Elemental is a group of architects, engineers, social workers, and contractors led by architect Alejandro Aravena and supported by the Chilean oil company Copec and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. In 2003 the Chilean government commissioned the group to create housing for a community of nearly one hundred low-income households on a 1.25-acre site in central Iquique, a desert city in northern Chile with a population of 200,000. The budget consisted of $7,500 per unit for land, infrastructure, and building.
Elemental developed a variation on the traditional row house in which each unit consists of one built segment flanked by an empty area of equal size—a building type that can be inhabited immediately and also incorporate significant change over time. Over a period of nine months, ninety-three basic reinforced-concrete units were built. Each was stabilized for seismic durability and equipped with the barest of basics: plumbing but no fittings for kitchen and bathroom, an access stair, and openings for doorways. Once the modular outlines were completed, residents moved in and began finishing and customizing their spaces at their own expense and at a pace that their incomes allowed, adding color, texture, and vitality; living space in completed Quinta Monroy Housing units is more than double—roughly 750 square feet—what the original tiny budget could fund. With Quinta Monroy as its starting point, Elemental has since erected well over one thousand expandable units in Latin America and beyond and has another thousand in development. The group is steadily proving that this model, in which customization and appreciation is achieved through gradual investment and sweat equity, could be a lasting solution for social housing.