Half a House

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The night of February 27, 2010, Luis Enriquez was getting home from his job at a lumber factory in Constitución, Chile.

Luis Enriquez:
[Speaking in Spanish]

Sam Greenspan:
‘It was around three in the morning, and I was watching TV with my wife and a neighbor, and all of a sudden we started feeling the earth shake.’

Luis Enriquez:
[Continues in Spanish]

Sam Greenspan:
And it was just getting stronger and stronger and stronger to the point that we couldn’t stand up.

Roman Mars:
Producer, Sam Greenspan, translating for Luis.

Sam Greenspan:
Luis was in an earthquake, a bad one. When the shaking finally stopped, he was relieved to see that his wife and their two kids were all fine, but Luis knew they were still in danger.

Roman Mars:
Because in Chile, everyone is taught from childhood that after an earthquake hits, the first thing you do is get to higher ground.

Sam Greenspan:
Which is what Luis and his family did. They got in their car and they sped to the top of a nearby hill. From its peak, Luis could look down from the hillside to where the River Maule met the Pacific Ocean.

Luis Enriquez:
[Speaking Spanish].

Sam Greenspan:
You could see it happening.

Luis Enriquez:
[Continues in Spanish]

Sam Greenspan:
You could see it super clearly.

Luis Enriquez:
[Continues in Spanish]

Sam Greenspan:
You could see the waves coming into the city.

Roman Mars:
The earthquake that Luis is describing was tremendous, a magnitude 8.8. The second biggest that the world had seen in the past 50 years. The quake and ensuing tsunami completely crushed the seaside town of Constitución, Chile where Luis lives. By the time it was over, more than 500 people were dead and 80% of the city’s buildings were ruined.

Sam Greenspan:
As part of a relief effort, an architecture firm called Elemental was hired to create a master plan for the city, which included new housing for people displaced in the disaster.

Roman Mars:
But the structures that Elemental delivered were a radical and somewhat controversial approach towards housing.

Sam Greenspan:
They gave people half a house. Picture a simple two-story home with a pitched roof – a square with a triangle on top – basically how a kid would draw a house. Only in these, there is a wall that runs down the middle from the peak of the roof all the way to the ground splitting the house in half.

Roman Mars:
One side of the house is finished and the other side…

Luis Enriquez:
[Speaks in Spanish]

Roman Mars:
The other side is a completely empty space. There is a roof and an exterior wall, but the rest is just an open void.

Sam Greenspan:
The architecture firm behind these houses, the Santiago-based Elemental has made a name for themselves building these half-a-homes and not just as disaster relief either.

Roman Mars:
Today, Elemental has done about 10 low-income housing projects across Chile, all designed so that the homes would be largely unfinished when the residents moved in.

Sam Greenspan:
And the response from the architectural community has been immense. In 2016, the firm’s founder, Alejandro Aravena was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the top prize in architecture.

Roman Mars:
In their jury citation, the Pritzker Architecture Prize said that quote, “Alejandro Aravena epitomizes the revival of a more socially engaged architect, especially in his long-term commitment to tackling the global housing crisis and fighting for a better urban environment for all.”

Sam Greenspan:
This, for building disaster victims and other poor people, unfinished homes.

Roman Mars:
To understand where these half-built houses came from, you have to understand them as an attempt to solve the problem of global urban migration.

Sam Greenspan:
Over the past several decades, people the world over have been migrating from the countryside to cities.

George Gattoni:
The draw of the city was creating this problem, so the result is squatting.

Sam Greenspan:
This is George Gattoni, an architect who grew up all around Latin America, mostly in El Salvador. George saw firsthand what happens when a population outgrows its supply of buildings.

George Gattoni:
The housing deficit of San Salvador, the capital, was something about 10,000 units a year and growing. The backlog of people that had no services, it was unbelievable.

Sam Greenspan:
George wanted to help solve this problem.

George Gattoni:
But I was struggling with how to make a house affordable.

Sam Greenspan:
In the 1970s, George heard about a new master’s program at MIT.

George Gattoni:
A program called Urban Settlement Design in Developing Countries.

Sam Greenspan:
At MIT, George found a mentor in a professor named John F.C. Turner.

George Gattoni:
So John F.C. Turner, a British urban planner, was spearheading this idea that people can build for themselves.

Sam Greenspan:
In a 1972 essay called, ‘Housing as a Verb’, Turner made the case that housing ought not be a static unit that is packaged and just handed over to people, rather housing should be conceived of as an ongoing project wherein residents are co-creators.

Roman Mars:
And from this thesis, Turner helped promote an idea.

George Gattoni:
This idea that was emerging, this ‘sites and services’ idea.

Roman Mars:
Sites and services also sometimes called ‘incremental building’. It basically means instead of building people completed homes, governments should just build the key parts of a home that people have the hardest time building on their own, like concrete foundations, installation, plumbing, electrical wiring…

Sam Greenspan:
And then get the government to provide services to those sites.

George Gattoni:
Roads, drainage, sewer or pit latrines, whatever the case may be, garbage collection. You’ve got to route your trucks to the schools.

Sam Greenspan:
Thus gradually over time, people start to turn their basic sites into suitable housing with materials they source themselves on their own terms.

George Gattoni:
What people had to donate of their own is labor, the cost of labor.

Roman Mars:
And the cost of materials to expand. But in the end, they own what they build. It’s their investment.

George Gattoni:
They have the ability, and governments cannot build as well, as quickly and in a way that makes sense to these households.

Sam Greenspan:
Since finishing his studies at MIT in the 1970s, George has done these kinds of incremental building projects all over the world – in Latin America, Kenya, Indonesia – and these projects can take different forms. Sometimes it’s just giving people a concrete pad with utility hookups. Sometimes it’s just giving people a one-room house with a kitchen and bathroom and the expectation that they’ll build extra rooms onto it.

George Gattoni:
It sounds odd, but believe me, it works.

Roman Mars:
These ideas that George Gattoni and his contemporaries at MIT pioneered – that governments can support people building for themselves and then let them own what they build – began to spread through the developing world.

Sam Greenspan:
And so when the architecture from Elemental got their first commission to do low-income housing in Chile, they took the ideas from incremental housing as points of departure.

Juan Ignacio Cerda:
Yeah, absolutely. We didn’t create the idea. Actually, we import that. To make something that can be improved by time.

Sam Greenspan:
This is Juan Ignacio Cerda, one of the principal architects at Elemental. Cerda told me that in 2002, Elemental got a commission to build 100 units of low income housing in a city in Northern Chile called Iquique.

Roman Mars:
And they had to deliver it on a tight budget.

Juan Ignacio Cerda:
$7,500 unit.

Sam Greenspan:
With only $7,500 allocated per household, the most straightforward and cost effective way to house all 100 families was to cram everyone into big block-style apartments.

Juan Ignacio Cerda:
When they hear, “What about blocks?”, they say, “If you dare to propose a block, we start a hunger strike because it’s the worst thing ever.”

Roman Mars:
According to Juan Ignacio Cerda, the community threatened a hunger strike because an apartment block would be extremely limiting. Sure, they were living in a slum before, but at least they had control over their own space. They could make expansions and adjustments when they wanted to, but with a block-style housing project, they’d be confined to a small static space.

Juan Ignacio Cerda:
Which is worse because you are not able to expand the house.

Roman Mars:
And so what Elemental came up with were tall, rectangular houses separated by empty space.

Sam Greenspan:
Each unit was just big enough to meet Chile’s minimum standards for low-income housing. And then the residents could on their own time, however they wanted, expand into the empty space adjacent to their home.

Roman Mars:
Elemental spent the early 2000s iterating on this concept, building homes that just met the basic legal requirements for low-income housing in Chile, but with room to grow.

Sam Greenspan:
And then in 2012 after the earthquake in Constitución, Elemental got a commission to help create a new master plan for the city, which included creating a new neighborhood full of incremental buildings.

Roman Mars:
It would be located on one of the tallest hills in the city and would be called Villa Verde.

Sam Greenspan:
“Okay, we are on our way up to Villa Verde in Constitución. Oh, wow! Here it is. This is it right here? Wow! Oh, it’s really big.”

Roman Mars:
Sam went out to see Villa Verde with producer, Martina Castro.

Sam Greenspan:
To get to Villa Verde, you drive straight up one of the tallest hills in Constitución. You pass a traditional-looking apartment complex, also built to house people after the 2010 quake. Once you’re on top of the hill, you get some just staggering views of the town, the ocean and the River Maule below.

Sam Greenspan:
“It’s like a whole bunch of these little boxes on a hillside. Looking over, that’s the River Maule?”

Martina Castro:
[Speaking Spanish]. “Maule.” (affirmative)

Sam Greenspan:
Villa Verde is made of neat rows of simple two-story houses. Half of each house is identical, same windows, same color, kind of a farmhouse red. The other half of each house though is completely different. They have different doors, different windows or pieces of tarp where windows will go and in some houses half the house has nothing there at all.

Sam Greenspan:
“It’s just like half the house is missing. And then there are plenty of houses that people have built out.”

Roman Mars:
When people get their houses, the side that comes prebuilt is pretty bare bones. The walls are unpainted sheetrock and the floors are unfinished concrete and plywood. The kitchen comes with just a sink, no stove, no refrigerator, no cabinets. The houses are spartan to say the least, but they are habitable, practical and well insulated.

Sam Greenspan:
Martina Castro and I spent a couple of days walking around Villa Verde talking to residents and it’s there that we met Luis Enriquez, the earthquake survivor we heard from earlier.

Martina Castro:
[Speaking in Spanish]

Luis Enriquez:
[Speaking in Spanish]

Sam Greenspan:
When we met him, Luis and his wife were outside working on a gravel walkway to their home. Luis invited us in. Martina translates.

Sam Greenspan:
“When you moved in, what were the most important things that you wanted to do right away?”

Martina Castro:
[Speaking in Spanish]

Luis Enriquez:
[Speaking in Spanish]

Martina Castro:
“Yeah, just make it bigger because it was a really small space, so we had to build it out to be comfortable.”

Sam Greenspan:
With help from his wife and his brother who also lives in Villa Verde, Luis laid concrete on the empty side of the house to make a floor and put up exterior walls and flooring for the second story. None of them had really done construction before, but they had direction from workshops on building techniques that Elemental helped facilitate.

Roman Mars:
The homes also come with a user manual with directions for how to expand the house. And expansions can be done with standard-size building materials, so residents don’t have to pay lots of money for custom cut pieces of lumber.

Sam Greenspan:
So far, Luis has focused his efforts on just getting the house to be big enough to accommodate his family. And so inside the walls are still unpainted. The downstairs floors are still just unfinished concrete and upstairs, it’s unfinished plywood. Luis knows they’ve got a long way to go on their home.

Roman Mars:
But he doesn’t just see the bare walls and coarse floor. He sees what it all can become.

Sam Greenspan:
If and when the Enriquez family does have tiling and carpet and paint and baseboard on the walls, it’ll be way nicer than anything that they ever could have afforded on their own, or what they could have normally gotten through state-funded low-income housing programs. And so now, Luis is the owner of a four-bedroom home that keeps out the cold, won’t get flooded and won’t fall down in an earthquake.

Luis Enriquez:
[Speaking in Spanish]

Martina Castro:
“You know, my wife and I, we’ve had tough lives, so finding out that we were going to be owners of our own house was just incredible.”

Sam Greenspan:
Not everyone I talked to at Villa Verde was enthusiastic about having to build their own home and some thought Elemental’s contractors could have done a better job. But for the most part, people there seemed really happy with their homes, even people who hadn’t expanded theirs at all. One resident, a single mom named, Camilla Hernandez Rodriguez hadn’t made any additions yet.

Camilla Hernandez Rodriguez:
[Speaking in Spanish]

Martina Castro:
“Yeah, so of course, you know, once one dreams and you think that you’re going to just have everything ready all at once. And so I wanted to, you know, build out the house and everything, but then I just focused on doing small things first because obviously I couldn’t do that right away.”

Sam Greenspan:
Most people in Villa Verde are further along with their expansions than Camilla and everyone seems to have some project or another. Some residents have even opted to use their extra space to start businesses, like little stores that sell bread and candy and cell phone minutes. The feeling I got from residents is that they felt invested in Villa Verde. They liked living there and they felt safe. It all kind of made me wonder, why haven’t we seen this approach in the US?

Dr. Jennifer Stoloff:
I don’t think this could work in the US. There is a lot of things going on here, which are really innovative and there is a lot of things where things could go wrong.

Sam Greenspan:
This is Dr. Jennifer Stoloff, a researcher with the consulting firm Econometrica.

Dr. Jennifer Stoloff:
Before that I was a social science analyst at HUD in the Office of Policy Development and Research for about 14 years.

Sam Greenspan:
Dr. Stoloff is an expert at evaluating government programs, particularly those that pertained to housing. She’s also an historian of public housing in the US. I told Dr. Stoloff about the Villa Verde Project and sent her some pictures and she says, “Yeah, it does kind of align with the US ethos of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Dr. Jennifer Stoloff:
It is very bootstrapy. It’s true. But it’s also very risky. And I mean in a safety way, not just in a financial way. It is both.

Roman Mars:
First off, someone could get hurt building out their house, which means you would have to deal with both a medical and a legal emergency.

Dr. Jennifer Stoloff:
In the States, you know, there would be litigation issues, right. I mean, if you were working, building your floor or ceiling and you fell down, in the States, maybe you would sue the developer.

Sam Greenspan:
But for Dr. Stoloff, the biggest hurdle to an incremental building project working in the US isn’t a matter of safety or legality.

Dr. Jennifer Stoloff:
It would be an embarrassment, right, so the United States of America can only build poor people half a house. We would be ashamed of ourselves. Even though in fact, that might end up providing way more people with adequate housing at the end of the day. But we couldn’t do it. It’s like we’d lose face.

Roman Mars:
Because unlike Chile, the United States does have the money. And perhaps also unlike Chile…

Dr. Jennifer Stoloff:
We don’t like to spend money on poor people. We think everybody should be able to find their own way out of poverty. And it’s just not true, but that is the expectation. And we are not in a scarcity economy and we could afford to give people an entire house.

Roman Mars:
But by and large, we don’t. For the US, it’s not a matter of scarcity, it’s a matter of values.

Sam Greenspan:
Elemental, however, has come to see scarcity as a tool, a tool which Juan Ignacio Cerda finds vital.

Juan Ignacio Cerda:
I’m sure that in the States everything has rules and controls, so you don’t leave room to all those new things that came up from the Latin world. That obviously comes from scarcity.

Sam Greenspan:
If you were doing this project in Constitución, and let’s just say at the very last minute they go, okay, we’re going to double your budget, would you then have made everyone full houses?

Juan Ignacio Cerda:
I don’t know. That’s never happened.

Sam Greenspan:
Theoretically, if money wasn’t a restraint, would you still want to build the way you do?

Juan Ignacio Cerda:
It’s a good thing to deliver a whole house, but if you give me double the money, I keep the house as it is and I improve with all that money the public space surrounding the house, the neighborhood.

Roman Mars:
Providing the infrastructure that people can’t provide themselves, like parks and libraries and public transit is at the very root of the sites and services approach. Building half a house might be the best way to make a community whole.

  1. Beth

    This kind of topic is where 99% Invisible truly shines! More design and architecture please!

  2. Jim

    Really thought-provoking episode. Goes beyond architecture and into philosophy and ideology.

  3. Emily Potts

    I love this episode! Thanks for sharing this knowledge! This got me thinking about how choice is so limited in the type of housing you can purchase here in the US, even with low-income housing aside. My husband and I got a steal on a tiny little fixer upper in a neighborhood near a wonderful park and have been building the other “half” of our house ever since we moved in. The act of adding onto and fixing the house ourselves has really rooted us in this property and neighborhood. As your episode hints, I think this is a benefit that is hard to quantify. Unfortunately it seems that a vast majority of urban houses on the market today are either way over priced for this type of piece meal ownership/development or have already been torn down and replaced with maxed-out huge new houses which means that the average person can’t afford them anyway. There’s got to be a middle ground somewhere.

  4. Steve Maginas

    In “The Mystery of Capital”, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto explains why housing in some poor countries is an asset of increasing value to its poor residents, while in other countries the same types of housing deteriorates. It is the stability of clear and enforceable title to their houses that encourages some to improve their houses, while those who cannot have confidence in keeping their houses allow them to deteriorate. These half-houses can only function as they do when the government has a system to protect the residents’ ownership. Otherwise, why improve them? De Soto’s book is short, based on careful societal comparisons of housing development, and easy for a layman to understand. It’s a very worthwhile book to read, if you care to learn how people can get out of poverty in even very poor nations.

  5. Nicholas Allan

    There are projects like this in the United States.

    Rather than building half of a house and then expecting the resident to finish the other half, the resident helps build the entire house. The entire house is designed, there are licensed contractors working on the house throughout the entire process. The future owners/residents are required to put in a certain number of ours of labor each week to help build the houses.

    The company I work for, Structural Design Group, did the structural designs for some of these houses that were recently finished in Santa Rosa, CA. http://www.catalinatownhomes.com/

  6. Eileen

    This is so great. It reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Litte House series. The house in which she spends the last few years with her family before marrying is half a house. Her father finishes it after she moves out, I think.

  7. Teresa

    Great episode! In the US a version of this was implemented when towns like Levittown were constructed. The first floor of the house was “finished” while the second floor was left completely unfinished. There were stairs, but it was up to the residents to expand into the upper space.

  8. Jeff

    Another excellent North American example is the Grow Home, developed in Quebec. More than 10,000 units have been built since 1990 by the private sector, with the cooperation of municipalities and other levels of government. The key basic idea is the creation of a fully enclosed shell with minimal interior improvements – kitchen / bathroom on the same wet wall – and freedom given to the home owner as to how the interior space gets divided up. I would like to believe the former HUD employee was simply being argumentative when she said ideas like this could never happen in the US. Some Grow Homes have even been built in the US, as noted on this website:

    Link: https://www.world-habitat.org/world-habitat-awards/winners-and-finalists/the-grow-home-montreal/#award-content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist