School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape
June 8, 2021
Class of 2021: DIY social housing? This grad from Brazil is working on it
New graduate Luisa Rodrigues Felix Dalla Vecchia has proposed something truly radical: Using mass-customization — a concept most often applied in the context of high-end brands for elite consumers — to tailor and modify social housing for Brazil’s lowest income earners.
“Because social housing is usually mass-produced, especially in Brazil which is where I’m from and the case that I studied, the units don’t really satisfy the needs of families,” says Dr. Felix Dalla Vecchia, who earned her PhD in January from the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) and convocates in June. “So I looked at ways to automate parts of the design so they could be customized to each individual family without costing significantly more.”
- Photo above: Luisa Rodrigues Felix Dalla Vecchia visits the Guabiroba social housing neighbourhood in city of Pelotas, Brazil, used as an example in her thesis as a neighbourhood that has transformed significantly over time.
A simple enough idea on its face perhaps, allowing families to noodle around with their 400-square-foot social housing unit using a digital platform to see the costs and consequences of, say, adding a bedroom, expanding the kitchen, or moving a window. But it’s actually incredibly complex given that we’re talking about thousands and thousands of units, very poor neighbourhoods, a lack of access to technology, myriad bureaucracies, byzantine building codes, and structural considerations, not to mention the powerful software and AI required.
“We don’t even use mass customization in North America for designing middle-class houses,” says Dr. John Brown, dean of SAPL and a member of Felix Dalla Vecchia’s doctoral advisory committee. “The tools Luisa was aspiring to use, the methodologies, are just right on the edge, so to apply them to a situation where people are living in informal settlements, that are unsafe, that don’t have proper servicing, that was really remarkable.”
Providing parameters for DIY projects that will happen anyway
As Felix Dalla Vecchia describes in her thesis, these families in social housing are already making changes to their units all the time. They are designing and building themselves in haphazard ways that can result in problematic situations, whether that’s encroaching onto the public space, risking structural integrity, or having bedrooms without ventilation or light. And those post-occupancy renovations done by residents can actually cost public housing authorities down the road.
“Using the kind of system I propose would still allow families to self-build, but they would have guidance, keeping the environments adequate and safe,” she says. “The idea is that this system could be part of the social assistance that already exists in these neighborhoods.”
Pivoting from pure technology to focus on people
When Felix Dalla Vecchia first came to the University of Calgary from Brazil, where she is a practicing architect and assistant professor with a specialty in digital graphics, she looked at the problem of social housing modifications from a very technological standpoint. “But I saw that pure technology alone can’t solve the problem,” she says. “So I shifted my research to analyzing the whole context, figuring out if technology could even be useful, and then how it might be useful.”
Felix Dalla Vecchia interviewed social housing stakeholders in Brazil including developers, architects, engineers and the social workers that are involved in these neighbourhoods. Then, after developing slides and examples of what the mass-customization platform could look like, she returned to the same people to ask for their feedback.
That shift in focus from pure tech to people impressed Felix Dalla Vecchia’s supervisor Dr. David Monteyne, PhD, associate professor, SAPL. “Luisa came here to do something more technical, more computer- and software-based, and then she realized she wanted something more qualitative and reflected the actual use of the space by the people who these buildings are designed for, and that ability and willingness to pivot really stood out to me,” he says.
Luisa Rodrigues Felix Dalla Vecchia PhD Thesis
Uniquely equipped to move to virtual teaching
Felix Dalla Vecchia was a popular sought-after TA throughout her studies here. Approachable, engaged, and experienced, she even took on the transition to online teaching in the pandemic seamlessly. It probably didn’t hurt that her master’s thesis was on virtual learning environments and the use of computer graphics in teaching and learning architectural design.
Felix Dalla Vecchia is back home now in Brazil at the Universidade Federal de Pelotas working to further her work on mass customization processes in social housing, and she is reflecting with fondness and gratitude on her experiences here.
“I brought back from the University of Calgary so much more than I was expecting,” says Felix Dalla Vecchia, who earned an Eyes High International Doctoral Scholarship. “I had so many opportunities to take part in things like the graduate college, workshops, to help organize a conference in my department, and experiences that are a part of student life, and I wasn’t expecting that when I started.”