Courtesy Elemental Monterrey

Chilean architecture firm Elemental offers residents more by doing less

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Opponents of SB 50.
    Equity

    Despite Resistance, Cities Turn to Density to Tackle Housing Inequality

    Residential “upzoning” policies being adopted from Minneapolis to Seattle were once politically out of the question. Now they’re just politically fraught.

  2. Life

    Having a Library or Cafe Down the Block Could Change Your Life

    Living close to public amenities—from parks to grocery stores—increases trust, decreases loneliness, and restores faith in local government.

  3. Design

    How I. M. Pei Shaped the Modern City

    The architect, who died yesterday at the age of 102, designed iconic modern buildings on prominent sites around the world. Here are some that delight and confound CityLab.

  4. A map of the money service-class workers have left over after paying for housing
    Equity

    Blue-Collar and Service Workers Fare Better Outside Superstar Cities

    How much money do workers have after paying housing costs? For working-class and service workers in superstar cities, the affordable housing crisis hits harder.

  5. A ruined ancient temple in dense forest.
    Environment

    How the Ancient Maya Adapted to Climate Change

    Instead of focusing on the civilization’s final stages, looking at Mayan adaptations shows how their communities survived for as long as they did.