The Holding Project

Dearbhaile Heaney is a designer from Derry-Londonderry who studied at Goldsmiths University and the Royal College of Art, London. She currently works for Prince's Trust International as Programmes Manager for Europe and she is a Winston Churchill Fellow- in 2017 she researched New Approaches to Affordable Housing in Sweden, Finland and the USA. She founded The Holding Project with Chris Millar and Sean Cullen in 2016, which aims to build micro-housing for young people in Belfast with saving mechanisms built into its rental model so that renters can save for life goals such as going into education, starting a business or entering the housing market. In 2019 they launched Belfast Housing Lab in collaboration with Eastside Partnership. 

The Holding Project are a great example of cross-discipline collaboration and we wanted to find out more about how the idea for it came about. We caught up with Dearbhaile to find out more and here's what she said:

What first sparked the idea for The Holding Project?

The idea for The Holding Project came mainly from the pain and frustration of being a renter for over 10 years. I have lived and worked in different cities, and have been in both social and private housing and have had mostly negative experiences while paying over £50,000 in rent.  In 2014, I moved into a tiny log cabin that a landlord had built on the grounds of his suburban home, which had its own garden and entrance. I loved living there, as it was comfortable, environmentally sound and most importantly, affordable. I began looking for other methods of providing housing for young people like me and came across huge global movements such as Tiny Houses in the USA and shipping container homes in Scandinavia. I also looked closely at the housing crisis in the UK and could see how vulnerable young people were, giving rise to 'Generation Rent'. I knew that all communities were being hit hard by the crisis but felt that I understood the motivations and concerns of those who were my own age best. I thought about new housing models and came up with the transition model for The Holding Project. Thankfully, I then met Sean and Chris, who both had architectural backgrounds so together we were able to develop the idea into what it is today. We also won significant funding towards building our first microhome, and are now over halfway to our prototype cost of £35,000.

What has been the single most memorable thing about your journey so far?

There have been so many memorable times, it's so hard to pick! Working on The Holding Project is really fulfilling and enjoyable. 2017 has brought so much good news, such as receiving a Winston Churchill Fellowship and being awarded £15,000 from Unltd. I would have to say that all of my travelling experiences have been memorable, they have exposed me to people and ideas that I never would have experienced otherwise. I feel so inspired by what I saw and hope I never forget any of it! We also had some really good conversations with the general public on Culture Night which gave us some more food for thought on how we can hold some focus groups next year to gain more insight on their experiences in the private and social housing sector.

Where have you been on your design research trips and what are some of the things you have you learned from them?

I applied for the WCMT Fellowship with the idea of investigating 'New Approaches To Affordable Housing' so chose countries that had been creating pioneering work in this area, often against very challenging circumstances. I travelled to Finland, Sweden and both coasts of the USA over an eight week period which was interspersed throughout the year. I discovered so much from all the places and people I encountered, it was hard to keep up. I wanted to look at new financial, social and physical models for housing so carefully selected a range of projects that were innovating in these areas from different angles - from grassroots housing groups to the Mayor's office in Boston. Sometimes I had quite a formal relationship with the organisation I was visiting and worked alongside them for a week or so, and at other times it was much more informal and I was embedded within the community - such as the week I spent in a powerless caravan as part of an eco-community. I am glad that I chose that approach as it helped me to understand housing issues on several different levels. I would say the biggest lesson that I have come home with was that housing initiatives which played with experimentation and multiple solutions tended to have the most productive outcomes. As a result of this I will be working on opening up the concept of The Holding Project into more of an independent housing solutions body. We will continue to pursue our objective of building our prototype and the community we have proposed, but we would like to look at ways in which we could work on short term living experiments with small groups that might give us a better insight into how we can create other housing interventions. These could be less funding dependant and might help us understand more about the intricacies of housing in Belfast.

What are your plans in 2018 for The Holding Project?

In 2018, we have some exciting things coming our way - Sean and Chris will make their way to LA to pitch The Holding Project to AECOM as part of hOUR City. We have made it to the final of this worldwide competition which is pretty amazing! I will be working on writing my WCMT report which is due at the end of February. I would also like to look into how we could become an independent housing support organisation for Belfast/N.I. so I will be finding support for that and we may also bring more people into the team. I love that this project continues to evolve and the more brains we have on it the better! I know 2018 will be another productive year for us so I can't wait to get started.