Tatiana Bilbao on a New Paradigm for Affordable Housing in Mexico

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

Pioneering young architect Tatiana Bilbao has made waves at the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial with her radical new model for sustainable housing in Mexico. Bilbao’s design is an adaptable reinvention of the traditional pitch-roofed dwelling that can be adapted to expand its footprint, offers a flexible material palette in response to different contexts, and can be constructed for as little as $8,000. This week, we spoke to the architect about the concept and its implications for social housing across her home country.

Full-scale prototype at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

Architizer: Can you tell me more about the social and economic conditions in Mexico that spurred you to create this design?

Tatiana Bilbao: There is a program from the government that certifies this kind of model for houses, where people get 50 percent of the money subsidized. This model exists because there’s a big need for housing in rural areas. Normally, people build their houses themselves, and they’re really rudimentary, you know; they are constructed using very temporary materials. So, this program is intended to give people an opportunity to have much more of a permanent, durable structure.

There are almost 100 models in the market for these houses, which are produced by NGOs, foundations, companies, or even contractors; they create a model, certify it with the government, and, then, they sell it. We were hired by a financial institution that wanted to create a new model, to add one to the market. So, in the beginning, we said OK, what are we going to offer that is new? New because, if there are 100 models, the problems have likely been studied a long time ago, and it’s going to be very challenging to create something different.

Exploratory block model

How did you look to differentiate your model from the others?

We studied all the existing models, and we realized that there needs to be the possibility for these houses to have more space. The rule [set by government] is that they have to have a floor area of 43 square meters [460 square feet], and every existing model was 43 square meters, so they were all archetypal houses, you know. With a pitched, tiled roof, you don’t have one single square meter of expansion possible.

We started to do a series of interviews with the local people to find out what they wanted, we found a really important thing: we found that they were actually the ones asking for the houses that really looked like the archetypal form of the house. Why? Because they really needed to erase this idea that they have a flat roof with steel bars left exposed, waiting for the second floor to arrive. In the past, this was a sign of ambition, saying “I’m going to grow,” you know: “This is just the beginning”. But, right now, most people are not able to build a second floor, or they moved out, so the house remains a flat roof with the steel bars showing, and this is a sign of failure.

Typical sections

This is why all these people are thinking, when building a house, it needs to be the archetypal form of [a] house [with a pitched roof]. They gave up the possibility of expansion. All models have the archetypical form, and they’re absolutely done, finished. 43 square meters, as the government asks. So, we said OK, there’s an area of opportunity if we find a model that it looks like the archetypal form of the house, but you can expand it. We had already developed a model like this for Ordos, so we revisited that and realized it was perfect: it fits exactly the idea of the expandable archetypal house.

Rendering and exploded axonometric for Bilbao’s Ordos residence

This is more of an open source model, which gets filled in within a year but can also utilize some temporary materials like pallets, which the other models don’t tend to have. Finally, we were able to give a little bit more space because it cost just 120,000 pesos, which is more or less $7,000, no, maybe a little more like $8,000. This is the cost of the house in Mexico. I have to say that because there have been some publications that think that we can do this house for this money in Europe, which is not possible. This cost is for this place.

Diagrams showing possible house adaptation and expansion over time

For me, one of the standouts at the Chicago Biennial was the series of adaptable models inside your prototype house, the colorful wooden blocks. How did these help shape your concept?

Our idea was to show that there are many possibilities for this house, that you can add volumes, and that you can really continue growing, changing, and extending the house the way you want to. This is exactly the model we wanted to create in real life: a house that looks like a house, but which can grow organically as your family grows, or as you want it to grow. I think that the main ideas were always on the table: that we needed to find a solution that would allow people to have more space at the beginning, but also to grow.

Left: exterior of the prototype in the exhibition hall; right: interior with conceptual block model visible.

We actually started with a very different idea, but, after we went to interview the people, we changed what we were doing completely. We started working more conceptually, developing an idea, trying to respond in a way that would combine their desire for the archetypal form with our idea of expansion and more space. Eventually, we found that we could use our model that we did before for the Ordos house; we tested it and found that it was a great fit.

Exploratory block model

That’s great, we particularly love the GIFs! Do you feel there is potential for this prototype to work in other countries?

We have actually gotten so many requests for this proposition! With this model, there are many things that are adaptable, such as the materiality. The model doesn’t depend on being constructed in a specific material, so the model could work in different contexts, different climates. We have built many of these houses. We built one with lightweight concrete panels, we built 20 of them in concrete block, and the one in Chicago, which is wood. The model allows the house to adopt the materiality that works for different places, and, in terms of orientation, it is flexible because you can change the windows however you want, placing them wherever you need them.

In a way, the house is adaptable to different climates and cultures across Mexico, but it’s not adaptable to every country. Maybe the strategy is, but not the full design. We were hired by the financial institution as the firm to do this project specifically for Mexico. So this was, for us, a site-specific design.

Axonometric showing possible material variations

Looking ahead, how do you feel that this project will influence your other projects moving forward? Are you interested in doing more work in this kind of area, in the affordable housing sector?

I think that this project came at a moment when we were exploring this. For eight years, we’ve been doing a lot of research on how affordable housing is being introduced in Mexico. However, it’s a different type of housing than that which we were focusing on because we were researching affordable housing for people that have unemployment. In Mexico, it’s called social housing. This house, on the other hand, targets people that have very low salaries, but they do have a salary. They have an employment, which is not the case with a major part of the population. With this program, people have to own the land.

Also, they’re single houses. Many people think that we have created a model for a unit of a housing complex, which is not true. This house exists for this program, which is intended for people who have their own plot. This is amazing, it’s impressive, but these people remain very very poor. Furthermore, these plots normally don’t resell; they don’t have a real value in the market because they are in rural areas.

Finished house in Mexico

As we got involved in this research, I became very political about it and started to get involved with the government with the other type of housing [social housing]. We also started working on social housing in France, by chance, and, then, this commission arrived. The client has hired us previously for a very high-end house in the beach, so it’s a really bumpy road to arrive at this commission, but, really strangely enough, it arrived in a moment when we were really studying and getting immersed in the subject.

Transcription edited for clarity. Drawings and diagrams courtesy of Tatiana Bilbao.

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