Design Flexibility = Cost Reduction and Affordability

In the fast-growing cities around the world, it is no doubt that affordability for housing (renting and buying) is becoming one of the social issues, especially in the free-market economy. On the developers’ side, eliminating cost drivers that are associated with development and construction processes is certainly a way to go. By successfully reducing costs, developers would be able to provide a range of options that meet the demands affordable to those in need (location-wise, material-wise and size-wise), and consequently, increase sale volume.

As important as the cost reduction, on the consumers’ side, the housing designs may also allow for flexibility to create user-friendliness. Flexibility could potentially benefit both the developers and the home seekers; the developers would reduce their construction costs when leaving room for user customization that is likely to happen in the future while the renters/buyers would not have to pay extra for what they may not really need in the house. Since lower-cost standardized design is not meant to be redundantly equipped in the first place, they could either go with the default design or modify the space. This would make them think twice and weigh. If they wish to add something, how much more would they be willing to spend?

For a particular housing project, a horizontally-emanating layout might not be appropriate due to land availability and high price as opposed to a vertically-stacking design since it would be more efficient to build more units and maximize spatial utilization in a smaller land area. A combination of both typologies is possible, too. Selecting a suitable development typology would, for instance, depend on the target groups (tenant groups), income levels, social, economic conditions, commuting time as well as site constraints/opportunities.

A combination of horizontal and vertical typologies and flexibility in design can be seen in these two social housing projects—Quinta Monroy Housing in Iquique and Villa Verde Housing in Maule, both in Chile and by the ELEMENTAL design firm. Without relocating the residents, the projects are based on the “half-finished” principle (that do not look unfinished) mainly due to the limited subsidized budgets and on the belief that the houses could accumulate market value over time. The architects turn the limited subsidies into an opportunity by proposing a design that allows the owners of the houses (who are marginalized groups of people) to continue building on and configure their own spaces whenever they are financially ready, bit by bit, to meet their households’ needs. The initial constructed area of the houses at Quinta Monroy is around 30 sq m and can be configurable up to 72 sq m, and from 56 to 85 sq m at Villa Verde.

Additionally, the communal space at each project is another important feature because it represents the community as a collective group of people, symbolizes stability, maintains and strengthens the existence of the community as part of the larger social context.

Both projects underscore the idea of flexibility by starting off with compact spaces to meet with budgetary restrictions and providing the ability to expand within the given structure. At the same time, gradually and creatively adding new spaces can fight against depreciation of the house value. At a desired location, building small at first tactically reduces construction costs, thus housing can be more affordable.

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