The Architects Working to Solve the World’s Homelessness Problem

The Architects Working to Solve the World’s Homelessness Problem

riza3architects have designed a house than costs 50 percent less to build than the average home. Their idea won first prize in the 'Tiny Home Community' competition.
April 11, 2016, 3:07pm

l-r Skopelitis, Christoula, and Valsamidis. All photos by Cristos Sarris

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece

The morning sun breaks through the lowered blinds and lights up the green carpeting in riza3architects' headquarters in the center of Athens. In the waiting room, desks have been placed next to each other in a Tetris-like pattern. For a moment, I think of the last time I visited an architectural office. That space was trying really hard to show it was "modern." Here on the other hand, on the fourth floor of a polygonal building, things are different—there are no soulless "modern touches," no decoration. Desks, papers, architectural tools, and the people that work here; that's it.

Stratis Skopelitis, one of the founders of the firm, greets me with a warm welcome. "Sorry to keep you waiting but we're kind of swamped today," he explains as he shows me to his office.

"How can design address homelessness?" I ask as soon as we are in. Stratis sits up in his chair. "That was the question we had to answer when we started working on this project." Last year, the team—consisting of Skopelitis and his colleagues Maria Christoula and Alexandros Valsamidis—took part in the 'Tiny Home Community' competition, set up by members of the North Carolina branch of the American Institute of Architects.

The competition was asking participants to design low-cost homes with prefabricated elements, that could house the homeless folk of Raleigh, North Carolina. More than 100 architectural offices from all over the world answered the call, including some well-established companies, but first prize was eventually awarded to riza3.

Stratis Skopelitis

A local media frenzy ensued, as soon as news of their victory spread throughout Greece. Everyone wanted to meet the three young people, who had found a groundbreaking, cost-effective, and above all functional solution to the housing problem. "We didn't expect all the publicity we got," Stratis says, still somewhat shocked. "We certainly didn't know how to deal with it. We've won competitions in the past but none of them garnered so much attention."

Maria Christoula enters the office in a rush. "Sorry but Alexandros (Valsamidis) just called to say he's going to be a bit late, as there is some work to be done at one of our building sites." Maria, Stratis, and Alexandros have known each other for years, having worked together for one of the largest Athenian architectural firms before creating "Riza3architects." They've worked on a variety of projects, both state-funded and independent, designing swimming pools, railway stations, and a number of homes. "Above all, we are friends," Maria points out. "At some point we decided to work together because we speak the same language, have common views on architecture, and generally seem to complete each other."

I ask her how they ended up taking part in the competition. "We had been working on the specific project for a while. But it was gathering dust in our drawers because for many Greek architects at this particular moment in time, a project like that is a luxury. We need to prioritize projects that cover our financial needs. Unfortunately in this country right now, most young architects have to offer their services almost for free, and go through the motions losing touch with the social value of architecture. At least those who haven't moved abroad yet."

Maria Christoula

I ask Stratis and Maria if they have also thought of looking at their options abroad. "I lived in England for six years but I couldn't imagine building a life there so I came back," Stratis says. "Now, together with Alexandros and Maria, we're trying to keep our excitement alive—we're trying to battle our demons and look for ways to stay creative. This award gave us the valuable feeling that our work is recognized and appreciated. It's a friendly pat on the back, something that tells us to keep going."

The office door swings open again and in walks a burly man in a dusty blue T-shirt. The cement dust on his hands reveals that he has just been at a building site. "This is Alexandros," Maria chirps in. "Give me a few minutes to clean up and we'll go for a walk in the city center," Alexandros offers.

A little while later we're heading towards the neighborhoods of Metaxourgio and Kerameikos. We wander around Avdi square—an area that has been flooded with homeless people in the recent years of the financial crisis. "Our study came out of our own personal concerns, our experiences, our architectural influences, and current social needs. In other words, the homeless issue was not something we had to imagine, it's something we are faced with. We see those people every day—they live next to us, on the side of the street," Alexandros explains as we walk towards Leonidou street.

The crippling sense of futility that hangs over Greece and the useless information we are bombarded with every day make it difficult for a person to focus. But we didn't give up. We tried to keep our minds clear of distractions and focus on the task at hand.

Maria jumps in: "I think we also need to point out that no architectural study can solve the homelessness issue, if it isn't followed up by political action and specific plans for social intervention. We're just here to offer a solution for low-cost housing. The good thing about this competition was that it allowed us to find the space needed to further develop our study. The deadline, the specific requirements, and the transparency with which the whole competition operated, helped us focus solely on our work."

"I'm not saying that it wasn't an arduous process far from it. The crippling sense of futility that hangs over Greece and the useless information we are bombarded with every day, make it difficult for a person to focus on anything. You get discouraged; you want to quit, to run away from your problems. But we didn't give up. We tried to keep our minds clear of distractions and focus on the task at hand."

"We all have our own method. Stratis, for example, would leave the office when all the work was done for the day and ride endlessly around town on his bicycle, until his mind had cleared. Alexandros finds peace when horseriding, while I have an 11-year-old boy to take care of. I also use what little free time I have to learn how to play the violin. We were basically just trying to stay creative and to avoid being crushed by the every day pressures of making ends meet. To escape from the black cloud that hangs over Greece. Today, we're proud of what we have achieved."

Photo by Cristos Sarris

I ask Alexandros what makes their study unique: "I think the main thing is that it's a truly groundbreaking idea and a highly affordable solution within the boundaries of a permanent home plan. Essentially the structure is made up of elements that could be produced in a factory or found within a range of 50 kilometers from where the structure is set up. Our design costs 50 percent less to build than the average home. Moreover, we have made use of things that would normally end up in the garbage, such as materials than can be salvaged from demolition sites. Just imagine rubble being transformed into a classy home—a home that is in harmony with the environment. Another thing that also appealed to the competition committee, was the fact that our designs can be expanded into bigger homes. They essentially function like Lego bricks, something that greatly assists any plans for standardization and industrial production, allowing us to cut back on production costs even further."

At the moment, the Activate14 initiative that set up the competition in North Carolina is busy trying to gather the necessary funds to activate the first series of production. At the same time, thousands of miles away, on the fourth floor of a polygonal building in Athens the minds that came up with it are planning their next steps—seeking out new uses, sizes, and formats for their design.

"These design could have countless applications—from bicycle parks and homeless communities, all the way to holiday homes," Alexandros says before rushing out to visit another building site.