Affordable housing means different things to different stakeholders within the housing market.

Given that every human being requires some form of housing/shelter, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine there are 7 billion plus definitions for affordable housing. How affordable housing can be delivered is affected by the circumstances within which a community/city/country finds itself in terms of governance, demand and supply, economic capacity to supply shelter, and the human capacity to build and ultimately pay for shelter.

The 2015 Pritzker Architecture prize has been presented to Alejandro Aravena for delivering shelter (affordable and in some cases emergency focused) for some of the most disadvantaged communities on the planet.

Aravena is known for building transcendent architecture for some of the planet’s communities who are most in need: marginalized citizens, low-income families, and people who have lost their homes in disasters. His work uses indigenous materials and focuses on socially conscious clients. His  current  practice, known as Elemental, was established as a “do tank” (not a “think tank”) with a transportation engineer, with the intention of working to improve civic infrastructure. Aravena practices what he calls “incremental design.” With this approach, he and the designers at Elemental build housing structures  that  are deliberately unfinished.

The application of the Elemental typology of housing within the Australian planning system and compliance authorities could help deliver housing that meets current and future housing needs for people who are most disadvantaged. It would be advantageous for many families as they grow to have the ability to add another space to a residence within a pre-determined development footprint and building code requirements, without the need for further planning approvals (and related costs and delays).

Quinta Monroy – Chile (2004)

An example of the work of Aravena and his team is a housing development for 100 families who previously lived in Chilean slums. Instead of building the typical building often associated with affordable housing, Aravena used an idea that came from the future residents themselves. The beauty of living in the favela was the informality of the architecture. Houses could be expanded as families grew or funds became available to renovate. Aravena mimicked this flexibility by designing row houses that included space to add extra rooms, balconies, or storage as needed. Not only was this a more affordable solution than a high-rise, it also gave the residents a sense of ownership.

Aravena argues that this approach gives future residents a chance to complete their respective units as they see fit, resulting in culturally appropriate homes that actually look and feel like homes. The before and after pictures are compelling: Before tenants move in, Aravena’s structures look like row houses built from grey slabs.


Afterwards, they look colourful and unique, but unified. It looks like a real neighbourhood. This simple idea for housing also belies the genius of Aravena’s work. This kind of solution can be replicated nearly anywhere if planning authorities have the ability to be flexible in understanding the opportunities afforded by this form of development. Elemental has since taken this solution to other communities in Chile as well as countries like Mexico. The concept has even been commissioned for  higher-income developments because it makes so much sense for residential architecture.


484 Incremental Houses – Chile (2013)

In 2013, the Arauco Forest Company commissioned Elemental to develop a plan to support their employees and contractors so they could have access to home ownership, in  the  context  of  Chilean housing policies. Using the same principle of incrementality, but with an initial and final growth scenario of higher standard, the development  allowed  residents  to  commence  with  a  development  footprint  of 57 square metres (initial area of each unit), which, through the availability of future funds, each unit owner could develop their property to up to 85 square metres in area.

affordable housing

Prefabricated Prototype – 2 Housing Units – Milan (2008)

As part of the Exhibition Case per Tutti (Houses for Everybody) at the Milano Triennale in May 2008, a prefabricated prototype of an Elemental house was built. The entire house was reduced to 10 panels assembled in 24 hours. Frequently, Elemental design their developments to be “self-build.” Delivery of the prefabricated housing types proposed for the Triennale operated on the model of the repetition of the build components, chain production and process repetition.


Incremental Housing Prototype – “Make it Right” project in New Orleans (2008)

Elemental were required to design a 168 square metre house that can expand up to 250 square metres, within a safe structure and efficient and sustainable infrastructures. It was  conceptualized  as  do-it-yourself model. The scheme design can just as easily be built in the first stage, and future stages as funds and need arise, by a registered builder. The scheme accommodates the required program in half of the maximum allowed volume. The other half is initially a big porch able to accommodate expansions of the original home or even a second house.

affordable housing


Elemental typology in Australia

The Elemental typology is very appropriate for community and disability housing providers and for those Australians who are required to, or choose to, live in a smaller than standard size home, with the objective of adding to the living space at a later time. The typology would allow families and individuals to grow and or modify their housing arrangements without the need to relocate, without expensive planning permits to be sought, and the ability to build/add within a relatively short timeline.

Currently, Australia’s planning system cannot support the housing typology used (the principle of incrementality) by Alejandro Aravena and the team at Elemental. Securing planning approvals for staged development of complete housing structures in multi-residential can be problematic in some jurisdictions. Australian planning schemes (and building codes) have great difficulty in dealing with the consequences of building housing structures that are deliberately unfinished.

Planning authorities appear reluctant to allow individuality on these forms of development  in  terms  of finished colour schemes and material palettes. Maybe there is a concern about potential lost revenue by the local authorities in the form of infrastructure charges if only a portion of the complete building is built.

There is certainly potential that future expansion activities by the individual owners of their units may be completed without compliance to building codes. Certainly, if the Elemental typology development was presented to authorities, architects and engineers would need to clearly articulate footings and structure design that meet multiple storey development requirements. Liability issues, fire and safety issues and the potential issue of “out-of-hours/extended hours of noise” complaints during the latter stage building may damper enthusiasm for this model of development.

All of these issues can be addressed through applying quality, negotiated development conditions that require unit owners and bodies corporate to have all works designed and certified by suitably qualified professionals.

Alternatively, the planning approval sought at the commencement of the process could include the necessary drawings for the fully formed development, with clear delineations for the staged development of individual units. This would allow the planning authority to assess the full impact of the completed development on the community while permitting development of the deliberately unfinished housing structures. Again, development conditions can impose upon the developer a colour and material palette with the development permit.

In Queensland, there is potential to use Section 242 of the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 to prepare a development application to override a planning scheme to permit the Elemental typology, developing a project-specific planning scheme designed to bring the essential elements of the Elemental typology and the principle of incrementality into the planning scheme. This would be a radical departure from existing planning practice.

To help develop the application of the Elemental typology into the Queensland community, a horizontal (possibly pavilion) expansion element, instead of the vertical expansion element used in the Quinto Monroy development in Chile, could be applied. Horizontal element expansion can be installed without any effect on existing structures. They can be built off-site by certified builders and installed with minimal impact on neighbouring unit holders (i.e. minimal noise and inconvenience).

Perhaps the 484 Incremental house, the Case per Tutti (Houses for Everybody) and the “Make it Right” Project may be seen by Queensland and other jurisdictions as acceptable forms of development. This could occur if regulators were prepared to put into place considered development conditions that would permit expansion works without the need for further planning permits and therefore only building certifier, plumbing, electrical and related certifications in the latter stages.

With the current under-supply of community housing, emergency housing and housing that responds to the needs of people with or without disabilities and who want to age in place, there is a place for the principle of incrementality to be adopted within the Australian planning system. Maybe there is a role for the new Minister for Cities to take up the opportunity the Elemental typology presents to developing Australian cities in the Age of Innovation.