The embryo house: Part 2, the building

May 1, 2009 | Configuration, Embryo house, Essential posts, Housing, Self-building, Tenure, Theory

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]



Yesterday’s post introduced the embryo house:




Although we Americans are used to the modern evolving American home, large parts of the world’s population live in self-built or physically informal housing, harnessing slumdwellers’ greatest resource – their own labor and ingenuity – to improve their homes. 



Self-built embryo house, Cape Flats, Cape Town, South Africa


That instinctual desire to improve the physical living conditions can be jump-started if people are provided with a physically formal embryo house, as a Harvard Magazine story demonstrated has been taking place in Chile, using the Chilean $10,000 household homeownership subsidy as its principal gap-filling resource.  They started by creating a home large enough to be worth improving:


Working within the limited subsidy ceiling, the Elemental architects constructed much larger homes than would normally be possible with $10,000, but left the interiors unfinished.


They also wangled a cheap price for the land:



Miriam Huerta, another resident, waits for a bus across the street from her home. Working in conjunction with residents, Elemental negotiated with the owner of the land on which the campamento sat, and ultimately purchased the land to give to residents, along with their houses, so they wouldn’t have to move. The development’s density made it possible to house everyone in this convenient location, a quick bus ride from the city center. It was important to the project’s designers that residents not be made to move far away, uprooting their lives and forcing them to enroll their children in different schools and find new transportation routes to work—or change jobs entirely.


Given land, secure tenure, and a sound structure, residents improve their lot:



The units also had no-frills front yards in their original condition; the Huertas embellished their windows and added a fence, a bench and an ornamental awning.


Ownership of solidly built property also enables people who have skills to put those skills to work in their idle time, in effect hiring themselves at their market rate:



Miriam’s husband is a builder, so the Huertas have acted more rapidly to embellish the home where they live with their three children—so much so that it is almost impossible to see the home’s bones.


Over time, the improvements are dramatic:


They filled in the backyard to make a separate room for the kitchen; an arched doorway sets it off from the living room. They replaced the plywood stairs with a spiral staircase of polished wood and wrought iron. In their bathroom, they tiled the floor blue and replaced the standard-issue sink with an edgier model: a clear glass bowl resting atop a freestanding drainpipe. The walls have been plastered over and painted warm hues; the bedrooms are carpeted.



The Huertas’ bathroom displays color-coordinated finishings: They replaced the toilet and sink and tiled the walls, floor, and bathtub.


Thinking like financiers, the Elemental architects targeted their expenditures toward the core components necessary to create the embryo house, so they focused on the structural elements that would impel the resident homeowner to improve the house. 


The residents moved into houses with bare concrete floors and plasterboard walls; Elemental provides the skeleton, and leaves the rest to residents.


For an embryo house to have the essentials of growth, it needs the following:



What should be in our skeletal house?


The house itself

Land, a plot big enough to accommodate an expanded multi-room house.

Footprint, a building configuration fitting on the site.

Framing.  Structural walls, beams, and trusses that will hold the load of floors, furniture, and people.

Wiring, because modern homes require electrical power.

Plumbing, to get water in and effluent out.


The municipal ecosystem

Legal title to the land.

Trunk infrastructure, including utility hookups.


This package of essentials comes courtesy of the formal developer:


Elemental builds the townhouses three stories tall, but fills in only the second floor and the staircase to get there. Residents must complete their own homes’ third floors; the firm holds workshops on building structurally sound staircases, floors, and ceilings.


(Renca is an exception; Elemental completed these units’ third floors because additional funding became available.)


Aravena is fond of saying each unit has “the DNA of a middle-class home.”


Not so much the DNA as the bones and nervous system.



Rosa Estrella Ortega Roa has big plans for the unit where she lives with her two-year-old grandson. Although the walls and ceiling of her kitchen are still unfinished…



…she has fenced in her front yard and filled it with plants, which she sells as her livelihood. And Ortega says this home, though unfinished, is a big improvement over her former makeshift home in the shantytown.


Rosa Estrella Ortega Roa, for one, has big plans for her unit, where she lives with her two-year-old grandson.


Plans do not always come to fruition, but plans are psychic potential energy.  Plans matter.  Plans inspire.


Already, she has stained the living room’s exposed red brick wall a warmer color; she has fenced in her front yard and added a variety of lush plants.


(Ortega sells plants, and also gas fireplaces, for a living; an upstairs bedroom holds stacks of the fireplaces in boxes.)


Ortega moved in only a few months ago, and most of the walls are still bare concrete. Even so, she says, this is a big improvement over the campamento, where she had lived all of her 58 years. There, her home had a muddy dirt floor.


Cleanliness is wired into primates; we want to be clean.  Dirt floors are impossible to keep clean.



Ortega (right) talks with Elemental project manager Gonzalo Arteaga in the bathroom of her home. Despite the unfinished walls, residents are pleased that the bathroom in each unit has a bathtub and a window that opens.


Windows that open are structural, part of the building’s configuration.  Windows are expensive.  Windows are status.


Elemental considers itself a “do tank,” as opposed to a think tank. Instead of discussing and arguing with critics, says Aravena, “we proved our point by building things.”


Good for them.  I have long believed that research and activity go hand in hand; as I say often, the solution is its own salesware.  Mission Entrepreneurial Entities are the change-makers.


Funded at first by Harvard, Católica, and the Chilean government, Elemental became a for-profit firm in 2005.


This MEE, like many an MEE before it, was founded by a mixture of eggheads, charities, and government. 



Massachusetts was founded by the eggheads who sailed on the Mayflower


Although government subsidies pay for land and materials, private companies, such as Copec, the Chilean oil firm, pay for the architects’ professional services as part of their corporate social responsibility programs.


Another hidden subsidy – corporate social responsibility.  Whether CSR is in companies’ interest is an entirely different subject.  What matters here is that this is definitely a subsidy to the project, and an important one.


“We think cities are a shortcut to equality,” explains Aravena. “Without having to wait for income redistribution, we can upgrade quality of life through infrastructure, public spaces, transportation, and, of course, housing.”


He’s right.  Cities are where wealth is created, and housing is the catalyst. 


Across town in Lo Espejo—the Santiago metro area’s poorest, and most densely populated, district—Elemental designed a pilot project of 30 units, the first phase of a development that will ultimately house 350 families from a former shantytown. Here, the residents chose a three-floor duplex configuration; one family lives on the top two floors, and another family below, in a larger first-floor unit. (The lower unit’s bedrooms are in the rear portion that stretches out from behind the upper two floors, making neighborly harmony more likely.) Units are in various stages of construction, with building materials piled up in some front yards, as owners add finishing touches.



The site of the second phase of the Elemental development in Lo Espejo, where a shantytown once stood. Even from Santiago’s most impoverished neighborhoods, the majestic Andes are visible in the distance.


By showing that it can be done, whatever it is, you create the pilot property that motivates others to trust you to do it again.  The doubters temporarily suspend their doubts.



Joanna Vera’s duplex; the woman pictured is her downstairs neighbor.


Indeed, they find courage:


Vera was one of the residents who believed strongly in what Elemental wanted to do; as the project developed, so did her own political voice. She personally negotiated the price with the landowner; during construction, she visited the site every day to monitor progress.


After she met the president at the dedication, Bachelet asked her to serve on the committee for Santiago’s bicentennial celebration, which will take place in 2010. Vera says most other committee members are far wealthier than she. “I represent Chilean poverty,” she said with pride.


At the dedication ceremony for the Renca development in May, Castro gave a speech. For the first time in her life, she said, she felt proud to be Chilean.



Cecilia Castro (right) talks with Gonzalo Arteaga and another resident of the Renca project.


One of Elemental’s goals for the project was that the units increase rather than decrease in value over time. They didn’t have to wait long to measure their success: the very day they were allowed to move in, some residents received offers of $20,000—double the amount of the subsidy that had built them.


But, says Arteaga, nobody accepted.


Give people hope, and a path to improvement, and they change the world.



Mukuru Sinai slumdweller savings cooperative, Nairobi, Kenya

A client of Slum Dwellers International member Pamoja Trust.

We’re working with them on the purchase of development land adjacent to their slum.