Almost a decade ago, after having moved into an older downtown condominium, my wife and I attended our building’s annual general meeting. After discussing routine items, the condo president’s voice developed a noticeable shake as he handed out a rather innocent-looking sheet of paper: due to deferred maintenance, we, personally, owed $17,000 as part of a special assessment. As we picked our jaws up off the floor, a much calmer, older gentleman raised his hand and asked to speak. Since his much larger unit necessitated an even larger sum – I believe he also owned one of the commercial units in the building – he quite reasonably asked what efforts the condo board had put into finding other sources of revenue (or savings) before, well, sticking us with the bill.
In Europe, he continued, concierge staff do much more than accept packages and push the button that unlocks the front door: they fix things, do a little cleaning during the night shift, change light bulbs and even assist older residents with certain tasks. While this didn’t seem like much, over the decades, he argued, it could’ve saved our building a lot of money.
And while this sage advice fell on deaf ears that day – after living there for eight more years we were slapped with a second special assessment – I couldn’t help but think of this as I pored over an interesting study by Quadrangle Architecture + Interiors titled “Neighbourhood Nests.” Here, the condo concierge or security guard’s role as “passive gatekeeper” has been reimagined and rechristened as the much more active “nest curator.”
Three weeks ago, I wrote about what the post-COVID world of architecture might look like; Quadrangle, logically, has anticipated that we may not have the luxury of time. Before we can build new, we’ll have to alter existing architecture to meet the demands of the next pandemic or climate-change emergency. And we’ll have to do it in the most friendly and familiar way possible, Quadrangle’s director of innovation, architect Michelle Xuereb says.
“One of the overlapping factors that came up in all of our shared spaces that we love was it had the barista, or it had the bartender, or it had that person that we liked,” she begins. “So, in a building where you’ve already got a person who is sitting there all day … what if you changed their job description? If their job was to be inclusive rather than exclusive, not keeping people out but welcoming people in, having a coffee station set up, having a shelf for books for kids, different kinds of seating around … and then it’s about what that person does to curate that space and make it a place that people want to be.”
Of course Ms. Xuereb isn’t speaking about an average Tuesday. She’s speaking about what a condominium lobby could become if, say, Toronto finally hosts a sequel to Hurricane Hazel in the next few years. People from all over the neighbourhood – people who wouldn’t normally hang out in a building they don’t live in – would know to congregate at their neighbourhood nest for shelter and have a hot coffee while they strategize, pool resources and remotely check in on loved ones. And because that building would be equipped with backup power, critical goods refrigeration, and a reserve of clean water, their minds would be on how to help others, not their own safety.
During a physical-distancing event, while that same lobby might be empty save for the nest curator, those same locals would know to check notices posted in the nest’s window for critical information or even a cheer-me-up graphic. And those who live inside the building would also benefit, the architect says: “One of the things that came up was grocery delivery; imagine if [the nest curator] booked a couple of delivery dates and reached out to everyone in the building? Then they could curate people coming down to pick up their groceries, so then you don’t have people worried about going out.”
And then, as things got back to normal, the nest curator could keep everyone informed as he or she orchestrated the rollout of phases.
The creation of neighbourhood nests wouldn’t mean that libraries or community centres would lose their importance, either. “Those are on a certain scale,” Ms. Xuereb says. “Our idea behind this was what if you could increase the fabric of that, provide a whole bunch of smaller nodes within the larger one?”
“It’s really about our social infrastructure. That’s our resilience.”
And, save for a few upfront costs for a backup generator or water reservoir – nature has taught us that redundancy is key to survival – much of what it would take to transform a space into a neighbourhood nest would involve a change of furniture or traffic patterns, a nice coffee machine perhaps, and, most importantly, a change in human behaviour (as we’ve seen in recent months, when faced with a common threat, that can be achieve pretty quickly).
“If one piece of the spider web breaks, it’s not necessarily catastrophic,” Ms. Xuereb finishes. “And that’s the idea: You build enough social connections that you keep going.”
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