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The University of Southampton

Designing a solution for homelessness

Creating a new living space to help those on the streets

3 May 2019

Each year, as many as 4.1 million people could be exposed to homelessness in the EU ( according to FEANTSA ). However, a team of designers, architects and experts, including academics from the University of Southampton, have started to tackle this growing global problem from a new perspective, using art and design to help get people off the streets and into safer spaces.

This international project ­– ‘Topographies of the Homeless’ – involves Dr Daniel Cid , Associate Professor of Design Studies at the University’s Winchester School of Art. Along with Eva Serrats and Fransesc Pla from Leve Projects (a Barcelona-based studio), and in collaboration with Arells Fundacio (an organisation fighting homelessness in Barcelona), he has combined his passions for social change and design to help create a new kind of accommodation for homeless people.

Zero Flat is a specially designed apartment that provides chronically homeless people in Barcelona with a safe space to sleep at night, acceptance within the community, and a transitional step towards changing their circumstances for good. Remarkably, this is a new typology of apartment which aims to help those in particular who experience difficulties adapting to existing housing resources due to their high degree of social exclusion.

Its design mimics the structure of the street, including adaptable beds that resemble benches and water fountains, while incorporating modern and advanced design. The team wanted to remove the space from the traditional clinical and practical designs of hostels and shelters, giving the homeless dignity and a welcoming place to stay.

The design was created through continual consultation and collaboration with experts and members of the homeless community, using meetings and artwork to inspire and develop the look and purpose of the room. This method of co-creative design puts the needs of the homeless at the very centre of the project. The team received the prestigious Culture Gold prize from the Spanish designers’ association ADI FAD in 2018 for Zero Flat’s innovative design and approach.

Zero Flat (image credit: Eva Serrat)
Zero Flat (image credit: Eva Serrat)

As well as designers and charitable organisations, this project also benefited from expertise, funds and technical knowledge from engineers (AIA) and construction companies (including Isolana, Frobo, Lamp, Gabarró, Wisa Plywood, PCL, DecoInnova, Foampsa, Bruc Jardí, Schüco and Persiana Barcelona.

“Design matters. Homeless people deserve very good design, too. Why do they have to be in spaces that look like basic hospitals or night shelters?” says Daniel.

“The design should come from the person who is sleeping on the street. We not only observe the users who need the facility, but we involve them in the whole process. It’s about enabling them to continue with their routines somewhere that looks like the street but is also a beautiful space.

The keys to homeless people’s inclusion can be found where their exclusion has developed; namely in the streets they live in

Dr Daniel Cid - Associate Professor of Design Studies
Zero Flat (image credit: Eva Serrat)
Zero Flat (image credit: Eva Serrat)

The project has been a huge success: in its first two years, 74 per cent of visitors have changed their situation after staying at Zero Flat. Many have moved into housing, are renting a room, have been admitted to a nursing home or are in hostels. While this is still classed as homelessness, it is a step forward and shows a promising future for those who have struggled to leave the street in the past.

Daniel and his project partners are now hoping to continue their work on tackling homelessness through design, with plans to open another flat in a different location. He is also working locally with homeless charities in Winchester – in particular, Trinity Winchester – to develop effective change and inviting communities to participate and get involved.

Wherever you are, homelessness is an issue we should all be focusing on and finding solutions for, he explains.

“Millions of people are just one pay check away from being unable to pay for their home, and homeless people are part of our society."

Design has the capacity to reconfigure situations like this. When something isn’t working, and you have to find a new solution, design is a good strategy.

Dr Daniel Cid - Associate Professor of Design Studies

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