Gallery: SUSTAINABLE PUBLIC HOUSING by Foreign Office Architects


Faced with a shortage of public housing, the City of Madrid commissioned Foreign Office Architects to create a sustainable multi-unit residential alternative for its new public housing development at Carabanchel. Simply known as Carabanchel 16, this building shows how simple housing designs can be transformed into a beautiful canvas of light and shadow using the simplest tool in an architect’s arsenal: shading devices.

For most cities, the need to create affordable housing would mean erecting mass quantities of mediocre housing with little regard to the real needs of the occupants or the environment. Not so for Madrid, which commissioned its public-sector works office, EMVS, to work with some of the best architects in the world to create what can only be described as an open gallery of social architecture.

The design, by FOA’s Alejandro Zaera Polo, is a simple 88-unit building with units of different types and sizes. The building is organized around the north-south axis (meaning that it faces the harsh east-west sun for most of the day). To help alleviate heat gain from the sun, the architects have surrounded the units with a 1.5 metre terrace enclosed with bamboo louvres. Mounted on folding frames which can be opened whenever the occupants want, the bamboo is both eco-friendly and works seamlessly with the design. Screens also help diminish solar gain in the units, while turning the facade into a kaleidoscope of shadow and light.

This ever-changing facade sits atop parking areas in order to conceal them from view. Choosing to cover the structures, the team at FOA opted for grass, giving the building a touch of color without distracting from the rest of the facade. This clever design also provides a multitude of options–units have access to good cross-ventilation as well as access to both the east and west sides of the building.

FOA’s design shows what a bit of inspiration and thought can do to what is most often a neglected area in a city development. Through creativity, innovation and sustainable design, designers turned what could have been a simple public housing building into an inspired development with character. The building is expected to be finished this year.

+ Foreign Office Architects
+ Screen Stars @ RIBA Journal
+ Carabanchel 16 Gallery @ Nuevos Vecinos


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  1. tanya March 12, 2008 at 1:42 am

    can anyone tell me who was the facade consultant for the rue des suisses, by herzog????

  2. Carmen February 24, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Estaba pensando exactamente lo mismo. Gran Idea pero costosa en el largo plazo. Bambu expuesto al sol 24/7 necesita mantenimiento constante y cuando hablamos de Public housing no necesariamente hablamos de high en upkeep. en cuanto al Disenho formal del edificio, pobre para mi gusto pero arquitectos tendemos a ser criticos de las obras ajenas y muy rara vez diremos que obra ajena en buena. Arquitectura para mi tiene mas connotacion funcional y si hablamos de disenho Verde porque no estamos usando las orientaciones en nuestra ventaja. Todo el edificio parece bloqiueado al sol Norte sur etc. Hmmm.. to many questions about the building design.
    Great Idea though.

  3. anonima February 13, 2008 at 4:37 am

    este edificio es un FRACASO, ya tenemos los dichosos babum podridos y funcionan fatal, parece que vivimos en una CAJA DE CERILLAS. cualquier dia prendemos.

  4. Arkitip™ | Intelligen... November 25, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    […] Housing Project: Madrid Carabanchel 16 is a public housing complex commissioned by the city of Madrid to realize an efficient and […]

  5. Aleks July 20, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    It’s an interesting project, though it will be interesting to see how it ages and weathers in the hot sun of Spain. Is that green wall covered in grass sod? Is that going to have to be watered? If so I wish FOA put a bit more thought into that. It will require a lot of maintenace and watering, especially for a place that is very dry, has a water shortage and quite high water prices. It could have easily been done using native plantings or another material. Nevertheless, I’ll definitely have to go take a look next time I am in Madrid.

  6. kia July 12, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    I agree with Ann, to some degree. Great concept with the right intension in mind, but think 10, or even 15 years down the road when the shades start to break, fade, when the wood needs to be treated again (think of moisture), whos funding? I do believe that something timeless, as affordable housing will always be needed, should be well thought out….choose materials and details to sustain. Perhaps this building will surprise us, becoming better with time.

  7. c-dub July 11, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Jared, I think you’re being too harsh with Ann. She makes a very valid point. I’m an architect who has worked on affordable housing for years (it’s just about all my firm does) and I have found that durability is absolutely critical. It’s a fair generalization to make that affordable/subsidized/supportive housing projects take a tremendous beating. I don’t know anything specific about the population living in this building, or the funding available for construction and maintenance, but I wouldn’t even consider trying something like this on one of my projects. The shading system would likely be broken, and the available maintenance funds would never cover its repair – and unrepaired damage seems to only promote more abuse. I don’t even put exposed downspouts on some of my projects, because they’ve been quickly flattened by kids with sticks and baseball bats. It’s a very unfortunate reality.

    Furthermore, I don’t think Ann was talking about taking anything away from anyone: I think she was talking about providing a sensible, durable building that will continue to look good and function well for years. That’s nothing to criticize – it’s why we do the work we do.

    As an aside, your previous point about it looking like “home” without looking like a “house” was right on the money. Nicely said. I’d be happy to live in such a gorgeous building.

  8. jared July 10, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    yeah ann you are so right… so let us never try! better yet lets take away from those that need it.

    i think you have never worked with those in public housing; in fact they do the exact opposite of what you “speculate” they would do.

  9. rick bradner July 10, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    this idea is quite ols.
    check out this web site:
    project is at least 15 yrs. old.

    of course. this is all very much trad japanese architecture withits use of shoji and fusuma partitions….

  10. BLOG’en » B... July 10, 2007 at 8:02 pm

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  12. BLOG’en » B... July 10, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    […] Inhabitat » SUSTAINABLE PUBLIC HOUSING by Foreign Office Architects […]

  13. ann July 10, 2007 at 9:13 am

    I agree with everyone’s comments but I see a big problem here. In less than a month some of those moveable shades will be broken or removed or just not functioning, more over time. This is an unfortunate aspect of public and subsidized housing, nothing of a remotely delicate nature or of moving parts lasts. The residents typically have little sense of ownership and take out their frustrations on where they’ve been given to live. This, no matter how good the living condition is.

  14. jared July 9, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    what looks like housing and what looks like institutional? i think it is all relative and this is a new idea for a problem that is not addressed….

    just because it does not look like your idea of “house” does not mean it does not feel like “home”

  15. Environmental News Bits... July 9, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    […] Read the full post at Inhabitat. Faced with a shortage of public housing, the City of Madrid commissioned Foreign Office Architects to create a sustainable multi-unit residential alternative for its new public housing development at Carabanchel. Simply known as Carabanchel 16, this building shows how you can is a simple housing design transformed into a beautiful canvas of light and shadow using the simplest tool in an architect’s arsenal: shading devices. • • • […]

  16. Justin July 9, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    It may be groovy, but it’s still public housing and very institutional looking. If it was an office block I’d be more impressed.

  17. Nick Simpson July 9, 2007 at 7:58 am

    This is beautiful, although almost a direct (but wooden) copy of Herzog and De Meuron’s housing at Rue des Suisses in Paris. In fact I used a similar idea about a year ago for a design project, it creates a beautiful and dynamic facade really easily. Plus it’s environmentally responsive whilst keeping control in the occupants’ hands…

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