The Renca housing project is located northwest of Santiago’s city-center in the commune of Renca. What a neighborhood this was to find. The metro about 10 stops (25 minutes) to a bus which we couldn’t find (30 minutes) to finally getting on the bus for about 20 stops (40 minutes) to get off at the wrong stop, then nervously walk around (10 minutes), then grab a cab who tells us we ARE where we are asking to be- having to convince him we need to go further… few blocks more and we are there. Then it’s just 2 white kids walking around an outer-Santiago neighborhood full of informal settlements and this housing project. Not the most touristy area.

Constructed: June 2006-May 2008
Unit size (initial): 35 sq. meters
Unit size (after expansion): 67 sq. meters
Budget: appr. $2.25 million USD = $14,700 per unit (170 units total)

003_RE1_18_b.jpgCourtesy of ELEMENTAL. A housing committee “Construyendo Nuestro Futuro” made up of families from the slums of Renca were a part of the project from the beginning. The site chosen was literally steps away from where many families were already living in extreme poverty.

FullSizeRenderYou see this photo and think- hm… kind of boring. It’s just a housing project. But what you don’t see is the long story behind this project. The 1,000s of hours, the many organizations and people- the perseverance and dedication that went into getting this thing built.

003_RE1_03_bCourtesy of ELEMENTAL. I mentioned that the commune of Renca took a bit of time to get to- for us, it seemed like we were really out there- but the reality is that this site is actually still considered generally central to Santiago. It has accessibility through a few urban highways and public transit.

The site, while an ideal location, posed two challenges: 1. The cost for the land was far greater than the money accumulated by the housing committee and 2. The soil conditions were horrible. The land had been previously used for its clay to make bricks and the large pits subsequently created had over the years been filled with waste totaling 3 meters depth in some locations. Excavating and re-filling would be another small fortune.

The first problem was solved through a private party contribution. The second involved changing the design in order to reduce the amount of excavation and fill needed.

FullSizeRenderCourtesy of ELEMENTAL. The first Site Plan by ELEMENTAL lined housing on alleys with access from the south. This plan would require excavation of the entire site.

FullSizeRenderCourtesy of ELEMENTAL. The second Site Plan condensed the units to stack up to 4-stories, creating less land disruption. However, the families rejected this solution.

FullSizeRenderCourtesy of ELEMENTAL (blurry due to the fact that I’m taking pictures of a book with an iPhone and bad lightly). The final Site Plan balanced the input of the community with the budgetary restraints of the site. After two contractors had come and gone due to high project bids, along with time lost, the Chilean Military Workforce was able to provide earthwork assistance for a very low-cost. This allowed the budget to be focused on the actual buildings which in turn made the project viable.

FullSizeRenderThe final solution was a housing typology of 3-story houses separated by 1.5 meter thick partition walls which included the structure, firewall, utilities and circulation. The remaining usable space is 3 meters in width and families have the space to expand upward. The structure is masonry, reinforced concrete walls and wooden beams; roofing is galvanized corrugated metal; interiors are gypsum board.

003_RE1_06_bCourtesy of ELEMENTAL. Renca was completed in May of 2008 and more than 2,000 people attended the opening.

003_RE1_15_bCourtesy of ELEMENTAL. As seen in other projects completed by ELEMENTAL, families build on to their housing, creating new businesses for additional income.

003_RE1_13_bCourtesy of ELEMENTAL. A finished home. According to ELEMENTAL, it took about 3 months for families to finish the interior of their new houses. A community center was also designed and built and includes a central office, medical and dental rooms, a library and a kindergarten.

003_RE1_16_bCourtesy of ELEMENTAL.

“Maybe the most important result of this project was that the community was empowered through their invovlement in the… process.” -Incremental Housing and Participatory Design Manual.

003_RE1_07_bCourtesy of ELEMENTAL.

After walking around the project for about an hour, we headed back on the bus and metro and back into central Santiago. All in all it was about a 4 hour ordeal- pretty stressful and actually quite uncomfortable. I’m a foreigner to Chile and even more-so to poverty. To step into an impoverished community, walk around- and take photos- at times feels intrusive. But I’m happy we did it (and appreciative of Tim for helping all along the way). I think as a designer- to seek out a not-so-glamorous architectural project off the beaten path that serves the underserved is to say “Hey, this shit matters.” And in the eyes of these Chilean families, who often receive a once-in-a-lifetime housing stipend of about $7,000, there’s no room for careless error. Everything has to be designed as efficiently and economically as possible. I doubt ELEMENTAL was paid nearly enough and it’s often a question in my mind: when do you go the extra mile for free and when don’t you- because it’s clear that ELEMENTAL went the extra mile(s)…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s