Company – Santiago, Chile

2000 onwards


Elemental is an architectural practice founded in 2000, which grew out of the desire to address the problem of social housing in Chile. It has since evolved into an unusual practice that is a partnership between a University (Universidad Católica de Santiago), an energy company (COPEC, the Chilean oil company) and an architect (Alejandro Aravena).

Elemental's first project located in Iquique, one of the largest port cities of Chile, brought them widespread acclaim. They were asked to rehouse a 100 squatter families on the same plot of land that they had occupied for the last 30 years, but to do this within the standard government subsidy of US$7 500 per house, an amount which was to cover the land, associated infrastructure and construction costs. Their site was located in the city-centre and was therefore three times more expensive than the suburban areas normally used for social housing, which may be cheap but result in gruelling two to three hour commutes to and from work. Elemental realised that the money left over from buying the land would only allow them to build half a house and so they concentrated on building the essentials of a house: the overall structure, kitchen and bathroom. With the tradition and skills of self-building that squatter families acquire through need, they would be able to in-fill and complete the house given a well designed framework from which to start. This type of approach to the question of social housing sees it as a 'public investment rather than a public expense'. As the houses are added to over time, they gain value and their rather stark original design is softened through occupation and use.

Elemental's insistence on referring to their housing work as urban projects is an indication of their desire to protect existing communities and design neighbourhoods, rather than individual buildings. Theirs is a participative design process that responds to the individual needs and circumstances of each community. Through acknowledging what is available both economically and socially they act as spatial agents, transforming the meagre housing subsidy into a tool that can genuinely be used to address the huge housing deficit.

Key Projects

Iquique Housing, Iquique (Chile)
Prefabricated House Prototype, Milan (Italy)

Other Work

Aravena, Alejandro, "Elemental: Building Innovative Social Housing in Chile." Harvard Design Magazine, (21)(Fall /Winter 2005 2004).

---, "Iquique (2001): Building on the Chilean Slum," in Verb: architecture boogazine, (2008).

Aravena, Alejandro, and Andrés Iacobelli, "Elemental: Housing as an Investment not a Social Expense," in Urban Trans Formation, eds. Ruby Andreas and Ruby Ilka (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2008).


References About

"Alejandro Aravena: Quartiere di Abitazione Quinta Monroy - Elemental, Iquique, Chile," Casabella (2006).

Gallanti, Fabrizio, "Elemental, Aravena!." Domus, (886)(November 2005): 34-41.

"Quinta Monroy: Equipo Elemental, Iquique, Chile.," Arquitectura Diseno Urbanismo, (57)(July 2004).

Verona, Irina, "Elemental Program: Rethinking Low-cost Housing in Chile." Praxis: Journal of Writing + Building, (8)(2006): 52-57.


'Elemental is a Do Tank. Our field of action is the city. Elemental seeks an approach to urban life in contexts of scarce resources, whether in the housing field, public space, transportation, using the city as a source of equality, here and now.'
- Andrés Iacobelli and Alejandro Aravena

'Communication has been a relevant factor for us. We speak in the same level with the families, the users of our housing projects, without paternalism, without false expectations and at the same time, transmitting trust and telling them that we have a professional knowledge which would help them in their problems.'
- Alejandro Aravena


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