By Kary Vannice
In 2018, the National Institute of Housing for Workers of Mexico (Instituto del Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda para los Trabajadores, known as INFONAVIT) contracted 32 architects and architecture studios to innovate sustainable, low-cost home designs capable of improving the quality of housing and the living conditions of low-income workers throughout Mexico.
INFONAVIT and Sustainable Housing
Although never officially stated, some say this was in response to the devastating earthquakes in 2017 that did extensive damage in Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. It is speculated that INFONAVIT was searching for a better, safer, more sustainable way to house low-income families. The idea was to investigate several different designs to find the perfect combination of safety, economy, and sustainability to take into the future.
The Housing Research and Practical Experimentation Laboratory
The remarkable thing about these contracts was that INFONAVIT set aside a large plot of land in the city of Apan in the state of Hidalgo to create the Housing Research and Practical Experimentation Laboratory where they could test and showcase the designs. It became an experimental community where each of the 32 structures was built, evaluated, and validated to be integrated into INFONAVIT’s nationwide housing development plan. All 32 modern, pioneering designs were built side-by-side to perfection, complete with sustainable furnishings also commissioned from top Mexican design firms, essentially creating a sustainable architect’s version of Disneyland.
Each design had to reflect modern social housing and promote a better quality of life for its inhabitants. The objective was to use sustainable
construction materials while also incorporating rainwater harvesting techniques, black and grey water treatment, and renewable energy sources. In addition, designers were tasked to use endemic vegetation surrounding the home and include a community garden, all while keeping the cost at or around the same as INFONAVIT’s traditional low-income housing.
Each architect was asked to use the above principles to create a suitable residence for one of the nine climatic zones found in Mexico. The result would then yield several designs that could be implemented in each area of the country. So, while some architects focused on building materials that withstand climates with high humidity, others drafted designs that combat intense heat and considerable temperature swings like those found in desert environments.
Designers also had to consider that homeowners would eventually need to make home repairs, so local, low-cost, easy-to-source materials were a must. And each model home also had to hold the potential for growth, either by simple repetition of the design or by strategies of extension or addition.
All of these criteria made for a wide range of designs that, after they were constructed, could be visited and toured within the experimental village. Visitors to the site could walk through homes and look up at the brick barrel-vaulted ceilings, touch the silky finish of clay brick walls, and even sit comfortably in the sustainably designed furniture commissioned as part of the project.
The design studio Esrawe Studio was contracted to develop sustainable, low-cost, easy-to-make furniture to decorate the houses. Esrawe Studio produced several collections to match the aesthetic of the home’s design. One collection was made from simple solid wood frames using natural fabrics woven to create platforms for mattresses and seating areas for chairs and couches. A second collection used tubular metallic frames and wooden plywood surfaces for a “clean line” look to match the surrounding architecture.
Each home also featured the architect’s blueprints on the walls of the show home, so visitors could see their original vision and read about the different building materials and techniques used in the construction.
The Demise of the Laboratory
The Housing Research and Practical Experimentation Laboratory was revolutionary in 2018 and it was implemented beautifully. The 32 residences were built alongside a welcome center that provided a permanent display of low-cost housing possibilities throughout Mexico. Sadly, however, it’s no longer possible to visit the site. Despite the initial good intentions and promise for a safer, more sustainable future, the initiative has been completely abandoned only four years after its inauguration.
By February 2023, INFONAVIT Director General Carlos Martínez Velásquez determined that, at this point, a total rehabilitation of the Housing Laboratory would be required to continue the project. Martínez Velásquez’s attention has been refocused on improving credit for low-income people to purchase INFONAVIT apartments.
Even more sadly, it seems that none of the 32 designs were ever implemented by the housing commission, and only a few architects have made their original designs available to the public. So, despite the good intentions, considerable resources and future promises the Housing Laboratory was founded on, it now simply serves as a run-down reminder of how quickly government officials can forget the suffering of others, at least until the next major earthquake or natural disaster. INFONAVIT’s current solution is to donate all the prototype houses, as well as the infrastructure and land that support the housing, to a local organization that works to protect women and children who have been subjected to domestic violence.