Interview with Avi Friedman on his book Innovative Houses

Past approaches no longer sustain new demands and require innovative thinking.
Avi Friedman

The need for a new outlook is propelled by fundamental changes that touch upon environmental, economic and social aspects.

Dr. Avi Friedman is renowned housing expert, known internationally for his housing innovations. He is a Professor at the McGill School of Architecture in Montreal, Canada, where he co-founded the Affordable Homes Program in 1988. He is also an Honorary Professor in Lancaster University in the U.K. Acclaimed by Wallpaper magazine as one of the top 10 people “most likely to change the way we live,” Dr. Friedman has authored 14 books and peer-reviewed articles on subjects ranging from prefabrication and construction technology to suburban planning and space management, for academic journals. We talk with him about his new book Innovative Houses: Concepts for Sustainable Living that will be piblished in September 2013.

AS: What’s new in your book we don’t have opportunities to read before?

AF: The book’s advantage and uniqueness, lays in its comprehensiveness. It contains/made-up of 20 topics that cover all aspects of the dwelling’s build and outdoor environment. These topics are exclusively examined for their relation and effect on the unit’s sustainable performance.
In addition to theories and principles, the book offers relevant examples that illustrate each chapter. It is thus an in-depth collection of highly innovative strategies that enhance the home’s sustainability and their recently built practical applications.

AS: Architects facing today with 2 challenges: environment changes and people’s lifestyle changes.
Planet is overpopulated, natural resources will disappear if we continue to exploit them at this rate, global warming, climate changes, etc. are some of the environment changes. Technology and diversity change our lifestyle that became more dynamic.
How architects can help solving these challenges? Does housing require innovative rethinking?

AF: Current planning and design modes of dwellings and communities are facing challenges of both philosophy and form. Past approaches no longer sustain new demands and require innovative thinking. The need for a new outlook is propelled by fundamental changes that touch upon environmental, economic and social aspects.

The depletion of non-renewable natural resources, elevated levels of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are a few of the environmental challenges that force designers to reconsider conceptual approaches in favour of ones that promote a better suitability between communities and nature. Consideration of overall planning concepts that minimize the development’s carbon footprint, district heating, passive solar gain, Net-Zero residences and preserving the site’s natural assets are some of the contemporary strategies that architects and builders are integrating into their thought process and residential design practice.

Increasing costs of material, labour, land and infrastructure have posed economic challenges with affordability being paramount among them. The need to do with less brings about concepts that include compact communities adaptable and expandable dwellings, and smaller-sized yet quality designed housing. Also, the need to reduce utility costs gave rise to better insulation, which benefits both the environment and the occupant.

Social challenges are also drawing the attention of designers, builders and homeowners. As the “baby-boom” generation plans for retirement, housing an elderly population will take priority. Walkable communities, aging in Place and multigenerational living are some of the concepts considered. In addition, live-work environments have become part of the economic reality for those who wish to work from home – which has become possible through digital advances.

The need to think innovatively about neighbourhoods led to the idea to write this book. The intention is to offer information on contemporary design concepts and illustrate them with outstanding international examples.

AS: What are main principles of sustainably designed houses?

AF: The guiding principles of sustainably designed homes are:

Least Negative Impact

The path of least negative impact is meant to argue that a decision maker of any planning endeavour needs to choose a process that will leave the smallest negative footprints on environmental, societal, economic or cultural aspects affecting or affected by the project. At the process’ outset, impact assessment will be undertaken to ensure that decisions made during the planning stage will have short or no long term disruptive ramifications on those issues.
The negative effects of a project on nature were touched upon above. Yet, a project can also have unwelcome economic ramifications. A high-priced luxury project in a neighbourhood made of low-income rental units may trigger conversion of properties into condominiums and force volatile residents out. Poorly constructed homes, for example, may stigmatize its occupants and cost more to heat and cool at the same time. When the project is constructed by a government authority, taxpayers will have to foot the bill throughout the project’s life.


A project’s lifecycle can be viewed as a self-sustaining process of resources and activities. Metaphorically, one can regard the energy that was used in the project’s conception and building as a generator of additional sources to power its existence and even contribute to the creation of additional similar projects. The self-sustaining principle is applied to each of the subcomponents that make up sustainable approaches to design and are listed above.
Supporting Relation

Another keystone of a sustainable project is the relationship between its pivotal parts. When a supporting relation is established, attributes of one component can propel activity in another. Influence between disciplines and effects of one on the other will in turn create a supporting system. A design that seeks to leave the list environmental footprints on the site will see, fewer trees cut and might become a marketing success. The project’s economic outcome may benefit clients who will be attracted to the project due to its “green” image. A supporting relation was, therefore, established between environmental and monetary interests.

A Life Cycle Approach

The mark of good a decision making for a sustainable system is a project’s ability to sustain itself throughout its entire lifecycle. Be it through each of its components or their interrelation, the conception and construction needs to ensure that the original attributes of the project will be of value years later. Contributions made in part of the process, although appreciated, will have a lesser impact than those made throughout. If the project is well conceived and economically successful, homeowners will be more likely to invest in maintenance and upkeep, replace old windows, for example, which will contribute to energy savings. A well-built home will save its owner expenses on maintenance and operation in the long run. The longer the useful life of a project can be stretched, the better it is.

AS: Are new demands a limiting factor for architects in their design process?

AF: In my view, the new demands that where put forward by contemporary constraints offer opportunity for designers to be more innovative rather than limit their thinking. When designers have to think “outside the box” it forces them to be more creative. Selecting new forms, materials and relating the dwelling to the site can end up in a much thoughtful process and hence better designs.

April 8, 2014


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