half a house

︎︎︎ 3 september 2020

On February 27, 2010 at around 3 AM in Constitutión, Chile, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit the city. It was the second biggest earthquake that the world had seen in half a century.

With the city existing close the coast, a tsunami was imminent. By the time the two natural disasters were over, over 500 people were pronounced dead and 80% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. When a city has to practically rebuild itself from scratch, it’s an opportunity to do things differently.

Jumping back 8 years. In Inquique, Chile, the city hired a company called Elemental to create low-income housing solutions. The city needed to house 100 families on a budget of $10,000 for each unit, land purchase not included. This dropped the construction budget to about $7,500 per unit.

Elemental considered 3 options. The first could accommodate 30 families in stand-alone homes. The second could accommodate 60 families in row homes. The third option could accommodate all 100 families by stacking the units apartment-style. When they presented the third option to the community, the community threatened to go on a hunger strike if Elemental constructed this high-rise.

Elemental learned that the community was opposed to option 3 because it didn’t allow for expansion. Leading the design team was Alejandro Aravena. We have a quote from him here: “If there’s any power in design, that’s the power of synthesis. The more complex the problem, the more the need for simplicity.”

He proposed a radical and controversial idea. He acknowledged that an average family can live well in an 860 sq ft home. But this project only had the resources to build a 430 sq ft residence.

So, Elemental reframed the question as: “What if instead of thinking of [430 square feet] as a small house, why don’t we consider it half of a good one?”

So this is what they did. Each half was built just enough to meet Chile’s minimum standards for low-income housing. They built the things that can be challenging for people to do on their own—foundations, plumbing, electrical wiring, basic structure, etc. It would then be up to residents to finish their homes on their own terms.

After the government and architects completed those tasks, residents could then invest in any additions over time on their own terms. The homes were handed over with unfinished walls and floors. In the kitchen, there was only a sink. While sparse, the homes were “habitable, practical, and well-insulated.” The idea was to join forces and think of housing as an ongoing project.

Elemental spent years reiterating on the half-a-house design and created these structures in Constitución after their 2010 earthquake. Elemental facilitated workshops on building techniques and a user manual for working with standard-size building materials. Some families still continue to live in half a house. Others have expanded for more living space or converted them to small businesses.

Unprecedented migration is outpacing housing construction. People will continue to arrive and inhabit cities but may live in informal settlements. According to Aravena, the amount of people living under $1.90/day is projected to reach 2 billion by 2030. Half-homes and using people’s own potential serves as a promising component that can be used to combat this future.

︎︎︎ 99 % invisible
︎︎︎ pritzker prize
︎︎︎ baublatt