Social Housing Prototype


Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

Tatiana Bilbao’s exhibit at the 2015 Chicago Biennial showcases a design rigor and a humanitarian spirit reflected through years of research.

Af Elliott Webb

Social, affordable housing and efficiency are among the most-discussed issues in our present-day architectural agenda. Mexico, the home country of architect Tatiana Bilbao (and her firm, Tatiana Bilbao Estudio), is still wading through a housing crisis. With one of the fastest-growing populations in Latin America, Mexico faces a shortage of 9 million homes. This need for affordable (and well-designed) housing coincides with a global change in the architectural field: recent biennial exhibitions have cast a spotlight on architectural works that are socially engaged and economically sustainable.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015 was centered on the theme ‘The State of the Art of Architecture’, featuring interventions by over 100 different architects from 30+ countries. One of the most talked-about exhibits at the Biennial, Bilbao’s contribution was a full-scale social housing prototype that pointed to a flexible housing solution for the needs of different families seeking accommodation in Mexico. After several in-situ interviews and workshops with a range of workers and families, Bilbao sought realistic information on how those in need want to live. The delivered outcome is a prototype for a viable solution to Mexico’s affordable housing shortage.

A simple design constructed from rudimentary materials, the prototype is an adaptation of the archetypal two-sloped-roof house. Bilbao’s studio’s research has identified the importance of allowing users the agency to adapt the design to suit their different geographical, social and behavioral needs. The project shows a rigor and accuracy that contrasts with the social housing currently being built around the country and represents the social capital dormant in architectural design.

Architecture really can change your life… I take that responsibility seriously. At some point the profession had lost sight of that, and we have to realize what we have in our hands.

— Tatiana Bilbao

The house itself can be constructed for as little as $8.000 USD and up to $14.000 USD, depending on a variety of factors including the location, the extent of the construction phase, and local regulations. Expanding the minimum federal requirement of 43 square meters per house, the flexible design operates around a central core of rigid materials (concrete blocks) and different surrounding modules of lighter/cheaper materials (wood pallets) allowing for future expansion in different phases or ownerships of the prototype. Bilbao remarks that this modular system is ‘done with an industrial palette, so it has more space, and with very much less money,” while preserving the exterior appearance of a completed house and adapting to each family’s budget, needs, and desires.

The front and rear portions (excluding the five-meter-high living room) are able to be used or fitted out depending on user needs, be they a hybrid live-work scenario (e.g. a small business) or full housing for a larger family. The core boundary does not encompass the entire potential footprint, which allows modules to fill out its implied form. Splitting the house into different zones, the boundary provides multiple means of circulating through the space, removing the rigid layout of the traditional archetypal house. It utilizes several passive sustainability technologies in order to achieve maximum energy efficiency, and different internal space arrangements were developed to cope with varying urban/rural habits and traditions.

The first phase of the house includes two bedrooms, one bathroom, one kitchen, and a five-meter-high dining/living room. When completed, the third phase allows space for the same rooms and five separate bedrooms.

The project can be seen as a response to Mexico’s ambitious social housing policy, which birthed housing complexes or ‘suburban ghettos’, as Bilbao refers to them, due to their disconnection from urban centers, infrastructure, and jobs. These complexes now sit semi-abandoned, and while the government has launched several policies to stop this type of development, it hasn’t given many solutions to the housing problem at hand; this project may be it. Working with both the government and developers in the last seven years, Bilbao has brought enthusiasm to social housing issues so tightly bound to her city, adding her voice and architectural foresight to this discourse.

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Tatiana Bilbao Estudio