[Houses completed by residents.  Photo: Christobal Palma]


The 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize has been awarded to Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena. Though the Pritzker celebrates a living architect’s entire body of work, particular attention has been paid to Aravena’s ‘half of a good house’ project. Aravena, the jury wrote, “epitomizes the revival of a more socially engaged architect, especially in his long-term commitment to tackling the global housing crisis and fighting for a better urban environment for all.”

The Pritzker is architecture’s highest international honor. For the thirty-sixth time in its thirty-eight year history, that honor was bestowed upon a man.

Half a good house Photo: Christobal Palma

Half of a good house, unfinished
Photo: Christobal Palma

Aravena’s ‘half of a good house’ prototype is as its name suggests: a modest house with a few finished rooms. The remainder is for the homeowners to complete, in whatever ways meet their needs.  Aravena’s team purchased land and financed the construction of these half-houses for one hundred families living in Chilean slums. Richard Sennett, a teacher at the London School of Economics and at New York University, put it this way: “He builds half a good house rather than building a whole, prepackaged crummy house.” (More about this project can be found here, including an audio feature and Aravena’s TED Talk.)

Back home, Pittsburgh is crafting a response to a mounting housing affordability crisis, for which there will be no single solution, but rather an array of strategies. New housing policy (such as an affordable housing trust fund or reallocation of federal Section 8 funds), community land trusts, developer incentives or requirements, and other tools may be part of the elixir.

cityLAB’s Tiny House, which debuted last month, challenges many traditional ideas about housing, and holds the potential to become part of Pittsburgh’s affordable housing strategy. If tiny many work here, why not half? Currently, this prototype is part of broader rethinking of housing that has been implemented in various parts of the world. “Incremental housing,” as it’s commonly known, has existed for generations in a way that was more organic than planned, and responded to the money, labor and materials that were available. In the present day, it is designed to allow for the expansion (or contraction) of a house’s size based on needs of its occupants.

While the half-a-house concept cannot be entirely attributed to Aravena, his receipt of the Pritzker Prize has brought it into the public mindset in a new way. I asked a variety of local designers, community developers and other housing specialists to speculate on what this could mean for Pittsburgh, and here is some of what they had to say (comments have been edited for brevity):

Lena Andrews, Planning and Development Officer
ACTION-Housing, Inc.:

“Pittsburgh has a similar situation in which the available funds for preserving or building new affordable housing are insufficient to meet the demand. Building one single-family detached home may require $100,000 in subsidies to make it affordable to a moderate-income buyer. Aravena’s concept focuses on quality over quantity and is built to last over time. I love that residents can be creative and make their homes their own; often affordable housing can consist of block after block of the same townhouse, which can feel artificial. The challenge with this is ensuring that the homeowners contribution is reasonably high-quality and respects the context of the neighborhood, without having to conform to it. Residents should feel safe, secure, and inspired in these homes, and not feel like they are inhabiting an unfinished building.”

Nathan Hart
Hart Architectural Services:

“This is a remarkable concept. It is an efficient use of resources that enables more people in poverty to have a decent place to live, close to city centers, where they can get to jobs and amenities in less time and with less cost, which gives them a greater chance to save and lift themselves out of poverty. Not only does it give the owner the opportunity to modify the space to meet their particular needs, it can create a greater feeling of ownership by helping to create their own home, known as the IKEA effect.

“The end result is a more organic and humane urban design, as opposed to the sterile and monotonous developments that are so common to planned communities.  It’s also refreshing that the architect didn’t try to impose his design upon the residents. He gave them a basic, blank slate in which to create their own lives and shape their own neighborhood.

Christine Mondor, AIA, LEED AP
Evolve environment :: architecture

“Incremental houses empower people to create their own environment, something that is important for strong and resilient communities. It also breaks the novice-expert barrier – an issue that often limits the influence of the architecture profession.

“Pittsburgh has its own traditions of incremental housing. Coal companies built temporary company towns with houses barely large enough for even the smallest immigrant families. Many of their “half-a-houses” were demolished when the mines closed, but those that remained went from “half-a-house” to enlarged houses, adapted with the creativity and intention of the inhabitants. Many of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods owe their quirky character to the same DIY quality. People can be producers of architecture, not just consumers. Their actions give vitality to our neighborhoods. Aravena challenges architects to think of design as “scaffolding for activation.” People are not just approving a design but can take an active role in constructing their environments.

“We need many kings of design. A healthy city pivots on the tension between places of controlled design and places where we take pleasure in the exuberance and enablement of the individual effort. I think it is exciting to have Pritzker acknowledge an expanded role for design.”

Wanda Wilson, Executive Director
Oakland Planning and Development Corporation

House completed by residents Photo: Christobal Palma

House completed by residents
Photo: Christobal Palma

“This is a cool idea, and reflective of a very different world, where many people live in unsafe favelas. In Pittsburgh this would be considered substandard housing and would cause an uproar. There would need to be a serious conversation about the opportunity this concept provides, versus the notion that housing for low-income people can be built at a lower standard compared to those with higher incomes.”

Craig Stevens, Retired Community Social Worker
Affordable Housing Advocate

“My concern with this idea (as with the Tiny House concept), is that there are so many existing vacant properties in Pittsburgh that can be returned to productive use. We should put our resources, along with our design and construction talent, into a large scale housing rehabilitation effort. A locally-driven program (as opposed to federally- or state-funded) supporting urban housing rehabilitation would create more opportunities for skill training and employment than would be possible with new construction. It would also lead to greater asset building and wealth creation through quality affordable rental housing and subsidized homeownership.

“This is especially important at a time when many Section 8 voucher holders cannot use their vouchers because fewer landlords accept them. At the same time, many are languishing for years on waiting lists: either to obtain vouchers, or for not-yet-built affordable units intended to replace subsidized housing that has been demolished. A rehabilitation program would address these needs faster than a new construction program.”

Rob Pfaffmann, AIA, AICP
Pfaffmann + Associates

“The quest for meaningful and productive participatory design must be an integral part of solving the problem of affordable housing. Aravena offers ideas, and more importantly, tangible results in his completed work.  The gable roofed Villa Verde Housing is the most traditional and climate appropriate of his projects, which if executed in Pittsburgh, might be a starting point.

“The questions raised from a compelling Yin Yang diagram of the unfinished house are worth exploring. I would argue that our climate, landscape, politics, culture and economy may likely create radically different outcomes, if we are truly listening not only to the future inhabitants, but also the environmental context.

“Prefabricated housing modules, ‘Katrina Houses’, and other expandable concepts may offer similar promise in Pittsburgh. We are just beginning to explore the opportunities created by architect-community collaborations.”

“One of the biggest mistakes that architects make is that they tend to deal with problems that only interest other architects.  The biggest challenge is to engage with the important non-architectural issues – poverty, pollution, congestion, segregation – and apply our specific knowledge. It’s not enough to raise awareness. I want people to leave with more tools.”  – Alejandro Aravena

Brian Gaudio
Module and Within Formal Cities


In many South American cities, families build a small house that they expand upon as their financial means increase. Starting with a smaller footprint requires fewer construction materials, less labor, and can lower the cost-of-entry to homeownership.  This model allows families to grow in place – the home grows and changes with its family over time.

“Pittsburgh’s growing demand for alternative, urban living is reflected in ongoing projects, including the tiny house, micro-housing by WorkPittsburgh, and micro apartments for the Foundry at 41st. The local design community is trying to find ways to keep home ownership affordable, and the half-house can be part of the solution.

“For those who cannot afford to buy a traditional house, or manage the maintenance that comes with it, the half-house typology can be a low-risk way to begin homeownership. Because building codes and regulations make this typology impossible to transplant “one-to-one” here in the steel city, my team at Module is developing a way to “North-Americanize” this concept using a modular design and prefabricated construction system. Whether it’s a tiny house, a half-house, or another innovative concept, Pittsburgh should promote these kinds of urban experiments as potential solutions to its housing issues.”

So who cares about fancy international architecture prizes?  While the Pritzker may be highfalutin in ceremony, and its winners are recognized for some big budget, high profile projects, the award honors a career “which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity.” Advances in affordable housing, sensitive disaster relief, and environmental sustainability are but a few a realms in which prize winners have excelled.

In the rapidly developing Pittsburgh neighborhoods where the lack of affordable housing is most acute, the terms “community” and “market” have become interchangeable.  We are witnessing the arrival of a strange architecture that seems more produced than designed, and showcases an imported Anytown pastiche, that is deemed appropriate for market-rate and subsidized housing alike.  This is a departure from a past in which socially-conscious housing (subsidized or not) often stood out as unremarkable and uninspired, perpetuating the notion that good design is not for all.

Bryan Bell, an architect, educator and founder of Design Corps, confronted this notion in his book, Good Deeds, Good Design.  His declaration – “Design like you give a damn” – resonated throughout the architecture profession, especially with students and young professionals.  Though what we are observing now is of a different stripe, his mantra is as important as ever.

Quality debate can and should happen with an ear for the remarks made by the commenters in this story, especially with respect to the implications of financing new construction over rehabilitation of what we already have; but also how and where we use subsidy, and our own city’s traditions with building working class housing.

The prize is nice, but it’s the ideas behind it that matter.  They are for us to learn from, import, and then adapt to our communities.

The Pritzker family is synonymous with Hyatt Hotels.  Thomas J. Pritzker, the current president of The Hyatt Foundation, said, “As native Chicagoans, it’s not surprising that our family was keenly aware of architecture, living in the birthplace of the skyscraper, a city filled with buildings designed by architectural legends such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and many others.”

Hyatt hotel, Bloomfield

Hyatt hotel, Bloomfield

None of which explains Hyatt’s recent contribution to the neighborhood of Bloomfield.


Please send your own thoughts about Half a Good House here.


The last word goes to Aravena:

© 2016 The Hyatt Foundation / The Pritzker Architecture Prize