Architecture for a difficult equation

by and | Apr 22, 2004

There have been two major movements in the history of social housing. The first one was in Germany in 1927, when, the best architects of the time tried to solve the problem of low cost housing with construction in Stuttgart’s Weissenhofsiedlung.

The second moment, in 1970, was the Previ-Lima project in Peru, when the world’s best architects collaborated to overcome housing shortages. The end of the project marked the closing of the second chapter, a long hiatus in the involvement of big-name architects in the challenge of housing for the poor.

Well, we are planning to write the third chapter of this story by bringing back the best international architects to work on the most challenging of architectural issues: how extremely low cost housing can be a real means to overcome poverty.

ELEMENTAL, as our social housing program is called, seeks to build seven model projects, of around 200 units each, throughout Chile. These projects will use the best practices in construction, engineering, social work and architecture to offer a real and concrete contribution to the problem of housing access for the poor.

We began our search for a way to contribute in March 2001 when we met with Chilean Minister of Housing Jaime Ravinet. When we told him that we wanted to contribute ideas and projects in the area of social housing, he eagerly responded that the timing was right: the government was about to start a new housing policy.

The new concept Vivienda Social Dinamica sin deuda—Dynamic Social Housing Without Debt (VSDsD)—intended to favor people in extreme need. Our contributions regarding that new policy were highly welcome, he told us.

In the last 25 years, Chile has experienced radical changes in its housing policies that made it become a case study at a world-wide level. This interest is mainly in the fact that Chilean housing policy has focused on subsidizing the demand more than the supply. It acts as a facilitating and coordinating state between the necessities of the settlers and the deprived interests of the constructors to generate an efficient and active market of social housing. According to the Chilean Building Chamber, in ten years, Chile could arrive at deficit zero in terms of housing.

Under the innovative VSDsD program, each family receives a subsidy of a $7,500 voucher; the program includes those without the capacity to pay back a loan or without access to financial credit. Considering current values in today’s Chilean building industry, this low budget allows for just 300 square feet of built space. This means that the beneficiaries have to build their own housing. They must transform the mere housing solution of a simple subsidy into a dynamic dwelling (hence the program’s name).

What’s important about resolving the housing problem and making the new housing policy a success is to provide the proper framework for analyzing the problem and providing solutions.

Until the ELEMENTAL project, Chile’s housing programs had lacked the participation of top-rate architects. Indeed, in Santiago’s XII Architecture Biennial, the social housing prize category didn’t even have a winner for lack of participation, even though 60% of all Chilean construction in terms of square footage is dedicated to social housing.

Looking at the way the housing market operates today, we can find three principal architectural types in low-cost housing. We understand previous errors and their social consequences, so we are in a position to correct them. However, this new policy introduces some terms into the already difficult equation of low cost housing, which recognized building types are unable to respond to. We need to find precise answers for these new conditions.

Let start by looking at how the market operates today:

The first typical kind of low-cost housing assumes that one family equals one lot. What happens as a result of that equation is that one isolated house becomes stuck in the middle of a lot. Two major problems derive from having this assumption as a starting point. First of all, the subsidy (traditional subsidies or the new $ 7,500 one) has to pay for everything: the land, the infrastructure and the house itself.

Therefore, the tendency is to look for the cheapest pieces of property, most likely on the city’s periphery, far away from the opportunities such as work, education, transportation and health facilities. Social isolation and lack of opportunities in turn maintain these families in poverty, creating belts of resentment and violence. Building on inexpensive land, the natural following step is to resort to the least expensive architectural type: the isolated house in the middle of a lot that, after a while, tends to disappear, consumed by self-construction, generally completely incapable of defining a decent urban space. In trying to keep costs down, we see that the market follows a strategy of finding an easy way out, be it in the way to look for sites or in the way of choosing an architectural type.

The second traditional way of thinking about low-cost housing involves more efficient use of land, using a more “compressed” architectural type: the row house with two floors. However, because we are talking of 300 square foot houses, that compression means 10-13 feet wide lots, about a room’s width. Thus, whenever a family wants to add a new room, they block access of the original rooms to light and ventilation, producing severe problems in the environmental quality of the house. Instead of efficiency, what we get then is overcrowding.

Finally, we have tall building constructions. This type of housing has received the worst evaluations in every possible respect. It is not even a possibility in Dynamic Social Housing because it blocks any possible expansion.

A project’s first goal should be more efficient land use so sites can be located within the network of opportunities of the cities. The second goal is to develop an architectural type with a strategic position in the lot to guarantee future quality of urban space. That architectural type should also allow an easy and safe self-expansion of housing for every family. Finally, house design should anticipate the best possible scenarios of that future expansion. Good design (and therefore good public policy) should take care of all the aspects that individual initiative— no matter how much money, time or energy is spent—will never be able to produce.

If we could synthesize with a kind of equation, both the fundamental goals of a housing policy, and specifically the ones regarding this VSDsD new policy, we would say the following:

To design
1. neighborhoods
2. made out of good quality, flexible to grow housing units
3. well located in the city
4. with the capacity of being developed harmoniously in time
5. structurally safe
everything x U.S. $7,500 per family.

To solve this extremely difficult equation, we had to meet at least two conditions: actually building the housing and following the same rules as everybody else so that the project could be replicable.

In this context, a group of professors from the Harvard Design School—Andrés Iacobelli, Pablo Allard, Jorge Silvetti and Alejandro Aravena—got together the Faculty of Architecture and the Program of Policies of the Universidad Catolica de Chile, the Housing Ministry of Chile (MINVU) and the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies of Harvard University with a group of important Chilean construction companies and social institutions to develop the Fondef/CONICYT project ELEMENTAL: “Initiative to innovate and to construct seven sets of very-low-cost housing in Chile.”

We set out to seek the best possible architectural design, the best possible engineering and construction using development and lab tests for new pre-fabricated components and antiseismical systems, and the best possible social and community work.

To get the best possible architecture, we organized an international competition attracting more than 730 architectural teams from all over the world. The jury included Chilean Housing Minister Ravinet, Chilean Building Chamber President Fernando Echeverria, Architects Association President José Ramon Ugarte, well-known architects Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Luis Fernandez-Galiano and Rafael Moneo, and Harvard Design School Professor Jorge Silvetti, who chaired the competition that garnered winning proposals from professionals and students from Iran, Venezuela, the United States, Uruguay, Spain, Holland and Chile, among others.

Winning architects will incorporate the ideas of communities benefited in the design process, as well as those of local building companies, architects and engineers.

ELEMENTAL has managed in his first months of life to revitalize to a large extent the interest in the “problem” of ELEMENTAL housing. Nevertheless, the proposed ideas must now pass the sieve of the reality and must actually get constructed within the restrictions of the system. The confidence of the Chilean government and the different partner institutions is a good sign that we might make a difference in this relevant problem and reaffirm the university’s role as a bridge to the country’s development.

Spring 2004Volume III, Number 3

Alejandro Aravena, a Visiting Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, is an Adjunct Professor in the Architecture School of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and has run his own independent professional practice since 1994.

Pablo Allard is head of the Cities, Landscape and Environmental Studies Unit at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and is the principal of ALLARDESIGN architecture and urban design. A former DRCLAS graduate student affiliate, he received his doctorate in Design Studies from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2003.

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