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THE HOUSING CELL AS A GENERATOR OF THE URBAN FABRIC: Social housing by the river – 3rd Year Social Housing Design Studio

(Author: Mateus Gibson / Professor: Ana Luisa Rolim)

The proposal consists of a social housing project in the informal housing settlement of Coelhos, in the city of Recife, NE Brazil. About 40% of the population in Recife lives in precarious conditions, mostly in Special Zones of Social Interest (ZEIS) that occupy 11.8% of its territory, including waterfront areas, such as downtown ZEIS Coelhos, where this project is situated. Housing complexes built in the 1970s, and informal settlements populate the margins of the largest body of water in the city, the Capibaribe River. The settlement at the the project's site was built with various materials (masonry, cardboard, discarded billboards and timber), housing improvised domestic spaces that lack basic infrastructure.


Recent social housing initiatives in Recife financed by the “My House My Life” (MCMV) federal government program have focused on removing these waterfront structures and relocating dwellers to “H-shaped” buildings, reproducing models implemented in 1970s and 1980s, whose failure was later evidenced in morphological transformations and layout reconfigurations by residents. These recent projects follow similar formal and spatial principles that do not seem to reflect inhabitants’ social expectations, thus the maintenance of such models in ZEIS Coelhos would have the same burden on dwellers.


Our hypothesis is that new approaches, methodologies and design strategies might offer better alternatives for rehabilitating these areas if maintaining their morphological identity and considering the housing cell as a generator of new urban fabric. The design strategies eventually applied in the studio projects were based on identification and analysis of unique site characteristics acquired through site observations, photo documentation, sketches, and construction of a prototypical housing cell in real scale to familiarize students with the problem they had to deal with.


Together with site analysis, the design process employed ‘Conditional Design’ methods (Di Mari, 2014), focusing on the idea that, as forms are manipulated with verbs different spatial conditions emerge, such as connecting one volume to another or opening it to receive natural light. The method facilitates shape composition and arrangements from a set of deliberate actions. Housing units were generated by compositional operations, such as adding, displacing, subtracting, joining, and nesting. Afterwards, more complex arrangements were made through a second set of operations, involving translation, rotation, mirroring and roto-translation.


The following design strategies were then established: (1) The housing cell as the generator of urban fabric; (2) use limited number of shapes combined to generate dynamic arrangements; (3) accommodate future expansions or spaces to be shared by dwellings, exploring their productive character regarding the dwellers’ subsistence; (4) generate agglomerates with linear configurations or more intricate ones, conforming shared courtyards; (5) activate the interface between housing unit and river, which, due to the threat of flooding and precarious access to basic services network, is not currently seen positively, as attested during site visits. This project illustrates these strategies by combining the building slab typology with the house-on-stilts commonly found at the site.

The design combines building slab and local house-on-stilt typologies

Built with various informal materials the existing settlement lacks basic infrastructure

A linear fabric composed of the slab building type placed on stilts with courtyards that allude to the common spaces in the existing settlement

Model: linearity and connection between buildings and open walkways system

Proposed building massing highlights linear highly articulated building blocks

Detail of articulation in between blocks

Ground floor is highly permeable and connected

Typical access with floating over water walkways and courtyards

Typical building section

Permeability in between blocks is a key strategy

Typical housing cell type 1

Typical housing cell type 2

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