Monday 5 October 2009

A landscape of half-built buildings

‘A FRESH VIEW for a new way of life” is the message the hoardings across from the Stillorgan Luas stop declare to alighting passengers. Behind the hoardings lies an extensive multi-block development of high-rise apartments, shops, businesses and offices, many of which are still unfinished. The jaunty advertising slogan of this particular development company has an unintentionally ironic tone: the fact is, for a considerable number of people around the country, living alongside unfinished developments has indeed become a new way of life, writes ROSITA BOLAND

Next weekend, Dublin hosts Open House, encouraging citizens to explore buildings of architectural merit or public interest. As part of the programme, architect and academic Alan Mee will conduct an “Unbuilding Walking Tour” at the unspecified location of an unfinished development. The aim of the tour is to “directly relate the current economic and development crisis to a particular location”.

Before we set out on a similar tour at Sandyford, Mee stresses that his views on the concept of unbuilding represent only himself, and that this development is typical of many others. He believes that each plot of land in the country should be assessed in a combination of five ways: location, use, performance, density and quality, and this is how he analyses the unfinished development we walk around.

What’s striking is that the place is unfinished and that the people who live and work there are living next to emptiness. One completed apartment block overlooks the shell of another, which has an immense trompe l’oeil-type piece of fabric covering two sides of it, giving the illusion from a distance that the place is populated with couples on balconies taking in the view, or sitting outside for a bit of al fresco dining.

What’s happening – or not happening – at Sandyford repeats like a motif throughout the country. There’s a website, – “ghost estates of the Irish property bubble” – where you can look at an interactive map of Ireland and at images of the many half-finished or unsold and unoccupied housing estates that exist around the country. Everyone has seen the half-finished housing estates, the shells of apartment blocks, unoccupied offices, and half-built buildings that we pass on a daily basis. Some of us live beside them. Countless developments are on hold, the nature of their future progress uncertain.

DOMINIC STEVENS is a Leitrim-based architect who believes that focusing on the needs of the existing community is the basis of deciding what happens in the future with unfinished developments. He believes places such as housing estates are not simply a number of disparate buildings but a micro-community; a perspective that got blurred in recent years by the number of new estates that were built by developers solely to function as dormitory estates.

“The way houses were built in the boom was to do with the production of as many of them as possible,” Stevens states. “Housebuilding had to do with the production of money, and very little to do with communities or homes or the people who bought them. Now we have a situation where a huge number of houses and apartments are empty, which shows how fruitless that approach to housing is. It has put individuals into debt.”

Leaving properties unfinished for a lengthy period is not a viable option in any context. An unroofed building will deteriorate if left for more than one winter. As Stevens points out, there is also the fact that particularly in rural Ireland, even if houses do have roofs, they need to be occupied and heated to remain habitable.

There are people currently figuring out how much it would cost per hour to take down unfinished structures, but Stevens doesn’t see demolishing unfinished buildings as a viable alternative. “There’s no reason to knock them down, and use all that energy in the process unless we have a situation where labour simultaneously become very cheap and materials very expensive.”

Unfinished houses in estates detract from the value of the finished houses, aside from their potential to become anti-social spaces. It’s thus in the interests not only of developers to either finish or alter the use of the spaces, but in the interests of the people who have already bought into the place, investing both money and social capital. Everything comes back to community again.

IT’S ALREADY A fact that with the drop in property prices, some incoming residents will have paid far less for their properties than their neighbours. “People just have to get over it,” Stevens says. “If there is huge anger and resentment, everything will disintegrate. There’s a feeling now – in rural Ireland at least – that everyone needs to pull together, and look out for each other.

“Deciding what we do with the unfinished developments has to go back to making more fundamental societal changes. Talking about using some unfinished hotels as nursing homes or schools is all very well, but if you look at numbers, there are only so many of those needed. Society needs to make decisions. Decisions need to be broken down, and people have to make decisions about things that are going to happen in their own communities. It has to be about locally-based decisions rather than decisions inflicted on us by a central government. If ownership of these unfinished places is returned to the local community, the local community will find a use for them.”

Construct Ireland is a magazine focused on sustainable construction, which Jeff Colley has been editing since its inception in 2003. “Those half-finished homes out there, something has to be done to give them an edge.” Colley mentions an idea he’s heard a lot of buzz about lately. Depending on what happens with various properties currently under the auspices of Nama, investors would potentially buy up some of the country’s uncompleted residential buildings, finish them to a high-efficiency energy rating, and then lease them to potential first-time buyers at an affordable rate. Utility bills would be low, and at the end of a specified period, probably five years, the tenant would then have the option to buy. The lease would allow the tenant to participate in any increase in the value of the property during their tenancy. Colley thinks the idea could gain traction.

At Dublin City Council, Michael Stubbs, assistant city manager, acknowledges that the council has a number of developments that are unfinished.

In the next few months, the Docklands extension to the Luas line will open. The council, in partnership with Harry Crosbie holdings, is looking at ways of temporarily filling the extensive space around the 02 venuearena. “We don’t want people getting off the Luas and arriving into a big empty space,” Stubbs says. Plans are already advanced to use the space in a variety of ways, including a farmer’s market.

It is also planning to bring in a number of shipping containers to the area; a structure particularly appropriate to a docklands area. The containers, which will probably be stacked on top of each other, will be put to a number of uses, including cafes, art installations, and shops.

The council’s most high-profile uncompleted residential development is in the area known as North Fringe, which incudes Clongriffin. The development was originally intended to house 10,000 people, but fewer than half that number are living there.

“We have had to revisit the master plan, and look at short-term and medium-term solutions,” says Stubbs. “We’re conscious that they’re big developing areas, and we can’t just leave them there while we wait to see what happens.”

He sees as a priority connecting disparate pieces of spaces. Some ideas include using spaces as temporary communal gardens, as allotments, and of painting surrounding hoardings as a community project.

For the last month, the council has been consulting with members of the North Fringe. “Consulting with the existing community is vital,” Stubbs stresses.

“We’ve found that people are not full of anger and despair, even though they know it’s going to be problematic for a while, living in unfinished spaces.”

Innovation Dublin is a week-long festival of events that will run from October 14th to 20th. It’s billed as “an opportunity for Dubliners – whether they’re entrepreneurs, students, researchers, artists or large corporations – to promote and celebrate their new ideas and initiatives”. Some of the questions being examined will be: What defines a modern city? People and culture? Enterprise and transport? Natural environment or built environment?

At a “Designing Dublin” event, Dublin City Council will be announcing details of ideas generated from the feedback they got with consulting with the community at the North Fringe, and associated plans. Between September and November, the Designing Dublin team will collaborate on a project entitled “Finding the hidden potential of place”, focusing on the North Fringe area.

BACK IN SANDYFORD, Mee and I walk into the unfinished development through a “street” that doesn’t have a single door at ground level. It’s evident the place was built with the transport focus being on the car, rather than pedestrian access, since the few footpaths in evidence are so narrow. “It’s not built for the public realm,” he observes, pointing out that while only a very narrow footpath borders the development, it is at the side of a four-lane road.

What we see as we walk around are extremely high apartment buildings with a high-density population, some of which are located very close to a low-density estate of two-storey houses. Mee points out the incongruity of the contrast, and how the development doesn’t seem to integrate with the existing built environment.

What’s clear is that it’s not an environment that encourages you to linger. There are some internal roads within the development that don’t have any designated footpath areas at all, and some that require you to pay for parking if you enter the space, which essentially closes off casual passing access to that space.

“In a privatised world, you can get away with doing this,” Mee observes. The point he’s making is that this kind of planning doesn’t connect places within the development, and if you don’t have that integration, it’s more difficult to create a community of people who engage with the place they live and work in.

The development isn’t finished, but small “unbuilding” changes could make a big difference to creating an environment that is more community-focused: street-level access, more pedestrian-friendly spaces. He believes these changes could be implemented in other, similarly unfinished developments.

“Everyone in the country is connected to property values, therefore they have an interest in the solutions and opportunities of the places they live in, whether finished or unfinished.”

What use can unfinished buildings, such as the bank building on Dublin’s North Wall Quay, be put to?

Darnell Harvey

Finglas, Dublin

“Building contractors bought land and sat on it for years, waiting for prices to go higher and higher. Now I think they should finish the developments . . . I’ve been a plasterer for the last 20 years . . . The way the price of houses was increasing was because of the price of labour, but we’ve seen the price of our labour coming down again because now developers have so much choice of contractors to pick from.

“Builders and developers had the money all along, and I think they’re getting away very lightly by not finishing the constructions.”

Bob McCarthy

Kinsale, Co Cork

“I can talk only about residential homes, but I think it would be a great opportunity for our State to house some of the less well-off in Ireland at the moment. We’ve heard about the housing prices and the housing shortage for years, and now we have a surplus of stock and it seems logical to me to marry the two. Certainly from an aesthetic point of view it would be great to finish the buildings, but from a practical point of view we have both finished and unfinished properties that could easily be used to house people without homes.”

Helen Sherry

Finglas, Dublin

“I think they should definitely not be torn down. It would seem like such a waste of money. I know in a lot of African countries they start building and then wait until they have enough money to complete the buildings. We have to accept that there is no money there. . . I definitely think they should take the cranes away, though, because they look quite dreadful when you’re looking down the Liffey. And they could paint the buildings.

“They could use the constructions in other ways, like the arts or dramas.”

Una O’Carroll

Docklands, Dublin

“I live down there by the IFSC and if they can’t make good use of the Anglo Irish Bank construction, even for the public sector, they should just tear it down.

“You know, even if they could make a car park or a park out of it down there, but just not leave it as it is.

“I live right behind the construction site there and it’s an eyesore. My front window looks out on it and they are doing absolutely nothing on it. It’s just standing there.”

In conversation with Jenny Hauser.

Irish Times

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