Unlike most low-income housing blocks—drab, towering structures—Scottish firm Richard Gibson Architects has created an affordable housing project in Shetland that seamlessly integrates with its surroundings. Merging eminently walkable design with an environmental ethos and local aesthetics, Grödians is an example of a successful long-term housing solution that could be replicated anywhere.
Located just north of Scotland, the small island of Shetland is adorned with plunging sea cliffs, rolling green moors, and moody ever-changing skies, interrupted only occasionally by villages. So when Lerwick, the capital town with its population of 9,000, needed a new housing development, Richard Gibson Architects was careful to ensure that the plan was easily absorbed into its environment—both built and natural.
The result, named Grödians, is a mix of 34 detached and semi-detached homes, ranging in size from one-bedroom to four-bedrooms. All of the houses are gabled, reflecting Shetland architectural style, with vibrant colors—blues and reds, along with dark grays and purples—making the project pop against dark winter skies. “I used color to both accentuate the development and complement the natural colors in the Shetland landscape,” says project architect Adrian Wishart.
The houses, all rental homes, are set at affordable rates. On the tiny island of Shetland, housing is in short supply, and Wishart says that “Shetland actually has had a large housing waiting list of around 1,000 people for almost 10 years now, especially for one- to two-bedroom flats/houses.” Due to drops in Scottish government funding, Grödians was one of the last large housing projects to be built on the island for the foreseeable future. As a result, the houses at Grödians are all completely rented out.
The houses are designed to be flexible for a variety of residents. Large windows let light flow in, but also let parents watch children playing outside; spare rooms can transition to children’s bedrooms, then later to home offices or guest quarters. There are aging-in-place considerations, such as room for chair lifts up stairs, places for wheelchairs to navigate, and walk-in showers on the ground floors. As Wishart notes, “the adaptable aspects of the design allow the residents to live there throughout their lives without feeling they have to move on to better-suited homes.”
Environmental considerations were likewise incorporated into the design of the homes. Air-tight construction and heat provided by incinerating garbage helped the houses exceed building regulations by 15%. There are shared and private gardens attached to every house, along with storage space for bicycles. Excavated rocks became retaining walls, trees and other plantings help buffer the houses against harsh winter winds, and there are recycling areas on-site for all residents.
Yet perhaps the most impressive element is the overall scheme’s walkability, called the Home Zone concept. “The Home Zone is a fairly simple idea of giving pedestrians priority over vehicles,” explains Wishart. “This allows the road to serve as an extension of the garden space for people to walk, play, converse so that vehicles can still use the road but in a safe way.” How was this done? Speed limits were dropped to 15 mph or below, tree planters further slow traffic, and roads were covered in various foot-friendly materials. Paved pathways crisscross the streets, and there are communal parking spots along the curving roads. All of this appears to be working, according to Wishart. “Grödians seems to emanate a calm atmosphere, which subliminally makes you drive slowly through it—which is what we wanted to achieve!”
This idea isn’t specific to Grödians. Indeed, the Home Zone concept was initially started in the Netherlands in the 1960s. Called “woonerf,” these streets were intended to foster human interaction, and there are over 6,000 woonerf in the Netherlands. This concept has more recently spread over the globe—as home zones, complete streets, and shared spaces—and there are over 400 such North American streets completed or in process, including ones in Chicago, Seattle, and Montreal. It’s been a successful idea, whether the streets center around shopping, business, or housing.
Between the walkable streets, livable spaces, and overall attractive aesthetics of Grödians, the project would be appealing for any level of housing. But as an affordable option, it’s especially noteworthy—and would be a smart project to emulate in suburban America.