Customizing Affordable Housing in Mexico

Chilean architecture firm Elemental offers residents more by doing less

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Courtesy Elemental Monterrey

Conventional affordable housing tends to be, well, conventional. So I’m always excited to see architects successfully reinvent it. Case in point: the Chilean architecture firm Elemental, which designs innovative social housing for Mexican citizens. What sets them apart? They build just half the house, allotting residents the time, effort, and resources to construct the rest themselves. For a building type so associated with homogeneity and repetition this is potentially revolutionary. Earlier this month, Elemental won the Index Award, the world’s largest monetary prize in design, for the project.

Elemental Monterrey was commissioned by the government of Nuevo León, in northwest Mexico, to design 70 homes in the city of Santa Catarina. Their Incremental Housing Complex consists of a continuous three story building with the “home” (on the first floor) and a two-story apartment above. The units are designed, the architects explain, to “technically and economically facilitate the final middle class standard of which we will hand over the first half.” With this as their strategy, Elemental smartly invested government resources in building the difficult parts of the home (bathrooms, kitchen, stairs, and dividing walls); an open system allows the family to expand as necessary.

This open ended-ness is a welcome alternative to the monotonous design solutions typical of affordable housing, solutions which often fail (or do not even really attempt) to accommodate the diversity of needs, preferences, and expectations of residents. In the end, the architects explain while describing one of the project’s precedents, Quinta Monroy in Chile, “When the given money is enough for just half of the house, the key question is, which half do we build? We chose to make the half that a family alone would never be able to achieve on its own, no matter how much money, energy, or time they spend. That is how we expect to contribute using architectural tools, to non-architectural questions; in this case, how to overcome poverty.”

By giving residents a hand in design and construction, by allowing them to create a home that suits their needs, Elemental’s project gives them a true stake in it, a real reason to have pride of place.

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