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How an Architect Who Designs ‘Half-Houses’ Rebuilt a City

Alejandro Aravena, who helped a city recover from an earthquake and a tsunami, says participatory design is not just inclusive but “more efficient.”
Alejandro Aravena, pictured in 2016.
Alejandro Aravena, pictured in 2016.Awakening/Getty Images

In February 2010, a 8.8-magnitude earthquake—one of the strongest quakes ever measured—struck Chile. It triggered a tsunami with waves as high as 15 feet, which pounded the small city of Constitución, about 200 miles south of the capital Santiago. Dozens of people in Constitución died, many homes were destroyed, and the city was left reeling.

To lead the rebuilding effort, an architect named Alejandro Aravena arrived in Constitución. Aravena, co-founder of the Santiago design firm Elemental, already had a reputation as a socially conscious problem-solver. He had attracted international renown for his “half-a-house” approach to designing social housing, which is exactly what it sounds like: Having been given a small budget to construct homes for low-income families, many of whom said they would like to expand their dwellings in the future, Aravena hit upon the idea of building half of a larger, nicer home, and leaving the other half for the residents to finish themselves, either with their own hands or with help from local “micro-contractors.”