,000 new homes; in 1950, they built 1.7 million, supplying the market needs with a home that cost just $9000. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provided generous loans to mainly white middle-class citizens and the Veterans Administration (VA), supported war veterans, thus dramatically increasing the number of people who could actually afford a new home.
Suburbs started to expand on “greenfields,” which usually meant old farms. The size of lots was carefully adjusted to the taste of different income groups. Processes and decision-making performed by developers, real estate agents, and banks marked a trend of redlining that facilitated patterns of injustice and segregation in urban planning. Its results can be experienced even today in most American cities. The 1968 federal Fair Housing Act strived to end such practices. In general, things started to change for the better, although town officials managed to find ways to control racial segregation by proposing new zoning codes that intended to preserve suburban communities as they were.
Eventually, the housing boom started to wear off. The following decades were defined by the environmental movement that became the fundament of the “sustainable” politics of today. In California, urban sprawl started to show its negative impact on the surrounding landscape and revealed the vulnerability of communities built on floodplains or hazardous areas that are not resilient to natural disasters. An endless carpet of single-family housing also changed the character of the stunning Californian landscape – the motive why many wanted to settle here in the first place.
In the 1960s, extensive areas of redwood were cut to accommodate all new housing, and trees as materials were used for building structures. It is estimated that there were 1,000 trees cut a day.
Environmental groups started to be more present in public areas and fought to protect land and wildlife that became fragile and vulnerable due to human expansion in areas where people never used to live earlier. The main argument was that modern society is disattached from the laws of nature and climatic conditions. Symbolically, the first Earth Day took place in the 1970s across the United States.
Isabell is my colleague, a student in the Berkeley Environmental Design program whom I interviewed about the environmental impacts of urban sprawl. She was asked if SB9 legislation may be a solution for combating further growth and is a way to preserve the natural resources that are at risk. In her view, our society is in a moment where we can slow down the process of destruction of our ecosystems, or we will become its victims. In recent years, California has introduced numerous new legislation that aims to analyze new development, study their impacts and see what they can bring to public life and the environment. She calls it “slowing down the whole process that can go either way.” In a perfect world, such documentation allows us to carefully design or redesign our neighborhood and create a more resilient and self-sufficient system. They do stop the urban sprawl on several occasions, yet they do impact the real estate market. Often people decide to live in a denser populated area to build their home in a region where housing is still affordable and laws are more relaxed. As a result, urban sprawl takes place elsewhere.
Moreover, NIMBY homeowners get another argument to fight new development. NIMBY stands for the “not in my backyard” movement, where residents want to protect their home value from unwanted investments (LULUs – locally unwanted land use or simply anything that changes the neighborhood’s identity) or people leaving the areas that affect market prices. The fear is usually grounded in their property value, usually being their greatest investment. Isabell argues that the new environmental laws slow down the process in favor of such residents, thus directly obstructing any process of densification or adaptation to the new reality in the context of a lack of housing or climatic adaptations. In addition, city officials, engineers, and other lawmakers put more requirements for the construction of buildings.
Another matter is existing zoning, where SB9 comes into the picture. Zoning intends to control what can be built in the area and where. Across the United States, numerous neighborhoods were zoned just for single-family housing without any exceptions. Isabell points out the paradox of the possibility of expanding your home to a bigger one, but not to a different kind like a duplex or more that can provide accommodation for more families. It is a default standard for Americans who got used to it.
“How to fall in love with suburbs.”
During a chat with Sabrina, who has lived in Southern Berkeley, California, for the past four years, we discussed the qualities and expectations one has when moving into the suburbs. She moved with her husband and their two-year-old boy from San Francisco, where they spent nearly their entire life. The idea of owning a house with a yard away from the city assured them a better quality of life. The concern to provide a safe and healthy green space for the little one is the crucial argument for why they decided to pursue the dream. She admits that they both tried to be very open-minded about staying in the city center since it has always felt like home for them. This was the neighborhood where they had known many people for years, and their commuting to the offices was convenient. They wanted to prove to themselves that when the baby came, they would figure out how to navigate San Francisco’s urban jungle. The first weeks or even months went smoothly, and the dream of owning a home faded a little bit into the background. Staying at home was not a problem, and the central location helped have friends and family visit more often, and access to primary amenities like a doctor’s office for regular checkups was at hand. Things started to change when the process of finding a kindergarten arrived. At this point, both parents wanted to do a good job and find a place where their boy would receive the best quality of education and care. That is how they discovered that most of the places they aimed for were in the suburbs. The idea of finding a neighborhood with a character that suited them became exciting. “It felt almost as asking myself whom I want to be all over again,” she said. They found Southern Berkeley a perfect fit and found a property they fell in love with.
Months later, they appreciate more space and greenery around them and also that they feel they have more control over playmates for their child by engaging their time in kindergarten. It was important for them to do so. However, the most significant change happened in Sabrina’s mindset regarding concerns she had when she used to live in a big city environment. At that time, she completely understood the need to build more housing of different types to advocate for densifying the places she lives in now. “It was more in my face,” she said. “Now, to tell you the truth, I do not 6 want to change much in my new community. We like it as it is, and we paid a lot for it”. She feels conflicted about her feelings about SB9 too. To balance out their loan on the home, they both considered looking into building a unit in their yard that they could rent out to students. “Rent is so high in Berkeley these days, so it is beneficial to figure out a way to get passive income.” They are not interested in letting a stranger into their home due to having a small baby in the house, but a separate unit would work. Sabrina decided to talk about it with the closest neighbors to hear their reaction, and generally, they said, “we do not care, as long as they will not throw parties every weekend.” This leaves her with a green light, although it all feels more complicated than SB9 sounds like on paper.
By projecting this thinking on a larger scale, we can see why the housing market cannot keep up with the demand. The process takes time, and not everyone is convinced about changing the community’s character by adding more housing, and it gets economically more challenging for people to buy their own homes.
Meanwhile, in opposition to the above, a new movement persists to increase density and ease the housing development process. The “Yes, In My Backyard” (YIMBY) group advocates removing barriers in single-family zoning to allow additional dwelling units on already built-up parcels. Andrea, a resident of Berkeley, argues that focusing only on SB9 might not be enough in order to address all obstacles in residential development. In several areas in the United States, cities fail to adjust other laws and regulations that may cancel multifamily houses by restricting building height, size, or particular requirements of the size of a lot to build a multifamily building. “California’s new law allows local jurisdictions to impose owner occupancy restrictions on subdivided lots, leaves local zoning and design requirements in place, and exempts lands that have been deemed prime farmland, wetlands, or part of a conservation plan.” Apart from thinking of volume or size, the essential question remains whether new units like SB9 proposes will be attractive for Americans; the new generation may look differently at the case”, Andrea adds.
Senate Bill 9
“Senate Bill 9” seeks to increase access to affordable Housing in California. It is a statewide issue mentioned in Section 5 of Article XI of the California Constitution. The main objective is to provide ways for homeowners to create duplexes or subdivide their parcels. “The bill includes numerous safeguards to ensure that it responsibly creates duplexes and strategically increases housing opportunities for homeowners, renters, and families alike. This bill will provide more options for families to maintain and build intergenerational wealth “. It is a lawful way to infill residential neighborhoods with new housing and allows ministerial approval “for urban lots splits and the development of duplexes in existing urban residential zones that are predominated by single-family housing.” Ministerial approval represents the process of authorizing development projects (in this case, duplexes, subdivision maps, and increased length of time of validation of existing subdivision maps) that do not involve personal judgment by the public official. In terms of duplexes, the bill states that housing developments with two residential units on single-family zoned parcels should be approved if the required conditions are met without discretionary review or hearing. As a subject to agreement, the proposed development cannot demand demolition or alternation of the building; it is allowed up to 25% of exterior structural walls provided that the building is not part of historical heritage – it is not registered in State historic Resources Inventory or listed as a historic property, or district). The bill also restricts “rent to levels affordable to persons or families of moderate, low, or very low income.”
The legislation allows local agency requires additional objective zoning, subdivision, and design standards “unless those standards would have the effect of physically precluding the construction of up to 2 units or physically precluding either of the two units from being at least 800 square feet in floor area, prohibiting the imposition of setback requirements under certain circumstances, and setting maximum setback requirements under all other circumstances.”
Cities and Counties are required to approve a parcel that fits the “urban lot split” conditions and implement the bill’s provisions that allow two-unit residential housing. The existing parcel cannot be subdivided into more than two new parcels with comparable size given that no single parcel may be less than 40% of the original parcel’s lot area that was envisioned for subdivision. Local authority can approve smaller sizes provided the parcel is a minimum of 1,200 square feet. Another necessary criterion is that the parcel must be situated within a single-family residential area. Additionally, the urban lot area must be located in an urban region or cluster (following the definition of United States Census Bureau). Finally, it allows them “to extend the life of subdivision maps by an additional 12 months.”
It is crucial to point out that the bill is highly debatable. For instance, McKinsey Global Institute claims that the legislation can mean nearly 800,000 units developed across the State but densifying already existing single-family neighborhoods. McKinsey’s analysis projected 600,000 new units in just three counties alone. Building new housing on smaller lots in already developed areas continues a successful (especially in Los Angeles) state housing policy, namely Accessory Dwelling Units, that in two years managed to change the trends of the housing crisis. Finally, McKinsey argues that the “policy leverages valuable but previously untapped resources, such as developed but underutilized land, while building valuable equity for homeowners.”
Regardless of the tremendous potential benefits the bill introduces, some experts claim that the new law will have minimal impact on communities since only 5% of single-family owners find it cost-effective to upgrade their property.The League of California Cities adds that SB9, in its current stage, will not boost housing construction because it fails to recognize public engagement (NIMBY) associated with new development in the neighborhood. A study executed by Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley evaluated that SB9 can result in 700,000 new units, “about 20% of the homes necessary to alleviate the housing shortage of 3.5 million homes.”
Sustainability as an indicator
Nowadays, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Many well-functioning cities worldwide still face major challenges that require appropriate solutions. Among other things, the challenges are linked to handling demographic changes, structural changes in the business world, and challenges around the consumption of energy for heating and transport. In addition, man-made climate change must be dealt with, and socially segregated urban areas must become more inclusive.
The uncontrolled expansion of our cities for decades directly impacts our environment and has created unsustainable urban development. Natural resources become gradually scarce, and surrounding biotopes are affected by human encroachment. Suburban growth and its negative impacts can be further identified in several categories. To begin with, the consumption of land affects agricultural practices and high-quality land availability. Cheaper land often attracts more extensive developments, thus disrupting habitats and local biotopes. Fragmented landscape ecosystems decline in the number of species and make them less resilient. Extensive neighborhoods lead to spatial disruption in terms of distances as well. Open recreational spaces are often further away, and car-based transportation is preferred. Residents depend on car use in daily commutes; therefore, traffic congestion is the new normal. Such patterns inevitably contribute to air pollution, noise, and emissions, which are the main drivers of climate change.
“Urban design theory” is one of the theories that discuss the compact city that emphasizes the relationship between the physical and the social and conceptualizes urban space as a place for people’s daily activities. The theory focuses on urban space and urban life, where both the physical and social aspects play a major role in people’s use of urban space. Urban design is an interdisciplinary subject area and has gained recognition in the last 50 years as a separate field. The purpose is to design cities and towns based on social, aesthetic, and functional considerations. A solution could be the compact city, a concept launched by the OECD, where the compact city is described as a densified, built-up area with a clear boundary to the surrounding countryside in urban areas. It is linked together utilizing public transport so that residents have a short distance between residence, workplace, and service offers. Compact urban development aims to create sustainable cities where the balance between economic, social, and environmental development is central, as these are closely linked together. 10 SB9 legislation proposes densifying already existing built-up areas. In that sense, the proposal goes hand-in-hand with environmental actions that create specific requirements for increasing the efficiency of urban land use and utilizing existing infrastructure, trying to combat earlier mentioned consequences.
The smart growth concept proposed by G.H. Brundtland advocates for sustainable development by stating “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The postulate is one of the main foundations of the sustainable movement. It suggests that accommodating population growth needs to combat urban sprawl. The author points out three main tools that may do just that: increasing density, implementing infill development, and mixed-use land uses. SB9 conveys the same strategies and suggests sustainable urban development models on an ecological (preservation) economic and social (more affordable housing) level. Benefits from increased use of the space occupied by the city are brought about by urban densification, which is a strategy for improving the efficiency of using natural resources. New spaces help the city to grow and meet people’s needs, enriching city functions. Using existing infrastructure helps to implement energy-efficient technologies that provide a higher quality of services, and these affected areas are economically stimulated for further growth.
However, it is crucial to understand the possible risks of the “infill” process. Smaller spaces can potentially decrease the comfort and quality of life, initiate social conflicts or affect technical infrastructure (media, transportation, or even parking spaces). Social challenges can also arise if important public spaces disappear or are privatized and marginalized groups are excluded. More densely built-up places can also lead to the loss of historic areas and the down-building of undeveloped areas and green lungs, which are vital for stormwater management and natural diversity. The green areas can reduce flood risk, which is particularly relevant today. Dense urban fabric can also contribute to the heat island effect by increasing emissions locally. In order to avoid more significant consequences of urban infill, cities should follow a general plan that guides through adaptation measures. There are also many examples of compact cities that provide poor-quality urban spaces that do not work in practice. Those spaces need to be well-designed for all users, especially in suburban districts, where people may not necessarily want to leave their homes for less desirable places than their own. 11
The HOME Act bill seeks to address California’s apparent housing shortage. Looking back at the history of the American dream, which was centered on property ownership, I can see clear trends in American society that see real estate as an asset and perhaps even a person’s social standing depending on the neighborhood they live in or the size of their house. Although this behavior is not new and is not exclusive to Americans, it has its roots in the capitalistic politics, economy, and culture that contributed to the pressure in the real estate market. California has a lot at risk because it makes significant contributions to strategies for coping with and mitigating climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and establishing a more equitable world for all. This law is a positive move, but the fundamental issue needs to be addressed: who wants to live in ADUs? In a culture where everyone demands the highest standard of living, who is willing to accept the sacrifice of a smaller size home in someone’s garden? Can this impose new negative segregation issues?
Senator Scott Wiener states, “California’s severe housing shortage is badly damaging our state, and we need many approaches to tackle it.” For me, SB9 is an easy and fast way to re-zone areas for more housing. In some cases, we might what to speed up the bureaucratic process that heavily affects the market’s response to the housing crisis; however, it does not really answer all the issues, yet creates new ones. For instance, the issue of finding a balance between heritage preservation and the lifespan of ADUs through an environmental lens are vital problems that follow along with it. How do we ensure that developers will not weaponize this law for economic benefit? Short-term solutions often have side effects that are hard to predict since the changes occur quickly. One should be skeptical and carefully observe the development of communities growth.