A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing

A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing

Architect Fernanda Canales has spent the last two decades rethinking private housing in relation to collective needs. Here, she speaks to Atmos about her mission.

Fernanda Canales has spent the last 25 years building her architectural practice in Mexico. She has completed dozens of projects across the country’s 32 states: from community-focused cultural centres to museums to private housing. Although the purpose of each project differs greatly, they all share one common mission: to reimagine private space for the collective good.

 

In fact, since an earthquake that destroyed buildings in 44 locations struck southern Mexico in 2017, Canales has focused her attention on rebuilding sustainable social housing complexes that keep the cost of living low. It’s a project that spans over a decade. Even as a student she was acutely aware of the stark differences between the architectural masterpieces she was told about in lectures and the stark reality of the social housing she routinely encountered across Mexico City. Then, statistics like the fact that 14 percent of houses in Mexico are abandoned further indicated to her that the social housing operation in her country was under-researched. As a result she spent years highlighting the structural flaws of existing housing projects—be it through papers or exhibitions—all the while exploring alternative models, ones that drew on local resources, community skill sets and climate.

 

Below, Atmos speaks to Canales about what it takes to design and construct social housing that is both socially and environmentally sustainable without increasing costs of living.

A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing
A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing

Daphne

To start off, I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you got interested in architecture.

Fernanda

That’s a good question. At the beginning I wasn’t sure what to study. I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to do sculpture, to work with my hands. That was the only thing I knew for sure. But it didn’t seem very serious, at least at that time in Mexico. I was thinking I should have more of a title, a degree. So studying architecture was a big shift from my initial interests; I was interested in the ink, in the pencils, in the smells, and in the tools—but that was all that I knew. I didn’t have any architects around in my family, so it was a pretty unknown world.

Daphne

And, once you graduated, how did you first get started in that industry?

Fernanda

I was actually still studying when I remodeled my first house. That was 25 years ago—in 1996. And then I started working with clients on interiors, decorating bathrooms, closets and furniture. So during the first few years I was completely focused on bathrooms, kitchens, and closets. After some time I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had [initially] thought that if I made really good bathrooms then suddenly I would be doing a house or a building next. And after a couple of years of doing bathrooms I realized I would spend the rest of my time doing bathrooms.

In Mexico at that time it was expected that a woman in architecture would be focused on interiors and decoration.

Fernanda Canales

Fernanda

In Mexico at that time it was expected that a woman in architecture would be focused on interiors and decoration. The usual comments would go something like, Oh, what did you study? I would say, Architecture,  and they would reply, Oh. You design curtains and you choose sofas. But that’s not what I wanted to do, what I was interested in.

Daphne

So, how did you go from interiors to social housing and reimagining what it might look like?

Fernanda

I have always fought against what I’ve been taught. At university, we did a lot of housing designs but they were all for artists, photographers—for wealthy people. It was the ideal house for the ideal client with no relation to budget, to maintenance. But then, the reality that I encountered every day in Mexico with social housing was so different to that. Like two realities fighting each other. The [tension] made me think more deeply about the houses that were not designed by anyone, that were not taken care of by architects—and that’s the majority of the houses that I see every day.

 

So I started rethinking my involvement with those sites and reworking how you approach housing in irregular topographical conditions with no budgets, often with very harsh conditions. I applied for a grant and—with it—I started doing typologies to show different developers solutions to the very same plot, the same square meters, same budget, same everything. I wanted to show them, look, you have done this a thousand times and there are these problems as a result: a bad bathroom, no cross ventilation and no light. I wanted to show them another way of utilising the same amount of land and resources but that included a [functioning] bathroom, enough late, cross ventilation and so on. But developers just respond like, wow. That’s really interesting. It’s wonderful. Congratulations. But we sell what we do. So we’re going to keep on selling what we do. It was really hard to enter the real market. For a long time it was more of a personal exploration.

 

But the project took another dimension after the earthquake in 2017. Suddenly there was this need for urgent housing; architects all over the country were asked to provide solutions very quickly. But for me it was different, I had a lot of years of work on that same theme of minimum housing for a small budget. It’s only since then that I’ve been able to build those houses and actually work with the communities involved.

A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing
A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing
A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing

Daphne

That’s very recent considering the years you’ve spent researching the topic. I read somewhere that poorly-constructed housing can have a detrimental social and environmental impact on the land and the communities that live on it. Is this true from your experience?

Fernanda

Yes. You see these massive developments occupying more and more land. But questions like, how many of these need to be built? Where are these people from? Where do these people work? They weren’t being asked. Data on these topics didn’t exist for a long time. It’s only recently it started becoming more available, and we found out that people in Mexico spend on average more than three hours per day commuting. We also typically spend more than 30 percent of our [monthly] budget on transport. And that, then, results in more insecurity and violence.

 

Many of these massive developments were a failure, specifically regarding water resources, garbage, and light. Because they were so far away nobody went to pick up the garbage or they were not connected to proper water systems. So then that was when it really clicked that we have more than five million abandoned houses in Mexico—a country that lacks housing options for people. And the government initially denied it, saying no, they’re not abandoned. It’s not true. It was only when photographers made this really evident [in 2017] that the government finally acknowledged the problem and tried to revert it. Now, they are introducing policies to redensify the city instead of the outskirts, and rethinking single-family dwelling models.

A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing
Photograph of abandoned houses by Jorge Taboada.

Daphne

And when we talk about reinventing social housing to make it more accessible and more sustainable without increasing the cost of living, what does that entail? What do alternative building materials and water systems look like?

Fernanda

When I went to visit a lot of these empty or abandoned housing complexes, it was clear that one of the biggest failures was their lack of sustainability. They’re so far out of the main city, creating complications [when it comes to building systems that deal with] sewage and trash. Even if you’d want to buy groceries, it could easily be a two or three hour journey. As a result people would transform their houses into workshops or to laundromats—providing these informal solutions to the problems.

 

As an architect, there are five big questions you have to ask yourself: How can you provide clean running water? How do you provide the houses with electricity? Then, how do you get rid of the trash? And also sewage? Finally, public transport—how do you get in or out [of the complex]? 

 

Taking water as an example, there’s no way of bringing water to these places. So instead I focused on rainwater—storing rainwater. For me it was important to make water storage part of the [roof of the] house rather than an accessory that you buy and need a pump. If you put the shower just below the rainwater storage unit, and the shower then also connects to the bathroom and kitchen sink, it makes for a really efficient structure. And also if you store rainwater on the outside, all you need is a very simple tube and you can use that water to do laundry outside, which is a very common practice.

When I went to visit a lot of these empty or abandoned housing complexes, it was clear that one of the biggest failures was their lack of sustainability.

Fernanda Canales

Fernanda

And on that note, it was really important to incorporate uses that were part of the history and the culture of people. For instance, it’s very normal for people to do and hang their laundry outdoors. Equally, many people are used to cooking outside because they can’t buy a refrigerator or they can’t buy a stove. So it was important to create outdoor spaces for those types of communal activities.

Daphne

So, it’s really about utilising locally-available natural resources?

Fernanda

Exactly. Mexico City could be self-sufficient as a city if we didn’t send 90 percent of our rainwater to the drainage system. We have so many paradoxes, so many resources we could use in a better sense.

Daphne

And, finally, how does the climate of a region in which you’re building social housing inform both the design and the materials that you use?

Fernanda

There was a lot of work done on this thanks to a research center led by architect Carlos Zedillo. He invited different architects from all over the country as well as international architects to examine Mexico, which he split into different regions depending on climate, geographical and geological conditions. We were all assigned a different state, each of which had vastly different conditions, and asked to design something that suited the climate.

 

It was an exercise that lasted years and became very helpful after the 2017 earthquake when the government mobilized us to rebuild the houses that had been destroyed. But the architects who were helping with this reconstruction were mainly from Mexico City or other big cities. By contrast, many of the communities affected were in very poor areas seven to 12 hours away. You couldn’t even reach them by truck. So, most of the budget was taken up just transporting materials across the country.

A Sustainable Redesign of Mexico’s Social Housing

Fernanda

Instead, what we did was go to the communities to find a way to build with what they had. Some had hay, others had wood, others had brick or even sand. A housing project I worked on not too far from Mexico City, but which was in a very remote area with difficult roads, involved us spending some of our budget on a machine so that the community could build their own bricks. They were taught how to make bricks by mixing them with cement to ensure they were structurally safe. The hope was that the community could continue making bricks and even sell them. It was a wonderful alternative to spending money in transporting materials as we gave them something sustainable to work with that could help them economically, too.

Daphne

Is social housing going to be your main focus for the future?

Fernanda

Yes, definitely. It’s so important that we understand the public consequences of private housing. We’ve become so used to thinking that a house is something that belongs to the individual, a place where they decide how they want to live; this notion of my house, my world. I think it’s impossible to phrase it that way anymore. Even if a house is a private space, its planetary impacts will inevitably be enormous.

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