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Alejandro Araven of Elemental presented some inspiring ideas about social housing at a recent London School of Economics lecture .

Now the good times have ended, I am one of those finding it hard to see any positives. But out there, it turns out some are trying.

Alejandro Aravena’s inspiring presentation of social housing projects by his practice Elemental was all about solutions. Put on by Urban Age, the event was a spin-off from this programme’s dizzyingly cosmopolitan run round global cities in search of answers to the issues thrown up by our growing addiction to living in mega-cities.

While the Chilean practice’s work was specific to issues of South American middle income homebuyers, its wider relevance wouldn’t have been lost on anyone in the audience. As Ricky Burdett summed up in the discussion afterwards, the talk reminded us that the core quandaries of housing (or wider city making) are “achieving resilience, density and not being over-deterministic” — in other words, making buildings that deal with real life (ie economics), efficiently employ resources, and seriously address how on earth we can have a snowball’s chance in hell of adapting to change.

Of course, talk of sustainability can be heard the world over, and too often veers into empty mantra. What makes you sit up and listen here is that not only is the argument cogent and the examples real, but Aravena places architects central to change. He communicates in a way that would win over even those most cynical about what architects can contribute beyond aesthetic arbitration.

Aravena’s presentation centred on the Quinta Monroy housing development in Iquique, northern Chile. Starting from the economic realities of government subsidies for low to middle income housing, the architect’s task was described as a simple one: achieving as much as you could for the meagre amount available. Showing the norm (a grim 25sq m house in the middle of a moderately sized plot), the architect identified the main problem as the fact that the box is soon mobbed by a chaos of extensions, irrevocably giving the area the appearance (and reputation) of a shanty town.

Aravena’s solution is to build “half a house” of more adequate dimensions for the same money, leaving the precisely described gaps within which the remainder could be completed through self-build. The resultant terraces of densely packed concrete framed buildings are then feasible on more centrally located (and therefore costly) land. This allows low-cost housing to remain within denser cities, rather than enforcing permanent exile and the tyranny of the long commute that is the reality in many South American cities. It is not completely new as an idea, but compellingly described: the architectural resolution of a financial problem.

Aravena manages to combine an understanding of economic realities with an impressive understanding of what really matters. The observation that “the damage caused to family life when a couple can’t have intimacy is enormous” drives an interest in room dimensions to ensure that you can just — but only just — fit a double bed in a room. Being so upfront about the allocation of scarce resources appears to have brought clarity to resident consultation, treating them as adults needing to chose between conflicting priorities, rather than the “where would you like to live” approach so often adopted here.

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