Paris apartment block retrofit has it all: bigger, brighter, cheaper, unhappier. Huh?

Great story in today’s New York Times about a Paris public housing apartment block that gets a fabulous makeover – and some tenants are unhappy.

Yes, you can have it all.

  • Units are transformed into larger, light-filled spaces
  • The tenants lived in their apartments throughout
  • No increase in the building footprint
  • Energy use is now 60% less
  • The retrofit cost 42% less than demolishing and rebuilding – even though the makeover included extra elevators, upgraded services, and a lobby makeover

Lacation and Vassal architects delivered a brilliant solution. The NYT article describes how the architects added floor space and floor-to-ceiling windows  “using pre-fab modules erected like scaffolding on the outside” of the building. Have a look at the before-concept-after images. Stunning is not too strong a word to describe the transformation.

The pre-fab approach kept renovation costs well below those of demolition and rebuilding. Pre-fab was also the key to the tenants remaining in residence throughout renovation. The NYT notes that “punching through the old facade to connect these modules to the apartments (took) only one day per apartment.”

Despite all this good news some tenants are less than delighted. Complaints range from more noise in the halls to loss of gardening space. Is this simply ungratefulness? No. It’s a great example of how people make decisions based on emotions, then use their reason to justify the decision.

Here’s what I mean. Kids playing in the halls are making the noise. Kids didn’t play in the halls before the renovation. Then, the halls were too dark to be safe. After the renovation the halls are bright, pleasant spaces. And parents are letting their kids play in the halls. Can’t they control their children? As a parent myself, at times I have things to do where I need the kids out from underfoot. At the same time I want the kids close enough that I can keep an eye and an ear on them. I don’t want to be a bad neighbor but the safety of my kids comes first. From this perspective it is inevitable that the halls would get noisier.

With this in mind, could the budget have covered sound proofing for hall walls, floors, ceilings and doors?

The gardener is not grumpy; she is mourning the loss of her old gardening place and the vegetables it grew. Can you mourn for a garden? In this case, yes. The Times reporter notes that the gardener is a nun. Given the poor lighting and the poor pay of nuns it’s possible that she exercised considerable ingenuity and thrift to grow veggies in the old apartment. The self sufficiency might have seemed minor to others but likely meant a very great deal to her. If none of her old tricks and tools worked in the bright, spacious new apartment she would have to throw away all she had and start again. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot of money. But for her, heart breaking.

With this in mind, could a tiny fraction of the energy savings be set aside to help tenants replace their gardening tools?

This is no way meant to criticize the design work. It’s fantastic. It’s meant to shine some light on how important it is in the design phase to tease out how people feel .