Through long humid summers, winter cold snaps, violent typhoons and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, about 1,600 people are left with no choice but to sleep on the streets of Hong Kong, according to 2020-21 figures – and that accounts for only those who have been registered as homeless. It’s a shameful statistic – particularly in a city with one of the world’s highest concentration of billionaires – and one that has jumped over 70 per cent from figures five years earlier. In addition to street sleepers, a conservative estimate of 250,000 people also spend their lives in substandard accommodation, including thousands of desperately poor families confined to squats, rooftops, bed spaces and subdivided apartments. “For years, the arguments against building affordable new housing in Hong Kong have been that it’s just too expensive and that we don’t have enough land,” says Juan Du, honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and founding director of its Urban Ecologies Design Lab (UEDL), part of its faculty of architecture. “But what if we considered temporarily vacant buildings as land? What if we treated them almost like available land with an existing structure?” Among its 42,000 buildings, Hong Kong has no shortage of empty ones. Thousands of blocks slated for redevelopment stand empty for years – if not decades – in the period between the last occupants leaving and their demolition. Turning vacated buildings into temporary shelters makes obvious sense considering that most facilities – water, electricity, plumbing – are already in place. 6 Hong Kong heritage sites that dodged demolition, and 6 that did not Buildings slated for redevelopment also tend to be in urban areas close to public transport and community facilities, which allows residents to keep their jobs – surveys show that about 35 per cent of street sleepers are in employment but can’t afford Hong Kong’s exorbitant rents – as well as help them maintain important family and neighbourhood ties. From these seeds grew the newly launched Housing in Place (HiP) Emergency Shelter and Community Space in Jordan, Kowloon. The former mouldy abandoned lot has been turned into a cleverly designed compound offering two floors of temporary accommodation for 12 adults, as well as space dedicated to community events, NGO drop-ins and food distribution. Spearheaded by Du and developed in collaboration with her UEDL students and homelessness charity Habitat for Humanity Hong Kong, the shelter is spread over 4,000 square feet (370 square metres) and four floors of a 60-year-old building on Tak Hing Street. The building was donated rent-free to the three-year project by Hong Kong property developer Chinachem, whose chief executive, Donald Choi, is an architect with a passion for repurposing old buildings. The former residential building had been uninhabited for two years before HiP moved in, and there are no plans to redevelop it for at least another two years. “We want to make it flexible for our supporters but we really need buildings to be available for at least one year and ideally three to five years,” Du says. “That time might seem short but the alternative is that you do nothing.” The scheme doesn’t add to property developers’ costs and could be a money-saver for the government, with HiP’s designs costing roughly 80 per cent less than a new construction of the same size. This doesn’t mean, however, that HiP scrimps on quality, Du says. “Everything has been designed to be modular, flexible, lightweight and high quality,” she explains, adding that each component can also be reused, from individual air conditioners to office furniture, laundry facilities, fitted kitchens and bespoke bedroom pods. Du explains that such mid-century buildings were well suited to Hong Kong living, with communal outdoor spaces and balconies providing natural ventilation and places to dry laundry. But about half of the budget went on removing anything considered dangerous or toxic, including asbestos, mould and 60 years of illegal structures. Eighteen months on, the result is a bright, airy and welcoming place, filled with sunlight and naturally cooled by cross breezes, which reduces electricity use. On the ground floor, an open-air lobby, with bright-white walls, columns of exposed concrete and freshly revealed 1960s terrazzo tiles, is flanked by a series of indoor meeting rooms and a large outdoor courtyard. The second and third floors are dedicated to emergency housing, with six residences per floor sharing communal toilets, showers, and kitchen and dining facilities. Among the rooms, the most notable are the lockable bamboo living pods, which have been engineered to prevent mould. Created by architect and designer Donn Holohan and his team at HKU’s Fabrication and Material Technologies Lab, the trapezoid-shaped pods measure 2.5m squared and have been designed to offer dignity to their residents, with raised beds, a desk and storage space. Panels can be moved to let in light or snuggle up in private, or expanded to accommodate, perhaps, a parent with children. Like the rest of the furnishings, they are also easy to dismantle and relocate into new spaces when required. “What we’re trying to show here is that architecture and design can contribute to solving problems which, on the surface, seem unsolvable,” Du says. “For years we’ve heard that Hong Kong’s too expensive, we have too many people, we don’t have the space, but many times the best designs from history have come from working with constraints. “By utilising the architectural technique of renovating old buildings into beautiful functional spaces – something that has been around for centuries – and applying it towards this urgent situation, we can help to meet Hong Kong’s housing needs and help a group that doesn’t usually receive the latest design or best-quality services.” With homelessness rising in Hong Kong, we can only hope that Du’s clever, compassionate and cost-saving idea will catch on – and soon.