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In 2003, architecture firm Elemental received a tough commission from the Chilean government: transform Quinta Monroy, a shantytown in the desert city of Iquique, by resettling 100 families on the same 1.25-acre site they had illegally occupied for 30 years. The budget? About $7,500 per unit, including land, services, and construction.

In response, the self-described “Do Tank” (as opposed to a “think tank”) responded with what they called “half a good house.” Instead of building whole, cheaply made homes, the team created a model that would be 50-percent self-built by the resident. A traditional row house that would provide the density the site required while adding two perks public housing rarely provides: privacy and the space to expand the homes as families grew. As the residents had been living illegally on the site for some years, putting up their own informal dwellings, completing the buildings was something they felt comfortable doing. The functional spaces already provided a much higher quality of living than they were used to, so the residents could make these improvements at their own pace.

Elemental continues to refine this design and has built more than 1,000 units throughout Chile.

Other major projects of note include in the city of Constitucion, heavily damaged by the 2010 earthquake and tsunami. Elemental partnered with the government to design 1,000 units that would help rebuild the city. Other firms’ proposals for the site called for a fortress-like sea wall, leaving homes close to the shore. Elemental spent time listening to residents who clearly preferred to have their homes rebuilt further back from the shore, allowing for the creation of a public forest with retention ponds to deter flooding and to act as a recreation site. Not only was this solution what the community wanted, it cost millions less than a fortress-like wall.

In addition to the Curry Stone Design Prize and other awards, Elemental’s principal, Alejandro Aravena was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2016. In that year, they also open-sourced their designs for social housing projects, freely available via their website.