Issue 38 Feature Design

How Catastrophe Inspired Brilliant Home Design

After one of the worst earthquakes in history, an architect found a surprising way to offer victims real houses by Johnny Magdaleno

October 24, 2016

Tremors erupted in the darkness before dawn, two miles off the Chilean coast, shaking much of the city of Constitución to rubble. It took less than three minutes. The 8.8 magnitude earthquake was the second strongest recorded anywhere in the world in nearly 50 years. 

When the quake and ensuing tsunami hit on February 27, 2010, Chile’s undersecretary of housing, Andrés Iacobelli, had only been on the job for a few days. One of his first official phone calls was to a former colleague at Elemental, the Chilean architecture firm that he co-founded. That conversation set into motion one of the smartest city reconstruction plans in recent history. 

They’d need to build the city better than it was before, recalls Cristián Martínez, a lead architect at Elemental. And they had to craft a blueprint fast—100 days fast—to hit the government’s deadline. Architects generally have years to mull over massive projects like this, perfecting each detail before rolling out a final plan. But in Constitución, people who had lost their homes to the disaster were sleeping in tents and desperate for real shelter. 

“It was a very complex scenario,” says Martínez. “That (time) constraint was one of the main things that helped us to think and design at the same time.” 

With local government funding and assistance from Chilean forest mill Arauco, a major employer in the city of 51,000 people, Elemental drafted its award-winning PRES Constitución plan. A Spanish acronym for “sustainable reconstruction plan,” PRES was guided by the architects but informed by community meetings with Constitución’s populace and city officials.

Elemental wanted to give these victims real homes, designed for long-term comfort, stability, and safety in a traumatic time.

The people of Constitución wanted a new city, something with a classic Chilean look and a skyline unburdened by high-rise buildings. Walking access to the river was paramount. But when it came to the housing itself, Elemental eschewed the idea of lumping together stacks of apartment-like buildings in the areas where favelas and shantytowns had been destroyed. That style of social housing has long been the go-to method for cities looking to quickly boost housing options for lower-income residents, and can be seen cutting into the skies in places like Chicago and Hong Kong. Instead, Elemental wanted to give these victims real homes, designed for long-term comfort, stability, and safety in a traumatic time—even if the people living in them didn’t have a lot of cash to spare.

So Elemental built the people of Constitución half-houses. Really good half-houses, in a desirable part of the city, grouped around open space to encourage community get-togethers, and just big enough that a single family could live in one. Best of all? They were priced at only $20,000—the same amount that would buy a low-quality apartment on the fringe of the city. Most would call this an “affordable housing project,” but Elemental prefers the phrase “incremental housing.” One half of the building comes complete with the major components of a house—including heating, air conditioning, plumbing, and anti-earthquake safety measures—leaving families the option to expand into the second half of the house if or when they can afford to. In the meantime, the part of the house they’re living in looks great and is a safe, solid structure.

Elemental quickly built 484 of these houses and called the community Villa Verde, or “green village.” It officially opened to residents in fall 2010. Before the end of that year, half of the homes were occupied by families who had lost everything in the earthquake. “When we showed the (design) to the families, 90 percent were immediately happy with the house,” says Martínez. Nearly six years later, he says they’re still pleased. These structures even helped secure Elemental’s founding architect Alejandro Aravena the 2016 Pritzker Prize—the most prestigious architecture award in the world. Though jurors raved about many of his projects, they noted that “what really sets Aravena apart is his commitment to social housing.”

Photography by Elemental

Indeed, before Aravena and Elemental nailed the model in Constitución, they’d spent years testing out various affordable housing options, including a 2008 collaboration in the United States. When Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation took on a massive, long-term rebuild of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it tasked Elemental with creating cutting-edge home designs, alongside luminaries like Frank Gehry. Aravena offered up blueprints for 2,700-square-foot half-houses similar to the ones that would populate Villa Verde. Critics praised the designs, but without the smooth collaborative efforts that took place in Constitución, the project was hung up by bureaucratic hurdles and ultimately proved too ambitious to sustainably fund, especially in a devastated neighborhood that to this day has yet to be revitalized. It was a good start, though—a wake-up call to both Elemental and the United States that social housing is as much about cohesive strategy as it is about clever architecture, or even good intentions.

Fortunately, few other urban areas in America have been forced to deal with homes reduced to piles of debris. But we’re facing our own rumbling housing crisis that’s dramatically affecting where and how all of us live. There isn’t a single state where a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour can afford a one-bedroom apartment without cashing out more than 30 percent of his or her monthly paycheck. And for every 100 families in need of extremely low-income housing, only 31 units are available. Yet shifts in the halls of power and momentum at the grassroots level have raised optimism among housing experts that the United States is on the verge of an affordable housing renaissance, with a number of projects every bit as ambitious as Make It Right, with the practical underpinnings of Villa Verde.

Driving this push are groups like Beyond Housing in St. Louis, Missouri, a coalition similar to the one in Chile six years ago, composed of local government officials, residents, and private companies working in sync to create better affordable housing by building communities up without first tearing them down. That includes everything from after-school programs in low-income neighborhoods to houses built on community land trusts, which are sold below market rates and then bought back by Beyond Housing’s land trust initiative if the homeowner ever decides to leave. 

Then there’s 2602 Broadway in Santa Monica, California, a striking architectural marvel blocks away from a world-famous beach in a part of Los Angeles County where the median income is around $75,000 a year. The Kevin Daly Architects design gives low-income families access to a community where services, parks, and schools are high quality without requiring hours of commuting from outer neighborhoods. There’s even a Boys and Girls Club on-site.

Some cities, like Durango, Colorado, are getting creative on a regulatory level, freeing up the living requirements for “accessory dwelling units.” You’ve seen these stand-alone mini-houses, satellites of larger homes known alternately as secondary suites, mother-in-law apartments, or granny flats. Durango’s government recently removed a ban on renting out these units to help solve a local housing shortage, upping the number of low-cost housing options without having to build more. 

We know now as a country that we need affordable housing in communities that have access to jobs and transportation.

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, thinks projects like these show that America is ready to do what’s necessary to solve the affordable housing crisis. “I think we know now as a country that … we need affordable housing in communities that have access to jobs and transportation and health care, and we need mixed-income (residences),” she says.

David Brown, CEO of national affordable housing coalition Home Matters, agrees. “There is a changing shift in the narrative,” he says. As with Elemental’s 100-day deadline, he thinks that many modern affordable housing initiatives are navigating constraints that have, in some ways, ended up working in their favor. “The decrease (in federal spending on affordable housing) has forced people to think beyond ‘types’ of housing,” he says, ushering in a new paradigm free of looming, gloomy towers, stuffed together in less-developed urban areas where “the nearest grocery store is a liquor store.” The smartest cities are taking an anything-goes approach, he says—as long as the result is housing that anyone would want to call home, and that just about anyone can afford.

On the federal level, it’s possible that recent revisions to the Fair Housing Act plus a big cash injection from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development into the National Housing Trust Fund will help; though as we’ve seen with Make It Right, which has raised more than $45 million since 2007, a cushy supply of money isn’t enough to pull ambitious housing plans out of the theoretical stage into reality. Yentel is more optimistic about our changing attitudes and a willingness to dive into every area’s unique circumstances.

Asked why it used to be so rare for governments to create communities where people would actually want to live, Martínez, the Elemental architect, says that housing policy prioritized quantity over quality. “First you achieved that everyone had a house,” then moved on to the next project, the groundbreaking ceremony. 

Yentel says that recent successes are evidence that we have evolved to finally recognize “the importance of where affordable housing is built, and how it’s built, and who lives within it. We’re ready to grapple with these issues at the local level.”

Photography by Felipe Díaz Contardo and Elemental   |   Art by Emily Lin

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How Catastrophe Inspired Brilliant Home Design After one of the worst earthquakes in history, an architect found a surprising way to offer victims real houses