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.

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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