Between Modular and Vernacular: How Combining Construction Techniques Can Bring Agility and Identity to Social Housing in the Global South

The opening scenes of the award-winning Brazilian film “City of God” (2002) portray a newly constructed housing complex situated on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Subsequently, this complex evolves into a hub of poverty and violence. Despite the film being set in the 1960s, the housing development depicted was a recent construction.

This choice made no difference because, despite the 40-year difference between the depicted era in the film and the time of filming, the architectural solutions employed by housing programs in the country remained stagnant. They continued to replicate outdated models, showcasing a lack of progress in the sector.

Unfortunately, this situation extends beyond Brazil. The majority of countries in the global south grapple with housing issues, compounded by escalating social inequality and the heightened frequency of natural disasters due to climate change. In this scenario, both private and public campaigns, where present, fail to adequately address the problem. They provide slow and outdated construction solutions, underscoring the industry’s inability to keep up with modern conversations on architecture and urban planning.


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How Can Modular Housing Production Incorporate Material Locality and Regional Craft?


Modular systems and the revival of vernacular techniques bring much-needed creativity and resourcefulness into the housing of this part of the world. Modular systems offer speed and efficiency, while vernacular techniques provide a sense of identity and belonging. Although they may appear contradictory at first glance, several examples show that they can complement each other effectively.

Modular construction involves a step-by-step approach, where buildings are assembled using standardized modules. Studies indicate that this method can cut construction time by up to 50%, while also offering better cost management and reduced waste. These advantages are crucial for tackling housing shortages and the pressing need for decent accommodation in many countries across the global south.

However, some argue that industrial-scale modular construction, with its emphasis on speed and efficiency, often relies on standardized materials. While it offers flexibility and customization during assembly, it may fall short in capturing regional architectural nuances unique to different areas.

Before we settle on choosing just one of these methods, the examples below illustrate how both approaches can be linked, resulting in nimble and culturally sensitive architecture. This fosters a sense of belonging among residents by honoring their ancestral culture.

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Navigating the fine line between the ancestral and the modular, architects at Undurraga Devés have succeeded in crafting an engaging dialogue. Their architecture seamlessly integrates new technologies with elements of regional culture. The project’s rationale is rooted in the challenge of harmonizing the advancements brought by globalization with the enduring values of ancestral cultures, which are now striving to maintain their identity.

In the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, 25 social housing units were arranged linearly, with their main facades facing east—a nod to the ancestral tradition of greeting the rising sun through the front door. Alongside the ritualistic considerations that shaped the project, the chosen construction technique combines concrete, brick, pine wood, and a double layer of “cañada de coligüe,” a local bamboo variety that adorns the walls and windows of these facades.

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Even though the construction process still involves a significant amount of manual work done directly on the construction site, this project showcases the implementation of modular and replicable concepts. This aspect makes it a source of inspiration for social architecture initiatives.

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Across the globe, in Indonesia, the Pemulung housing complex exemplifies aspects of modularity, albeit within the context of artisanal construction. Here, 14 houses were constructed using local bamboo, designed as modular units with living areas on the ground floor and bedrooms on the mezzanine level. The idea of spatial and construction standardization emerged to empower the community to draw inspiration from and replicate these modules when building their own homes, promoting self-sufficiency.

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Now, working on a smaller scale and away from urban environments, architects from the Colombian firm Ensamble de Arquitectura Integral have applied modular techniques to provide social housing in rural areas of the country. The module was designed using locally available wood, reinterpreting its use in contemporary construction. Its components were crafted for easy and rapid mass production, transportable to any region, and assembled by local workers without requiring specialized equipment or construction experience.

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This project, along with the others presented, is noteworthy because it strikes a balance between mass production and the localization of participatory housing production processes. By revitalizing traditional construction techniques and embracing local cultures, it shows that an effective solution for dignified housing can emerge from the fusion of past practices and future innovations.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Modular Housing, proudly presented by BUILDNER.

BUILDNER celebrates architecture competitions as an effective tool for achieving progress by fostering groundbreaking ideas that push the industry forward. “Through academic and project competitions, we are building an inclusive and diverse community of architects and designers, by promoting critical topics such as affordable, sustainable and small-scale housing to address global challenges. Our goal is to inspire the next generation of designers to propose innovative solutions and challenge the status quo.”

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