Housing Innovation in South’s Urban Areas

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


As urban populations around the South increase, the quality of city housing will be critical to the quality of life and sustainability of improvements to living standards.

Living in crowded and chaotic urban and semi-urban areas does not have to mean suffering poor quality housing. A variety of Southern architects are showing how new perspectives on common problems like cramped spaces, traffic noise, minimal green spaces and tight budgets can be addressed with clever thinking and new concepts.

The bustling and crowded Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has evolved in a chaotic fashion over the years. As Brazilian photographer Reinaldo Coser admitted to design and architecture magazine Dwell ( , in many places it is “very ugly.”

Sao Paulo suffers from the downside of rapid urban and semi-urban development familiar to cities across the South: traffic gridlock, pollution, noise. It’s a toxic combination of factors that turns even simple tasks like buying groceries into depressingly long, stressful ordeals.

Coser’s family home sits a couple hundred metres from the congested Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima ( , the city’s unofficial main street. Yet the dwelling has been cleverly designed to make living in the centre of this modern urban hurly burly a peaceful and calming oasis. Designed by Brazilian architects Studio MK27 ( – and in keeping with the rich Brazilian modernist tradition pioneered by Oscar Niemeyer in the country’s capital, Brasilia ( – the home uses clever techniques to build calm into chaos.

The front and back gardens are level with the living room, creating an enormous living space that seamlessly flows from indoor to outdoor space. By using a large overhang over the gardens, even on rainy days the home can be lived in almost without walls.

Furniture in the home draws on Brazilian designers like Sergio Rodrigues (

One of several innovative Brazilian firms, Studio MK27 was founded in the 1980s by Marcio Kogan. It has 12 architects from around the world collaborating on projects.

With a metropolitan population of around 20 million, Sao Paulo ( is the most populous city in the Americas, and in the Southern hemisphere.

While it is easy to point out the downsides of rapid and chaotic urban development, Coser, a professional photographer, lives and loves Sao Paulo nonetheless because, like so many cities across the South, it is a vibrant and dynamic place to be.

And by choosing a design for his home that is calming, he has been able to introduce balance into his family’s life while benefiting from the economic opportunities of the city.

“This house has actually changed the rhythm of our lives,” he told Dwell. “We eat at home more. We go to bed earlier. We wake up earlier. We sleep more.”

And how has the calm helped his two daughters? One is able to play without disturbing the neighbours, and the other can quietly study her books, which was difficult when the family lived in the noise and buzz of a small two-bedroom apartment.

And – something often overlooked in development plans cooked up by economists and urban planners – the aesthetics of the house are very appealing. “Our house is so pretty,” says his wife, Sophia. “Sometimes I like to just look at it for a long time.”

This calm home was created out of basic need. The family needed more space with a second daughter on the way, and had become frustrated with the congestion of the city and the lack of green space. Architect Marcio Kogan was consulted for a solution.

“We wanted a place where we could just shut the door and travel,” says Reinaldo.

The house is made from raw concrete and a cheap-but-tough local wood called cumaru ( . By using inexpensive and low maintenance materials, the home is able to weather the environmental stresses of a polluted, tropical city with harsh sunshine.

Kogan deployed his previous experience as a filmmaker to make the home feel and look more spacious and open than it is. He calls it “looking at the world through a wide-screen lens.” The design of the home is seen as a “narrative”, leading the occupant from the garden to the living room, up the stairs, past bedrooms to a rooftop deck with panoramic views of the city.

Another innovative solution in Sao Paulo is USINA ( – a finalist for the World Habitat Awards ( – which brings people together to build high-density urban housing. It has aided more than 5,000 people to build with their own labour multi-storey buildings. These new apartments are not isolated from other services, but come with community facilities, childcare facilities, professional training courses and other employment-generating activities.

It is estimated up to 15 percent of the city’s population live in slums. This community organising approach is in contrast to the existing ad-hoc building of homes in the slums – often with no technical assistance – or public housing projects built by developers looking for quick profits while ignoring quality and services. USINA’s approach has led to Sao Paulo being a pioneer in participatory housing policies.

USINA provides the technical assistance to social movements looking to build housing for the poor. The cost for the buildings is borne by a combination of public funding and the labour of the residents (working 16 hours per week per household). The cost per housing unit tends to be between US $12,000 and US $15,000 (with land usually donated free by public authorities).

Architectural innovation is also underway in Indonesia, another country that has experienced spurts of rapid economic growth and urbanization, and where a growing middle class is demanding a higher quality of life.

The country’s capital, Jakarta ( , with a population over 8 million, is a mixed bag of modern skyscrapers, crumbling colonial architecture, suburbs and slums.

In the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi (population more than 2 million), Nugrohu Wisnu was looking for a little more space for his family.

At first, the family encountered the downside of poorly designed housing. They bought a house which was infested with termites and was uncomfortable to live in. Frustrated, they began shopping around for something better. And they turned to Indonesian architects Djuhara + Djuhara (

“We thought that an all-steel house like the one that Mr. Djuhara had built just down the road would be termite resistant,” Wisnu told Dwell.

Djuhara is a high-profile architect and chair of the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Institute of Architects ( and helped to modernize the city’s planning regulations.

The stereotype of young Indonesian architects is that they only work on luxury hotels. But Djuhara was designing and building suburban homes and this grabbed Wisnu’s attention.

Also against stereotype, Djuhara was actually attracted by a tight budget and the small space for the house. In a crowded city, using every bit of space efficiently is critical. The existing house was torn down and Djuhara set about building a new home. The majority of the building materials were sourced within the immediate area: an easy thing to do in Jakarta since there are many vendors selling building supplies on the streets.

By buying local like this, shipping costs were eliminated from the cost of the house. The home’s cost, US $20,000, is just 2/3 of what a more conventional Indonesian home would cost.

Djuhara revelled in the job: “Ad-hocism is my religion,” he told Dwell.

The split-level design of the home uses the space well. The kitchen opens up into the garden.

“Family breakfasts are great in here,” says Wisnu. “And the open kitchen encourages the kids to head out into the garden and run and play.”

There is also a strong environmental component to the design. Airflow cavities in the ceiling are used in the bedrooms to cool them. The house also uses heavy wooden shutters to keep the house cool during the day: “The shutters are unusual, but they are thick and sturdy,” Wisnu explains.

“They really shade the master bedroom to the extent that it feels mellow and cool. They let us reduce our air-conditioning consumption, even during the height of the day.”

And Djuhara also has another difference from many other architects: he refuses to patent his design.

“My friends have asked me why I don’t patent my low-cost houses,” he explains, “but they completely miss the point. I actually want my designs to be copied. I want Indonesian society to rethink its attitudes towards urban architecture.”

Published: June 2010


Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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