The Wooden Wrap

The spirits are high this week as the construction of the external wooden facade begins. Sourced from a local pine tree factory, the fresh stacks of wood are unloaded in the construction yard. No time is wasted and we start cutting and aligning them across the base of the container into what is to form a 900 mm high wooden wrap that would be later coated with linseed oil and tinted to a darker color.

As soon as the donated the three bay window frames and main door arrive, we begin by removing the glass panels and continue scraping off the old paint with wire brushes. Next, a new coat of dark brown and white paint are applied to the exterior and interior of the frame.

With the entire building process unfolding within the immediate vicinity of the construction team’s depot, the efficiency and level of precision each activity involves is much higher. Most importantly, it is here where we are sourced with the appropriate amenities and resources the construction process requires in terms of electricity voltages, the acquisition of construction materials and most importantly tools and equipment.

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The First Cut

As we start tracing the first outlines for the window and door openings, it feels almost surreal. Watching the heavy metal structure getting punched with beams of light marks the beginning of its transformation into a home. Taking into account the internal spatial constraints, our plan envisages a subtle compartmentalisation of the container room into a small kitchen, living and sleeping area. It’s funny to see how such a simple gesture with a circular saw can perform such a dramatic shift in the perception and engagement with the bulky volume. We are strutting through the front door, poking our heads through the windows and taking in the views. And so it begins…

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The Arrival

They are here! The two shipping containers arrive from Bucharest during one of Romania’s hottest days of the year with temperatures mounting up to 42°C. Fixed onto flat-bed systems and towed by the Hiab truck’s main body, the 20ft long containers enter the construction yard. As the transport trailer drives towards the unloading area, trees, low overhead power lines and adjacent fences are just some of the things to consider.

Using the lorry’s mounted crane, the each container is offloaded from the truck by lifting the ends and lowering it into position aligned to the concrete kerbs supporting each corner of the unit. To estimate the room required to unload with a swinglift there must be twice the width of the container available to allow for the truck and container.

After a two hours process, the containers are finally in place and everybody breathes a sigh of relief – it feels the true journey is only about to begin.

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Chain hooks are fixed in the corner castings ensuring for a safe lifting of the container. Usually one or more lines are attached to the lower connection points to keep the container from twisting and to manually maneuver it into place at its new location.

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The Case of the Mobile Dwelling

The past week has been particularly insightful in terms of understanding the relationship between the owner of a dwelling and the legal parameters that dictate the financial and lawful unfolding of a building process. According to the Romanian ‘Dwelling Law’ :

‘x. Other Living Spaces

Spaces and/or development projects designed to sustain dwelling activities, intended for the transitional or temporary accommodation of people, such as halls, shelters, hotels, guesthouses, camping sites, container homes, mobile living units such as trailers or caravans, temporary construction units for displaced staff or economic operators for the supervision of site works. All the above mentioned items are not taken into consideration as dwellings under Romanian law.’

(as translated from the “Dwelling Law’  or ‘Legea Locuintei’, Ministerul Dezvoltarii Regionale si Administratiei Publice, 2014 [pdf]. Available at: http://www.mdrl.ro/_documente/transparenta/consultari_publice/consultare41/legea_locuintei.pdf )

In order to preserve the ‘mobile’ character of the container home as well as it’s modular, transportable nature, it is essential to eliminate the prerequisite of foundations. By avoiding any type of digging activity within the perimeter of the owner’s land, the container home becomes free of  legal constraints including the yearly dwelling tax. In addition, any supplementary costs that could derive from running the design through various local planning approval processes are reduced to a minimum. The placement of the container home on concrete kerbs allows for the structure to be easily transported and relocated when desired, challenging the current predisposition towards permanent, stagnant structures.  Moreover, this approach would allow for a return to the mobile, flexible type of dwelling that the Roma community has been grown out of following the shift in political regimes that attempted for a standardization of their lifestyle.

Following a trip to a local construction materials depot where we witness the kerb manufacturing process, we managed to purchase eight units that would later function as the main support structures for the shipping containers. With the kerbs transported to the temporary construction site and having already arranged for all the transport details of the two containers, all we can do is prepare for the long awaited arrival…

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The Search

Identifying the family to work and engage with for the duration of the project has represented the most challenging stage within the project. With legislative, social and even political hurdles springing every step of the way, all of my endeavors to approach the local Roma community seemed to crumble before I even had the chance to outline the grounds for the investigative research stage. While local authorities have initially offered their support, the internal conflicts within the local Roma settlement delayed the selection process significantly. As a result, the list of factors drafted to help choose the family to benefit from the scholarship and research scheme had to be adapted to existing legal, physical and social circumstances:

– the ownership status of the land the family is settled on and by extension, the legal constraints the erection of a new structure would imply;

– the size of the site – a minimum area of 85 sqm is required to accommodate the construction of the proposed project;

– the site’s location in relation to main vehicular routes;

– the proximity to a power supply point as an essential resource during the initial construction stages of the project;

– the social context – numerous debates were held by the local Roma Party council with regards to identifying the families within the community eligible to host the project;

As we discussed each bullet-point on the neatly structured list, I started asking myself whether this was the right strategy to approach such a socially sensitive issue – how does one choose who ‘deserves’ to be helped within a poverty-blighted neighborhood, where lack of sanitation, sickness and food scarcity are the norm? Moreover, how does one approach such lawless, violent places? Is an outstretched hand holding a neatly sketched outline of the project enough to squeeze through the cracks in the thickening wall of skepticism surrounding their world?

 

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Visiting various households across the peripheral Roma communities

– ‘Prepeleac’ Slum (above), ‘Romlux’ Slum (below)

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Stage 1 – The Beginnings

After a thorough process of scouting for the right shipping containers in terms of dimensions, distance from the site location as well as cost, we have finally found them! Our journey carried us towards a depot at the outskirts of Bucharest, where after a lengthy selection process we have identified and agreed upon containers 1145 and 757 as best in terms of material and structural quality. Since the seller cannot provide any type of dispatching means, we will have to research and arrange for the most effective transport strategy to the construction site in Targoviste. I cannot help but feel a crucial step has been taken today in bringing the Roma Housing Prototype one step closer to reality!

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