guest post by Raquel Portillo

It is estimated that there is approximately one billion poor in the world, people that, according to the World Bank Groups statistics, more than 750 million live in urban areas without adequate shelter or access to basic services. Every day there are thousands of people that join the cities to live in these conditions, most of them self-building their homes on the outskirts of the city.

“Assistance for self-building homes” is a project that suggests another way of doing architecture, where low-income individuals are involved as the main characters in the process of designing their homes by providing them with basic knowledge and simple tools, as well as technical advice, to ensure that the results are best suited to their socio-economic needs.  All this is done through a participatory design workshop that consists of three parts:


Taking into account that each family is unique and has specific needs that must be addressed individually, a brief survey is done to collect basic information where both client and architect are able to acknowledge what the needs are and meet them with an adequate housing design. It is also important to know if the client has any home furnishings or building. The survey has a space where the client can draw the current condition of their plot.

encuesta Yuri Reyes


Once the survey information is obtained, the client is given a brief training where they are taught simple design knowledge. By example, the types of spaces in a home, the difference between common and personal areas as well as service areas, minimum measures that must be used to ensure the comfort of each area and the importance of natural ventilation and lighting.  This training explains the “rules of the game” for designing your own home.



Now comes the design stage, where the client is provided a “space catalog” containing pieces for common, personal and service areas in the home, such as living rooms, kitchens, single and double bedrooms, bathrooms and stairways. Each piece features the furniture corresponding to that area and the square meters used by them so it is easier for the client to sum the total footage of the house.  The client can choose the pieces from the catalog according to his needs and the space he has available.

After choosing the spaces he needs, a grid sheet is given to the client where he can draw the conditions of his plot of land, and according to the areas he chose, he lays out the house to his liking, considering the rules explained before.

taller de diseño

Finally, once the client is fully satisfied with the configuration of the areas of his home, ensuring that it complies with all the game rules; he proceeds to glue the pieces on the grid sheet and then color the pieces to show where the doors and windows will be, using one color, and he indicates the walls that close spaces with another color.

planta Yuri Reyes

The result of the workshop is the architectural plan of the home designed by the client according to his liking and particular needs. Now with this plan, the architect can proceed to do the rest of the plans and calculations needed for the construction of the house.

The workshop has been implemented with five families with limited resources, currently part of the NGO Habitat for Humanity Mexico program, in the city of Tijuana, Mexico. The impact that this project had on these families is really touching.



The workshop was helpful in allowing us to know how much you can enlarge your home on your piece of land or how you can design it, making the most of the space and resources you have. I loved it because I was taken into account; I now feel like an “architect” designing my own home” -Dina Rosales.

“I think it’s good that the client is the one that decides. It’s OUR future home, where WE will live. I prefer to think about how I want to do it and have an idea of how we want the house, rather than letting someone else think for me – Olivia Reyes.

This is one way of doing humanitarian architecture, entirely feasible and highly important considering that there are millions of poor people worldwide, who are equally capable but have not had the same opportunities, and are in need of professional advice that equips them with simple tools that can improve significantly their quality of life, and in this case, to project something as personal as are their homes.

We must then ask ourselves, are we really putting our knowledge to the service of the majority? Or do we continue to work only for the sector of the population that can afford to pay us? As professionals we should focus even more on finding innovative and simple ways to implement our knowledge and serve the most socio- economically disadvantaged.

Raquel Portillo is an arquitect, recently graduated at Simon Bolivar University, Caracas. The design workshop she explains was done as part of her internship with Habitat for Humanity in Tijuana, Mexico.

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