Global Observer

Bringing high design modular housing to South America

Posting in Architecture

BUENOS AIRES -- Chic modular housing has never really taken off in Latin America. But with new modernist options that may be about to change.

BUENOS AIRES -- Sebastián Koltan urgently wants to explain something central about Cas4, the new modular home company whose buildings he designs. "There's something..." he interrupts. "There's something that's important to note. This wasn't born out of architecture."

An architect with intense eyes and salt-and-pepper stubble--he looks a bit like Bruce Campbell without the sarcastic grin--Koltan is trying to explain that Cas4 evolved out of a search for ways to live more sustainably, and that architecture is just the form it took. What Koltan and Cas4 co-founders Paula Santoro and Gabriela Abentín want to do, then, is bring high design modular housing to Argentina and in the process use it as a vehicle to promote a sustainable way of life.

Modular and pre-fabricated housing is not new, of course. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold about 75,000 kit homes through its mail-order catalog, and the industry has grown ever since. The prefabricated housing market is expected to hit some 829,000 units by 2017, according to a report from Global Industry Analysts.

But while there are modular housing companies in South America--Chile's Infiniski, for example--modular and prefabricated housing has never gained much of a foothold in the region. For one thing, Koltan notes, in immigrant societies like Argentina, people are culturally trained to think that houses have to be heavy and look like they'll last a lifetime. In addition, Santoro says, "In Latin America, labor is still very low cost, which lets you build a house by having 20 people putting bricks one on top of the other." Add to that prefabricated housing's poor reputation among Latin America's home-buying classes, where the preconception is that it's only used for public housing. Taken together, the hurdles to getting modular housing accepted are high.

Taking up this challenge, Santoro, a business administrator, and Abentín, a designer, launched Cas4 in 2010. After a test space at the 2011 edition of Buenos Aires's annual Casa FOA design show proved there was interest, they moved forward. (The two are also astrologers and the name--pronounced "Casa 4"--comes from astrology's Fourth House, the house of home and family.) Drawing heavily on Scandinavian and Barcelona design trends, the housing they came up with is miles from a traditional mobile home or a prefab school classroom. With slatted wood decks, laminated plywood floors and walls, and large glass doors, the sample home they installed in May 2012 in Villa Ruiz, a small town 50 miles west of Buenos Aires, looks like Nordic sauna chic run through a Milan design shop.

The modular system they created is based on galvanized steel frames, corrugated tin roofs. and hollow walls injected with polyurethane foam--much like one would find in a walk-in freezer--for insulation. As with all modular homes, the modules can be combined in endless variations. Their designs thus far run from a two module, 270 sq. ft. bedroom cabana designed for a rural lodge to a ten module house with three bedrooms.

The Cas4 design incorporates various elements aimed at increasing sustainability and lowering its environmental footprint. The polyurethane injected walls and almost hermetic seal of the houses help the buildings maintain their temperature, thereby cutting heating and cooling costs. The houses also come with rainwater collectors that then provide "greywater" for toilets and garden irrigation. The lights are low-consumption LEDs. And hot water comes from rooftop solar water heaters. Beyond that, Santoro says, clients can choose how far they want to go.

"We believe in a hybrid nature," she says. "That means you can connect to the grid or you can go it sustainably, alone. The choice is yours. It’s an intermediate step. It’s not from now on you can’t watch TV, you can’t use the washing machine and microwave. It’s not that you become a hippy overnight."

The Cas4 modular houses cost about 650 pesos/sq. ft. (about $150 at the official exchange rate) and take three to four months to construct and ten days to install. According to Santoro, the company has seen most interest from  people building beach and country second homes, who don't want to oversee a long building process far from home, as well as from isolated towns that need schoolhouses and health clinics but don't have the workers or material to build them.

In the end, Cas4 will have to convince the public that housing isn't only about setting permanence in bricks and cement, but about spending less energy in your house--and your life.

"Part of the sustainability comes in how you approach the project," says Koltan. "These days, building yourself a house implies spending two or three months setting up the project, of discussions and back and forth, then two more months before you start and then a year in construction. It’s a very long process that demands lot of energy. We saw that with this project, we could give a very fast and simple solution to that without leaving behind design, so you can have an attractive house."

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Ian Mount

Correspondent (Buenos Aires)

Ian Mount is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has written for the New York Times, New York, Slate, Monocle, the Telegraph (UK) and Food & Wine. He has also produced pieces for public radio shows such as The World and Marketplace, and is the author of The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec (W.W. Norton, 2012). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure