About This Live Project

Sheffield Homes is an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) set up and owned by Sheffield City Council to manage council housing in Sheffield. As our client, Sheffield Homes offered us a list of potential project briefs for us to choose from, all of which deal with important issues and concerns regarding the current council housing stock in Sheffield. Our group decided to embark upon developing innovative solutions to address the important issue of waste disposal in flatted council estates. Our hope is that our efforts can offer strong design initiatives on the topic whilst creating awareness and incentive on the importance of recycling and proper disposal of household waste.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

This city is a Factory.

Some reflections on role / scope / outcome:

2 Economies 
It is odd that we see the disposal of waste as a single topic or problem - which can be contracted to a single organisation, or designed as just one system. We would never try to impose the same level of organisational simplicity on, for example, supply. How we supply ourselves, with what, from where, and how often has become a matter of societal expertise. We are good at it - in fact we are probably too good at it: Shopping has subsumed leisure, culture, public space... But the complexities of supply are understood as market complexities, where demand, desire, brand, lifestyle, logistics and ethics compete. The final destination of the consumption pattern is the house. Beyond the house - suppliers lose interest. The house, after the individual, is simply a secondary unit of consumption.

We don't (yet) see waste in the same way. We don't yet see houses as commercial units for the production of valuable 'waste'. The big difference is that over the last century, the central mantra of supply has been choice. The ability to choose between products not just in and of themselves, but increasingly for the 'ethical' choices they represent: "Fair trade", "Organic", "Local" (For more thinking on this, look at the Food Map Live Project here).  The first, and most obvious thing to point out about these is that this kind of choice is made according to moral value systems, and those value systems belong almost exclusively to the upper / middle class. They are (at times meaningless) Cameronisms which represent a green chic gloss over the core reality: That these choices are luxury products, completely inaccessible and value-less for somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the population. The same can be said of the 'choices' introduced to the waste market. As unpalatable as it may seem, "recycling" and its moralisation has become a think-lite moral luxury, assuaging the guilt of the relatively well-off, but of little or no concern to everyone else. It is a Jamie Oliver / Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall middle class phenomenon. 

As Tom pointed out to me, the difference is value. We don't mind travelling to the shops under our own steam, because we desire what we want to buy there, and we see where we travel to as an act of choice. We do mind travelling to the recycling bank under our own steam because we value significantly less the end result. Perhaps not surprising, it might be argued, since our televisions are full of adverts which cause us to overestimate the value that a bought product will be to us, but very few adverts (but still some) which cause us to overestimate the value that a disposed product will be to us.

Trickle-Down Waste Economics?
What is missing is the passing-down of economic value in the waste economy. It is probably unfair of us to expect everyone in society to behave as workers in the municipal waste factory until we are rewarded with some kind of "wage" (which may or may not be monetary) for doing so.  Those trained to be (painfully) aware of the environmental sinfulness of landfill waste could be said to be showing some kind of altruism, but even they (we) are recovering some kind of 'feel good' / 'guilt-ease' value from the act. 

As an interesting aside, a recent article in New Scientist estimated that in the event of total societal breakdown, cities contain only about 3 days worth of food at any given time. It would be interesting to know  an equivalent statistic for waste. How many days worth of waste is in a city at any moment?

The Top Trump Solution
So how, as a strategic design project do you design waste? What is our value?Even focusing specifically on waste disposal in flatted estates - about 6% of the dwellings in Sheffield - is not necessarily any less absurd than trying to conceive of a total system for the supply of everything to those same flats.  Unsurprisingly, there is no single, clear solution - we have to hit the right balance of being bold enough to take on the issue and try to offer something new to the conversation, but no so arrogant as to think we can think of a total solution which somehow Sheffield Homes - who are grappling with this problem all the time -  have not thought of. Nonetheless, what we can do is cast new light on the question - test out a set of ideas, principles, and specific practical proposals. None of these proposals are a 'solution' - but they are what we have been calling 'top trump' solutions. Gains in one aspect of performance are offset against costs in others. You can't turn any one reality off:

Psychology / Beahvoir

 A problem that can be endlessly redefined can be endlessly half-solved, so part of our value is to identify key points of engagement - reasons to focus on one area and not another - to prod at the loopholes.

It occurred to us that from our own perspective, one of the most compelling aspects of the project is simply understanding (and making understandable) the system as it is. We can, for example, now tell you (roughly) what your bin is worth (we're not going to tell you yet - tune in next week). We've also realized the extent to which our taking-on of this problem as a 5-week topic is a form of exchange (we hope about 50-50..) We contribute ideas, but in return, take on a new awareness of the problems which could be eased / exacerbated by the design of buildings.

A Lesson
Waste disposal is simply not seen as an architectural problem  - certainly not a glamorous one. 'The bins' are either neglected until the 11th hour of the design process, or at best swept under the carpet as a design issue. As Tom pointed out, the 50's, 60's & 70's has offered some exceptions to this generalisation, in that chutes were clearly thought of as an integral function of high-rise dwelling. But society has moved on - the monolithic 'black bag' mindset has left us with fixed, permanent artefacts which struggle to cope with the oncoming complexity of 'after-the-house'  market logistics.  We (as architects) need to stop seeing bins as isolated objects, but as interfaces in a bigger, complicated economic / political / cultural system. We need to be wary of making bins into foreground objects, and even warier of making waste disposal a moral tax (on time/money/intellect / self-respect). But, perhaps paradoxically, in order to liberate building users, professionals need to make waste disposal an integral part of normal design thinking. Designing those systems/services well might have as great (or greater) an impact upon quality of life as will the thoughful design of the formal / aesthetic / three-dimensional properties of dwellings.

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