Socially-Organized Housing: Design That Establishes Emotional Ownership

Developed by Nikos A. Salingaros, David Brain, Andrés M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy, and Ernesto Philibert-Petit, this series of articles offers here a set of evidence-based optimal practices for social housing, applicable in general situations. Varying examples are discussed in a Latin American context. Adaptive solutions work towards long-term sustainability and help to attach residents to their built environment. 

They propose, then, new insights in complexity science, and in particular the work of Christopher Alexander on how to successfully evolve urban form. By applying the conceptual tools of “Pattern Languages” and “Generative Codes”, these principles support previous solutions derived by others, which were never taken forward in a viable form. 

New methodologies presented here offer a promising alternative to the failures of the standard social housing typologies favored by governments around the world, which have proven to be dehumanizing and ultimately unsustainable. 

This series of articles outlines promising new solutions for the future of social housing. It has been prepared as a comprehensive report by one of the authors (NAS) for Brazil, and is generally applicable to all of Latin America. One of us (AMD) is designing social housing in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Two of the authors (AMD & MWM) are directly involved with the reconstruction after the hurricane Katrina devastation in the Southern United States, which faces similar, though not identical, realities. Another author (EPP) has researched the pedestrian connectivity of the urban fabric, and is involved in providing government-assisted housing solutions on a massive scale in Mexico. The remaining author (DB) has long studied the influence of urban form on social wellbeing and community sustainability, a crucial factor in our discussion.

Social Architecture in México: Casa Cubierta de Comunidad Vivex. Image © Ana Cecilia Garza Villarreal

A project is successful if it is maintained and loved by its residents

The challenge of social housing is a major component of world urban growth, and we wish to present here a comprehensive methodology for radically improving its performance. Success will be measured in human terms: i.e., the physical and emotional wellbeing of the resident. We consider a project to be successful if it is maintained and loved by its residents, and also if the urban fabric joins in a healthy and interactive way to the rest of the city. On the other hand, we consider as unsuccessful (and hence unsustainable) a project that is hated by its residents for a number of different reasons, wastes resources in initial construction and upkeep, contributes to social degradation, isolates its residents from society, or decays physically in a short period of time.

‘Ciudad Dormitorio’ en Lima: Módulo habitable productivo para asentamientos informales. Image Cortesía de Natura Futura Arquitectura

The essence of the approach presented here is to apply a sustainable PROCESS rather than a specific IMAGE to design and building. The way it was done in the recent past is to build according to a prepared image of what the buildings ought to look like, and how they should be arranged. By contrast, no image of our project exists at the beginning: it emerges from the process itself, and is clear only after everything is finished. 

We can move toward a more thorough and satisfying solution by drawing upon Christopher Alexander’s work — one of several pioneers who proposed that urban fabric should follow an organic paradigm — and can include theoretical and practical work that for various reasons is not widely applied. What we offer is supported by the evidence from many examples of traditional practice over centuries. Governments instead choose to impose schemes and typologies that ultimately generate hostility for the fabric of social housing from its occupants. We will analyze the reasons for this hostility in order to prevent it in the future. The relatively simple solutions presented here are generic. Therefore, though geared to Latin America, they can be adopted by the rest of the world with only minor modifications. This study outlines ideas that are general enough to apply to countries where local conditions that produce housing might be very different.

Social Architecture in México: Casa Cubierta de Comunidad Vivex. Image © Ana Cecilia Garza Villarreal

We can learn from innovative approaches to government-sponsored housing, developed by independent groups in many different settings and conditions. Out of many projects built over several decades, very few can be judged to be truly successful using our criteria of the residents’ physical and emotional wellbeing. Those few excellent solutions tend to be neglected because they fail to satisfy certain iconic properties (which we discuss in detail later in this paper). Perhaps surprisingly, we also draw upon successful typologies developed for sustainable upper-income communities. 

Utilizing a “complexity-managing” approach

This paper combines two mutually complementary approaches (and will contrast these with existing methods). On the one hand, we will give some explicit practical rules for building social housing. Any group or agency wishing to get started immediately may implement these — with appropriate local modifications — on actual projects. On the other hand, we will present a general philosophical and scientific background for social housing and its cultural implications. The aim of this theoretical material is to “give permission” for common-sense arguments; to create the conditions that will safely allow and support what in effect comes naturally. People, acting as intelligent local agents, may then apply methods that evolved during millennia of successfully performing owner-built housing — as part of the production of healthy resident-built communities.

Centro Comunitario Nuevo Amanecer: del taller universitario a una comunidad en Chosica, Perú. Image Cortesía de Archivos T3 ALBORDE

This methodology recognizes and incorporates the self-organizing features of the most robust human settlements throughout history, by utilizing a “complexity-managing” approach, rather than a linear, “top-down” approach. We propose channeling the design talent and building energy of the people themselves, acting as local agents, within a system that we manage only to help generate and guide its evolving complexity. In such an approach, “bottom-up” processes are allowed to develop organically, though within constraints based upon prior experience. On the other hand, “top-down” interventions must be done experimentally and carefully (i.e., with feedback), allowing more interaction with smaller-scale “bottom-up” processes.

Centro Comunitario Nuevo Amanecer: del taller universitario a una comunidad en Chosica, Perú. Image Cortesía de Archivos T3 ALBORDE

Our proposal goes beyond housing that is literally owner-built in the sense that owners hammer nails and pour concrete. It is important that they experience the process of design and building as THEIR process. It’s all about establishing connection and engagement. The key point is a process that accommodates real engagement, that is agile enough to be responsive to adaptive processes, and that can engage without being driven by the social dynamics of inequality into unfortunate directions. Most important, the process can take advantages of both technology and expertise. We are proposing something far more than letting the poor fend for themselves — we wish to empower them with the latest tools and a highly sophisticated understanding of urban form. 

An outmoded early industrial model

As many authors have described previously (e.g. Alexander et. al. (1977), Jacobs (1961), Turner (1976)), established planning practice has tended to follow an outmoded early industrial model. That model arose in the 1920s, and was widely adopted in the period following World War II. It was based upon a hierarchical “top-down” command-and-control paradigm, leading to predict-and-provide planning. Research amply demonstrates that this model does not sufficiently reflect the kind of scientific problem a city poses, because the model ignores the tremendous physical and social complexity of successful urban fabric. Incredibly, it does not even address human interactions with the built environment. The resulting failures and unintended consequences are well documented. As science develops more fine-grained and more accurate research tools for the analytical study of such self-organizing phenomena (which include cities), it is necessary now to propose a radical new urbanism. We wish to empower people with the authority of a new methodology, grounded in recent urban research.

Social Housing in Venezuela. Image © The Photographer. Vía Wikimedia, licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0

The problem isn’t just the lack of physical complexity. The key to urban place making is really the relationship between the complexity of spatial form and the complexity of social process. If it were just a matter of physical complexity, one might imagine that a top-down process could be created to simulate that complexity — say, a computer algorithm. The crucial point is that this physical complexity embodies and expresses social life. It is, in certain respects, social relations by other means (e.g., artifacts and built spaces). To some extent, the answer begins by re-conceiving the built environment itself as social process, not just as product or container. This becomes important later when we talk about maintenance, since the processual character of this kind of ownership merely begins when residents move in.

The Ecosystem Analogy

Here is a basic incompatibility: organic urban fabric is an extension of human biology, whereas planned construction is an artificial vision of the world imposed by the human mind on nature. The former is full of life but can be poor and unsanitary, whereas the latter is often clean and efficient but sterile. One of these two contrasting urban morphologies can win out over the other, or they could both reach some sort of equilibrium coexistence (as has occurred in most of Latin America). In the movement for “self-construction”, the government accepts that owners will build their own houses, and provides materials and training to help establish the networks of electricity, water, and sewerage.

© Hogar de Cristo. Via Wikimedia, licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0

“Social housing” is usually understood as a project for housing the poor, built and financed by a government or non-governmental organization. Occupants could purchase their units, but a usual practice is to rent them at low subsidized rents, or even to provide them for free. In the latter instances, the residents live there by courtesy of (and are subject to varying degrees of control by) the owning entity. A “squatter settlement”, on the other hand, is a self-built development on land that is not owned by the residents, and which is frequently occupied without permission. Since squatter settlements are illegal, the government generally refuses to provide the means of legally purchasing individual plots of land. In most cases, it also refuses to connect those residences to the utility grid (electricity, water, and sewerage) of the rest of the city. As a result, living conditions there are the worst among peacetime settlements.

Case Study: The Unspoken Rules of Favela Construction. Image © Solène Veysseyre

Social housing and squatter settlements are regions where more than one billion of the world’s very poor live. We are going to discuss these two urban phenomena side-by-side, and offer to resolve the ideological and spatial competition between the two. As a basic starting point, housing for the poor represents the lowest level of the world’s urban ecosystem. Different forces within human society generate both types of urban system: either government-sponsored social housing, or squatter settlements. Christopher Alexander (2001-2005), Hassan Fathy (1973), N. J. Habraken (1972), John F. C. Turner (1976), and others recognized this competition before us, and proposed an accommodation of the two systems. Turner helped to build several projects in Peru and Mexico, and advised others on implementing such ideas worldwide. 

Competition between owner-built settlements and government-built social housing

The ecosystem analogy also explains and to a certain extent justifies the vigilance by which governments prevent squatter settlements from invading the rest of the city. If not restrained by law and direct intervention, squatters move into private and public land. We are describing a species competition for the same available space. Each species (urban typology) wants to displace all the others. Squatter settlements can take over the entire city if allowed to do so (for example, in Cairo, they have taken over the flat roofs of commercial buildings; in the USA people build temporary shelters in public parks and under highway overpasses). The government, in turn, would like to clear all squatter settlements. Governments the world over assume that they must construct planned housing to replace owner-built housing. That is too expensive to be feasible.

Like all truly organic systems, cities are better off without central control. Accommodating competing urban systems never became standard practice, however. Although the basic ideas about traditional settlements were in place, several key elements of understanding were previously missing. We are now offering expertise in housing as a DYNAMIC process (by combining pattern languages with generative codes: see later sections). Interventions are needed, starting from scratch in new housing projects. The same dynamic process can also be applied to already built environments, in seeking to adapt a large number of informal unplanned housing projects (favelas or others) by bringing them up to acceptable living conditions. 

Case Study: The Unspoken Rules of Favela Construction. Image © Solène Veysseyre

Competition occurs among all economic strata (“species”) that either use urban land, or profit from it. In Latin American cities, urban land speculation leaves a large amount of undeveloped land with all the services already in place wasted. The poorest population then has to find plots on the outskirts, and pay steep prices for water and other services, without having the benefit of living close to their main source of income (the central city). This creates a severe problem for the government. Rather than characterizing the practice as “unfair” (which does not lead to any change), we point out its tremendous cumulative costs for the future.

Throughout all the various schemes for social housing tried over the years, it is widely accepted (with only a few exceptions) that the unplanned owner-built favela is embarrassing to the government, and has to be bulldozed as soon as possible. Yet that assumption is wrong. Very few in a position of authority seem to consider the urban and economic advantages of existing shantytowns. The geometry of buildings, lots, and street patterns has for the most part developed (evolved) organically, and we will argue here that this self-organization affords a number of very desirable features. With all its grave faults, the favela offers an instructive spontaneous demonstration of economic, efficient, and rapid processes of housing people.

The favela has a self-healing mechanism

The favelas’ disadvantages are not inherent in the urban system itself. Their organic geometry is perfectly sound, yet it is precisely that aspect which is vehemently rejected. It simply doesn’t fit into the stereotyped  (and scientifically outmoded) image of what a progressive urban fabric ought to resemble — neat, smooth, rectangular, modular, and sterile. A favela’s organic geometry is linked with the illegal act of squatting, and with a pervasive lawlessness. The geometry itself represents “an enemy to progress” for an administration. We cannot build living urban fabric (or save existing portions) until we get past that prejudice. The favela has a self-healing mechanism absent from most top-down social housing schemes. Organic growth also repairs urban fabric in a natural process, something entirely absent from geometrically rigid housing projects.

Case Study: The Unspoken Rules of Favela Construction. Image © Sara Ulloa

Ironically, the organic geometry of the favela is typically at odds with the imperatives of both the Left and the Right in a modern state, given its interest in responding to social issues in a manner that is appropriately controlled. Some of that interest in control has to do with a literal interest in the kind of rational administrative order that is tied to social control. Nevertheless, much of it may reflect either the state’s need to legitimate its interventions by demonstrating its rationality, or its need to maintain the bureaucratic rituals of accountability when distributing public resources, or its respect for the conventions of private property. It could also be a sincere reformist concern for elevating the living standards of the poor in a way that is both efficient and procedurally fair, in a manner motivated by democratic principles.

An ordered geometry gives the impression of control invested in the entity that builds. Whether this is intentional (to display the authority of the state) or subconscious (copying images from architecture books), governments and non-governmental organizations prefer to see such an expression of their own “rationality” through building. Departure from this set of typologies is felt to be a relaxation of authority; or it raises possible questions regarding the legitimacy of distributions of resources that aren’t subject to careful bureaucratic accounting procedures. 

Both of these are avoided because they tend to erode the authority of the state, particularly under regimes where the rights of private property are an important part of the legal and regulatory systems. Morphologically complex squatter settlements are usually outside the government’s control altogether. One way of asserting control is to move their residents to housing built by the government. In a sad and catastrophic confirmation of our ideas, various governments in Africa have periodically bulldozed owner-built dwellings, driving their residents to live out in the open.

"Pillo Peraza" by PICO: reformulación de una vivienda unifamiliar estatal de interés social. Image

Summary of subsequent essays

In subsequent essays, we will develop the present methodology further to describe the design and construction process; the involvement of political and non-governmental agencies in planning; and details for retrofitting favelas. We will also include an explicit generative sequence for building social housing on a greenfield or open brownfield.

This paper is very complex and deals with many issues, so we need to map out its exposition. The first sections provide background and criticize current practices. Section 2 reviews the standard practices and typologies of top-down social housing programs, and recommends replacing them (or at least complementing them) with a bottom-up procedure. Section 3 pinpoints how a “geometry of control” ruins even the best-intentioned schemes by making them inhuman. 

The next sections offer specific tools for design. Section 4 turns to mechanisms for establishing emotional connections with the built environment. Biophilia, or the need to connect directly to plant life, is a crucial component. We also discuss sacred spaces and their role towards establishing community. Section 5 reviews the work of Christopher Alexander, especially his recent work on generative codes. Section 6 argues against the fixed master plan approach, suggesting instead an iterative back-and-forth planning process. Section 7 reviews Alexandrine patterns and outlines their transition to generative codes. Section 8 gives, in the broadest possible terms, our methodology for planning a settlement. We suggest getting building permission for a process rather than for a design on paper. Section 9 contains an explicit set of codes describing the armature of services in a social housing project. Section 10 introduces the complementary design tools by describing the generative codes needed for such a project. 

  • Soon, the second chapter: Antipatterns of Social Housing in Latin America.

Originally presented by N.A.S. as a keynote address to the Brazilian and Ibero-American Congress on Social Housing, Florianópolis, Brazil, 2006.



  • Christopher Alexander (2001-2005) The Nature of Order: Books One to Four (Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California).

  • Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, New York).

  • Hassan Fathy (1973) Architecture for the Poor (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois).

  • N. J. Habraken (1972) Supports: an Alternative to Mass Housing (Urban International Press, London & Mumbai).

  • Jane Jacobs (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Vintage Books, New York).

  • John F. C. Turner (1976) Housing by People (Marion Boyars, London).

About this author
Cite: Nikos A. Salingaros, David Brain, Andrés M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy & Ernesto Philibert-Petit. "Socially-Organized Housing: Design That Establishes Emotional Ownership" [Vivienda social en Latinoamérica: diseño capaz de establecer 'pertenencia emocional'] 23 Mar 2019. ArchDaily. (Trans. Franco, José Tomás) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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