Incremental Housing & Accessibility in Architecture

This lesson considers the role architects have in fostering creative solutions in the built environment and the responsibility they have to design and build ethically. The examples focus on incremental housing by the Chilean firm ELEMENTAL, led by Alejandro Aravena.

To Read

In Chapter 5, Goldberger writes about his own early architectural memories and argues that these early memories shape our long term preferences. He also explores how architecture plays a role in films, books, and music. This chapter provides an opportunity to think about your own first architectural memories: maybe it is the first place you lived, your elementary school, the first time you traveled outside of your hometown? The chapter by Miller is a good way to connect our personal experiences with architecture and the built environment to how this affects health outcomes. Miller’s writing also complements the material on sustainability, which is the focus of Chapter 6 in this text.

  1. Kristine Miller, “Health Equity and the Built Environment,” Chapter 4 from Introduction to Design Equity (CC BY 4.0)
  2. Paul Goldberger, “Architecture and Memory,” Chapter 5 from Why Architecture Matters (available as an eBook from Portland Community College Library)

To Watch

The video, embedded below, is a talk with the architect in focus for this section, Alejandro Aravena. It focuses on his design philosophy, as well as the architect’s role in creating a more human-centered approach to the built environment.

Alejandro Aravena: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process,” TED Talk, November, 6 2014 (15:53)

To Listen

This podcast is a great resource to add context to the concept of incremental housing, practiced at ELEMENTAL’s Lo Barnechea housing project Chile.

  • Half a House,” 99% Invisible, Episode 231, October 11, 2016, ed. Sam Greenspan (23:15)

Key Terms

Please make note of the following key terms, which are in bold throughout the lesson.

  • Incremental Housing
  • Participatory Design
  • Ethical Architecture

Architect in Focus: Alejandro Aravena

Alejandro Aravena (b. 1967) is a Chilean architect and founder of the firm, ELEMENTAL. He won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2016 and curated the architecture pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale. One goal of his socially engaged architectural practice is to innovate housing by creating well-designed, affordable homes that foreground the needs of the inhabitant, rather than the developer.

Two of his projects, discussed below, are examples of incremental housing. Incremental housing is a process of urban development that builds basic, core, structures to provide shelter. These core spaces can be built upon by the individual owner according to their own timeline, needs, and resources. According to Reinhard Goethert, a Principal Research Associate at MIT Urban Planning, to be successful, incremental housing needs support in the following areas:

  1. A simple process for expansion to speed development by adding to the housing stock quickly;
  2. Strengthening individual identity and sense of community;
  3. Promoting safe, good quality construction practices; and
  4. Encouraging provision and maintenance of basic services. (Incremental Housing, 25)

Aravena’s design for Lo Barnechea, pictured below, is one example of how incremental housing works. For this project, the land acquired from the Chilean government to build this low-income housing was very expensive (it is in one of the most expensive areas of Santiago). This particular site was important because it kept occupants close to work, school, and transportation networks. So, rather than moving them to less expensive land outside of the city, and forcing them into a long, if not impossible, commute into the city for school, work, and services, Aravena used the concept of incremental housing to provide half of a good house that kept the homeowners’ community in place and allowed them to add on when they had the resources.

The half a good house idea is expressed through an anecdote Aravena shares in the documentary film Urbanized (dir. Gary Hustwit, 2011). In this film, Aravena explains that ELEMENTAL built the half of the house a family would not likely be able to build on their own, plumbing and wiring, for example. Because of the cost of the land, there had to be a decision made: do the homes come with access to hot water, or a private bathtub? As Aravena explains, developers nearly unanimously advocated for the hot water heater, but the future occupants said, no, they wanted a private room for bathing. This is participatory design in action; consulting and listening to the homeowners early in the design process is critical to the success of incremental housing. This also allows for the first and second points of Goethart’s list, above, to be realized. Homeowners can save for a water heater and plan for the expense of the water bill, but having a place to bathe in private can immediately contribute to their sense of individual well-being.

After reviewing Lo Barnechea in greater detail using the resources posted at the beginning of this chapter, how do you think points three and four are addressed by ELEMENTAL’s design?

A series of houses with mountains in the background and a grassy landscape in front. The houses are white in color with blue-gray roofs.
Alejandro Aravena, ELEMENTAL, Lo Barnechea Social Housing Project, Lo Barnechea, Chile, 2014. Photo by ELEMENTAL. No known copyright restrictions. Educational Fair Use.

Another low-income housing project realized by Aravena at ELEMENTAL is Villa Verde (pictured below), also in Chile. After Constitución, where Villa Verde is located, was hit by an earthquake and tsunami in 2010, there was an urgent need to rebuild. Completed a year before Lo Barnechea, Villa Verde, also showcases the same principles of incremental housing. As you can see in the image below, the house on the left has been further built out by the homeowner, with changes such as larger windows added.

Image shows a row of houses. One has been finished by the owners, the other main one shown is half finished. They are rust red in color with light roofs and windows.
Alejandro Aravena, ELEMENTAL, Villa Verde Social Housing Project, Constitución, Chile, 2013. “Constitución, Chile” image by C-Monster CC BY-NC 2.0

A 2016 article by Rowan Moore in The Guardian newspaper titled “Alejandro Aravena: the shape of things to come,” raises some criticisms of Aravena’s low-income housing projects, such as questions about the true impact architects can have in solving real-world problems, like housing affordability and displacement due to natural disasters. It should be noted that ELEMENTAL has made the plans for four of its low-income housing projects available for free to download from their website. In doing so, they hope to create an open source architectural resource that governments and housing agencies can use to directly address the challenge of rapid urbanization.

Finally, Aravena and ELEMENTAL’s housing projects also arguably fit the definition of ethical architecture, as outlined in Karsten Harries’ 1997 book The Ethical Function of Architecture. We reviewed this term a bit in the chapter Defining Architecture in the context of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. How do the examples examined in this section reflect the importance of the built environment’s responsibility to its community? The ethical function of architecture is connected to its ethos, or how a structure communicates the spirit of a community or culture through its form and function. As we conclude this section, think about structures in your community that you think reflect an ethical function.

Learning Objectives

At the end of this chapter, learners should be able to:

  • Define incremental housing.
  • Explain the process of participatory design.
  • Use specific examples from the material presented in this lesson to evaluate the four areas of support needed to implement incremental housing.
  • Argue for or against offering architectural plans for free.
  • Evaluate the the role architects can play in solving real-world problems through design.


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Introduction to Architecture Copyright © by Kelsey Ferreira is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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