In a world where industries seem to be highly exclusive in terms of their intellectual property, ELEMENTAL goes against the mainstream by essentially outsourcing their architecture for social change. Their statement on social housing declared that, by 2030, with a city populous of 5 billion, 2 billion suffer under the line of poverty. This would mean that a 1 million-inhabitant city would have to be built per week for the next 20 years with 10,000 dollars per family. This can only be achieved with the cooperation of systems put in place. To eliminate excuses on the part of governments and markets to dismantle the growing problem of urbanization, ELEMENTAL has made the details and principles of their housing projects, public knowledge. Designing an open system where people are a part of the solution to overcome the cycle of poverty is what sets them apart from other firms.

Quinta Monroy, Chile by Alejandro Aravena: Architectre for social impact- Sheet1
Quinta Monroy by Alejandro Aravena. ©Palma, 2008

Given, the demand for affordable housing amid scarce land, ELEMENTAL points out the usual pattern in which markets tend to reduce the housing size thereby affecting the resident’s wellbeing. This then gives way for them to be displaced, far removed from the city. Their purposeful vision is to improve the quality of low-income families with housing that is not displaced from the life of the city perceiving it to be a versatile source to grow social equity and availability to resources (work, health, education, and transportation). Lauded as one of the most revolutionary social housing models around the world, Quinta Monroy was Alejandro Aravena’s first project based in Iquique, Chile.

Quinta Monroy, Chile by Alejandro Aravena: Architectre for social impact- Sheet2
Before and after the incremental design. ©Palma, 2008

Completed in 2004, the project accomplished optimum use of a small site within various constraints accommodating about 100 families previously housed illegally on the same site in a 30-year-old slum. Striking a balance between low rise high density without overcrowding and a possible expansion in the future depending on the family’s needs is the core of ELEMENTAL’s design approach. However, the question relied on designing a complex of 93 houses for these families using USD 7,500 that at best only allowed for 36 square meters of built space in a 5,000-square-meter site, which would normally cost three times what social housing could afford. 

Efficiency was key in making use of the tight site which ruled out isolated houses. So initially, the narrow footprint of row housing was considered to be land efficient. However, this compromised access to light/ventilation of existing modules in the case a family wished to add another room. It also meant that there would be a loss of privacy since circulation in row housing is linear and risked overcrowding. The High rise was also considered but was dropped since it blocked future expansion after the built space.

Quinta Monroy, Chile by Alejandro Aravena: Architectre for social impact- Sheet3
Image 3 – Before and after of the incremental design. ©Palma, 2008

Often social housing tends to be stagnant in its approach, failing to fail as it’s occupants live in the same condition as they did before. Change is an integral part of growing families and so it is vital to design a dwelling with a middle-class standard. There is a stigma of decreasing value attached to social housing. To make it a valued investment, ELEMENTAL went by a set of “incremental” design conditions to ensure it’s gradual value overtime. First, housing sufficient density on a good location is key to ensure the family’s economical connection to the city’s opportunities and also increasing property value. Second, a strategic first half is built by the architects with the other half self-built. Third, a collective space conformed by around 20 families was introduced in between the private and public spaces to maintain social agreements. Finally, rather than providing a small footprint of 30 sqm, a sufficient 72 sqm with all the necessary structures is furnished at least thus changing the usual standard of social housing.

Quinta Monroy, Chile by Alejandro Aravena: Architectre for social impact- Sheet4
Transition from empty modules to extended living spaces. ©ARCHEYES, 2016

Intended to be land efficient and flexible for future use, a unique typology for the housing was conceived. Capturing the spirit of DIY, the families were provided with “half a house” to further improve, participate, and “complete” their spaces as they see fit. The first half performed as a built framework that includes the basics which would otherwise be difficult for the family to build such as – structural, partition and firewalls, bathroom, kitchen, stairs, roof. Instead of an inflexible prefabricated unit, residents can now customize the second half around their actions which leads to the dwelling’s sustainable life cycle instead of its deterioration. This move reduced construction costs and allowed for each house to be unique with the inhabitant’s input. Moreover, a sense of community was established around the four common courtyards.

Quinta Monroy, Chile by Alejandro Aravena: Architectre for social impact- Sheet5
Diagram of typology conceived. ©ELEMENTAL, 2007

Extensions can be done either horizontally or vertically. The first typology includes the lower ground floor intended to be a single housing unit of 3 modules with one of them unfinished. The next typology is composed of the 2 upper floors together making up duplex units of 4 modules which are 3×6 meters. Two of these modules remain unfinished. As a result, the initially completed modules account for up to 36 square meters and in the case of an extension, 72 square meters make up the total. The given 72sqm has about 4 bedrooms (3x3m), an attached closet/double bed. Usually, to save costs on pipes, bathrooms are situated at the front door but in this case, a generous space fit enough for a tub and washing machine are provided rather than just a shower. It also comes with a car parking space, all of these amenities which seem to not be prioritized with social housing.

Quinta Monroy, Chile by Alejandro Aravena: Architectre for social impact- Sheet6
Interior ©Palma, 2008

The inhabitants have gradually continued what the architects started with the expansion of their dwellings with lightweight construction materials due to the structural limitations as per their guidelines. Some have already occupied the empty modules with the inhabitants of the ground floor occupying the backyard area and the ones of the upper floor have also extended above the backyard area after discussing with their neighbors. Years later, each of the 60 houses was valued at over 16,000 euros. In conclusion, ELEMENTAL proposes how architecture could respond to non-architectural issues like poverty thereby turning social housing into a profitable investment. In 2016, Alejandro Aravena won the Pritzker Architecture Prize for this collective thinking with his team that was brought to life. 


  1. ArchDaily. 2008. Quinta Monroy / ELEMENTAL. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 6 August 2020].
  2. Carrasco, S., 2017. FILLING THE GAPS: MODIFYING MODULAR HOUSING IN CHILE. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 August 2020].
  3. mapping the design world. 2013. SOCIAL HOUSING (1) – QUINTA MONROY (2003-2004) _ THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY SOCIAL HOUSING PROJECT. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 August 2020].
  4. Architectmagazine. 2016. Quinta Monroy Housing. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 August 2020].
  5. 2016. Elemental. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 August 2020].

Evangelin Vergis, a passionate student of architecture design believes that architecture is a language nesting people,their conversations, experiences, dreams and history. A poet and songwriter, words shall scarcely run dry especially when reflecting on architecture, the poetics of space where art,science and philosophies intersect!