September 16, 2020

How are you leaving your mark?

I found myself contemplatively looking out of the window when I realised the house opposite was built in 1905, a date which is very proudly exhibited on the top of the building. I needed to put this in context of the world happenings; Albert Einstein finished his scientific paper on the Quantum Theory of Light, Las Vegas was founded in Nevada, ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration as part of the Russian Revolution took place, the Panama Canal was still under construction, … , and the building of this house.

My thoughts then immediately went to the beautiful use of the stone and the proportions of the façade. Having not had the pleasure to visit the inside, I wondered what it would look like, fantasized about the lavish orchard or garden… but most of all, the question that really started to vex me was “Are we producing designs that will withstand the test of time, just like the designers of this house managed to do 115 years ago?”

“Are we producing designs that will withstand the test of time, just like the designers of this house managed to do 115 years ago?”

This, together with questions such as, “but what does your practice actually do?” or “what is your architectural style?” and “graphic design and architecture/structures? What a strange combination!”. So, I am going to attempt at describing at what we mean by design and how we hope that a different mindset at defining this may produce work, graphic or architectural/structural, of a different quality and sensitivity, and how we are hoping to continue growing personally and professionally.

So, what is our design process?

The etymology of the word design is of Latin, French and Italian origin first used in the late 14th century meaning "to make, shape" ultimately from Latin designare "mark out, point out; devise; choose, designate, appoint" from de "out" and signare "to mark" from signum "identifying mark, sign". In no part of this meaning does it refer to architecture, engineering, graphic communication, planning or any other discipline that we now associate with design, but in fact, it is related to making ‘a mark’.

Back to my question then: “what mark are we leaving on our society? And how are we, as an inter-disciplinary group of professionals, making that mark?”

Similar to Charles Morris’ argument that in every language is the study of semiotics, we believe that design is a visual language and therefore our process is based on three intangible aspects: semantic, syntactic and pragmatic. In briefly considering each of these aspects:

  • Semantics is the search the meaning of whatever we would like to undertake. This involves getting to know our client well, the products or services, the position in marketing, the final user, etc. The complexities of these signs need to be understood to define the parameters within which we operate within the realms of a project. Semantics is the bases of the natural process of design.
  • Syntactics is, for want of an easier word, the grammar of a language, the articulation of phrases and the formal relation between signs. Applied to architecture this could refer to the composition or configuration of an architype, etc.; in graphic design it is the grid used, typefaces, illustrations, etc. The consistency of the syntactics is paramount.
  • Pragmatics focuses on the communication of these principles – the relation between sign and behaviour. This visual design language should be easy to understand with minimal explanation. The clarity within the design process then translates to clarity of intent within a project which in turn gives clarity to the result.

Therefore signs, language and behaviour are not only an invaluable tool for the semantic specialist, but we believe that we as designers ought to be concerned with problems of meaning, language, and communication too. By way of elucidating how we do this, I have listed our ‘design rules’ and describe what meaning we prescribe to timelessness, context, appropriateness, discipline, digitalisation, responsibility, and wellbeing, and how we apply these to design.


Design is not a style or fashion. We promote the projection of an ideology encompassing awareness of the production process and the destination of its products. Styles, on the other hand, are purely ephemeral manifestations of the speculative desire of producers, possibly reflecting a culture of waste, temporary solutions, and design for the sake of novelty.

We attempt at challenging the interaction between intuition and knowledge, and bridge passion and curiosity, while responding to the clients’ needs rather than wants. Our ‘design style’ is beyond fashionable modes and temporary fads. We like design to be timeless as much as possible, one which is committed to society and values, centred around the message rather than visual excitement.

We attempt at challenging the interaction between intuition and knowledge, and bridge passion and curiosity, while responding to the clients’ needs rather than wants.


Context and appropriateness are consequential conditions and are both an integral part of the design process. In architecture, the context relates to the environment where a building is going to be located and how it relates to its surroundings and culture. In graphic design it relates to the destination of the object, whether it is in 2D or 3D. In all cases, the market and economic conditions framing the project at its inception need to be understood.

We feel that evaluating the context well, including its constraints, leads to good design and the correct interpretation and transformation of its requirements in a creative way.


This notion is consequent to what has been said above – it is the principle that prevents us from taking wrong directions and indicates the right material, scale or expression that is required to solve a client’s problem. The solution must be appropriate to the problem and context.

Human Well-beign

Whether you believe that the ‘devil’ or ‘God’ is in the details, the fundamental meaning behind this mantra is that all design requires discipline and attention to detail. The final work is the sum of all the details involved in the creative process no matter what the project is. For us, discipline is closely associated with quality. We believe that we either produce work of quality, or we step back. The work we produce is a commitment and a continuously painstaking effort to be true to the creative process.

“Design without discipline is anarchy, an exercise of irresponsibility”, Massimo Vignelli.


“Whatever computer graphic technologies offer, freehand drawing remains the most apposite tool to transcribe the abstract into the figurative; for the bridge between mind and paper is still best crossed by the hand. It is essential to ensure that the mouse does not eat the pencil.” Richard England

While we believe and practice this, it is inevitable for digitalisation not to affect our process in any way. By using integration modelling among the clients, consultants and contractors (where possible) expressing thoughts in 3D, ‘clashes’ may also be detected at an early stage in a project where they are much easier, cheaper and less time consuming to rectify. It is also difficult for parametric design to be done by hand. Our process enables simulations and other computational processes to be intertwined with the fine arts.


This is one of the most important principles of our practice. By responsibility we do not only mean ensuring the integrity of a project and valuing our clients’ trust to solve a problem economically and efficiently. We are also socially responsible for the public at large who is also the final user of our designs. We strive for our civic consciousness, our sense of decency, or way of conceiving design, and our moral imperative by using intellectual elegance to conceive a responsible solution.


Central to the framework within which we develop the design process is the focus of human well-being.

By putting our client and their needs first we are able to create bespoke solutions that engage and enhance the human element of the project. For us, the inter-disciplinary approach uses collaboration as a method to shift boundaries of design and endeavours in giving the client the best tailored-made solution.


The spirit of our design studio is that Design Is One. This does not mean that we believe in Adolf Loos’ dictum that an architect would be able to design everything “from the spoon to the city”. What we strive to achieve is a truly interdisciplinary team where each member has a true input in making our clients’ projects come to fruition, involving the clients in all phases of the project, and really making it about them. We all have our influences from the world around us which affect our mind in a deep and formative way. The key to this, we found, is to keep continuously sifting through the various influences so as not to fall in the danger of imitation and its seductiveness.

The principles outlined within this design process may be distilled by using the terms collaboration and interdisciplinarity inter-changeably. The disciplines work together through both consensus and disagreement. Tension is inevitable but not necessarily perceived as negative, as it is what often unshackles our mode of creative thinking (Scicluna, 2015). Boundaries get shifted through collaborative interchange of ideas and concepts, breaking limitations of understanding a project through a single lens.

We love what we do and that is how we intend on making our mark.


Scicluna, R. (2015) ‘Exploring Meaningfully and Creatively the Tensions Arising out of Collaborations: An Anthropological Perspective’, Anthropology Matters Journal, 16(1):414-426.


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August 17, 2020

How to grow your business to be radically different?

Have you ever realised that sometimes there is that one advert, on TV or otherwise, that really grabs your attention? Did you ever buy anything because of the brand name and what it represents? Marketing strategies, and therefore branding identity and graphic design strategies behind them, are all based around these principles – what do people want/need – and to then create a system which makes these products or services irresistible.

We will here be looking at how brands can distinguish themselves from their competition by providing something which tips the consumer balance in their favour, creating the necessity for the consumer to acquire the product or use the service in establishing a wanted lifestyle. We are all familiar how Harley Davidson, Tesla, Apple, to name a few, have created niche products that define a lifestyle. The most important of achieving is that they have managed to stand out in the crowd and developed things have cultural meaning and are used for cultural ends. The latter vary from the meanings associated with particular items, to statement making about identity and aspiration, as well as the vehicle for enabling particular relationships with other people.

By extension, brands need to harness the evocative power of things and services.

The Harley-Davidson lifestyle
Marketplace Clutter

We live in a world which is fast (and getting faster) and a world of more. So much ‘more’ that sometimes we tend to have a cluttered life (Marie Kondo please!). This is not only true for our daily lives but it also for companies that are faced with competition from too many products, services, features, messages, meanings or media.

marketplace clutter
Forms of Marketplace Clutter; Source: Zag, Marty Neumeier (2007)

There is too much of everything. And the knee-jerk reaction is to fight clutter with more clutter! How is a brand, therefore, to break through all of this, and be the one that sticks to people’s mind, while it inadvertently buildings mental walls to block out all the clutter. Probably for the first time in history, the most powerful barriers to brand competition are not controlled by companies, but by customers. So how is a brand going to stand out?

“Probably for the first time in history, the most powerful barriers to brand competition are not controlled by companies, but by customers. So how is a brand going to stand out?”

Zig Zag

“The new rule: When everybody zigs, zag”, says Marty Neumeier in his 2007 publication ‘Zag’. Differentiation is the art of standing out from the competition. But in a setting of clutter, you need more than differentiation – you need radical differentiation. A brand needs to find its niche rather than continuing to plough through a saturated marketplace. A brand needs to create an uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. To develop this and deliver profits may take years rather than months. You cannot be the leader by following the leader.

But what does different mean? At what cost should things be different? Should they be different even at the expense of quality? Here again therefore there is relationship between good and different which needs to be taken into account when change is proposed.

good vs different
Relationship between good and different in the positioning within the marketplace (Neumeier, 2007)

Without going into too much detail of this graph, brands need to position themselves in the top right hand corner – Good & Different; ‘Not Good’ is not an option; ‘Good but Not Different’ falls within the same old saturated market. If a product or service positions itself as good and different, its innovation will shine through in a saturated market. The biggest winner at this will not be the brand that is first into the marketplace, but the one that is first into people’s minds. This strategy applies to both new start-ups as well as to well-established companies who would like to boost their momentum and reposition their brand in the marketplace.

The question now is “How does one zag?”. Finding open market space may be a counterintuitive skill, as it is easier to notice what is on the market rather than that which is not. Our recommendation is to uncover a consumer need. This will only be possible by understanding what your client is after, where he would like to position himself in society through using an innovative product or service, and hence what lifestyle he/she would like to have.

“The biggest winner at this will not be the brand that is first into the marketplace, but the one that is first into people’s minds.”

Understanding your clients and their culture

The methodology of knowing what makes the clients’ eyes shine and use this in marketing is not new. The hardest part of radical differentiation is the creation of a new product or service through the formation of a ‘bridge to hopes and ideals’ (as framed by McCracken, 1988). This bridge makes up for the difference between the ideal which the client wants and their actual state – a bridge to the desired state of being.

In understanding the ultimate user of your product or service, you also need to understand the cultural context in which they were brought up and the one that they now operate in. As INTEL anthropologist Genevieve Bell says, you must understand what people care about in order do business. In her work intersecting cultural practice and technological development this was especially important in the introduction of new products in various countries. In her research she focusses about how culture in Europe and Asia differs from the US in terms of how people use technology and where; linking and appreciating what the customer wants within the culture they are in.

Dr Genevieve Bell on culture and technology

So, while building a company culture that thrives on radical differentiation through putting the interests of its clients first, how does the client’s culture affect this understanding and what should companies focus on? In answering this question, one needs to recognise that material culture that the clients live in, what makes them tick and therefore how culture shapes consumption.

This consumption and the accumulation of objects is a trend can be traced as far back as the seventeenth century. ‘Possessive individualism’ in western cultures was brought to the fore with the emergence of the person as owner, i.e. an individual surrounded by accumulated property and goods. It is this reaction towards the element of want and need that brands need to understand to be able to infiltrate and excel in a marketplace.

Therefore, brands should ask themselves the inevitable question: Is consumption merely an irrational behaviour? Can things be ‘the material culture of love’? What if brands position products and services on a different perspective? Gone should be the days that brands and marketing offer a culture solely associated with a soulless or an immoral consumerist practice.

What if brands thought of objects from a different social and economic perspective? Could it be that they position themselves to enable the making and maintaining of relationships? A British anthropologist, Daniel Miller in his book, “A Theory of Shopping” suggests that consumption and capitalism are not incompatible to social values of the self, the family and the community. Instead, his research goes to the extreme and suggests that shopping is about love and about a way of making relations with others. Brands should do precisely this! They need to make tangible the feeling that their clients have for their friends and family. Their product or service needs to match how they feel – reflecting their product as an idea of themselves through the client’s consumption decisions.


The mantra of “thinking differently” has now been assimilated as the philosophy of the 21st century branding strategy. The key is to innovate at the speed of the market. Constant change requires constant novelty while moving into an era of perpetual innovation within a cultural context. The journey from innovation to commodity is so short that there is little time to capitalise on it – it is time for change!


1 Kim, W. C. & Mauborgne, R. (2015) Blue Ocean Strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant – expanded edition, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
McAlhone, B., Stuart, D., Quinton, G. & Asbury, N. (2016) A Smile in the Mind – Revised and Expanded Edition: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design, Phaidon.
3 McCracken, G. (1988) Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Good and Activities; The Evocative Power of Things, Indiana University Press.
4 Miller, D. (2013) A Theory of Shopping, Wiley.
5 Neumeier, M. (2006) The Brand Gap – How to bridge the distance between business strategy and design, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
6 Neumeier, M. (2007) Zag – The #1 Strategy of High-Performance Brands, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
7 Neumeier, M. (2006) The Brand Gap – How to bridge the distance between business strategy and design, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
8 Neumeier, M. (2016) The Brand Flip – Why customers now run companies and how to profit from it, New Riders (Peachpit Press).

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August 3, 2020

Benefits of being squashed like sardines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put unprecedented challenges on human behaviour. The various public health measures of lockdown, social distancing and hygiene accompanied by hefty fines pushed us indoors temporarily leaving ghost-like cities behind. In a short time, the reduction of human activity through remote employment enabled reductions in energy use, traffic, congestion, and air pollution.

Climate change is therefore an environmental, moral, and social issue. It requires a revaluation not only of the urban system but also the introduction of green and blue cities. This shift is by no means simple. In its principle it is ambitious as it asks individuals and large institutions to think differently about efficiency, conservation of finite resources, consumerism, the ecology and global exchange. However, who should be responsible in moving towards more responsible, inclusive, and sustainable choices?

“So how can we promote the sustainable development of our cities by virtue of understanding urban planning sensitively? Can densification and compact city policies lead to a more sustainable urban environment?”

Urban densification, that is increase in the number of dwelling units and mixed-use spaces per acre, is the key to tapping into the potential of cities to become part of the solution to climate change because it encourages efficiency and conservation, while managing dwellings and their respective population. It is a critical aspect of making a city more sustainable and environmentally friendly, since densification includes the need for local recreational areas and generally make green space more accessible for all.

Hong Kong housing
Densification and climate change

Richard Sennett, a professor of urban studies at MIT and senior adviser to the UN on its climate change and cities programme observes that, “At the moment we are reducing density everywhere we can, and for good reason”. “But on the whole density is a good thing: denser cities are more energy efficient. So, I think in the long term there is going to be a conflict between the competing demands of public health and the climate.”

In an age of globalisation and the world being ‘our oyster’, does the above mean that we should focus on the local instead of the global? The above also suggests that carefully planned cities can be dense, however, they must offer an adequate quality of life by creating a system of networks which links people to basic amenities – workplace, shopping stores, educational and religious spaces need to be within convenient proximities from each other.

Such amenities encourage other means of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation. This type of planning reduces the dependency on cars and creates a more harmonious place to dwell in, a city rightfully built for people, not cars.

“…carefully planned cities can be dense, however, they must offer an adequate quality of life by creating a system of networks which links people to basic amenities…”

Having cleaner air also offers a healthier environment for all. In the Brundtland report from 1988, the short distances between urban functions within Copenhagen coupled with a policy aimed at concentrating urban development around public transport (8) were believed in assisting the achievement of sustainable urban development. The latter example supports Sennett’s position and showcases that a more compact urban form supports efficient district heating systems (9) and multi-story housing has lower energy consumption per square meter for heating than detached single family housing (10).

It is estimated that air pollution alone can negatively affect GDP by about 2% to 4%. With urban populations expected to grow at an exponential rate in the coming years, cities will be the main contributors to pollution costs over the next 20 years if nothing is done (2).

This challenge is further complicated by the fact that density is not the only aspect of sustainable urban development. Sustainability in a broader sense should mean a dynamic balance between economic, environmental and social considerations. Therefore, density should not be understood in isolation but in relation to moral economy and social outcomes produced by different density levels (7). The problem of some urban development lies in the continued support of socio-geographical patterns, accelerating gentrification of slums in certain districts.

Now, what happens when you leave the responsibility to people in order find their own way in establishing their space within a city?

“It is estimated that air pollution alone can negatively affect GDP by about 2% to 4%.”

Densification allows people to flourish and be inventive

Necessity is the mother of invention. The word ‘densification’ took a whole new meaning in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Some called it uncontrolled densification, but this has produced a wonderful phenomenon. Let’s take you through the story of Torre David:

In 1990, construction began on the ‘Centro Financiero Confinanzas’, a huge high-rise office complex in Caracas. Construction halted in 1994, after a banking crisis and the 45-story tower stood vacant until 2007, when squatters began moving in, displaced by a massive housing shortage. Authorities at the time turned a blind eye, and the skyscraper, nicknamed the "Tower of David" (after its late owner David Brillembourg), was then home to more than 3,000 residents. The third-highest skyscraper in the country has been jury-rigged with electricity and water up to the 22nd floor making it the world's tallest slum (3, 4, 5).

The new tenants made use of cheap building materials, breeze blocks and tarpaulin, cardboard and corrugated iron, to construct their homes, very much typical of shanty towns. But rather than spreading horizontally, this ‘vertical slum’ became a truly fascinating example of re-appropriation of space in an urban environment.

The occupation of the tower, however, was more than just a search for living space. A flourishing economy built up inside its concrete walls, hairdressers, grocery stores and workshops served the community of increasingly settled occupants. The towers fomented a strong sense of community, utopic even. Roots were set down and the flowering buds of a society emerged, anchoring the tower with more than its massive foundations.

On July 23, 2014, President Nicolás Maduro announced that the government had not yet decided what to do with the building but was considering at least three possible options: “Some are proposing its demolition. Others are proposing turning it into an economic, commercial or financial centre. Some are proposing building homes there. …We’re going to open a debate.” (6) Tenants were evicted, while the future of the structure is still uncertain.

Video by Urban-Think Tank. Click here to see the full video documentary

Densification vs Disaggregation

This is urban planning speak for the tension between densification (a push for cities becoming more concentrated) and disaggregation (the separating out of communities in holding back infections and their transmission).

COVID-19 has therefore brought us closer together since there is a push towards improving local services, staycations and generally enjoying the community in which we live in. There is a renewed community activism. Sennett thinks we are potentially seeing a fundamental shift in urban social relations. “City residents are becoming aware of desires that they didn’t realise they had before,” he says, “which is for more human contact, for links to people who are unlike themselves.”

Whether we like it or not, in Malta densification is the norm, and much is being done to protect the scant and sparse rural areas that we have left, and the local biodiversity within it. But let’s face it, we have the luxury of proximity to one’s job not being a significant factor in deciding where to live and therefore there is lot that can already be done in terms of ensuring the wellbeing of citizens within cities if we only redirect our attention away from the car and towards more green forms of transport.

Perhaps a key lesson is that of finding a ‘respectable’ distance which ensures a sense of privacy while enabling human contact and exchange in the context of the compact city. Local plans need to be designed not to merely reflect narrow economic interests in attracting new residents and commercial activities, but rather these concepts would need to be embedded in a far-reaching, national planning strategy for sustainable urban development.

“Perhaps a key lesson is that of finding a ‘respectable’ distance which ensures a sense of privacy while enabling human contact and exchange in the context of the compact city.”

Malta city

The future is to design cities that people are able to socialise without being packed into ‘sardine-like’ venues, but still be far enough to protect themselves from disease. This will come with significant economic reforms. In Anderson’s words from 1998, “the illusion or urban renewal as an integration in which the basic attributes of the urban space is a richness and variety of relationship between people from different social and consumption groups falls own because of solutions dictated by the power of capital”.

We do not yet have the answer to this million-dollar conundrum. But in the new and unpredictable connections swiftly being forged within our cities as a result of the pandemic, there is perhaps some cause for optimism.


9 Owens, S., Energy, Environmental Sustainability and Land Use planning. Sustainable Development and Urban Form, ed. Breheny, M., Pion Limited, London, pp. 79-105, 1992.
10 Naess, P., et al. Baerekraftig byutvikling, NIBR, Oslo, 1996.

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July 27, 2020

Our 20/20 Vision: Could ugliness be a sign for change?

Throughout history, humans have continuously engaged with their environment according to their desires, wants and needs. Population growth and post-industrial developments have been a primary cause of environmental change. Water, ground or air pollution are a by-product of this. But an equally important form of pollution which, nowadays, is gaining increased attention is sensory pollution which impacts us psychologically and spiritually... How can attention to visual pollution aid quality of life?

“…sensory nature (of pollution) which impacts us psychologically and spiritually…visual pollution.”

Contrary to popular belief, visual pollution is not simply an aesthetic issue impairing one’s ability to enjoy a vista or a view. It causes skewed perceptions of our space identity and consequently causes environmental stress. The impact is significant, causing anxiety, stimulus overload, distraction, chronic restlessness and inefficiency in human activity, including eye fatigue. Excessive visual stimuli are largely related to greater product consumption. Media advertising often leads the consumer to excessive shopping (or even shopaholicism) accompanied with unhealthy and fast food purchases which may result in obesity and a series of diseases.

In fact, a large portion of what we are exposed to has already been criticized as being of poor taste. Massimo Vignelli, a renowned Italian graphic designer commonly known for designing the New York City subway map, formed his elegantly and simple signature style by departing from the clutter often seen in commercial design (3). Vignelli once said: "there are too many people with no education in graphic design. And because they have access to computers, there's no end to what they create … It's pollution! … If they were pharmaceuticals companies, we'd all be poisoned. But we are poisoned anyhow, visually."(4)

So how can good design and planning reduce visual pollution in our cities? From a built environment perspective, visual pollution leads to the loss of original character (a loss of space identity) of a region. It affects property prices by influencing the attractiveness of a certain area too. It reduces natural diversity (directly affecting flora and fauna) and restricts comfort of space.

As designers we are in an advantageous position as we are trained to see visual patterns through which we can enhance quality of life by incorporating harmony into the built environment. Thus, we ask, how can we plan for, mitigate and create better solutions to move away from ugliness and visual pollution?

Signage, Graphics & Communication

Commercial signage is not new - the Romans were known to use signboards for shopfronts and to announce public events. Fast forward to today where, digital technology has exposed us to eye-catching (and distracting) digital billboards that offer greater effectiveness than traditional physical posters (and here we will not be delving into the merit of effective poster communication). As a result, researchers show that a person is exposed to roughly 400 advertisement messages per day. (2)

“researchers show that a person is exposed to roughly 400 advertisement messages per day”

Billboards. Visual Pollution

In the age of the Anthropocene, where continuous flow of information is the norm, we ask, is all this visual overload of information in our lives and cities necessary? Is this what we want to leave to our future generations?

A less considered impact of signage is that of energy and climate change. According to Nicola Round from Adblock Bristol (10): “Bristol was the first UK council to declare a climate emergency, so it makes no sense to then install new digital advert screens. We know from planning applications that a double-sided digital bus advertisement uses the same annual energy as four households. So, imagine the big ones, let alone the environmental impact of the over-consumption encouraged by these advertising boards”.

“…a double-sided digital bus advertisement uses the same annual energy as four households…”

Then, there is another reality. Wayfinding in a new town can be daunting and distressing. Despite the fact, that local knowledge in some cultures (like Malta) can aid the lack of disorientation, not every local or tourist has access to such knowledge. As stated at the outset, population growth requires management which addresses multiple needs. Hence, having efficient wayfinding techniques of proper street names, signs and landmarks can be beneficial for all. It is more inclusive.

Wayfinding is generally underestimated as a participatory methodology of inclusivity. It not only helps solve spatial problems and allows people to travel to their desired destination, but it can also be about community building as it can be sensitive to those individuals who finding it distressing asking for directions. For example, What3words is a digital wayfinding technique which is gaining traction: Shall we meet at ///renew.acted.quite for a coffee?

Buildings, Accretions and Services

In the UK, a modernist addition to an existing building is frequently dismissed as ugly and often described as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend” (Prince Charles on the National Gallery, London, 1984) (12). People always think that it is the building that makes a city ugly. Just because a building stands out from the ones around it, it does not make it an ugly or a bad building. Aesthetic criticism is important, and of course how a building functions within its environment will impact its success, but this is only one aspect of quality design (6).

Over the last 20 years or so, Malta has seen a drastic change in the way it has developed. The rhetoric on construction and mass development boosted by rapid financial and population growth, swayed developers into fast construction for the leasing market most often with very little focus on design and wellbeing of the tenants. We may still be graced with the pretty little towns and the seaside villages, but our surroundings are generally very prone to being visually polluting too. Have we reached a point where we can now paraphrase with Sir John Betjeman: “Goodbye to old Malta. We who loved you are sorry. They've carted you off by developer's lorry.”

“Goodbye to old Malta. We who loved you are sorry. They've carted you off by developer's lorry.”

Roads. Visual Pollution

This visual pollution and uglification of cities manifests itself in new buildings of poor design, accretions/insensitive additions to old buildings, poorly executed restoration and abandoned buildings, not to mention public services and infrastructure, shop signs, ill-designed street furniture, public lighting, loosely-hanging electric wires and antennas and broken pavements. Moreover, the myriad of garbage bins/bags (5) which line our streets at different times of day waiting patiently for their collector.

City Design Promoting Wellbeing

As we discussed in a previous article - Where do you belong? Space and Identity -, the identity of a city is created over time through a collective effort from the users of its space. The various spaces making up a city, be it squares, markets, schools, churches, etc. form a cohesive urban fabric that expresses the identity of the city. But how can design and visual pollution promote the wellbeing of the citizens? The city of São Paulo in Brazil has taken this problem by the horns in the passing of the controversial ‘Clean City Law’ over a decade ago.

This law banned outdoor advertisements within the city, such as billboards and posters, with the intention of alleviating visual pollution and reinstating the importance of its urban architecture. The law was heavily endorsed by the public, resulting in 15,000 billboards and 300,000 business signs across the city being removed. However, the law was also met with criticism since advertisements contribute largely towards the local economy and banning advertisements would imply private marketing companies taking a hit. In fact, the world’s largest outdoor-advertisement company went so far as to sue to city, claiming it to be an unconstitutional regulation (7). The aftermath of the Clean City Law did not result in the city being completely ad-free, but rather, the approach now taken towards the addition of advertisements has become more stringent and methodical in integrating with the cityscape. São Paulo was only the first of many more to come, with other major cities in countries such as France, India, Iran, and the United States following suit (8)(9).

Sao Paulo, BrazilPhoto by Marcelo Palinkas

The quality of any urban environment includes its visual quality. This feature directly stems from aesthetics and comfort a certain space can offer to its user. When trying to solve visual pollution problems, all planning activities must be human oriented, and the aim must be to create cities which do not alienate the users. When the environment is being formed, it is important to address local identity and social memory as this is one way of preserving both the existing natural and socio-cultural riches of a neighbourhood.

There is much to learn from the experiences of other countries and ways of dealing with visual pollution locally. We need to call on each of the stakeholders in rectifying our situation; empower local councils to take proper action; service providers to be more conscientious of the clutter in our streets. Finally, we need to re-sensitize and re-educate the community to beauty and the beautification of their towns while they themselves being beacons in showing how every little thing counts.

“re-sensitize and re-educate the community to beauty”

We hope that we have already arrived at a saturation point in terms of the uglification for it to serve as a trigger to change. The only way should be up!


9 Cvetković, Mila & Momcilovic-Petronijevic, Ana & Ćurĉić, Aleksandra. (2018). Visual pollution of urban areas
as one of the main issues of the 21st century.
10 Alwah, Abdulfattah.A.Q. & Wen, Li & Alwah, Mohammed. (2019). Analysis of Visual Pollution of the Urban Environment in the Old City of Ibb.
11 Yilmaz, D. (May 2011). In the Context of Visual Pollution: Effects to Trabzon City Center Silhoutte. The Asian Social Science Journal., 7(5).
12 Cvetković, Mila & Momcilovic-Petronijevic, Ana & Ćurĉić, Aleksandra. (2018). Visual pollution of urban areas
as one of the main issues of the 21st century.

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July 20, 2020

Can’t stand the heat? Immerse yourself in green.

Have you ever stood on a Maltese roof and said to yourself “My word what a mess!” Roofs, and locally flat roofs, dominate the skyline and the erratic disposition of their arrangement brings to mind the work of René Caillié who in 1830 wrote in a report (1) on the “discovery” of Timbuktu: “I had formed a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuktu. The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill looking houses built of earth”.

In a similar spirit, Alphonse de Lamartine considered that in Beirut, “las casas de la ciudad se elevaban agrupadas de un modo confuso, y los techos de algunas servían de terrado a las otras. Estas casas, cuyos techos eran llanos (...) nos anunciaban el Oriente”. (Translation “the city houses rose in a confused group, and the roofs of some served as roofs for the others. These houses, whose roofs were flat (...) announced the East”.) The Mediterranean is, in Fontenay’s words, a ‘relational space and a meeting place’ (2) for many people from many different nationalities, religions, languages and ethnicities.

The local tradition of having flat roofing systems stems from this same construction tradition. It is amazing how cultural and technological transfers between Muslim and Christian worlds have always been a way of life in the Mediterranean region. However, conviviality may not always be seamless. In today’s contemporary societies, acculturation requires a suitable social, economic and cultural environment. Malta managed that, and the dichotomy of the appearance of our country fusing the western and eastern worlds is still strong, albeit many years have passed since the colonisation by the Arabs.

Despite being the most built-up country (3), with the largest population growth (4) in the EU, the demand for construction prevails. Largely, the outcome of mass development is densification, a lower quality of life and a declining air quality in urban areas. A way to counteract this rapid urbanization, is to create green infrastructure – but with the lack of open spaces and apartment blocks being the predominant building type, what are we left with? Roofs!

Other than using them to simply house mechanical and electrical installations, can roofs change back to being a social space? Could green roofs be the solution to an enhanced quality of life?

What is a green roof?

A green roof is partially or fully covered in a series of layers that allow the cultivation of vegetation forming an efficient functioning system (4). It is recommended that a professional would give advice on the most effective system for particular locations.

There is a misconception that the entire roof needs to be covered to fully reap the benefits of the green roof. While it is true that one cannot thread on a green roof, the use of walkways encourages circulation and maintenance, and they direct and control movement as necessary. These pavers or gravel may be placed directly on top of the growing medium. The latter is what contributes greatly to the insulation benefits of the roof. So non-vegetative areas need not inhibit the benefits.

Given the right conditions, green roofs are suitable for retrofit applications as well as for new developments. In the case of a retrofit, the roof must first be checked by a structural engineer to assess its load capacity and whether it can withstand the additional weight from the green roof.

Good Design

Photo credit:

Practical value

Apart from creating a recreational space for urban dwellers to relish, green roofs have the benefit of insulating buildings against drastic temperature fluctuations. A paper published by researchers from the University of Calabria shows that roof surface temperatures can be reduced immensely in summer using green roofs. Bituminous roofs (possibly the most common roof surface in Malta) reached a maximum temperature of 73.5°C, whereas the maximum temperature of the green roofs reached 34.8°C.

“Bituminous roofs (possibly the most common roof surface in Malta) reached a maximum temperature of 73.5°C, whereas the maximum temperature of the green roofs reached 34.8°C.”

The study also showed that, when cooling the building, green roofs could lower the energy consumption by 58% for the topmost floor, and between 15% and 39% for the whole house. When heating the building, the reduction in energy consumption can vary between 5% to 17% for the topmost floor, and between 2% and 8% for the whole house. Within a Mediterranean climate, several factors contribute to the efficiency of this natural cooling system, including the roof’s insulation, plant density, soil thickness, and irrigation level.

These findings demonstrate that of all the surfaces constituting a building envelope, the roof is a crucial point for improving the indoor temperature. This is because the building’s surface temperature and heat transfer is generally at its maximum there, especially during the summer (5).

Another study conducted by researchers from the Higher Technical School of Agricultural Engineering of the University of Seville, considering Seville as a case study, shows that the addition of green roofs is beneficial for both the person and the city. In fact, the study suggests that by converting between 11% to 40% of the city urban roofscape into green roofs, the rise in temperatures due to climate change can be mitigated. When considering Malta, this equates to an area of roughly 35km2 devoted to green roofs – an area equal to that of Mellieħa and St. Paul’s Bay combined, in the most optimistic scenario (6). However, this need not be an impossible goal – in Germany 14% of all roof areas are now green roofs (7).

“…by converting between 11% to 40% of the city urban roof area into green roofs, the rise in temperatures due to climate change can be mitigated.”

Wellbeing value

Have you ever gone for a relaxing walk in the countryside and felt a sense of relief from the hustle and bustle of daily life? This is no coincidence - in fact, there is a growing body of research-based evidence confirming the correlation between the visual and physical contact with natural greenery and a reduction in stress.

Healthcare facilities are making use of these benefits by introducing “healing gardens” within their premises. To relieve stress, British doctors are now prescribing walks in nature. These gardens have been proved to help patients require less pain medication, shorter hospital stays, experience fewer post-surgical complications and a reduction in anger and anxiety. A study on post-surgery patient recovery has shown that patients surprisingly recover quicker if they can simply look out onto green spaces (8). Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barne – two experts in this field and authors of the book “Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations” – explain how the healing aspect is experienced because the gardens promote symptom relief, reduction in stress, and an improvement in overall sense of wellbeing. As a matter of fact, within 3 to 5 minutes of viewing trees, flowers, or water, a person’s blood pressure, respiration rate, brain activity, and production of stress hormones all decrease and mood improves (9) (10).
While healing gardens are tailored to healthcare facilities, perhaps the same wellbeing benefits can be experienced by incorporating green roofs within a typical urban context.

“…within 3 to 5 minutes of viewing trees, flowers, or water, a person’s blood pressure, respiration rate, brain activity, and production of stress hormones all decrease and mood improves.”

Green Roof
A growing trend?

With all the benefits of green roofs, one might wonder why it has not become a common practice yet. One big reason is the initial expense involved – green roofs could cost two to three times more than a non-green roof (11). This cost varies depending on the type of green roof and the choice of plants. However, this initial capital expense can be regained quickly, as a green roof increases both the property’s value and of nearby properties (12). One other reason is people’s scepticism or fears of improper construction – a consequence of misinformation.

In 2013, the EU funded the LifeMedGreenRoof project to spread awareness about the potential of green roofs in a local context. A national standard (Criteria for the planning, construction, control and maintenance of Green Roofs - SM3700:2017) was also developed to ensure the proper design, functioning, and maintenance of green roof construction.

The weaving in of Maltese’s love for the outdoors to this technical knowledge of green roof is essential in understanding the importance to reinstate the roof as part of our everyday life, and use it as the functional, social and healing place that it could be.

It is high time that the connotation of “Nothing but a mass of ill looking roofs” is eradicated. For green roofs to become common practice, a national action plan with incentives must be devised by public authorities and policy makers to mobilise the implementation of green roof construction in Malta.

Bibliography [accessed 18th July 2020]

12 Gómez, Sergio Santiago & Quevedo, Abel & Perez Urrestarazu, L. (2017). The role of green roofs in climate change mitigation. A case study in Seville (Spain). Building and Environment. 123. 10.1016/j.buildenv.2017.07.036
13 Fontenay, Michel. (1993) “The Mediterranean, 1500–1800: Social and Economic Perspectives.”In Hospitaller Malta 1530–1798, edited by V. Mallia-Milanes, 43–110. Msida: Mireva.

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July 13, 2020

Where do you belong? Space and identity

This is a loaded question which has been debated in many social, psychological and design fora…

The issue of identity is usually linked directly to architectural and interior design of a space. Graphic design, branding and space may seemingly be unrelated to our identity initially; however, these are essential aspects of the design process and the final outcome.

In understanding how this all ties in together, let us momentarily consider loneliness. Most buildings have loneliness built into them, only because social identity is largely side-lined from the design process. It is a fact that loneliness is plaguing our societies and is a primary cause of mental distress. This could also apply to a business, a school or your own home! Here we argue that design process is key to address polarisation and disconnectedness. Instead, it could foster individual and collective identity through space.

Hence, the relationship between place identity, cultural values and emotions is not superficial. “Place identity” should be taken more seriously within the field of design, especially as it has a positive impact on our sense of belonging. This has been proven to facilitate a creative output with economic benefits in businesses that follow this method.

“Place identity” is a core concept which proposes that identities form in relation to environments. It is a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity and consists of knowledge and feelings developed through everyday experiences of physical spaces.

We will be considering this connection in both the local and global context of various design disciplines – the individual space vs. the city – with respect to the scale of the place.

Individual space

By this here we mean your home, your office, your favourite restaurant, etc… Yes, even your home is a brand… an individual expression of what makes you, you!

“An inclusively designed built environment means planning, designing, building and managing places that work better for everybody – whether that place is a school, office, park, street, care home, bus route or train station.” CABE/Design Council Inclusive Design Hub

This relationship between design and identity is everywhere. Everything around us is designed. Think about the way you personalise your workspace! We tend to place photos, gifts and memorabilia from travels on our desks or walls. We project our emotions and values onto spaces. Similarly, this identity can be achieved through interior design, technology, the choice of materials and furniture, as well as fixtures, signage, wayfinding, posters, brand collaterals and sensorial experiences (smell, touch, etc.). The possibilities of adding distinctiveness to the built environment are endless. However, they are always unpinned by understanding the identity of a space through the brand’s past, present, and future.

Developing a branded environment always begins with strategic planning and requires the involvement of different players such as architects, engineers, graphic designers, branding experts, marketing teams, media and users. Branding communicates (emulates?) values, manufactures emotions, and has the ability to give recognition to an industry through its unique visual identity. The personalisation of a logo, colour scheme choice of a website, the interior design of the workspace and the tone of voice on social media are among the elements that create your overall brand identity.

The extension of an organisation’s brand using space is defined in architecture and interior design as branded environments.

Spatial branding is about balance. It should be well-designed and not be overdone, overwhelming or too direct. It stems from the understanding of client “values”, “ethos” and “culture” that is translated into the layout. The strategy must include interviews, observation, collaborative exercises, and open dialogue, creating experiences both for consumers and all the stakeholders involved in the project while ensuring that the brand truly drives the design. The design is not solely for the customers, but it also gives an identity to the employees and should inspire motivation and productivity within a space. Again, here the sense of belonging plays an important role as it encourages them to produce their best work.

“What is important to understand for a company is that it's not just a logo, but everything that they do should reflect the attitude of the company. So of course all the printed packaging, logo, stationary, promotional material, description and then the product and their building, their office, their architecture, their interiors, it should be one thing; people should walk through the door and understand right away. "My God, this is a company that has it all together."” Massimo Vignelli, More Than Branding Interview, 2014

Good Design
The city

This design principle may be extended to a larger scale – that of the city. A city brands itself in a similar way that a company does. What makes Paris, New York, London or Rome so memorable?

The identity of a place is deeply rooted in the telling of stories of a place; the transference of local knowledge attached to space.

There are four important aspects of residents’ feeling that they belong to the place or community.

  • Residents emotional bond or tie to their community.
  • Community identity implies that local features of the built, natural and design environment characterizes a physical identity of place.
  • A space may be designed as formal (e.g. active, planned) or informal (e.g. casual unplanned) social opportunity in which residents attend to the quality of their relationships.
  • A community is designed for walking and fostering street-side activities providing opportunities for greater social contact, enhanced identity and stronger attachment.

Thus, the design of a city cannot be separated from its collective identity. Through the engagement of multiple stakeholders, the city fosters its uniqueness and meaning of place. What makes a city unique is also its dynamic character that evolves through continuous re-design of space. City identity is therefore a distinct form of collective identity that hinges on multiple stakeholders’ perceived uniqueness and meanings of place. City identity is constructed over time and consists of collectively shared perceptions about a city’s sustained “character” or “ethos” as a collective effort of the locals as well as those that visit it. It is important also to note that what makes a city is not only the built-up area of the urban fabric, but also the space between the buildings – our outdoor spaces are equally as important.

“Place makes memories cohere in complex ways. People’s experiences of the urban landscape intertwine the sense of place and the politics of space,” writes architectural historian Dolores Hayden.

Social space and identity are specifically connected but, whereas architecture, urban planning and structures are seen as the design disciplines which perform semiotic work of constructing a city’s identity, we tend to overlook the power of visual arts and graphic design within our cities.

In short, all of our surrounding is designed. Think about all the images on billboards, street art, monuments, words or graphic forms. These all convey a message about the identity of a city. Although design may not typically thought of “real art,” and therefore the impact of graphics may be too subtle to spark our imagination, it is time to take a second look at how smart graphic design can help transform an area in unexpected ways.Signage is a powerful means of communication in a city by using colours, images and forms to convey information.


One way to engender sense of ownership in residents and users of place is through their participation in the design of their environments.

Users who participate in the design of places develop a sense of meaningful involvements and enhances a sense of belonging.

By building a user’s competence in partaking in the design of their environment, the participant feels as though he or she created a unique place – one in which the user has ownership over.

Are you in a space which you identify with?



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July 6, 2020

Do you want to live in a thermos flask?


This case study focuses on the development on Goldsmith Street, Norwich, designed by London architecture studio Mikhail Riches, showcased as being a modern affordable social housing scheme of high architectural and environmental quality.1 In fact, this development consisting of 105 homes holds several awards, including the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize of 2019 - which made it the first ever social housing scheme to win this prestigious prize, and described as a “modest masterpiece” by Julia Barfield, chairperson of the jury.


The architects sought to re-think the design of social housing and, rather than building the bare minimum, incorporated ultra-low energy buildings and eco-technology built to the highest specification – enabling both the residents and the environment to benefit.

Perhaps the more obvious aesthetic approach the architects followed for this estate is its traditional street pattern, as opposed to the common, daunting block of flats. In addition to this, the design is less car-oriented, with parking shifted towards the boundaries of the estate and existing green links carefully integrated in the landscape scheme, extending beyond the site boundaries to include nearby roads and a park.

The terraced dwellings are spaced 14 metres apart, allowing it to be a high-density housing area. However, to avoid overshadowing, most of the houses are low-rise at two storeys high. While it may be the intention of developers to build new homes to the smallest size allowable, the architects designed these two-bedroom properties to be 90m2 – surpassing the 76m2 recommended by guidance for this type of property in the UK.

new communication model
Photo credit: Mikhail Riches

Design Features

The project was “commended not just as a transformative social housing scheme and eco-development, but a pioneering exemplar for other local authorities to follow” says RIBA president Alan Jones.

The architectural language is contemporary with the corners of the houses curved to gently lead the visitors into the streets of the estate, while also serving as the envelope for internal staircases. The shared alleyways running through the centre of the estate, which are accessible from the private back gardens of the dwellings, provide residents with a communal garden and a safe area for children to play. Each dwelling has its own front and back garden2, and a different-coloured front door that leads onto the street, giving the residents a sense of ownership.3 These features place an emphasis on the social aspect of these developments, focusing on creating a community by reducing social isolation.

By aligning the street to have an East-West orientation, the designers ensured the homes have windows and habitable rooms facing South. This not only provides exposure to natural light, but also maximises the solar gains in winter and shade in summer, fitting within a passive solar scheme and greatly improving energy efficiency. Furthermore, the dwellings are fitted with internal heat recovery systems, walls that are over 600 millimetres thick, triple glazed apertures, and roofs that are inclined at an angle of 15 degrees to ensure the dwellings do not block sunlight from entering the windows of the adjacent properties.4
With their sharp attention to detail, the architects turned this project into a sustainable housing development that is now the largest social housing scheme that has achieved the Passivhaus standard in the UK.

These key design features significantly lower the heating and cooling costs by up to 70%, when compared to average UK homes.


Properties that hold a Passivhaus standard, a very rigorous German regulations for environmental performance, have the highest certifiable standard of energy efficiency and result in ultra-low energy buildings. It is a system that puts the building fabric first; i.e. it uses the components that make up the building to reduce energy consumption rather than relying on the use of renewable energy devices. Passivhaus depends on five design pillars:

• Super insulation
• Thermal bridging
• Stringent air tightness
• Solar gain
• Ventilation system

(Well not quite the thermos flask then; but you get what we mean) These key design features significantly lower the heating and cooling costs by up to 70%, when compared to average UK homes. The social houses belonging to this development on Goldsmith Street are quoted to have a yearly energy bill of approximately £150.

Contrary to common perception, projects of such a high specification need not necessarily be very expensive projects. Although this social housing scheme cost around 10% more than a typical procurement would have, when considering the whole-life costing, these properties result in a far more

superior quality in terms of running costs, carbon emissions, comfort levels and health benefits. The long-lasting products and materials specified in this development do not require frequent replacement, implying that the additional initial costs will come down in the long run.

As the Passivhaus practice spreads geographically, increasing its exposure, the short-term costs will naturally decline as the market expands and the skills gap between design and construction diminishes. Case studies such as Goldsmith Street demonstrate that, given the right context, the learning from the Passivhaus practice can be passed on to improve the quality of other future non-Passivhaus projects.

The social houses belonging to this development on Goldsmith Street are quoted to have a yearly energy bill of approximately £150.

Photo credit: Mikhail Riches

Malta and Passivhaus

One may argue that the principles of Passivhaus are difficult to achieve. However, we can explore our vernacular typologies in a way that could accommodate our climatic condition. This way, the Maltese thermos flask will respond to our local needs. Windows play a huge part in the thoughtful balance between cooling and heating. These apertures are culturally significant, as we are people that look outwards to the horizon – the sea! Hence, one must ensure this line of visibility is incorporated when possible, as it also has a psychological factor embedded in its fundamental function. The best options for shading, window-glazing and exterior building colour need to be examined depending on the orientation and exposure of the building. Controlling gains and losses over different seasons needs to be carefully worked out. Colour plays a very important part in this as well-planned use of outdoor colours can change the cooling demand by up to 5 kWh/m² (7), even in well-insulated buildings. After all, the Maltese are used to a lot of light – it is a contrasting feature to other climates and what makes our seasons Maltese! When it comes to the interior spaces, the use of ‘cool’ colours on outside walls lowers solar absorption, helping to reduce the sun’s heat load during the summer months.

Moreover, moveable rather than fixed exterior shading is preferred to avoid additional heating demands in winter. Care must be taken to ensure that the permanent shading of east or west-facing windows does not increase the winter cooling load beyond any energy gains achieved from the same shading in summer.


Housing plays an important role in improving health and wellbeing, both in terms of the quality and affordability of housing as well as the quality of neighbourhoods and communities. Therefore, one way that housing design and housing policy can contribute to a good quality of life is by creating new opportunities for improved integration between housing, health and social care.

While this project deserves all the acclaim that it has had, it would have been ideal to hear more about the social dimension (other than the communal spaces) and if the community was involved in the design process. Design cannot stand on its own. It needs to be understood from a cultural perspective and accommodate the needs of the 21st century city dweller. It is imperative to ensure collaborations with all stakeholders and the community and, in essence, approach the design bottom-up, with the inhabitants of these buildings playing a much greater part in helping to shape buildings. After all, buildings shape us and we shape buildings!

The right type of homes in the right place at the right price to meet the housing need and to attract new businesses and investment in the city in turn will create new jobs and training opportunities, thus pushing toward a thriving city.



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June 22, 2020

Creating better quality of life after lockdown in Malta

It is evident that in the growing interconnectedness of today’s hyper-globalised cities, public health crises rarely fail to leave their mark on a metropolis, and consequently on the lives of its inhabitants. The impact of this mark on our life depends on how prepared we are to accommodate a new lifestyle. Whether the lifting of restrictions have restored your life to normal (or a new normal), or you are still apprehensive as to the extent of whether you should return to normal, it is inevitable that some adjustments need to be made and communities are wondering which of these adjustments will endure beyond the end of the pandemic, and what life might look like on the other side.

Those of us in the business of designing and developing buildings and neighbourhoods should now be thinking about how we can improve people’s lifestyle in the longer term. We need to address these questions now if we want to bring about effective change.

Engage the community and “keep it local”

Supporting local traders may have started from necessity, but it could continue as a lifestyle change, seeking out locally produced and sourced food and beverage, reducing shipping, air freight and packaging, but could go as far as with engaging local artists and artisans. There is obvious connection between supporting local business and improving local social and economic sustainability.

‘Hyperlocalism’ could easily trigger a new wave of creativity in the built environment – more self-sustained, mixed use architecture devised in collaboration with the local community. People will start opting for staycations (vacations within your current environment) which presents a huge opportunity for developers willing to think outside the box. With the increased dependency on technology brought about by home working, schooling, etc, the work-home life balance has become very blurred. People are and will be looking for a change of scenery, possibly also somewhere to digitally detox from it all.

Give people greater control

Building from the previous point, we need to help build newly revitalised communities and networks by listening to what local people want and need from projects in their area. Getting them involved early through local plans through meaningful consultation on developments and the widespread digitisation of the planning process on a macro-level, but also involve them on a micro-level in driving the narrative of the design. This has in part already started, with examples in the local scene of the re-development of the Chalet, Sliema and with the community involvement in the recent sustainable housing projects.

Promote healthy minds and bodies

We all know the benefits of sunlight and fresh air, but these have been particularly reinforced with restrictions on mobility over the last few months. Not all residents are fortunate enough to have their own outdoor space. The increase in smaller apartments by way of including as many units per square metre as possible has been the challenge for most designers whose sole intention was pushing more funds into the developers’ pockets. The repercussions of this is evident in the way people are reacting to the easement of the pandemic restrictions.

Designers should focus more on holistic residential projects that positively affect the mind, body and community. Our own houses should include outdoor spaces that encourage interaction with nature and reverse our focus on prevalent hermetic environments.

This mindset shift should be extended to our streets and general urban landscapes. Commercial signs should not add to the visual pollution of our cities. Signs have a strong psychological impact on our lifestyle, mood and general wellbeing. The design of commercial signage should consider the urban context, especially in historical cities. The relationship of environmental psychology, graphic design, architecture, planning and urban design concepts is tightly knit within this context and the recommended design principles should create commercial streetscapes that are evaluated positively by different users.

Invest in green infrastructure

While 2020 is the year that will be remembered for COVID-19, it will also be defined by the world waking up to climate change. Seeing the great improvements in pollution levels worldwide due to curtailment of transport and industries due to lockdowns, we should come out of this pandemic with a renewed desire to integrate green, sustainable design into our cities. Citizens could press governments worldwide to bring in stricter air pollution measures in the long term.

Positive recent initiatives by the Maltese Government were in funding a “green reform” and in organising urban green competitions. These are steps in the right direction to provide greener spaces in the re-thinking of our cities. Other similar initiatives are welcome and ought to be launched sooner rather than later to promote people’s wellness and social sustainability.

From a lifestyle and inclusivity point of view, the integration of green spaces in the urban fabric will improve access to nature for everyone. We often forget that not everyone’s situation is the same. Not everyone can drive or cycle to get to an outdoor space. Imbuing our towns with areas for truly local social engagement is essential. Designers have an obligation to prioritise people and active mobility, both in terms of play spaces for children and recreational areas for adults.

It is high time that we position ourselves in a situation where, when looking back on 2020 in say 20 years’ time, we will be proud of the advancement in lifestyle improvement and the positive impact on the built environment.

Photo by Eric Bartolo.
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June 9, 2020

Are Architects & Civil Engineers essential personnel?

The current COVID-19 health crisis has brought about a different consciousness to our understanding of ‘normality’ which has affected all strata of society. And whereas most refer to it as a health, and consequently a financial crisis, it is worth tracing the etymological meaning of crisis which defines the word in a vaster sense and is certainly more applicable today than ever. Coming from the Latinized form of the Greek krisis, it refers to the decisive point or state of things in the progress of a disease, or a point at which change must come, for better or for worse. It is in such moments of crisis where the meaning of essential changes. But the question is, essential from whose perspective?

Historically, the built environment has never been separate from public health. For instance, the bubonic plague that began in China in 1855 and later on the cholera outbreak pushed urban planners to rethink the urban environment. This changed the design of more things that we can fathom; from drainpipes to door thresholds and building foundations, in the war against rodents. The aesthetic of modernism was partly a result of tuberculosis, with light-flooded sanatoriums inspiring an era of white-painted rooms, hygienic tiled bathrooms and the recognisable mid-century recliner chair. This also led to the modern street grid and prompted the introduction of sewage systems that required roads to be wider and straighter, along with the creation of new zoning laws to prevent inhabitant overcrowding.

Form has followed fear of infection, just as much as it has followed function.

In light of the above, it becomes clear that architects and engineers have been essential in reshaping the built environment in order to safeguard the health of citizens. What is essential here is to move away from the understanding that the city is static. Instead, we ought to perceive the ‘changing city’ as a serious unit of analysis. It is through such an analysis that crises can be addressed realistically and with creativity. Mobility trends will change due to the shift in work-life practices. Human patterns and minimum expectations of what dwellings should incorporate may also need to be re-analysed. Gone are the days where the home is just seen as the place of rest. More natural light, an increase in living and some outdoor space may now be deemed as basic necessities. Advancements in materials and paint coatings which will reduce surface transmission of bacteria and viruses will also be expected. Like societies, the built environment is never still and needs to adapt to a new normal.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like its kin pandemics, sparked a new consideration of what is ‘essential’. Malta, like other European countries, on partial lockdown since the beginning of March 2020, entered a debate on what services and professions are regarded as essential for the continued day-to-day life of society. To date, its understanding has been understood from a partial perspective and seems to have only considered public health and the market.

So where does the built environment stand in that debate? Are architects and civil engineers essential?

The history of our profession (both architects and civil engineers in Malta are embodied in one profession: that of the ‘Perit’) is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. It is not just the finished project which provides protection to the public. There are even more immediate considerations. For instance, the re-conceptualisation of infrastructure is central to the health strategy of containment and social distancing. Devising new circulation pathways and innovative structures can also be detrimental to the economy. From this perspective, architects and engineers become essential. Such significant input can also lead to more jobs as architects and engineers may re-train or create new opportunities in the job market.

All projects which are ongoing may pose safety issues to the general public. Additionally, ‘essential’ may also be seen with respect to the bigger picture: because ultimately, even as periti are duty-bound to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, their own health, safety and welfare are just as essential .

It is in this spirit that the Kamra Tal-Periti (KTP), through consultancy with the Superintendence of Public Health, committed itself to keep the profession informed during this unprecedented period, giving clear instructions on how to implement social distancing measures while still maintaining productivity. For instance, KTP has been very prompt in issuing recommendations and guidelines on how best to deal with inspections of occupied third-party properties, both residential and commercial, as well as best practise on construction sites including inspections and meetings. This was essential.

It is impossible, however, to have a complete discussion without the acknowledgment that some construction projects have been delayed and some cancelled, as a result of the impacts of COVID-19 on the companies that commissioned them. Furthermore, possible supply chain bottlenecks of equipment and materials have caused project delays in ongoing projects, or reduced spending on future ones.

This has had a knock-on effect on local professional practices that have had to let go of some staff members in attempt to safeguard the legacy they have created over the years and which is now vulnerable to bankruptcy. Perhaps here, the issue is resistance to change. Maybe it is time to be creative and rethink the profession of the perit which has been under pressure for some time. After all, creativity is core to the discipline.

It is probably fair to say that the only constant in society is change; jobs become anachronistic over time.

A survey conducted by KTP has shown that as of April 2020, employers indicate that they are expecting a 28% reduction in their workforce, with the main reasons being the decrease in the number of projects, ongoing projects being put on hold by the clients and deteriorating profitability. The turnovers reported are also of significant concern, as nearly half of the respondents of the survey are expecting their April billing to be over 30% less than their 2019 average. A similar trend was noted in terms of ability to collect outstanding dues. As things stand, 50% of professional practices are expecting that more than 30% of their outstanding dues for 2020 will not be recovered immediately.

The most seasoned of professionals have likely been through at least one economic downturn before the one currently being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the most recent significant recession having taken place just a little more than a decade ago. They, therefore, know what to expect and how to keep their focus on recovery. However, it may be time to shift from recovery and move into creative-action mode. How can this be achieved?

The younger members of the profession have most likely not been affected by such a crisis before since construction projects have been on the increase since the financial recession of 2007-2009. The best way young professionals can weather the current uncertainties would be to focus on their digital media skills. Hence, the younger generation may be crucial to industry success. Virtual space can also facilitate a ‘third’ space where design professionals can remain connected and be able to network and promote their professional development.

It is clear that the COVID-19 crisis has left the thirst of change in its wake. Besides the re-direction of the profession through a shift towards digital architecture and engineering, the key is for periti to take this serendipitous change seriously. Additionally, what will make a difference is how sensitively this change is incorporated at a disciplinary and professional level, but also at a national level through new customary legislation. Are periti willing to change their modus operandi in what is essentially an old-fashioned way of conducting their operations locally? This does not change our obligation to progress as a profession but enhances it. We are collectively faced with new obstacles in terms of working methodologies and patterns. Our default has been forcibly challenged and our circumstances drastically altered. This could be our point of departure.

We hope that the effects of this change will not only be merely reflected in the more spacious office desk layout, but may more professionals be interested in fully embracing the implementation of digital software such as BIM and VR into working practices and go as far as to replace hard copies of documents and drawings with the use of digital ones. Not only are these methods more environmentally friendly, they are more effective and well-rounded for presentations and discussions.

This change could also be taken to the next level by using technology enabling digital interaction with and that remotely facilitate a construction activity where a virtual replica of the physical world is created or the use of 360° cameras to digitally capture site conditions. Such technology provides a means that could transform the way physical industries operate.

Apart from the recognition of the damaging global impact of the current crisis, one hopes to incorporate issues like mitigation of climate change, as well as the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, within this newly inspired framework.

On a positive note, and on a global scale, it is enlightening to see stories emerge of nitrogen dioxide levels in China lowering and Venetian canals running clear. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic will most certainly have impacted the global Net Zero agenda and that had most likely been pushed down the list of priorities. We are faced with economic uncertainty but as professionals within the built environment and spatial planning we should ensure that decarbonisation remains a vital agenda item. When industries bounce back, let this be done with Net Zero Carbon at the forefront.

In order for professionals in the built environment to be able to shape the post-COVID-19 world, an inclusive collaboration of several professionals and inter-disciplinary research amongst scholars and the industry is of utmost importance. Academics, practitioners and even politicians must come together as limits are pushed in search of creative solutions. We need to use this time to reinvent the way we do economy. Buildings need to be reinstated back into the ecosystem.

We are all both students and catalysts of human behaviour; we want to understand it and to engage with it.

The author would like to thank Perit Simone Vella Lenicker and Perit Andre Pizzuto (President and Vice-President of the Kamra Tal-Periti) for their work on gathering local data on the status of the profession, as well as Dr Rachael M Scicluna for her valuable comments and thought-provoking discussions on the subject.

This article was originally published in the ECCE E-Journal 20.

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