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HABITAT PROJECT: a low-tech smart home designed and built by students

Program: Parcours Ouvert General Engineering, Institut Catholique d'arts et Métiers - Icam 

Period: Semesters 03.5 and 03.6, 2021-2022

Campus: Recife, Brazil

Project coordinator: Ana Luisa Rolim

Presented in the Brazil-France Workshop - Curricular Review and Outcomes of the Parcours Ouvert Program, Year 03, Icam Grand Paris Sud, June 29 – July 2, 2022.

The project consists in the design (semester 1) and the construction (semester 2) of a "habitat project" with a focus on low-tech smart housing. It took place for the first time ever in four Icam campuses around the world: Paris, France; Recife, Brazil; Quito, Ecuador and Doula, Cameroon. It is part of the 3rd Year of the Parcours Ouvert, an international undergraduate 4-year program in General Engineering, run simultaneously in France and abroad that prepares the student to transition directly into Icam’s Master’s Degree in General Engineering. The goal is to enable engineers to deal with greater creativity and innovation, complex problem-solving and critical thinking, focusing on their entrepreneurial abilities. 


The constraints given for the habitat project were the dimensions (that of a 20’ container), the use of bio-materials and  solutions of energy efficiency, smart water and waste management, and hygiene systems. Even if these constraints were the same for all campuses, the project should live differently on each location. The work of the students, local constraints and previous classes should influence the project, but it is worth noting that they had not done any architectural design course at Icam prior to this experience.


In Recife, the main local requirements were to design a compact home for a retired woman living alone, a profile commonly found in informal underprivileged communities around town, also known as favelas, and to meet the total construction budget of 8K Euros or 50K Reais. The building would be located at Unicap Icam campus to function as an outlet to educate the community about the importance and necessary means to design and build an affordable sustainable compact home.


As a result of a partnership with a local company, the main building material was recycled-content concrete blocks, a durable, versatile, modular and affordable alternative. In order to amplify and democratize the design and construction processes, the proposal should develop as a kit of parts, called “the kit casa”. 


In the first semester, each of the 4 groups of students designed a house. After the final pitch and review, one project was selected by a jury of experts and tutor to be built in the following semester. The selected design was then streamlined to meet timeframe and experimental nature of the initiative. Here we show how the process unfolded. The idea is that in the upcoming two semesters, the remaining features will be improved design-wise and built.

We were especially pleased that out of the four campuses, Recife was able to present the most thoroughly designed and built house, setting the basis for the habitat project initiative in the following semesters. 


A video about the experience and its outcome produced by students is available here.

Aerial view of the habitat project

3-The kit casa_edited

The project aimed to develop a kit of parts named "Kit Casa"

The guidelines by Holanda (1976) on how to build in the Northeast of Brazil were adopted in the Habitat Project

The Habitat Project low-tech approach borrowed inspiration from local vernacular architecture

Resulting from a partnership with a local company, we used recycled-content concrete blocks as the main material, a versatile and affordable alternative.

Learning by doing: students practice basic compositional operations.

Site visit: an immersive experience to access an informal community settlement

Site visit: getting familiar with the way of living of an underprivileged community prior to designing the habitat project

A series of building mock-ups were built and presented in the studio

Interdisciplinary sessions with experts were part of the studio: water treatment, passive lighting and ventilation, and parametric design.

At the end of the first semester four projects were presented.

The project selected by a jury of experts and tutor to be built in the second semester.

Passive ventilation studies

Thermal analysis using Kozibu software

Humidity analysis

Environmental impact

Budget analysis

In the second semester the selected design was streamlined to fit the timeframe and consolidate its experimental nature

Roof design

The systems included in the Habitat Project

Construction kick-off meeting with students, support crew and experts

Construction process: building walls and testing mortar types

Construction process: walls and openings are finalized

Wood roof being fabricated, assembled and finished by students and wood shop workers

Final stages of construction

The habitat project is almost ready

Prefab concrete window frames and hydraulic installation in the interior

Overall exterior and interior views

The team is happy with the result

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