architecture development poverty

Building of the week: the half-house

Architecture is often the preserve of the elite. Many of the world’s leading architects work on flagship developments for the richest in society, and RIBA’s house of the year was built for Lord Rothschild, after all. Most of the rest of us make do with off-the-shelf boxes, so I’m always interested in architects that want to work for the poorest.

Alejandro Aravena is one of those. He’s built over a thousand homes for ordinary people in Chile, with thousands more in the pipeline. His practice, Elemental, has projects all over the world, but their speciality is social housing. In particular, Aravena has become known for the half-house.

The idea was hatched in 2003, when he was asked to build 100 houses for low income families in Iquique, Chile. When his team did the maths on the government’s budget for the programme, they realised there was no way to make them affordable to those that needed them most. The families could only afford half a house. “When you have money for half a house, the question is which half do we do?” says Aravena. “Let’s do the half that the family would never be able to do on its own.”

half-housesSo one of his half houses has all the important bits: the structure and roof, and a kitchen and bathroom. The family can move in straight away, but the building has gaps to extend into as needed. Beyond the practicalities of affordability, there are actually a couple of advantages to this model. The family can adapt the property according to their needs. Elemental call this process called participatory design, and I think it happens to yield houses that are testaments to the aspirations and ingenuity of their inhabitants.

half-house-afterBeyond the basic structure, it’s up to you to decide what to do next. That gap under the roof can be storage, an office, or a spare bedroom as required. The space downstairs could be a garage or a front room. Extra rooms can be added as the family grows, making it their own in the process. Residents can thus personalise their homes, but they’re also adding value, something that social housing doesn’t usually allow for.

Aravena has built housing developments in Chile, and Mexico, and many others have been inspired by the half-house model and done similar things elsewhere. To help other cities to use the technique, Elemental has given away some of the most successful designs to its ‘incremental’ homes, and they play a larger role in housing the world’s growing population.




      1. thank you for the great blog.

        i often ask people with nothing what their net worth is. sadly they all respond with “little or nothing.” i then ask them who do they think owns the countries resources and they tell me “the government.”

        everyone should have a beautiful home, built with the resources they own as citizens of this planet. having identical homes is unhealthy and no one should improve their homes. they should not need it except for the occasional updating.

        1. I agree everyone should have a beautiful home, and most of those moving into these houses have come from shanty towns of self-built tin homes with no running water. They are able to move into these homes with the help of government subsidies, and are then able to build them out and personalise them.

          Seems like a good idea to me.

          1. they live in shanty towns because the government failed them by not allowing them access to their own resources.

  1. Interesting design solution but how to they get accesss to the land the houses are built on? Land is normally the blockage in housing supply, not materials. People can build.

    1. I don’t know the full details and I expect it varies. I do know that for some of them the government released land in the cities that was quite high value, and the half house was a way of balancing the choice between location and building costs in a limited budget. Apparently social housing in Chile often ends up way out on some distant bus route.

  2. you are thinking within the box jeremy. i make the mistake too often myself. we have to change the box or else. cheers. again, great blog.

      1. poor people are people who were screwed worse than others. it’s much less expensive to build proper homes for everyone.

        1. Poor people are poor just because the government has deprived them of resources? Perhaps you know more about the politics of Chile than I do (that wouldn’t take much, to be honest) but that sounds like an oversimplification to me.

  3. in 1990 i crossed the border from austria to yugoslavia. it was a shock for me to discover that on either side of the border the land was the same yet in yugoslavia they were living in the dark ages. it is actually as simple as that. i had also recently crossed from west to east germany. on either side of a line everything was the same except for their rulers and how they treated people. the media had fooled me into thinking everything was different yet it was not.

  4. im from canada. it always thrills me when i encounter the children of less fortunate immigrants. absolutely indistinguishable from any other Canadian yet their parents seem as if from a different much more primitive species to my brain. makes me want to return it (my brain)for one that works properly.

  5. Wow you get some random commenters here Jeremy…

    Love the concept. Especially as an (owner) builder trying to get a handle on what is really feasible for people to do themselves, and how to effectively outsource the rest.

    To those who say the poor should have ‘proper houses’ – these are as proper as anyone could possibly need (depending on how many people they hope to house, I suppose…). The planet puts a limit on the feasible resource consumption of our housing. The fact that those with much are consuming disproportionately large amounts of these resources is perhaps as big an issue as how little the others have (remember – it’s the cost of land that is the biggest factor in affordable housing, and why do you think it is expensive…? Because those with more are taking more than their fair share.)
    We’d all be better off if EVERYONE lived like this – instead of claiming the poor should be offered overblown and unsustainable expectations.

    1. random? you touch on 2 points which make proper housing more affordable to everyone. i was including all, not just distorted land prices and extravagance.
      what about the cost of inequality, built in obsolescence, dated technology, private cars in cities, … include all and i’m betting the price of a proper home today could be reduced by 95% or more.

      the proper i’m referring to costs 2 million in vancouver canada today.

      1. about 3 million in hammersmith for a 2br flat. oddly when i do my calculations i look at the big picture or would alway suggest a complete fix rather than one or two small fixes out of the thousands that are needed. suggesting 1 or two always means sacrifice as opposed to a complete fix which benefits everyone massively without sacrifice. e.g. most people would support recycling when elimination of waste is much more rewarding including the freeing up of a great deal of holiday time.

  6. Buildings are the least of people’s problems when it comes to finding somewhere to live.

    The stumbling blocks are land to provide a livelihood on and land to put the home on.

    1. That’s true, although the half-house is actually a response to high land prices. Aravena realised that for the budget governments were offering, he could either build a whole house in the middle of nowhere, or half a house in a better location.

      But I take your point, in most locations the land is the biggest issue.

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