Course:GEOG352/Elemental: Half a House Project

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With the increasing scale and significance of the urban global south the importance of considering the various challenges and issues that come along with this growth have been raised. As participants in a urban geography course that aims at untangling the intricacies of the issues that revolve around the urban global south, we take on the theme of land, housing, and gentrification; critically evaluating issues of urban inequality, and how creative housing solutions could alleviate these issues.

In the context of the global south, it is imperative to explore the issues relating to land, housing, and gentrification because of the speed at which growth occurs; more specifically considering that development processes of the south do not follow a linear model. While these issues are also present in the global north, the development process is vastly different because of the exploitative relationships the global north has with the rest of the globe, both historically and in present context. Considering the power imbalance present between the south and the north, it is necessary to come up with different methodologies when dealing with issues like land, housing, and gentrification. Examining cases within the global south relating to these issues is helpful when it comes to developing practises that can be applied to a wider context. This is a welcomed thought in the field of urban geography, as the field relies too often on “universal” conceptions of urban developed in the global north, which dominated the stage for development of the urban global south.

Our interest in issues about land, housing, and gentrification has led us to examining a case of creative housing solutions in the city of Constitución, Chile. In this city, a new form of thinking about what a household is and what property titling looks like emerges.


As cities grow, new housing solutions are necessary to be able to accommodate the growth in population. One of the areas needing the most innovative solutions is low-incoming housing. The Half a House project introduces the use of incremental housing by building half a house for new residents. Incremental housing can be defined as “housing that could expand and become more valuable as residents improve the homes with their own labor and resources.”[1] Aiming to build a sense of ownership by allowing residents to build the other half the house, the architecture company Elemental creates status property rights and the illusion of the value of money. Half a House strives to use community participation paired with creative design to stimulate economy, community building, and ideally set projects up for success. Thus making the houses financial assets to the families that live in them and that invest their time and money into expanding their own houses.

Blueprint of the Half a House design implemented in Constitución, Chile.

Aside from the issues that a growing population brings about, issues such as natural disasters and insufficient housing aid demand for a new perspective towards housing solutions. These factors contribute to social segregation, which has a drastic effect on the urban poor. The case we are exploring is how Elemental, an innovative and controversial architecture firm in Chile, combats issues of low funding and public opinion in the city of Constitución, Chile. Due to the earthquake and the tsunami in 2010, Chile experienced an exacerbated housing crisis which the government struggled to overcome and was unable to provide viable low-income housing solutions. Elemental went into Constitución after the natural disasters when the majority of the town was destroyed, to come up with budget-appropriate solutions. These solutions looked at ways of fighting the issue of social segregation by giving people housing as an asset, through housing security and community establishment.

By studying the housing and community design, its implementation, and its process start to finish we can identify social, and economic trends that occur. In doing this we can try and see where its successes are and where the project could improve. In its processes Elemental consulted with the local community, implementing a roots-based approach which used the local context as a resource; furthermore the housing project created a community in itself. Identifying the successful factors of this project can help in the further implementation of designs similar to Elementals plans. This can ideally then be used world-wide, especially in the rapidly growing global south. Elemental, as a firm, and Alejandro Aravena - the architect - drive this point by making the plans free and readily available. In this situation information sharing becomes a key factor in the process. The implications of this research can help in finding creative solutions for the growth of cities and the populations in urban centres. Aravena continues to make the question of “What do you do when you have so little money to build with?” a driving force for the Half a House concept, and how it can be applied in countries or communities that do not have the funds for larger housing projects.

Case Study

Constitución, Chile.

Background Information

Political and Social History

As a country Chile has experienced a wide range of political leadership, covering the spectrum from socialist government to dictatorial regimes. Because of this, land and housing ownership, and property rights have gone through ideologically radical changes. This ultimately creating long-lasting impacts in housing strategies, solutions, and development. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Chile saw a shift towards socialist ideologies, which spurred grassroots movements to encourage the newly formed Ministry of Housing and Urbanism to implement social housing.[2] This resulted in land seizures to support the newly created program, eventually being overturned with the later coup and US backed dictatorship.

The housing subsidy policy that was created, which reacted to market demands, was first carried out in the early 1970s and was implemented in most cities and regions. Generally, it helped in resolving middle and low-income household housing deficits and stimulated housing finance market; but unfortunately, it also highlighted low-efficiency in addressing accessible information about housing aid programs to those who needed it the most. Meaning access to viable housing aid programs was insufficient, which ignored actual housing demands of the lower class. To some extent, the program contributed to social segregation of low-income households which the later drastic shift away from it only worsened.[3]

Environmental and Ecological History

Chile, being situated on the border of two tectonic plates and having the entirely of the country sit on a fault line makes the country one of the most prone to earthquake nations in the world.[4] Along with its susceptibility to earthquakes, Chile also experiences a high rate of landslides, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. Taking this into account, cities such as Constitución, which are coastal and port cities go through a high rate of destruction which the governing powers struggle to keep up with.

Looking at the case of Constitución, the historical political and social impacts are strongly evident, and when it is paired with constant environmental devastation in the forms of flooding and earthquakes, the city becomes an epicenter for the need of creative housing solutions.

Housing Solution

Project description

As outlined beforehand, Chile has been susceptible to multiple changes that have drastically affected the population’s ability to, not only afford housing, but maintain stability in their own living situations. Enter Elemental, a Chilean architecture firm headed by Alejandro Aravena, that uses the idea of incremental housing to solve the housing issues that have been observed in Constitución. This company uses the basis of incremental housing, which as previously explained is the concept of building half a house and allowing the new tenants to gain full ownership of their homes by turning ”the component parts of their basic sites into suitable housing [...]. They donate their labor and pay the cost of materials to finish the house. In the end, they own what they build.” [5] Developed in accordance to Chilean housing policies, in order to grant contractors and workers ownership of the homes [6], Elemental works with the government and in a financial partnership with Arauco Forest company to help rebuild the community. Incremental housing allows Elemental to assess the needs of the community and those displaced, and solve the issues that plague the population.

Project Aim and Elements

The aim of the project was to build appropriate social housing for those displaced, in a way that would channel people’s own building capacities, and fit into the time and budget constraints.[7] In trying to tackle the budget constraints, Elemental proposed social housing to be in the form of apartment buildings, but this idea was met with strong resistance from the community. The solution was to create a social housing program that provided the ability for families to build towards becoming a full middle class house. Elemental achieved this by building the part of the house that families can’t build on their own, with the already allocated budget. They put their time and budget into building foundations, plumbing, water infrastructure, waste management systems, and components that needed the coordination between homes or required more attention. While doing so they took the time to run workshops for learning basic building skills as to give the new tenants the tools to build out their homes. This approach uses tools that allow the community to have an active voice in shaping the direction of the project. By employing community-based participation Elemental was able to take into account the fears, doubts, and desires of the people, ultimately building a project that reflected the knowledge of the locals. Even when participatory design is not an easy task to accomplish, it is necessary for identifying the relevant issues from those who experience them. Another tool implemented by the firm was to employ a combination of private and public partnerships, using coordination and connectivity within the city as a main resource.

Trends Observed

Layout of the Half-a-House project in Constitución.

Reflecting on the processes Elemental employed in the half-a-house project, can help identify certain trends that can be beneficial for the implementation of the project elsewhere. These aforementioned trends encompass both social and economic aspects. In the social context we see a strengthened community form as a result of the geographical space and the enduring participation they experienced. The new residents participated in shaping the space, developing skills to build out their homes, and helped conceptualize the idea of how public and private space would interact in the development. Referring to the layout depicted to the right you can see the close proximity in which the public spaces, such as roads and common areas, are closely dispersed among the homes. The economic trends observed, range from keeping economic networks together to creating housing security. By keeping economic networks together and avoiding distancing the new tenants from their previous jobs, it allows them to have economic stability. This sense of stability is further developed through housing security resulting from allowing new tenants to claim property rights. Economic security is key for fostering economic growth in the community, and has provided a new-found level of economic independence for the tenants of the half-a-house project. Together, these trends have impacted the residents in largely positive way and because of the use of local knowledge this project has been vastly successful in coming up with creative housing solutions. In this case, the use of participatory design has helped alleviate some of the stress that the urban poor face in relation to the historical barriers they face and ever-present issue of expanding urbanization pushing the urban poor to the periphery.

Lessons Learned

With exponential growth in recent decades, many cities in the global south have found themselves struggling with housing issues. The example of the half-a-house project has proven that the approach of incremental housing could be a viable resolution to this problem; much like it did in Constitución, it could offer various benefits for the living community, ranging from economic independence, housing security, flexibility of expansion, and community development. It is important nonetheless to recognize that each city in the global south have their own unique features and issues; therefore, incremental housing methods must be applied accordingly. As Aravena emphasizes in his work in Constitución, giving the local community a say in the process is crucial to a successful development effort.

Some cities and regions in the world that have already turned to the use of incremental housing; for example, in the Greater Khartoum area of Sudan, incremental housing methods have been practiced widely, spanning from house stacks being added every day in the informal housing districts, to formal government-funded incremental housing solutions such as sites and services and core housing. A general lack of understanding and dialogue on the part of the government, however, has led to a vast housing deficit, forcing the urban poor into informal housing districts. [8] Another example of the incremental housing approach showing promise could be found in Kumasi, Ghana, where the failure of government assisted housing has inspired the thought of financing and creating a network that supports incremental housing development in informal settlements. The establishing of a strong support network for incremental housing in informal settlements has the potential to provide for its residents’ capital and flexibility to finance the construction and continuous improvements of their houses. [9]

While the methods and applications of the incremental housing approach vary among cities in the global south, one commonality seems to remain: the importance of incorporating the participation of the local community. They are, after all, the ones who are going to live there, whether it is informal or formal housing; incremental housing is a participatory project, and the residents must have a say for it to succeed.

Reference List

  1. Hong, S. (2016). Can half a good house become a home? New Republic, [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Feb. 2018]
  2. Murphy, E. (2014). From a proper home: housing rights in the margins of urban Chile, 1960-2010. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  3. Garcia de Freitas, F. (2013). Chile: subsidios, credito y deficit habitacional. Revista de la CEPAL, 110, pp. 199
  4. Berkley Seismology Lab, (2015). Today in Earthquake History. [blog] Seismo Blog. Available at:
  5., (2016). Half a House. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Feb. 2018]
  6., (2018). Villa Verde. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Feb. 2018]
  7. Aravena, A. (2014). My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process. [video] Available at: [Accessed 14 Feb. 2018]
  8. Hamid, G.M. and Mohamed Elhassan, A.A. (2014). Incremental housing as an alternative housing policy: evidence from Greater Khartoum, Sudan. International Journal of Housing Policy, 14(2), pp. 181-195.
  9. Amoako, C. and Boamah, E.F. (2017). Build as you earn and learn: informal urbanism and incremental housing financing in Kumasi, Ghana. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 32, pp. 429-448.

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