November 26, 2021

Do you know what you need to be happy and healthy?

The designers’ main aim is to achieve a combination open aesthetic and functionality in designing for the needs of the clients and society at large. The inevitable first step in any project should be the understanding of the end users, our clients and the clients’ client needs.

Needs as classified by Maslow

These needs were by Maslow (1908-1970) into a hierarchy of needs theory in five categories developed in the 1940s together with Carl Rogers: the most basic being the physiological, followed by security, belonging, esteem, and personal accomplishment.

  1. Physiological refers to the need of a roof over our heads, that we have clean air to breathe, food on the table
  2. The security aspect relates to protection against theft and damage to property and self;
  3. The need to belong is perhaps self-explanatory and relates to love, affection and social relations;
  4. Esteem and recognition are the third of these needs relating to status employment, power and money, and;
  5. The need for personal accomplishment & disapproval depends on an individuals’ development and personality.

Although Maslow classified these needs as sequential, i.e., you should satisfy the needs of each level before moving up to the next level, one also needs to take into consideration the fact that individual development needs also to be taken to perspective. Whereas all individuals seek a good quality of life, not everyone’s needs are the same and additionally these may vary over time and culture.

Sometimes they also coexist, as the psychologist Clayton Alderfer presented in his theory on ‘Existence, Relatedness and Growth’ (ERG). The five levels would now shrink to three, as the name suggests, and rather than an individual meeting these needs sequentially, these needs could be occurring simultaneously. The dynamic of these needs is therefore more comprehensive because we can all appreciate that if you are worrying about personal accomplishment, you may not necessarily be eating or sleeping properly – if your growth needs are stifled, it will affect your social behaviour and basic functions. So, one need could be affecting another very closely.

Now that we have established what we need, how are we fulfilling these needs, and at what expense?

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

We cannot fail to notice the close link between these needs and the sustainability development goals and how these may be achieved through design.

sustainable development goals EU

If we are to look at the impact of design – be it architecture, engineering, visual communication, product design, urban planning – at least 11 of these 17 SDGs are directly related. And these are all needs! They affect different categories of our need profile, and they are all equally important, inter-related and essential to our physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

The role of design in sustainable development should cater for all levels of Maslow’s categories of needs:

Physiological needs – This refers to the most basic need of shelter; to have a place called ‘home’, a place to cook, eat, sleep, and create memories with our family and friends.

Protection – against the weather and crime; to have a place you feel comfortable and safe.

Socialisation – a sense of belonging in a community or neighbourhood; inclusivity for all ages and ethnicities.

Expressing values – the design of our city and our projects should reflect our morals and values as a population. It should promote truth, honesty, and kindness.

Personal creative development – design should be a reflection of the individual and who we would like to be, an expression of self-realisation and personal self-fulfilment; this would not only be related to the high-end products that we use (air conditioners, pools, computers/gadgets, villas, penthouses, designer homes) but a higher order of self-realisation that extends beyond the material and transcend within the design the expression of each person’s creativity, without jeopardising that of others, and without obtaining personal development at the expense of others.

The Local Scenario

Relating these 5 need categories to the Maltese scenario, there is a marked shift of what we actually need and the way that priorities are being assigned. Whereas all homes do provide shelter, in some form or other, and without going into the merits of the issue of homelessness – which itself needs to be addressed – do our homes really provide for all our physiological needs? Do we have the space that fits for our families? Or are apartments being split up into smaller, lower units by unscrupulous developers? The covid pandemic has made it evident that there is not enough space indoors – let alone outdoors – for a family to be able to go about its daily routine smoothly. Dining room or kitchen tables doubled up as makeshift desks in spaces filled with the smell of washing and cooking, bedrooms become playgrounds with the noise of the children running around, living rooms… well… are we actually living? Or experiencing stressful chao in these spaces?

Additionally, the mainstream idea of living comfortably is by installing air conditioners, and our idea of energy solutions are PV panels on the roofs – incidentally the more the earth warms up globally and the more trees we cut down, the more air conditioners we will need and the greater the reliance on the national grid. The emphasis is therefore being placed on energy solutions that are more efficient (which is not a bad thing in itself), but why not think of constructing our homes in a way that is passively energy efficient? For instance, using proper wall thicknesses, insulation, glazing, materials, just to name a few. Why not take into consideration the orientation and dimension of windows, shading devices and natural ventilation – which by the way are obligatory at law in the ‘not-so-famous’ Document F published by the Building Regulations Office. While in Malta we are still ‘fighting’ to have proper building regulations, the UK are introducing Part Z in their efforts to reduce the embodied carbon of a building. We are a far cry from this, yet we have similar targets that we need to satisfy at European Union level.

As for the third point of socialisation on the needs list, our society has changed to one that claims not to need community as much as we did in the past. I recall my grandmother sending us off to fetch fresh bread from the bakery – there was a passive surveillance provided by the community and we, as children then, felt safe and a little annoyed when our grandmother received report of our mischievousness even before we got home. We no longer sit out on the pavement for a chat with the neighbours, we are no longer part of a true community. We all live our lives in isolation and our entertainment is fuelled by marketing and money-spending rather than by genuinely enjoying ourselves with family and friends. And this may be because there is really no space for it. Playing fields are some sort of desert where the swings are too hot to the touch, the beaches are being taken over by private enterprises…

Our needs, and by extension sustainable development, are a primordial need. It needs to be understood by people not as simply reducing the quantity of single-use plastic (which is admirable), but a wider set of issues that need our immediate attention. It needs to be understood (and perhaps informed) that sustainability and aesthetics are intimately interlinked with everyone’s wellbeing. At times we walk through our streets wondering why our houses are not built in well-ordered aesthetically pleasing avenues we saw abroad. Why our two-story houses are interspersed with high-rise buildings shutting off the light and view they had when we bought them – reducing their value. We need empathy, the ability to feel and think as a community, to experience the compassion that drives forward the values that unfortunately have been almost forgotten over time.

Maslow’s concept of self-development includes the value of self-transcendence i.e., improving myself beyond what is strictly personally advantageous – moving beyond the ego-centric predicament. In this sense self-development becomes both creative and self-disciplined, so people begin to request the construction of buildings which are environmentally friendly, supporting mental and physical good health, while being aesthetically pleasing – inside and out.

And this can be used in all parts of our society. Kate Raworth visualises economy as a doughnut in her much-praised book ‘Doughnut Economics’ In the hole there are the necessary conditions for humans to live good lives (food, water, education, dignity, access to healthcare). The doughnut ring is the area where capitalism can operate and consumption can grow. In this sense, capitalism should be deployed to delivery against these conditions of society. but never beyond the point at which the scale of consumption hurts workers or damages the planet. We need to value not only economic growth, but rather, prioritise what the world really needs to grow.

A final thought is Mary Portas’ proposal of the ‘Kindness Economy’ as a rather poetic solution to a system that fails to do the right thing by all:

What we’ve come to realise as a society is that the tenets of capitalism, that ‘more equals better’, is not going to be better for us as people or for our planet… This new era, the Kindness Economy, is going to be about sentience. It’s going to be about care, respect and understanding the implication of that we are doing.

Only in this way we will be able to fulfil our needs of happiness and health.


Alderfer, C. P. (1972). Existence, relatedness, and growth; human needs in organizational settings. New York, Free Press.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.
Portas, M., Future of Retail 2019.
Raworth K.(2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London, Random House.

August 30, 2021

Social distancing and the role of the city

We are all used to the term social distancing with the covid pandemic, and in this context we mean it to be that we need to be two metres away from each other – a physical distancing. But the real issue with our society is not merely physical. Emotional social distancing has really begun much before COVID-19. How many of us know our neighbours and their names, our grocer, our florist, baker or banker? How many of us really interact with the people where we live or work?

We therefore need to make a distinction between emotional social distancing and physical social distancing. The two intimately link but social distancing in the emotional sense seems to be worn like a badge of honour sometimes; like something which is part of our culture and our city. The busier we are, the more kudos we think we deserve.

So it is time to start breaking down these walls of emotional social distancing and start becoming and behaving more like a community. How can we do this? How can we be more together? Are we closer now that we have learnt to deal with distances?

This feeling reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend when I was studying in London, a few years back. He claimed that he hated London because it was distant, it was different to his hometown. He felt alone, and as a young student I could not understand this. London for me was exciting, vibrant, full of energy, but the pandemic has made me appreciate what he meant by living in a big city can make you feel lonely. That it can make you feel detached, separate, and distant. Artistic impressions and sketches of this feeling have been very well depicted by architects all over the world. COVID-19 has shown us that this loneliness may also extend to other areas of our countries, and it is not something limited to the big cities. Are we really living together in the city? Or are we living in the city simultaneously but all doing our own little thing with little consideration of what is happening to the people around us. Are we alone together?

A mind shift is required to be able to confront a new world post-pandemic. Should we look be looking at ideas similar to Barcelona's superblocks? The idea of the superblock is breaking away from the vision of the blocks which focuses the emphasis of buildings within a city rather than public space. Cerdà’s vision for Barcelona is remnant of Le Corbusier's ‘Plan Voisin’ of 1924 – the vision was to build a city through uniform blocks where there is no means to have street life – in itself a response to another pandemic. This model was also used for warehousing and for segregating the poor exorbitated this in the 1950’s project in New York City. It was Lewis Mumford who started looking at an alternative for this ‘Plan Voisin’ by creating the Garden City that restores the ground as a plane which ties together all aspects of living in a city. Should we therefore not be focusing on more models such as the ‘Hausmann building’ modified to fit the modern street where people mix socially as well as circulating efficiently? The idea of the city needs to change with the community and the culture. We need to start transitioning from the closed spaces to open spaces that cater for communities. And by Jove do we need the community in a post-pandemic world?

What is sad is that we needed COVID-19 to make us understand that we can be resilient through our community. Being able to have amenities close by – shops, places to eat, have fun, where children play, where people talk! That is the real new city! There are several models – the donut economy, the 15-minute city, the soft city – call it what you may. It is high time that we start looking at the community as being the driver for what design is it done and how it be shaped according to our behaviour. We need to stop looking at the endless interiors of our homes and minds and open our eyes to how a real city could be and how we can really live happily and healthily. We are currently like Paul Klee's ‘Angelus novus’ which depicts a figure who looks back while we are being blown forward. In this case, I do not want to be an angel.

July 21, 2021

Measuring wellbeing in the built environment

Wellbeing is the state of being comfortable, healthy, and happy. As early as the third century BC, humankind has been debating how this could be achieved – how we can reach a state of Eudaimonia, as Aristotle named it – the contented state of feeling healthy, happy, and prosperous.

The overall sense of wellbeing depends on the balance of the physical, emotional or psychological, social, spiritual, intellectual, and economic state. Our built environment has a major impact on these elements, and in order for developers to invest in real estate that truly embraces wellbeing, and for designers to be able to bring these designers to fruition, the need and how to measure wellbeing needs to be understood.

The economics of wellbeing

This is not about understanding inflation in the economy and stock market. The real core in understanding economics of wellbeing is in understanding how people make trade-offs between different things and what they are interested in and whether these trade-offs maximize their wellbeing.

When developing a business case for residential real estate, Corporate Social Responsibility activities would need to be considered as well as how investments are impacting on peoples’ lives. What are the impacts on people’s wellbeing and how do we then measure that?

So, want needs to be understood is firstly what we really mean by wellbeing.

We need to take something that is ephemeral and making it truly tangible. What is wellbeing comprised of? Is it people’s emotions? Is it what they only tell us they want in life? Is it their purpose in life or there are other kind of ethical issues? We need to establish wellbeing indicators, which would differ across different economic or pocket demographic groups in the sense that wellbeing is different for an 85-year-old man compared to 20-year-old woman, for example.

The business case needs to understand whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and since the costs are always in financial terms, the key will be in relating the benefits back into financial terms as well. We will therefore need to look at two important aspects of the benefits. Taking health as an example: living a healthier lifestyle, by say cycling, will not only lessen the burden of the health system because you will need less physiotherapy, treatment, etc. but will also have a direct benefit to the individual from reduction of pain, better mobility, more self-confidence, and weight loss. All these things are important and valuable to people, which need to be assessed and quantified.

If these business cases are set up for large residential projects, both private and public projects, more information would be gathered that would lead to assessing the social value and impact on the community.

How do we measure wellbeing?

Wellbeing can be understood through the definition itself or by the drivers that bring about wellbeing that could be put in a framework which is used throughout the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and which ought to be implemented in all public and private real estate and other stakeholder decisions on the built (and unbuilt) environment.

momentary wellbeing: it is your mood in certain moments, positive or negative emotions. On the negative side, it could be frustration, anxiety, fear. On the positive side it could be joy, relaxation, happiness, for example.

eudemonic wellbeing: the purpose that people derive out of the things that they do – the worthwhileness.

evaluative measure of wellbeing: This is more of the comparative sort of approach on how you are feeling, and how well your life is going compared to your goals, compared to your peers, compared to your aspirations, etc.

OECD well-being framework
A focus on the evaluative measure

Within this driver there are questions such as life satisfaction, crime, autonomy, the environment, health, and so on. These questions are usually measured on a scale, verbal or numerical and this data could be used to get an understanding of their wellbeing as objective measures in understanding how they impact on people, mood, purpose, and life satisfaction. Within the built environment, there needs to be a focus on the external things: connections, autonomy, control, the aesthetics of the building and the potential impact on crime. It also delves into things like the value of something's existence – for what used to be. In the built environment this would be the heritage properties. People place a value on that property existence, and even if they never see it in their life or they never actually go there, they would still value it because it impacts on their wellbeing and their sense of wellbeing.

People at the centre

To be able to achieve a truly sustainable and resilient real estate project, which ties in with the community and the society of that part of the city, in that culture, we need to consider more than the just the bottom line – the hard numbers and metrics of financial profit. The soft metrics of understand what the people really need is paramount. Which is why projects need to be designed for the people that will be using them. Early involvement of the end users of the space will make the process more complete by putting their wellbeing at the centre of all decisions.

October 26, 2020

A guide for first-time buyers

Deciding to invest and buy your first home can be quite daunting at the beginning. This is true for everyone, but especially for young couples who are just starting their life together. This process is long, and it can be rather emotional, allowing feelings to take over will result in uncertainty. This article will deal with purchasing an already built property. Buying a plot of land for development or buying a property on plan would involve further steps to those outlined below. Should you opt for the latter, one word of advice would be to ensure that the property that you intend to buy on plan already has a Planning Authority permit to avoid disappointment.

Taking into consideration the closing costs, down payments, home inspection and choosing the right people to work with is a lot. It can quickly turn into an overwhelming experience rather than a new and exciting journey if one is misinformed. Expenses are inevitable. Taking the time on decisions, informing yourself, asking the right questions, and getting the correct information may help you avoid mistakes which in turn will save you money.

Expenses are inevitable. Taking the time on decisions, informing yourself, asking the right questions, and getting the correct information may help you avoid mistakes which in turn will save you money.

#1 The Right Agent

Deciding whether to engage with the help of a real estate agent is the first step that you will need to take. However, choosing someone with experience and who is trustworthy will benefit you in the long run, so taking the time to decide on an agent who will make the process more manageable.

In addition to finding the right agent, preparing a list of your priorities is essential to meet your criteria. This list may include, the location, type of house, specific amenities you want your home to have, and any other relevant information to fit your needs.

No detail is too small or irrelevant. Pinning down your interests will ensure that the person you engage gets the right information from you when it comes to looking for your home. The buyer's agent can facilitate negotiations, organise the closing process, and help answer questions whilst taking into consideration your needs and budget when showing you the available properties.

#2 Choosing Your Professionals

Besides the buyer's agent, you will need to find trustworthy persons who will ensure that the details are not overlooked or the process is not rushed. The professionals that are responsible for this task are your chosen notary and perit (architect and civil engineer).

The notary’s role is conducting the necessary research to verify who the owners of the property are (i.e. title of the property) and ensure that the property is legally transferred from the seller to you.

Do not get deterred from opting for a house inspection, as this step is crucial. A perit can provide you with valuable information and give you a better understanding of serious problems which can exist. Issues may include lack of compliance from the Planning Authority permit, structural issues with the property and structure as well as insights in the electrical wiring, the plumbing and the disposal of rainwater should the property be purchased with all finishes installed.

Opting for an inspection would highlight any red flags that can be dealt with before sealing the deal – benefiting you from dealing with extra costs afterwards. The perit will also give you useful information to reduce (if not eliminate) future problems which may arise in time. Knowing what might occur in the long run can help you be prepared to tackle the situation the right way. The perit will also be responsible to supply you with the Land Registry plans and Eight Schedule which will be used by the notary to start the research on the title of the property. In order for this documentation to be accurate, you will need to provide your perit with a copy of the promise of sale contract. Remember also to request the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) from the seller.

First time buyers
#3 Paperwork

Inevitably, there is the dreaded paperwork, which without it, purchasing a property will not be possible. This does not only include the promise of the sale contract (‘konvenju’). Throughout the entire process, you will start to realise that the documents required start to add up. As discussed, engaging a notary is essential to determine the title of the property which is being transferred the buyer bears this cost.

One needs to take into consideration the taxes which will add to the financial burden. These are often not mentioned from the start, and therefore asking questions is crucial. If the property is being bought in a finished state, i.e. with all electrics, plumbing, tiling, etc. ensure that penalties are included in the contract should the seller not honour the timeframes.

Taking a loan and setting up the insurances (both life and home) are other essential steps in the process. Talking to a loan officer and an insurance clerk will help you to receive information on various types of schemes being offered. These schemes will help you cut some costs by merely doing your research. Keep in mind that every company provides different types of products, so talking to several companies will help you decide which best fit your needs.

#4 Compare Quotes and Timeframes

An exciting part of investing in a house is making it a home. This stage requires reflection and thoughtful choices. You may opt to engage the services of a perit or interior designer to help you with this process. The advantages of this is that they will create a holistic design approach, ensure that the space is designed according to your needs and to make best use of all areas. They will also aid in choosing the furniture and their size, design any custom-made units, and help you choose materials. All this could be presented in 3D visualisations that would represent how your final home will look like and you will have the opportunity to avoid unexpected results.

If, however you choose to brave this phase on your own, we recommend that when visiting furniture and appliance stores, it is always wise to ask questions. Some could be:

  • Are there any deposits required?
  • What happens when your order arrives?
  • Will they provide storage space until your house is ready?
  • What happens in the case of delays?
  • Are there any extra fees along the process?

The more questions you ask, the easier it is to avoid any unexpected surprises. Often, we become overwhelmed with choice when visiting several outlets. While it is highly recommended to shop around and get multiple quotations, do this by going with a plan in mind. That way, you can narrow down your search to your specific needs. This step is essential, but it can sometimes lead to rushing. Keep in mind what are the necessities and do not feel obliged to furnish your home from top to bottom – that will come with time.

#5 Know Your Budget

As you may imagine, investing in a home will lead to digging into your savings. Assessing how much you can afford can reduce unnecessary pressure. In as much planning as you may do, take into consideration the ‘hidden expenses’ when it comes to finishing your home. For instance, if you are remodelling an old house, things to look out for which might need fixing. These can be the plumbing, trim and moulding, the wiring, the heating and cooling system, humidity issues, broken slab flagstones (‘xorok’), rotten timber beams, just to name a few. In old homes, it is also important to assess the soil water drains and how these connect to the sewer. If this is not checked, it could lead to unexpected work in replacing the pipework which in turn may mean that the Maltese traditional tiles may have to be removed.

If you are purchasing a new home, you might want to take into consideration things which are not listed in the contract of purchase. Finishing items such as gypsum soffits, gypsum walls, ceiling roses, the electrical sockets amongst others are generally not included in the contract documents. All these come at an additional cost which if you are not prepared for from the start, you end up with an unexpected bill in the end.

General expenses could also be of the type of obtaining local council permits for cranes, skips, cherry-pickers, etc. for delivery and removal of materials and debris. This could be accompanied by local warden fees which could be necessary depending on the street location of the property.


Aside from the points above, it is paramount to refrain from seeing your home as simply an investment. It will be the place where you will create a life, possibly a family, memories and most of all it will be the place for rest and a place to experience life. As we have seen recently, the home will also be a place for children’s education, it may double-up as an office and generally be the place where we are able to multi-task! It is important to keep in mind that it is not just the area of the rooms which makes a home – it is the configuration of these rooms, links with nature via a balcony, terrace, yard, or other outside space. Your well-being and that of your loved ones should always be taken into account in the choice of your home.


October 19, 2020

Associate your brand with good. Design for welfare in student housing.

For many, a young person’s first experience of a home away from home is in student accommodation. Yet, sadly, in the UK, it is estimated that 29% of students will suffer clinical levels of mental distress. (Bewick et al.) Emphasis is being placed on catering for the pastoral needs of residents, within student accommodation, who are reaching out for support more than ever before. (Williams et al, 2015).

it is estimated that 29% of students will suffer clinical levels of mental distress.

How can we encourage better mental health through good student accommodation design?
  • Consider the likelihood of human contact on arrival. We have witnessed older student hall properties which allow the bypassing of all human contact, when walking from the street to the student’s private room. Alternatively, a well-positioned receptionist, or night guard, will have the ability to check a student's presentation on a daily basis.
  • Cater private rooms with amenities that promote wellbeing. Every bedroom should offer a small double bed, generous desk, as well as adequate storage for clothing, books, lever arch files, a large suitcase and carry-on. Pin boards and a simple picture rail moulding can go a long way to offer easy, damage free personalisation.
    Sleep hygiene can be promoted through:
        1. natural light and blackout curtains to support the Circadian rhythm,
        2. easy access to a water supply for good hydration,
        3. bed comfort,
        4. soundproofing,
        5. temperature control,
        6. good air quality and
        7. views towards green spaces (Student Minds, 2017).
  • Reduce conflict in shared zones. Where do many peer-to-peer conflicts lie? Indubitably, in shared kitchens. These should be easy to clean, fire safe, and offer multiple appliances, so double up on sinks, ovens, and fridges for clusters of more than 5 residents. A noticeboard can facilitate responsibility sharing and communication. It is also helpful to outline expectations for the common room (or rooms) - are these social spaces, with games tables and TVs or will they attract collaborative work teams and/or solo study?
  • Target your design to support the students you intend to attract. Artists and designers will have different needs to other academics. Designing for messy work and collaborative study can be immensely cost effective, as it reduces the need for oversized working areas within private rooms, and has the sleep hygiene benefit of separating the workspace from the sleeping space. Younger residents, and busy final year postgraduates, may be tempted by halls with on-site catering.
Student Housing
  • Support your staff. Good design should also support staff in supporting students. Oftentimes, while staff are keen to offer a listening ear to students in need (Student Minds, 2017), there is no adequate private space to do this. One should also consider how to make this support toolkit known - this can range from social events to one to one sessions related to anxiety, funding or personal health. Space permitting, we’ve also known staff to curate a lending library of useful (and sanitised!) objects e.g. mannequins, technical drawing boards, sewing machines, crutches and so on.
  • Use technology to your advantage. Through an integrated AV system, notices can be shared digitally from HQ or reception, and updated on the fly. The student body will expect your building's tech spec to evolve alongside technological innovation - from strong Wi-fi to teleconferencing to on-site Amazon lockers.
  • Clever environmental graphics can go a long way. Full wall pin boards and chalkboards can encourage skill sharing, peer to peer collaboration, and interaction with the surrounding community. Consider curating these living walls, while reinforcing your brand and messaging, by involving graphic designers early in the design process.
  • Don’t forget sound design. Effective sound design to reduce transmittance between spaces is critical – Foundation students’ leaving parties might coincide with a post graduate's eve to their viva!

Incorporating design that supports student mental health at concept stage can be achieved with thoughtful design planning, by engaging the right multidisciplinary team of architects, interior planners, sound and graphic designers. It is a fruitful investment that will protect your brand’s reputation in the long run, by minimising the likelihood of catastrophic events which have become all too common in the student community. Student satisfaction will thrive in happy, healthy homes that give welfare and the overall student experience the attention it finally deserves.


Bewick, Bridgette Maree, Jan Gill, B. Mulhearn, Michael Barkham, and Andrew J. Hill. “Using electronic surveying to assess psychological distress within the UK student population: a multisite pilot investigation.” E-Journal of Applied Psychology 4, no. 2 (2008).

Newman, O. “10 classic student house arguments - and how to avoid them”, The Independent (2013).

Student Minds “Student living: collaborating to support mental health in university accommodation.” UPP Foundation (2017).

Williams, M., Coare P., Marvell R., Pollard, E., Houghton A., and Anderson, J. “Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs.” Institute for Employment Studies and Researching Equity, Access and Partnership – HEFCE (2015).

September 16, 2020

How are you leaving your mark?

I found myself contemplatively looking out of the window when I realised the house opposite was built in 1905, a date which is very proudly exhibited on the top of the building. I needed to put this in context of the world happenings; Albert Einstein finished his scientific paper on the Quantum Theory of Light, Las Vegas was founded in Nevada, ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration as part of the Russian Revolution took place, the Panama Canal was still under construction, … , and the building of this house.

My thoughts then immediately went to the beautiful use of the stone and the proportions of the façade. Having not had the pleasure to visit the inside, I wondered what it would look like, fantasized about the lavish orchard or garden… but most of all, the question that really started to vex me was “Are we producing designs that will withstand the test of time, just like the designers of this house managed to do 115 years ago?”

“Are we producing designs that will withstand the test of time, just like the designers of this house managed to do 115 years ago?”

This, together with questions such as, “but what does your practice actually do?” or “what is your architectural style?” and “graphic design and architecture/structures? What a strange combination!”. So, I am going to attempt at describing at what we mean by design and how we hope that a different mindset at defining this may produce work, graphic or architectural/structural, of a different quality and sensitivity, and how we are hoping to continue growing personally and professionally.

So, what is our design process?

The etymology of the word design is of Latin, French and Italian origin first used in the late 14th century meaning "to make, shape" ultimately from Latin designare "mark out, point out; devise; choose, designate, appoint" from de "out" and signare "to mark" from signum "identifying mark, sign". In no part of this meaning does it refer to architecture, engineering, graphic communication, planning or any other discipline that we now associate with design, but in fact, it is related to making ‘a mark’.

Back to my question then: “what mark are we leaving on our society? And how are we, as an inter-disciplinary group of professionals, making that mark?”

Similar to Charles Morris’ argument that in every language is the study of semiotics, we believe that design is a visual language and therefore our process is based on three intangible aspects: semantic, syntactic and pragmatic. In briefly considering each of these aspects:

  • Semantics is the search the meaning of whatever we would like to undertake. This involves getting to know our client well, the products or services, the position in marketing, the final user, etc. The complexities of these signs need to be understood to define the parameters within which we operate within the realms of a project. Semantics is the bases of the natural process of design.
  • Syntactics is, for want of an easier word, the grammar of a language, the articulation of phrases and the formal relation between signs. Applied to architecture this could refer to the composition or configuration of an architype, etc.; in graphic design it is the grid used, typefaces, illustrations, etc. The consistency of the syntactics is paramount.
  • Pragmatics focuses on the communication of these principles – the relation between sign and behaviour. This visual design language should be easy to understand with minimal explanation. The clarity within the design process then translates to clarity of intent within a project which in turn gives clarity to the result.

Therefore signs, language and behaviour are not only an invaluable tool for the semantic specialist, but we believe that we as designers ought to be concerned with problems of meaning, language, and communication too. By way of elucidating how we do this, I have listed our ‘design rules’ and describe what meaning we prescribe to timelessness, context, appropriateness, discipline, digitalisation, responsibility, and wellbeing, and how we apply these to design.


Design is not a style or fashion. We promote the projection of an ideology encompassing awareness of the production process and the destination of its products. Styles, on the other hand, are purely ephemeral manifestations of the speculative desire of producers, possibly reflecting a culture of waste, temporary solutions, and design for the sake of novelty.

We attempt at challenging the interaction between intuition and knowledge, and bridge passion and curiosity, while responding to the clients’ needs and wants. Our ‘design style’ is beyond fashionable modes and temporary fads. We like design to be timeless as much as possible, one which is committed to society and values, centred around the message rather than visual excitement.

We attempt at challenging the interaction between intuition and knowledge, and bridge passion and curiosity, while responding to the clients’ needs and wants.


Context and appropriateness are consequential conditions and are both an integral part of the design process. In architecture, the context relates to the environment where a building is going to be located and how it relates to its surroundings and culture. In graphic design it relates to the destination of the object, whether it is in 2D or 3D. In all cases, the market and economic conditions framing the project at its inception need to be understood.

We feel that evaluating the context well, including its constraints, leads to good design and the correct interpretation and transformation of its requirements in a creative way.


This notion is consequent to what has been said above – it is the principle that prevents us from taking wrong directions and indicates the right material, scale or expression that is required to solve a client’s problem. The solution must be appropriate to the problem and context.

Human Well-beign

Whether you believe that the ‘devil’ or ‘God’ is in the details, the fundamental meaning behind this mantra is that all design requires discipline and attention to detail. The final work is the sum of all the details involved in the creative process no matter what the project is. For us, discipline is closely associated with quality. We believe that we either produce work of quality, or we step back. The work we produce is a commitment and a continuously painstaking effort to be true to the creative process.

“Design without discipline is anarchy, an exercise of irresponsibility”, Massimo Vignelli.


“Whatever computer graphic technologies offer, freehand drawing remains the most apposite tool to transcribe the abstract into the figurative; for the bridge between mind and paper is still best crossed by the hand. It is essential to ensure that the mouse does not eat the pencil.” Richard England

While we believe and practice this, it is inevitable for digitalisation not to affect our process in any way. By using integration modelling among the clients, consultants and contractors (where possible) expressing thoughts in 3D, ‘clashes’ may also be detected at an early stage in a project where they are much easier, cheaper and less time consuming to rectify. It is also difficult for parametric design to be done by hand. Our process enables simulations and other computational processes to be intertwined with the fine arts.


This is one of the most important principles of our practice. By responsibility we do not only mean ensuring the integrity of a project and valuing our clients’ trust to solve a problem economically and efficiently. We are also socially responsible for the public at large who is also the final user of our designs. We strive for our civic consciousness, our sense of decency, or way of conceiving design, and our moral imperative by using intellectual elegance to conceive a responsible solution.


Central to the framework within which we develop the design process is the focus of human well-being.

By putting our client and their needs first we are able to create bespoke solutions that engage and enhance the human element of the project. For us, the inter-disciplinary approach uses collaboration as a method to shift boundaries of design and endeavours in giving the client the best tailored-made solution.


The spirit of our design studio is that Design Is One. This does not mean that we believe in Adolf Loos’ dictum that an architect would be able to design everything “from the spoon to the city”. What we strive to achieve is a truly interdisciplinary team where each member has a true input in making our clients’ projects come to fruition, involving the clients in all phases of the project, and really making it about them. We all have our influences from the world around us which affect our mind in a deep and formative way. The key to this, we found, is to keep continuously sifting through the various influences so as not to fall in the danger of imitation and its seductiveness.

The principles outlined within this design process may be distilled by using the terms collaboration and interdisciplinarity inter-changeably. The disciplines work together through both consensus and disagreement. Tension is inevitable but not necessarily perceived as negative, as it is what often unshackles our mode of creative thinking (Scicluna, 2015). Boundaries get shifted through collaborative interchange of ideas and concepts, breaking limitations of understanding a project through a single lens.

We love what we do and that is how we intend on making our mark.


Scicluna, R. (2015) ‘Exploring Meaningfully and Creatively the Tensions Arising out of Collaborations: An Anthropological Perspective’, Anthropology Matters Journal, 16(1):414-426.



August 17, 2020

How to grow your business to be radically different?

Have you ever realised that sometimes there is that one advert, on TV or otherwise, that really grabs your attention? Did you ever buy anything because of the brand name and what it represents? Marketing strategies, and therefore branding identity and graphic design strategies behind them, are all based around these principles – what do people want/need – and to then create a system which makes these products or services irresistible.

We will here be looking at how brands can distinguish themselves from their competition by providing something which tips the consumer balance in their favour, creating the necessity for the consumer to acquire the product or use the service in establishing a wanted lifestyle. We are all familiar how Harley Davidson, Tesla, Apple, to name a few, have created niche products that define a lifestyle. The most important of achieving is that they have managed to stand out in the crowd and developed things have cultural meaning and are used for cultural ends. The latter vary from the meanings associated with particular items, to statement making about identity and aspiration, as well as the vehicle for enabling particular relationships with other people.

By extension, brands need to harness the evocative power of things and services.


The Harley-Davidson lifestyle commercial

Marketplace Clutter

We live in a world which is fast (and getting faster) and a world of more. So much ‘more’ that sometimes we tend to have a cluttered life (Marie Kondo please!). This is not only true for our daily lives but it also for companies that are faced with competition from too many products, services, features, messages, meanings or media.

marketplace clutter
Forms of Marketplace Clutter; Source: Zag, Marty Neumeier (2007)

There is too much of everything. And the knee-jerk reaction is to fight clutter with more clutter! How is a brand, therefore, to break through all of this, and be the one that sticks to people’s mind, while it inadvertently buildings mental walls to block out all the clutter. Probably for the first time in history, the most powerful barriers to brand competition are not controlled by companies, but by customers. So how is a brand going to stand out?

“Probably for the first time in history, the most powerful barriers to brand competition are not controlled by companies, but by customers. So how is a brand going to stand out?”

Zig Zag

“The new rule: When everybody zigs, zag”, says Marty Neumeier in his 2007 publication ‘Zag’. Differentiation is the art of standing out from the competition. But in a setting of clutter, you need more than differentiation – you need radical differentiation. A brand needs to find its niche rather than continuing to plough through a saturated marketplace. A brand needs to create an uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. To develop this and deliver profits may take years rather than months. You cannot be the leader by following the leader.

But what does different mean? At what cost should things be different? Should they be different even at the expense of quality? Here again therefore there is relationship between good and different which needs to be taken into account when change is proposed.

good vs different
Relationship between good and different in the positioning within the marketplace (Neumeier, 2007)

Without going into too much detail of this graph, brands need to position themselves in the top right hand corner – Good & Different; ‘Not Good’ is not an option; ‘Good but Not Different’ falls within the same old saturated market. If a product or service positions itself as good and different, its innovation will shine through in a saturated market. The biggest winner at this will not be the brand that is first into the marketplace, but the one that is first into people’s minds. This strategy applies to both new start-ups as well as to well-established companies who would like to boost their momentum and reposition their brand in the marketplace.

The question now is “How does one zag?”. Finding open market space may be a counterintuitive skill, as it is easier to notice what is on the market rather than that which is not. Our recommendation is to uncover a consumer need. This will only be possible by understanding what your client is after, where he would like to position himself in society through using an innovative product or service, and hence what lifestyle he/she would like to have.

“The biggest winner at this will not be the brand that is first into the marketplace, but the one that is first into people’s minds.”

Understanding your clients and their culture

The methodology of knowing what makes the clients’ eyes shine and use this in marketing is not new. The hardest part of radical differentiation is the creation of a new product or service through the formation of a ‘bridge to hopes and ideals’ (as framed by McCracken, 1988). This bridge makes up for the difference between the ideal which the client wants and their actual state – a bridge to the desired state of being.

In understanding the ultimate user of your product or service, you also need to understand the cultural context in which they were brought up and the one that they now operate in. As INTEL anthropologist Genevieve Bell says, you must understand what people care about in order do business. In her work intersecting cultural practice and technological development this was especially important in the introduction of new products in various countries. In her research she focusses about how culture in Europe and Asia differs from the US in terms of how people use technology and where; linking and appreciating what the customer wants within the culture they are in.

Dr Genevieve Bell on culture and technology

So, while building a company culture that thrives on radical differentiation through putting the interests of its clients first, how does the client’s culture affect this understanding and what should companies focus on? In answering this question, one needs to recognise that material culture that the clients live in, what makes them tick and therefore how culture shapes consumption.

This consumption and the accumulation of objects is a trend can be traced as far back as the seventeenth century. ‘Possessive individualism’ in western cultures was brought to the fore with the emergence of the person as owner, i.e. an individual surrounded by accumulated property and goods. It is this reaction towards the element of want and need that brands need to understand to be able to infiltrate and excel in a marketplace.

Therefore, brands should ask themselves the inevitable question: Is consumption merely an irrational behaviour? Can things be ‘the material culture of love’? What if brands position products and services on a different perspective? Gone should be the days that brands and marketing offer a culture solely associated with a soulless or an immoral consumerist practice.

What if brands thought of objects from a different social and economic perspective? Could it be that they position themselves to enable the making and maintaining of relationships? A British anthropologist, Daniel Miller in his book, “A Theory of Shopping” suggests that consumption and capitalism are not incompatible to social values of the self, the family and the community. Instead, his research goes to the extreme and suggests that shopping is about love and about a way of making relations with others. Brands should do precisely this! They need to make tangible the feeling that their clients have for their friends and family. Their product or service needs to match how they feel – reflecting their product as an idea of themselves through the client’s consumption decisions.


The mantra of “thinking differently” has now been assimilated as the philosophy of the 21st century branding strategy. The key is to innovate at the speed of the market. Constant change requires constant novelty while moving into an era of perpetual innovation within a cultural context. The journey from innovation to commodity is so short that there is little time to capitalise on it – it is time for change!


1 Kim, W. C. & Mauborgne, R. (2015) Blue Ocean Strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant – expanded edition, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
McAlhone, B., Stuart, D., Quinton, G. & Asbury, N. (2016) A Smile in the Mind – Revised and Expanded Edition: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design, Phaidon.
3 McCracken, G. (1988) Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Good and Activities; The Evocative Power of Things, Indiana University Press.
4 Miller, D. (2013) A Theory of Shopping, Wiley.
5 Neumeier, M. (2006) The Brand Gap – How to bridge the distance between business strategy and design, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
6 Neumeier, M. (2007) Zag – The #1 Strategy of High-Performance Brands, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
7 Neumeier, M. (2006) The Brand Gap – How to bridge the distance between business strategy and design, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
8 Neumeier, M. (2016) The Brand Flip – Why customers now run companies and how to profit from it, New Riders (Peachpit Press).

August 3, 2020

Benefits of being squashed like sardines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put unprecedented challenges on human behaviour. The various public health measures of lockdown, social distancing and hygiene accompanied by hefty fines pushed us indoors temporarily leaving ghost-like cities behind. In a short time, the reduction of human activity through remote employment enabled reductions in energy use, traffic, congestion, and air pollution.

Climate change is therefore an environmental, moral, and social issue. It requires a revaluation not only of the urban system but also the introduction of green and blue cities. This shift is by no means simple. In its principle it is ambitious as it asks individuals and large institutions to think differently about efficiency, conservation of finite resources, consumerism, the ecology and global exchange. However, who should be responsible in moving towards more responsible, inclusive, and sustainable choices?

“So how can we promote the sustainable development of our cities by virtue of understanding urban planning sensitively? Can densification and compact city policies lead to a more sustainable urban environment?”

Urban densification, that is increase in the number of dwelling units and mixed-use spaces per acre, is the key to tapping into the potential of cities to become part of the solution to climate change because it encourages efficiency and conservation, while managing dwellings and their respective population. It is a critical aspect of making a city more sustainable and environmentally friendly, since densification includes the need for local recreational areas and generally make green space more accessible for all.

Hong Kong housing
Densification and climate change

Richard Sennett, a professor of urban studies at MIT and senior adviser to the UN on its climate change and cities programme observes that, “At the moment we are reducing density everywhere we can, and for good reason”. “But on the whole density is a good thing: denser cities are more energy efficient. So, I think in the long term there is going to be a conflict between the competing demands of public health and the climate.”

In an age of globalisation and the world being ‘our oyster’, does the above mean that we should focus on the local instead of the global? The above also suggests that carefully planned cities can be dense, however, they must offer an adequate quality of life by creating a system of networks which links people to basic amenities – workplace, shopping stores, educational and religious spaces need to be within convenient proximities from each other.

Such amenities encourage other means of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation. This type of planning reduces the dependency on cars and creates a more harmonious place to dwell in, a city rightfully built for people, not cars.

“…carefully planned cities can be dense, however, they must offer an adequate quality of life by creating a system of networks which links people to basic amenities…”

Having cleaner air also offers a healthier environment for all. In the Brundtland report from 1988, the short distances between urban functions within Copenhagen coupled with a policy aimed at concentrating urban development around public transport (8) were believed in assisting the achievement of sustainable urban development. The latter example supports Sennett’s position and showcases that a more compact urban form supports efficient district heating systems (9) and multi-story housing has lower energy consumption per square meter for heating than detached single family housing (10).

It is estimated that air pollution alone can negatively affect GDP by about 2% to 4%. With urban populations expected to grow at an exponential rate in the coming years, cities will be the main contributors to pollution costs over the next 20 years if nothing is done (2).

This challenge is further complicated by the fact that density is not the only aspect of sustainable urban development. Sustainability in a broader sense should mean a dynamic balance between economic, environmental and social considerations. Therefore, density should not be understood in isolation but in relation to moral economy and social outcomes produced by different density levels (7). The problem of some urban development lies in the continued support of socio-geographical patterns, accelerating gentrification of slums in certain districts.

Now, what happens when you leave the responsibility to people in order find their own way in establishing their space within a city?

“It is estimated that air pollution alone can negatively affect GDP by about 2% to 4%.”

Densification allows people to flourish and be inventive

Necessity is the mother of invention. The word ‘densification’ took a whole new meaning in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Some called it uncontrolled densification, but this has produced a wonderful phenomenon. Let’s take you through the story of Torre David:

In 1990, construction began on the ‘Centro Financiero Confinanzas’, a huge high-rise office complex in Caracas. Construction halted in 1994, after a banking crisis and the 45-story tower stood vacant until 2007, when squatters began moving in, displaced by a massive housing shortage. Authorities at the time turned a blind eye, and the skyscraper, nicknamed the "Tower of David" (after its late owner David Brillembourg), was then home to more than 3,000 residents. The third-highest skyscraper in the country has been jury-rigged with electricity and water up to the 22nd floor making it the world's tallest slum (3, 4, 5).

The new tenants made use of cheap building materials, breeze blocks and tarpaulin, cardboard and corrugated iron, to construct their homes, very much typical of shanty towns. But rather than spreading horizontally, this ‘vertical slum’ became a truly fascinating example of re-appropriation of space in an urban environment.

The occupation of the tower, however, was more than just a search for living space. A flourishing economy built up inside its concrete walls, hairdressers, grocery stores and workshops served the community of increasingly settled occupants. The towers fomented a strong sense of community, utopic even. Roots were set down and the flowering buds of a society emerged, anchoring the tower with more than its massive foundations.

On July 23, 2014, President Nicolás Maduro announced that the government had not yet decided what to do with the building but was considering at least three possible options: “Some are proposing its demolition. Others are proposing turning it into an economic, commercial or financial centre. Some are proposing building homes there. …We’re going to open a debate.” (6) Tenants were evicted, while the future of the structure is still uncertain.

Video by Urban-Think Tank. Click here to see the full video documentary

Densification vs Disaggregation

This is urban planning speak for the tension between densification (a push for cities becoming more concentrated) and disaggregation (the separating out of communities in holding back infections and their transmission).

COVID-19 has therefore brought us closer together since there is a push towards improving local services, staycations and generally enjoying the community in which we live in. There is a renewed community activism. Sennett thinks we are potentially seeing a fundamental shift in urban social relations. “City residents are becoming aware of desires that they didn’t realise they had before,” he says, “which is for more human contact, for links to people who are unlike themselves.”

Whether we like it or not, in Malta densification is the norm, and much is being done to protect the scant and sparse rural areas that we have left, and the local biodiversity within it. But let’s face it, we have the luxury of proximity to one’s job not being a significant factor in deciding where to live and therefore there is lot that can already be done in terms of ensuring the wellbeing of citizens within cities if we only redirect our attention away from the car and towards more green forms of transport.

Perhaps a key lesson is that of finding a ‘respectable’ distance which ensures a sense of privacy while enabling human contact and exchange in the context of the compact city. Local plans need to be designed not to merely reflect narrow economic interests in attracting new residents and commercial activities, but rather these concepts would need to be embedded in a far-reaching, national planning strategy for sustainable urban development.

“Perhaps a key lesson is that of finding a ‘respectable’ distance which ensures a sense of privacy while enabling human contact and exchange in the context of the compact city.”

Malta city

The future is to design cities that people are able to socialise without being packed into ‘sardine-like’ venues, but still be far enough to protect themselves from disease. This will come with significant economic reforms. In Anderson’s words from 1998, “the illusion or urban renewal as an integration in which the basic attributes of the urban space is a richness and variety of relationship between people from different social and consumption groups falls own because of solutions dictated by the power of capital”.

We do not yet have the answer to this million-dollar conundrum. But in the new and unpredictable connections swiftly being forged within our cities as a result of the pandemic, there is perhaps some cause for optimism.


9 Owens, S., Energy, Environmental Sustainability and Land Use planning. Sustainable Development and Urban Form, ed. Breheny, M., Pion Limited, London, pp. 79-105, 1992.
10 Naess, P., et al. Baerekraftig byutvikling, NIBR, Oslo, 1996.

July 27, 2020

Our 20/20 Vision: Could ugliness be a sign for change?

Throughout history, humans have continuously engaged with their environment according to their desires, wants and needs. Population growth and post-industrial developments have been a primary cause of environmental change. Water, ground or air pollution are a by-product of this. But an equally important form of pollution which, nowadays, is gaining increased attention is sensory pollution which impacts us psychologically and spiritually... How can attention to visual pollution aid quality of life?

“…sensory nature (of pollution) which impacts us psychologically and spiritually…visual pollution.”

Contrary to popular belief, visual pollution is not simply an aesthetic issue impairing one’s ability to enjoy a vista or a view. It causes skewed perceptions of our space identity and consequently causes environmental stress. The impact is significant, causing anxiety, stimulus overload, distraction, chronic restlessness and inefficiency in human activity, including eye fatigue. Excessive visual stimuli are largely related to greater product consumption. Media advertising often leads the consumer to excessive shopping (or even shopaholicism) accompanied with unhealthy and fast food purchases which may result in obesity and a series of diseases.

In fact, a large portion of what we are exposed to has already been criticized as being of poor taste. Massimo Vignelli, a renowned Italian graphic designer commonly known for designing the New York City subway map, formed his elegantly and simple signature style by departing from the clutter often seen in commercial design (3). Vignelli once said: "there are too many people with no education in graphic design. And because they have access to computers, there's no end to what they create … It's pollution! … If they were pharmaceuticals companies, we'd all be poisoned. But we are poisoned anyhow, visually."(4)

So how can good design and planning reduce visual pollution in our cities? From a built environment perspective, visual pollution leads to the loss of original character (a loss of space identity) of a region. It affects property prices by influencing the attractiveness of a certain area too. It reduces natural diversity (directly affecting flora and fauna) and restricts comfort of space.

As designers we are in an advantageous position as we are trained to see visual patterns through which we can enhance quality of life by incorporating harmony into the built environment. Thus, we ask, how can we plan for, mitigate and create better solutions to move away from ugliness and visual pollution?

Signage, Graphics & Communication

Commercial signage is not new - the Romans were known to use signboards for shopfronts and to announce public events. Fast forward to today where, digital technology has exposed us to eye-catching (and distracting) digital billboards that offer greater effectiveness than traditional physical posters (and here we will not be delving into the merit of effective poster communication). As a result, researchers show that a person is exposed to roughly 400 advertisement messages per day. (2)

“researchers show that a person is exposed to roughly 400 advertisement messages per day”

Billboards. Visual Pollution

In the age of the Anthropocene, where continuous flow of information is the norm, we ask, is all this visual overload of information in our lives and cities necessary? Is this what we want to leave to our future generations?

A less considered impact of signage is that of energy and climate change. According to Nicola Round from Adblock Bristol (10): “Bristol was the first UK council to declare a climate emergency, so it makes no sense to then install new digital advert screens. We know from planning applications that a double-sided digital bus advertisement uses the same annual energy as four households. So, imagine the big ones, let alone the environmental impact of the over-consumption encouraged by these advertising boards”.

“…a double-sided digital bus advertisement uses the same annual energy as four households…”

Then, there is another reality. Wayfinding in a new town can be daunting and distressing. Despite the fact, that local knowledge in some cultures (like Malta) can aid the lack of disorientation, not every local or tourist has access to such knowledge. As stated at the outset, population growth requires management which addresses multiple needs. Hence, having efficient wayfinding techniques of proper street names, signs and landmarks can be beneficial for all. It is more inclusive.

Wayfinding is generally underestimated as a participatory methodology of inclusivity. It not only helps solve spatial problems and allows people to travel to their desired destination, but it can also be about community building as it can be sensitive to those individuals who finding it distressing asking for directions. For example, What3words is a digital wayfinding technique which is gaining traction: Shall we meet at ///renew.acted.quite for a coffee?

Buildings, Accretions and Services

In the UK, a modernist addition to an existing building is frequently dismissed as ugly and often described as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend” (Prince Charles on the National Gallery, London, 1984) (12). People always think that it is the building that makes a city ugly. Just because a building stands out from the ones around it, it does not make it an ugly or a bad building. Aesthetic criticism is important, and of course how a building functions within its environment will impact its success, but this is only one aspect of quality design (6).

Over the last 20 years or so, Malta has seen a drastic change in the way it has developed. The rhetoric on construction and mass development boosted by rapid financial and population growth, swayed developers into fast construction for the leasing market most often with very little focus on design and wellbeing of the tenants. We may still be graced with the pretty little towns and the seaside villages, but our surroundings are generally very prone to being visually polluting too. Have we reached a point where we can now paraphrase with Sir John Betjeman: “Goodbye to old Malta. We who loved you are sorry. They've carted you off by developer's lorry.”

“Goodbye to old Malta. We who loved you are sorry. They've carted you off by developer's lorry.”

Roads. Visual Pollution

This visual pollution and uglification of cities manifests itself in new buildings of poor design, accretions/insensitive additions to old buildings, poorly executed restoration and abandoned buildings, not to mention public services and infrastructure, shop signs, ill-designed street furniture, public lighting, loosely-hanging electric wires and antennas and broken pavements. Moreover, the myriad of garbage bins/bags (5) which line our streets at different times of day waiting patiently for their collector.

City Design Promoting Wellbeing

As we discussed in a previous article - Where do you belong? Space and Identity -, the identity of a city is created over time through a collective effort from the users of its space. The various spaces making up a city, be it squares, markets, schools, churches, etc. form a cohesive urban fabric that expresses the identity of the city. But how can design and visual pollution promote the wellbeing of the citizens? The city of São Paulo in Brazil has taken this problem by the horns in the passing of the controversial ‘Clean City Law’ over a decade ago.

This law banned outdoor advertisements within the city, such as billboards and posters, with the intention of alleviating visual pollution and reinstating the importance of its urban architecture. The law was heavily endorsed by the public, resulting in 15,000 billboards and 300,000 business signs across the city being removed. However, the law was also met with criticism since advertisements contribute largely towards the local economy and banning advertisements would imply private marketing companies taking a hit. In fact, the world’s largest outdoor-advertisement company went so far as to sue to city, claiming it to be an unconstitutional regulation (7). The aftermath of the Clean City Law did not result in the city being completely ad-free, but rather, the approach now taken towards the addition of advertisements has become more stringent and methodical in integrating with the cityscape. São Paulo was only the first of many more to come, with other major cities in countries such as France, India, Iran, and the United States following suit (8)(9).

Sao Paulo, BrazilPhoto by Marcelo Palinkas

The quality of any urban environment includes its visual quality. This feature directly stems from aesthetics and comfort a certain space can offer to its user. When trying to solve visual pollution problems, all planning activities must be human oriented, and the aim must be to create cities which do not alienate the users. When the environment is being formed, it is important to address local identity and social memory as this is one way of preserving both the existing natural and socio-cultural riches of a neighbourhood.

There is much to learn from the experiences of other countries and ways of dealing with visual pollution locally. We need to call on each of the stakeholders in rectifying our situation; empower local councils to take proper action; service providers to be more conscientious of the clutter in our streets. Finally, we need to re-sensitize and re-educate the community to beauty and the beautification of their towns while they themselves being beacons in showing how every little thing counts.

“re-sensitize and re-educate the community to beauty”

We hope that we have already arrived at a saturation point in terms of the uglification for it to serve as a trigger to change. The only way should be up!


9 Cvetković, Mila & Momcilovic-Petronijevic, Ana & Ćurĉić, Aleksandra. (2018). Visual pollution of urban areas
as one of the main issues of the 21st century.
10 Alwah, Abdulfattah.A.Q. & Wen, Li & Alwah, Mohammed. (2019). Analysis of Visual Pollution of the Urban Environment in the Old City of Ibb.
11 Yilmaz, D. (May 2011). In the Context of Visual Pollution: Effects to Trabzon City Center Silhoutte. The Asian Social Science Journal., 7(5).
12 Cvetković, Mila & Momcilovic-Petronijevic, Ana & Ćurĉić, Aleksandra. (2018). Visual pollution of urban areas
as one of the main issues of the 21st century.

July 20, 2020

Can’t stand the heat? Immerse yourself in green.

Have you ever stood on a Maltese roof and said to yourself “My word what a mess!” Roofs, and locally flat roofs, dominate the skyline and the erratic disposition of their arrangement brings to mind the work of René Caillié who in 1830 wrote in a report (1) on the “discovery” of Timbuktu: “I had formed a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuktu. The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill looking houses built of earth”.

In a similar spirit, Alphonse de Lamartine considered that in Beirut, “las casas de la ciudad se elevaban agrupadas de un modo confuso, y los techos de algunas servían de terrado a las otras. Estas casas, cuyos techos eran llanos (...) nos anunciaban el Oriente”. (Translation “the city houses rose in a confused group, and the roofs of some served as roofs for the others. These houses, whose roofs were flat (...) announced the East”.) The Mediterranean is, in Fontenay’s words, a ‘relational space and a meeting place’ (2) for many people from many different nationalities, religions, languages and ethnicities.

The local tradition of having flat roofing systems stems from this same construction tradition. It is amazing how cultural and technological transfers between Muslim and Christian worlds have always been a way of life in the Mediterranean region. However, conviviality may not always be seamless. In today’s contemporary societies, acculturation requires a suitable social, economic and cultural environment. Malta managed that, and the dichotomy of the appearance of our country fusing the western and eastern worlds is still strong, albeit many years have passed since the colonisation by the Arabs.

Despite being the most built-up country (3), with the largest population growth (4) in the EU, the demand for construction prevails. Largely, the outcome of mass development is densification, a lower quality of life and a declining air quality in urban areas. A way to counteract this rapid urbanization, is to create green infrastructure – but with the lack of open spaces and apartment blocks being the predominant building type, what are we left with? Roofs!

Other than using them to simply house mechanical and electrical installations, can roofs change back to being a social space? Could green roofs be the solution to an enhanced quality of life?

What is a green roof?

A green roof is partially or fully covered in a series of layers that allow the cultivation of vegetation forming an efficient functioning system (4). It is recommended that a professional would give advice on the most effective system for particular locations.

There is a misconception that the entire roof needs to be covered to fully reap the benefits of the green roof. While it is true that one cannot thread on a green roof, the use of walkways encourages circulation and maintenance, and they direct and control movement as necessary. These pavers or gravel may be placed directly on top of the growing medium. The latter is what contributes greatly to the insulation benefits of the roof. So non-vegetative areas need not inhibit the benefits.

Given the right conditions, green roofs are suitable for retrofit applications as well as for new developments. In the case of a retrofit, the roof must first be checked by a structural engineer to assess its load capacity and whether it can withstand the additional weight from the green roof.

Good Design

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Practical value

Apart from creating a recreational space for urban dwellers to relish, green roofs have the benefit of insulating buildings against drastic temperature fluctuations. A paper published by researchers from the University of Calabria shows that roof surface temperatures can be reduced immensely in summer using green roofs. Bituminous roofs (possibly the most common roof surface in Malta) reached a maximum temperature of 73.5°C, whereas the maximum temperature of the green roofs reached 34.8°C.

“Bituminous roofs (possibly the most common roof surface in Malta) reached a maximum temperature of 73.5°C, whereas the maximum temperature of the green roofs reached 34.8°C.”

The study also showed that, when cooling the building, green roofs could lower the energy consumption by 58% for the topmost floor, and between 15% and 39% for the whole house. When heating the building, the reduction in energy consumption can vary between 5% to 17% for the topmost floor, and between 2% and 8% for the whole house. Within a Mediterranean climate, several factors contribute to the efficiency of this natural cooling system, including the roof’s insulation, plant density, soil thickness, and irrigation level.

These findings demonstrate that of all the surfaces constituting a building envelope, the roof is a crucial point for improving the indoor temperature. This is because the building’s surface temperature and heat transfer is generally at its maximum there, especially during the summer (5).

Another study conducted by researchers from the Higher Technical School of Agricultural Engineering of the University of Seville, considering Seville as a case study, shows that the addition of green roofs is beneficial for both the person and the city. In fact, the study suggests that by converting between 11% to 40% of the city urban roofscape into green roofs, the rise in temperatures due to climate change can be mitigated. When considering Malta, this equates to an area of roughly 35km2 devoted to green roofs – an area equal to that of Mellieħa and St. Paul’s Bay combined, in the most optimistic scenario (6). However, this need not be an impossible goal – in Germany 14% of all roof areas are now green roofs (7).

“…by converting between 11% to 40% of the city urban roof area into green roofs, the rise in temperatures due to climate change can be mitigated.”

Wellbeing value

Have you ever gone for a relaxing walk in the countryside and felt a sense of relief from the hustle and bustle of daily life? This is no coincidence - in fact, there is a growing body of research-based evidence confirming the correlation between the visual and physical contact with natural greenery and a reduction in stress.

Healthcare facilities are making use of these benefits by introducing “healing gardens” within their premises. To relieve stress, British doctors are now prescribing walks in nature. These gardens have been proved to help patients require less pain medication, shorter hospital stays, experience fewer post-surgical complications and a reduction in anger and anxiety. A study on post-surgery patient recovery has shown that patients surprisingly recover quicker if they can simply look out onto green spaces (8). Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barne – two experts in this field and authors of the book “Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations” – explain how the healing aspect is experienced because the gardens promote symptom relief, reduction in stress, and an improvement in overall sense of wellbeing. As a matter of fact, within 3 to 5 minutes of viewing trees, flowers, or water, a person’s blood pressure, respiration rate, brain activity, and production of stress hormones all decrease and mood improves (9) (10).
While healing gardens are tailored to healthcare facilities, perhaps the same wellbeing benefits can be experienced by incorporating green roofs within a typical urban context.

“…within 3 to 5 minutes of viewing trees, flowers, or water, a person’s blood pressure, respiration rate, brain activity, and production of stress hormones all decrease and mood improves.”

Green Roof
A growing trend?

With all the benefits of green roofs, one might wonder why it has not become a common practice yet. One big reason is the initial expense involved – green roofs could cost two to three times more than a non-green roof (11). This cost varies depending on the type of green roof and the choice of plants. However, this initial capital expense can be regained quickly, as a green roof increases both the property’s value and of nearby properties (12). One other reason is people’s scepticism or fears of improper construction – a consequence of misinformation.

In 2013, the EU funded the LifeMedGreenRoof project to spread awareness about the potential of green roofs in a local context. A national standard (Criteria for the planning, construction, control and maintenance of Green Roofs - SM3700:2017) was also developed to ensure the proper design, functioning, and maintenance of green roof construction.

The weaving in of Maltese’s love for the outdoors to this technical knowledge of green roof is essential in understanding the importance to reinstate the roof as part of our everyday life, and use it as the functional, social and healing place that it could be.

It is high time that the connotation of “Nothing but a mass of ill looking roofs” is eradicated. For green roofs to become common practice, a national action plan with incentives must be devised by public authorities and policy makers to mobilise the implementation of green roof construction in Malta.

Bibliography [accessed 18th July 2020]

12 Gómez, Sergio Santiago & Quevedo, Abel & Perez Urrestarazu, L. (2017). The role of green roofs in climate change mitigation. A case study in Seville (Spain). Building and Environment. 123. 10.1016/j.buildenv.2017.07.036
13 Fontenay, Michel. (1993) “The Mediterranean, 1500–1800: Social and Economic Perspectives.”In Hospitaller Malta 1530–1798, edited by V. Mallia-Milanes, 43–110. Msida: Mireva.

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