Jacques Félix-Faure, Architect for Atelier17C in Barraux (France) has engaged with a tremendous request to build an eight-floor social housing entirely in wood. During this interview he explains what has inspired him to use this material, how essential it is to ask the right questions and how easy things get when we answer them correctly, and finally, how collective intelligence can overcome the environmental crisis.
What has inspired you to build an 8-floor building entirely made of wood?
I have especially worked on mountain shelters – small building projects in places where man should not be – and these places have made me understand the fragility of the world we live in. Furthermore, they have made me think that human intervention should reflect upon the impact on the environment in which one acts. That is what has made me sensitive to everything that is environmental.
What is the story of this building?
A social housing lessor launched a competition in Grenoble to build social housing, which for us was an honour (the ATELIER 17C team). We immediately started asking ourselves lots of questions about this project. First, we answered the questions « how will we live in 30 years? » and « how can we try to talk about the impact of a building in a city? », this last question being inspired by what I told you about the mountain shelters.
Finally, we put forward 3 criteria:
The carbon footprint of the building process of the housing was essential to us. We set the bar very high, and it quickly made us question the choice of the structure, knowing that it accounts for 70% of the carbon footprint. Furthermore, Grenoble is one of the three most seismically sensitive cities in France. Building in wood seemed to be the only solution: the wooden foundation measures 1m80 while the concrete foundation of a neighbour building had to be reinforced with concrete needles to a depth of 11m in order to respond to the seismic constraints. Can you imagine the soil damage?
The passive standard
Once again, we have set the bar very high regarding the consumption of the building after its construction. Surprisingly, this was done very easily: we have just built well. Thus, we are sending a message: look how easy it is to build. Moreover, what really made us happy is that people will pay less for heating, electricity, and water every month. So, a flat would pay 33 euros of charges per month, all year round. This helps people save their money and afford higher quality food. It is unbelievable that I, an architect, make sure that people eat better. That is fantastic! These people eat better, can have greater comfort, and live longer.
There is no secret: urban planning is about influencing people's lives. That is what we have to remember: we build in wood, we build passive and mostly, there are people who live better!
The environment and the collective intelligence
We need to stop working in a hurry and build up buildings that need rehabilitation every ten years. Grenoble has environmental ethics. We have reflected upon a collective double flow heating system. We have used a system that sucks in the stale air, takes its calories, and distributes them to other apartments. This way, the flat to the south will heat the flat to the north. It is like being in a beehive. Collective intelligence gave birth to this building.
Do you believe such buildings should exist everywhere in Europe?
To believe that we will have resources like sand forever is an illusion. We have to make a revolution in terms of buildings, we have to build differently. To me, wood is not the only material we can use. You can build with earth, wood, and earth, with concrete and wood. It is important to build with local resources and to ask yourself: “how can we reduce our impact on the environment?”
We need to have a long-term vision and ask ourselves together: “how will we work in 30 years?” I strongly believe that when we ask the right questions, we can give the right answer. So YES, you can build this way all over Europe. Just ask the right questions.
However, something that is very important now is the rehabilitation of buildings (insulate them for example). Having new buildings is great, but first, we should improve the existing buildings to reduce the greenhouse effect.