As a longtime resident of New York City and someone who has lived in a college dormitory, I’d like to think I know how to make the most out of minimal square footage and how to maximize the efficiency and livability of cramped quarters. I do not, however, know the slightest about the finer points of prison cell design with my main points of reference to the world of correctional facility housing being from film and TV — HBO’s “Oz,” John Water’s “Cry Baby,” and several godawful exploitation films from the 1970s that I won't mention here.

That being said, if there’s anyone who does know a thing or two about the ins-and-outs of living in confined spaces, it’s inmates themselves — seasoned experts at transforming bare-bones boxes into habitable, multifunctional spaces when they're not busy planking, playing cards, or slinging ink. In a quest to glean insight into methods of maximizing square footage with limited resources, Italian design firm Cibic Workshop teamed up with Comodo, an educational cooperative that offers the incarcerated with training in graphic design and publishing.

The result of the collaboration is a prototype micro-housing module measuring a mere 116-square-feet. For the project, dubbed Freedom Room, carpentry-savvy inmates from a high-security correctional facility in the Umbrian city of Spoleto served as official design consultants.

The end goal of Freedom Room isn’t necessarily to improve living conditions within Italian prigiones even though inmates played a crucial role in its conception. Rather, Cibic Workshop and Comodo view the extremely adaptable/versatile module as a universal low-cost housing blueprint; a “proposal/product for innovative temporary or permanent solutions, spread hotels, student facilities, hostels."

The Freedom Room website goes on to explain:

A room that becomes a place designed to use the space at its best, for working, studying, living, enjoying. But also a room that becomes a tool for urban renovation in abandoned areas. Freedom room modules can be used inside industrial, commercial, non-commercial and urban areas fallen in disuse, pushing new social dynamics and re-shaping communities and neighbourhoods.

Working with a group of inmates they [Comodo and Cibic Workshop] came up with new ideas about 'low cost living’; about objects that have to be necessarily multifunctional; about spaces that must be flexible and adaptable. A cell is a closed shell, defined as a spatial module. For its inhabitants such space has to be a kitchen, a room, an office, a playroom, a closet, a gym, a library, and much more all at the same time. A place that is continuously reinvented by those who live inside it. A 'module' where a stool becomes an oven, a bed becomes a closet, a can becomes an antenna, a table becomes a gym. Inside the cell, one finds out that space necessarily has a flexible dimension that changes according to how it is experienced by each individual.

Nothing that “the heavy, mortifying restrictions placed on furnishings and accessories useful for day-to-day living stifles the inmate’s individuality and tend to stand in contrast with the educational aims of a period of detention,” the former director of the low-security Bollate Penitentiary in Milan, Lucia Castellano, deemed the project as a “breath of fresh air” during a conference at last week’s Milan Furniture Fair where the Freedom Room was installed as part of a satellite exhibition.

Castellano goes on to say:

Even in situations not characterized by overcrowding, which will naturally impede any minimal form of organization of basic day-to-day activities, prison cells are subject to very rigid rules concerning furniture and possible internal furnishings and accessories. 

Everything is seen as an instrument for self-harm. I think that a project such as the ‘Freedom Room’ should be hailed as a breath of fresh air of great importance in terms of a possible cultural advancement within the prison setting. Inmates can become the proponents of a new ‘culture’ in their day-to-day living environment, starting with the difficult situation they experience on a permanent basis and transforming it into a resource. The depersonalization typical of such institutions can be effectively addressed and the fear of critical events and liability may thus be abated. I sincerely hope that prison administrations will consider and adopt this project to promote a ‘culture’ of prison life which, for the first time, may be determined to a certain extent by the inmates themselves.

As for you can see for yourself, the Freedom Room makes every single inch count. Highlights include cigarette carton-inspired shelving above the beds, hidden storage galore, sliding countertops, a workspace/dining area, and a partitioned washroom-cum-kitchen-cum-laundry room with under-sink shore storage and plenty of privacy (yes, the toilet is in a separate room). And as Gizmodo’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan notes, Freedom Room serves as a nice switch-up from the decidedly high-end micro-units that have emerged as pint-sized media darlings in recent months: “ This thing, on the other hand, is cheap and easily made—it could help the people who live in tiny spaces by necessity, rather than choice. “

Plenty more imagery and info over at the Freedom Room website (in English and Italian).

Via [Designboom] via [Gizmodo]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Italian firm invites inmates to help create prototype micro-dwelling unit
Freedom Room is an innovative and low-cost micro-housing prototype designed in collaboration with inmates from a high-security penitentiary in Italy.