Most Influential Projects 2022

37 Las Americas Social Housing

Las Americas Social Housing

For countering urban sprawl with elevated affordable housing that fosters community connections

Unchecked urban sprawl in León, México has increasingly pushed housing to the edges of the city—isolating its residents from core infrastructure. But the team behind Las Americas Social Housing took a different approach—situating 60 condos into a vertical housing block in the city center while keeping costs low by incorporating prefabricated components and shared utility cores. Perhaps the biggest difference? The team didn’t lose sight of the end users, making sure it delivered a high-density structure that residents would actually want to live in. 

To evoke the sense of ownership and privacy that comes with single-family homes, architecture firm SO-IL collaborated with the Instituto Municipal de Vivienda de León, structural engineering firm ICNUM and the city of León to design the complex so no two units face each other. The six-story development wraps around two interior courtyards that provide cross ventilation and a more verdant view than the surrounding city sidewalks. 

By reimagining what vertical dwellings can look like (and cost), the government-backed US$2.5 million project could serve as a template for future affordable-housing developments. The proof? Similar efforts are already underway in León—and SO-IL is applying lessons learned to a project currently underway in New York City.

SO-IL co-founder Florian Idenburg spoke to us about the inspiration and process behind the project.

How did the idea for Las Americas Social Housing come about?

People typically build their houses at the perimeter of the city. But the problem is that you get a city that’s dependent on car traffic. The ambition of Leon’s mayor was to make a compact city, which meant we needed to figure out how to build at a higher density but keep that connection to the community. So our vision was to have streets in the sky so people would still feel connected to the exterior and be connected to their communities. 

What was your team’s biggest challenge?

When you don’t have a lot of budget, you need to build with simple materials. It's also an earthquake-prone area, so we needed to make sure it was safe—a very robust structure was important. We’d planned to use precast concrete elements for the walls, but then found out it would be easier to work with local craftsmen. So we built single large pieces of concrete out of small blocks and made these blocks exactly 17 kilograms (37.5 pounds), which is the maximum weight a laborer is allowed to carry in México. Taking this approach helped us distribute the budget amongst a much larger pool of people and many more benefited from it. 

What impact do you see the project having now—and in the future? 

This project is really for people who are having a hard time. The first person who moved in was a mom and her son—she had been doing people’s nails on the street for the last 20 years. That’s where it has the biggest impact, because people can become homeowners, live in the center of town and be connected to all the important infrastructure. There’s a market, schools and transportation nearby—the things they wouldn’t have access to if they continued to be located at the perimeter of the city. 

How do you see Las Americas Social Housing influencing other housing projects? 

We proved that there’s a different way to make residential buildings. If you look at many apartment buildings, you come out of the elevator and there’s a corridor with doors on both sides. This is the most economical way to design a building, but it’s a dreadful way to experience your journey from the street to your home. The problem is that people think it’s more expensive to build single-loaded corridors, which means you have windows on both sides. We were able to build exterior walkways where there could be cross ventilation, which further reduces the need for air conditioning so it’s more sustainable.

What did you personally learn from this project? 

There’s something really productive when people with different perspectives come together to create something new. The other takeaway is that you need to be flexible when you start with a process. If we would’ve said “this is the only way,” then the project wouldn’t have happened. But because we discovered there was a challenge, working through it made the building better.