Notes from a Recent Construction Site Visit

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La Borda’s north-facing street façade. The double-height communal space will eventually be enclosed with polycarbonate to form an intermediate climate zone in conjunction with a central atrium.

I was recently fortunate enough to be shown a truly interesting work of architecture currently under construction in Barcelona: La Borda housing co-operative, by Lacol arquitectura cooperativa. Visiting buildings under construction is, for me, fundamental (pardon the expression) to architectural learning. On a construction site, something real is being built for a practical use, not something that is merely intended to be admired visually or conceptually. Normally, of course, we visit (and evaluate) buildings when completed; or better yet, occupied. So these should be seen as merely notes; perhaps notes toward an eventual article after another visit once the building is completed and occupied.

This promises to be a very innovative building, but not for the usual reasons of algorithmic form, CAD-CAM, supposedly “smart” (surveillance) technology, or space-age materials, but precisely because it attempts to reinvent the typical Barcelona 6 or 7 storey block of flats between party walls in a way that makes it much more affordable, energy-efficient, and sociable –fields where architectural innovation is arguably most needed right now.

Below are the notes I jotted down after last Wednesday’s site visit. Until the building is actually completed and occupied, we won’t know for sure how well these innovations actually perform. But if they are successful, they could have a significant impact on the future of housing in this region, so this is certainly one building to watch in the future.

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The rear of the building will look south over a future park.

  • La Borda is a housing cooperative currently nearing completion in the Barcelona neighbourhood of La Bordeta, adjacent to the long-abandoned but recently reclaimed Can Batlló factory complex.
  • Pol Massoni, a member of the Lacol architectural co-operative that designed the building in collaboration with the housing co-operative, explains that the initiative for this pilot project came out of involvement in the neighbourhood struggle to reclaim and convert Can Batlló toward public use.
  • The seven-storey infill housing project is being built on a municipally owned plot of land that the City of Barcelona has ceded to the housing association for 75 years.
  • The members of the housing cooperative are diverse: young and elderly, single-parent households, groups of flat-mates, etc. Unlike most other sorts of housing, where the end-user is unknown during the design stage, the future residents of this building were able to participate in the design process, ensuring their needs could be met.
  • The building is designed mainly to be affordable, energy efficient, flexible, and communal in spirit.
  • It’s organized around a communal courtyard-atrium containing a winter garden.
  • A public passageway leads through the building from noisy Carrer de la Constitució street to the future park that is planned at the Can Batlló factory site.
  • The street-fronting ground floor commercial retail unit is earmarked for a food co-operative, while the rear park-facing ground floor space will contain a communal kitchen for the residents.
  • The building was exempted from having to provide underground parking for automobiles, saving the housing association a huge expense that was diverted toward communal space. A bicycle storage space is situated on the ground floor.
  • A communal multi-use event-space is situated above the food co-operative, overlooking the building’s central atrium via several rows of raked seating –a convenient feature for assemblies or cultural performances.
  • Dwelling units are accessed by gallery walkways encircling the atrium, a space that will soon be covered by an industrial greenhouse roof that can be opened in summer, permitting heat to escape, or closed in winter, creating an intermediate climate zone providing pre-warmed air for the ventilation of dwelling units. Plants along the access galleries are intended to further improve the atrium’s micro-climate.
  • The building steps back near the top to provide another communal space: an outdoor roof terrace for hanging laundry to dry, sunbathing or child-play.
  • The top-most roof is planted to counter urban heat-island effect.
  • The entire structure of the building is wood, except at ground floor, which is concrete. CLT has been used for the interior load-bearing walls, exterior walls, as well as the floor slabs and roof.
  • Exposed CLT ceilings are half a meter higher than is typical in Spain to permit more natural light entry into units for winter passive solar heating. Summer sun is blocked by cantilevering balconies and exterior operable roll-down blinds.
  • 14 cm thick CLT floor slabs are capped with a 7 cm layer of reinforced concrete to provide a 90 minute fire resistance, while also providing thermal inertia for winter passive solar heating (if the exposed CLT ceiling were ever to ignite, lessening its structural capacity, the layer of concrete would begin to perform structurally).
  • A bedroom-size space situated between dwelling units can be made to adjoin either unit from either side, or can become an independent gallery-accessed office or separate bedroom for a teenager or the grandparents of a member of the co-operative. This provides flexibility in the unit layout and the opportunity for units to become larger or smaller as needed over time. 
  • Members of the housing co-operative are participating in the construction of the building after having received training, performing relatively basic tasks. In a similar vein, dwelling units are raw and left to members to finish to their needs.
  • Membership fee to join the co-operative is apparently 18,000€ (reimbursable with interest upon leaving). The average rent in this building will be around 450€, a fraction of typical rents in the city.
  • La Borda breaks with both the private model of dwelling ownership that depends largely on banks, while also breaking with public social housing models in which inhabitants usually have little say.
  • A foundation has been created for the purpose of sharing knowledge about this housing experiment.
  • The city of Barcelona has apparently provided 5 more plots of land for this model to be replicated.
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Access galleries and dwelling units seen from the central atrium

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About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture, CIEE Architecture and Design program, as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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