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.”
So 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.
Beyond 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.