Precisely one month ago, the world’s population reached eight billion people—a historical landmark that the United Nation described as a “milestone” for human development. And yet, media headlines painted a very different picture. Reuters claimed that climate justice is now harder to achieve, while The Guardian stipulated that it shouldn’t be controversial to state that a bigger population will cause greater damage to our planet.
Architect, writer, and Pau Studio founder Vishaan Chakrabarti disagrees. He believes that the challenges facing our planet should not be pinned on the number of people that inhabit it, but rather on the management—or mismanagement—of our resources. “You have to welcome people into the world—and that means thinking about how we can sustainably house the next generations,” he said. And there’s one solution that tackles both the housing crisis and the climate crisis that’s hiding in plain sight: high-density, low-rise urban housing. It’s a housing framework that Chakrabarti has dubbed the “goldilocks” model in reference to its capacity to provide high-functioning housing to all that need it using materials and resources already available. Low-rise buildings would require less concrete and thus lower building costs, the installation of electric pumps would provide heating and air conditioning, and extended roof areas mean solar panels can provide more energy than residents use—all the while ensuring buildings maintain cultural relevance on a local basis.
Below, Atmos speaks with the esteemed architect about the opportunities—and the challenges—of housing the future.
Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
How did you first get interested in architecture—and specifically, in sustainable architecture?
My father was a scientist and my mother was a musician and librarian, so I was taught to use both my left brain and my right brain from an early age. As a kid, my dad was invited to a few jobs abroad, so we’d end up on these low budget trips across the world. It meant that I grew up going to a lot of cities, seeing a lot of architecture, and being exposed to spaces I felt more comfortable in compared to the horrible suburb in which I grew up.
I became interested in sustainability in part because I’m an immigrant—my father was from a very rural village in Bengal in Northern India. We would go there for months at a time and it always struck me that there were no garbage cans because nothing’s thrown away. Everything is reused in some fashion, all the way down to the cow dung. Regardless of whether you’re in a small village or in a big city, it taught me how to do more with less. Also, being from India, I don’t think of population growth as a scary thing. I think you have to welcome people into the world—and that means thinking about how we can sustainably house the next generations.
That’s a really important point: Population growth is not a problem. Rather, we should be focusing on how we evolve and how we adapt to make sure that everyone has accessible housing—that everyone has access to clean water and electricity. For our readers who aren’t so familiar with your work, can you talk a bit about why high-density, low-rise housing will become such an important part of housing in the future?
Apartments are much more ecologically sound than single family houses because they heat and cool each other. To give you an example, the average New Yorker uses a third less carbon than the average American. That’s not because we’re particularly virtuous people, but because we live in apartments and we use mass transit. For this reason I have nothing against high rises, but they’re not well suited to meet the challenges of population growth, particularly in the Global South. A high rise building is typically built out of either concrete or steel. Those are very high embodied energy materials, which means they require a lot of carbon to produce. And it’s very hard to sustainably create energy for all the residents living in the building unless the entire city is on a clean grid. There are all sorts of technologies being developed to address both problems (we’re trying to create cleaner forms of concrete and steel, and some high rises are erected using carbon-friendly materials like tall timber), but the solutions are probably at least a decade away. We are in the midst of a major planetary crisis and we’re trying to hit certain carbon targets by 2030, which is just around the corner. So our focus should be on the technologies we have available.
“We need sustainable, urban housing that is fairly cheap to build because the cost of living and the cost of housing has reached critical levels everywhere.”
The high-density, low-rise housing, which we call goldilocks housing, sits between the high-rise and the single family house. Even at about three stories, you can house people at transit-oriented density, all the while being low scale enough that you can build with affordable means using sustainable materials like wood. International building code says you don’t need an elevator at three stories or less because people in a wheelchair can use the ground floor apartments. The reason I mention this is because, as soon as a builder installs an elevator, they typically put so much money into the development that they build a long hallway and two fire stairs to bring in more residents. All of a sudden, we’re dealing with a much bigger, more expensive building with a much higher carbon usage. That’s a problem. The other challenge is the amount of energy it takes to operate a building. In sunny climates, the goldilocks model can generate more electricity than the inhabitants of that three-story building need, rendering it carbon negative.
Accessibility, affordability, carbon negativity—those are the things the world needs right now. We need sustainable, urban housing that is fairly cheap to build because the cost of living and the cost of housing has reached critical levels everywhere. That’s not to say the goldilocks model is a silver bullet to every one of the world’s problems. And it isn’t that sexy compared to new technologies. It’s modest, three-story housing built out of wood or brick that generates electricity using solar panels. It’s not something that you’re going to go get a patent on and win a huge sales pitch. It’s one example of consolidating our knowledge to bring people affordability and sustainability. And given where the climate curves are trending, we’ve got to focus on the known.
That also makes it really scalable, right? You mentioned that the majority of goldilocks housing can be made using largely wood.
Or it can be brick in more humid climates. The idea is not a one-size-fits-all model. What we’ve developed is a prototype framework. For example: goldilocks-style housing in New York would be made from wood as it has a certain characteristic that’s well known to people. But in Calcutta, the houses would be made from brick because of monsoons. You could generate carbon negativity while housing a lot of people near mass transit in walkable green neighborhoods for very low cost in both latitudes. That’s the problem that we’re trying to solve with the model.
You’ve spoken about how architects can work with communities around the world to make this housing appealing and culturally relevant. What might that look like in practice?
There’s all sorts of things you can do to localize the model. I think one of the failures of 20th century modernism is this notion of universal architecture that assumes one size fits all. Whereas now we are keen on understanding the narratives of people and places and how the things we build reflect these narratives. If I’m building something in London, it can’t just be picked up and moved to Dubai and then make sense. It needs to have local relevance for people. This prototype can be changed in all sorts of ways. Three-story housing has created some of the most beloved neighborhoods all over the world. Consider the row house neighborhoods in London or in Boston or the hutongs in Beijing. I think extraordinarily important for housing to be something that really amplifies the sense of community.
You’ve already mentioned carbon negativity, but in what ways can this type of housing actually benefit our environment—even as our global population grows?
The numbers always scare people. It was in around 2007 that we hit seven billion people on the planet. The United Nations estimates that we’ll probably stabilize at a global population of about 11 billion people by 2100. Whenever I say this publicly, it scares everyone to death. But we live on a very big planet and if we just use the planet’s resources in a smarter way—in other words: use less land to live—11 billion people can live on this planet in a way that is both equitable and ecological. We just need to follow a vision that’s different to our current consumer model.
If you’ve read The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells, you’ll know that the majority of climate change has occurred since the first episode of Seinfeld aired. We often think it started in industrial England. But, in reality, the massive acceleration of the planet’s warming has happened in the last few decades. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we successfully moved about 2 billion people out of poverty and into the middle class around the world—in India and China and Turkey and Brazil. And that’s great, but as things stand right now it’s also very strenuous for the planet. The question is how do you make sure that 11 billion people are not living in poverty, while acknowledging and respecting that the planet has limited resources?
Much of the world’s political tension—and the subsequent rise of fascism—centers on the issue of migration. And we’re only going to experience more migration unless we understand how to house new populations without fear; without this sense that it’s a zero sum game. It’s important for architecture to rise to that challenge in a way that says: We know how to do this; We have the technology, the ability and the will to build housing that doesn’t cause conflict.
It’s a couple of things. In the capitalist model, developers are usually trying to maximize their return on investment. At the same time, we have made it very hard and very expensive to build in cities like London, New York, and San Francisco. So, the way they maximize their return on investment is by building the biggest structures they can. But in the outskirts, there are plenty of rail-based places where you’ll see the density drop from towers to single family houses. Those single family house neighborhoods are fiercely protective of their scale—and that’s regardless of their politics, whether they’re progressive communities or conservative communities. This three-story model is much less threatening than saying to those communities: We’re going to build big towers in your neighborhood near your rail stations.
There aren’t enough developers interested in building at this scale because, although it can be profitable, it’s a much more modest profit than building luxury condos in the center of the city. Also, we’ve got an urban planning regime that tends not to focus enough on densifying the outer rings around our cities, which is where a lot of this density’s going to have to land. The goldilocks model is not a silver bullet. We’re still going to have to build towers in cities. We’re still going to have to extend our metro lines and bus services. But sometimes human beings have a hard time seeing the thing that’s right in front of them. That’s where I’ve been trying to focus my attention.
It’s also about incentive, right? Short-term profits are more appealing to developers than investing in architecture that aids the wellbeing of our planet.
Sure, but we can’t leave it all up to developers. Governments have to get involved with the right to housing. We have to get past that moment where we believe that the private sector’s going to solve all of our problems. The private sector can help solve some problems, but this is not something that can or should just leave to the marketplace to solve.