Architecture is often defined as a rooted and long-term entity, which might or might not be under active usage over time. It is supposed to be a space, an environment open to public and user interpretation. It should not restrict the creative and innovative input that the user is trying to comprehend with or within it. 

Quinta Monroy Housing Project by Alejandro Aravena: The Need for Simplicity Sheet1
(Quinta Monroy Housing Project by Alejandro Aravena)   (Credits: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma via. Archdaily)

Alejandro Aravena along with his team, ELEMENTAL is trying to promote the idea of externalizing and outsourcing their architecture for communal change and living in better conditions. According to Aravena, massive population growth, ever-increasing poverty, natural disaster, and ceaseless political wars are merging to create demand for furthermore homes. Architects and designers are unable to overcome these barriers due to provocations caused by building norms, budgets, political frolics, and declining economics.  

Designs, proposals, and constructions by ELEMENTAL on numerous occasions are said to be ‘participatory designs’; which Aravena describes as a form of in-depth community consultation. He further describes, what they are trying to do by asking people to participate is to envision what the question is, not what the answer is. 

Apart from their private and major urban projects, they are also known for building ‘half of a decent sized family house’, wherein the left out void could be later filled up by the user based on their needs. One of the preliminary designs based on this concept was the Quinta Monroy Housing project in Iquique, Chile, constructed in 2004.  

Quinta Monroy Housing Project by Alejandro Aravena: The Need for Simplicity Sheet2
(Quinta Monroy Housing Project – Present Day)  (Credits: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma via. Dezeen)

The challenge here was to design for 100 families of Quinta Monroy on the same site of area 5000 square meters, located in the center of Iquique, a deserted city in Chile. There were other curtailments too; the initial settlements were made on illegal land in the city center and it was not possible to relocate 100 families to a different location without going through heavy losses both in terms of economy and humanity. 

Housing Policy was implied which gave an allowance of just $7,500 with which they needed to pay for the land, design and construction processes, and labor. After looking at all these constraints, it was concluded that only 30 square meters of built space could be provided for each family, which was below the average healthy living space for a family of 40 square meters.

Quinta Monroy Housing Project by Alejandro Aravena: The Need for Simplicity Sheet3
(Possible solutions for the project before the idea of ‘half of a decent sized family houses’ came into picture)  (Credits: Diagrama via Archdaily)

The concept of social housing was adopted over isolated housing for each family since in isolated housing the issue of inefficient land utilization rises for a land that was situated in urban sprawl. Another alternative to this issue was to displace the families on land that was less expensive and away from the city. In this case, the lifestyle and opportunities of work, education, and health dwindled, which was a deal the firm couldn’t afford to take. 

Hence, the goal expanded to creating awareness of social equity and wellbeing through architecture. There existed one more alternative of constructing a high-rise which served all constraints like efficient land use and urban site conditions. The complication faced here was the restriction on the growth of the structure post-construction based on social necessities. 

Resolution Of Obstacles | Quinta Monroy

Quinta Monroy Housing Project by Alejandro Aravena: The Need for Simplicity Sheet4
(Design conditions that were implied on every housing unit to create a space open to changes and growth post construction based on user interpretation)  (Credits: Diagrama via Archdaily)

The main goal revolved around permitting the housing units to grow and expand, an object of investment and not expense subjected to adding of value by the user over time. To make this goal a success, some conditions were to be fulfilled. The first one being, accomplishing enough density without overcrowding. This condition was to be fulfilled to pay for the site, which was three times more than the usual because of its urban setting placed in the city center.

“Good location is the key to increase in property value.” 

ELEMENTAL via Archdaily

Quinta Monroy Housing Project by Alejandro Aravena: The Need for Simplicity Sheet5
(Elevation of a part of the housing indicating the ‘collective’ space as a void, having a remote access, which is shared between families adjoining it) (Credits: ELEMENTAL)

The second condition was to provide substantial space for a ‘family’ to develop and grow. One of the major setbacks, according to the survey conducted by ELEMENTAL, was the constraint on the development of physical spaces provided to poor families. 

Hence, a ‘collective’ space was introduced linking the public and private spaces of each unit. This collective space was a common property between families, which had compact access. It allowed the survival of fragile social conditions amongst the sharing families. 

Quinta Monroy Housing Project by Alejandro Aravena: The Need for Simplicity Sheet11
(Before and after transformation of spaces post independent user interpretation)  (Credits: Tadeuz Jalocha via Archdaily)

The third condition was to allow each unit to expand within its structural boundaries since 50% of each unit was planned to be ‘self-built’ by the users. This helped the structure become porous which allowed every unit to receive an adequate amount of sunlight and ventilation every day. Thus, the inaugural structure was proposed to have a supporting framework rather than a constraining framework to repel the negative effects of self-building and promote the expansion of built spaces over time. 

To overcome all the conditions at once, ELEMENTAL started designing middle-income housing instead of a small housing unit which spanned only 30 square meters. This further instilled a different input in standards of kitchens, bathrooms, stairs, and partition walls. Each housing unit now measured up to 72 square meters.

What Does The Future Hold? 

The initial housing was constructed on a typology of connecting two-story blocks meandering around four shared courtyards and designed as a skeletal framework which the families could expand in the future. Half of each house was built on a constrained budget keeping in mind the basic needs and necessities of the families. 

Later workshops were held to help people understand the building up of ‘half’ of their homes as per requirements. This design methodology saved costs, involved residents in customizations and designing processes, created sub-communal spaces like shared courtyards, and most importantly the option of expansion of spaces. 

(Transformation of modules before and after residents expand their habitable spaces into the voids) 
(Credits: ARCHEYES)

Habitable spaces can be augmented both horizontally and vertically based on needs. These augmentations are categorized into two typologies; one in which the ground level is intended to be a single housing unit, composed of three modules out of which one is left unfinished and open to user interpretation. 

The other typology is the one wherein two upper floors combine to form a housing unit composed of four modules, two of which remain unfinished and open to user interpretation. So initially, there was a total built-up area of 36 square meters provided, and in case of expansion the total area added up to 72 square meters. This area could easily accommodate four bedrooms and an attached closet. 

Bathrooms in this project are well-situated and designed in a way that just doesn’t consist of a shower but can also accommodate a washing machine and a bathing tub. Generous space for car parking was also provided for each growing unit.


(Adequate amount of spaces for various functions and programs were provided which could be moulded and expanded as in when needed)
 (Credits: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma via. Archdaily) 

Over time the families started occupying the voids; be it in the form of a bedroom or shared space. Houses were expanded into voids using lighter materials, as advised by the architects, due to structural constraints. In some cases there was expansion noticed on the ground level as well as backyards, in some cases, the houses were expanded on the first and second level after a mutual discussion with the adjoining neighbor. 

Over the years, each of these sixty houses was valued at 16,000 euros. Thus, Alejandro Aravena with ELEMENTAL proved how social housing can become a source of profitable investment and at the same time promises in providing better living conditions to the under-privileged. In 2016, Alejandro Aravena was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize for proposing this notion of ‘half of a decent sized family house’. 

References | Quinta Monroy

  1. TED (2014), Alejandro Aravena: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community in the process [YouTube] Available at: [Accessed: 4th June 2021]  
  2. ELEMENTAL [online] Available at: [Accessed: 4th June 2021] 
  3. Archdaily (2008) Quinta Monroy / ELEMENTAL [online] Available at: [Accessed: 4th June 2021]  
  4. Dezeen (2008) Quinta Monroy by Alejandro Aravena by Matylda Kryzykowski [online] Available at: [Accessed: 4th June 2021] 
  5. Carrasco. S., (2017) FILLING THE GAPS: MODIFYING MODULAR HOUSING IN CHILE [online] Available at: [Accessed: 5th June 2021] 
  6. ArchitectureMagazine (2016) Quinta Monroy Housing [online] Available at: [Accessed: 5th June 2021]

Janvi is a fourth year architecture student from BSSA, NMIMS. Research and details is what she believes in apart from travelling and capturing the ‘raw’. She is fond of discovering the undiscovered, be it in the form of an artwork or an old Irani cafe blocked between buildings from vintage.