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From Temporary to Permanent — Moba Redefines Shelter in Latin America

July 27, 2016

By Aja Jeanty

Latin America is one of the most disaster prone areas in the world. Throughout history, volcanoes, droughts, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis have shaken countries across the region and left many homeless thanks to the region’s intense geologic features. And today, climate change appears to be driving increasingly frequent extreme weather events, ravaging countries that are experiencing rapid urbanisation, where the number of people living in informal settlements like slums — characterized by weak infrastructural systems and housing made of poor-quality scrap materials — continues to increase, with over 100 million people currently living in slum conditions across Latin America. Unfortunately, when a natural disaster occurs, those living in vulnerable settlements are often the first to lose their homes.

A common response to disaster situations is to quickly deploy tents and camps to accommodate the immediate need for shelter. While these structures are intended to be inhabited for a short period of time (usually no more than five or six months), it’s often the case that people end up living in these temporary structures much longer (often years) while awaiting permanent solutions that are slow and expensive to construct. Once the structures are built, they can’t be expanded easily, restricting space for growing families — thus the plight of those most affected by catastrophic events is compounded, in part, by the remedy to those crises. 

Image courtesy of Moba.

Moba, an Argentinian startup, is tackling both the challenge of temporary and permanent housing with a single goal: to provide a new solution for post-disaster and slum conditions. This young team of architects and designers is developing prototypes for a single structure that is both quick to construct and long-lasting, allowing people to take immediate ownership of their post-disaster homes and to start readjusting and rebuilding their lives without having to wait in limbo.

The housing system developed by Moba is based on modular concrete units that are easily expandable and vary in size from 260 to 320 square feet, roughly the size of a large shipping container. These individual, prefabricated units can be deployed to address immediate post-disaster emergency needs as well as create permanent, multi-family houses that residents can modify over time by adding further units to form modular structures between 485 and 1075 square feet. The modular design allows individual units to be stacked vertically up to four floors high, making various configurations that create shared space on the ground floor and private terracing on the upper levels possible. Furthermore, specific modules can be adapted to provide essential infrastructures such as public restrooms.

Image courtesy of Moba.

The modules collect rainwater, support green roofs, and incorporate solar roofs. A sophisticated thermal system within each unit reduces power consumption per household. Additionally, the units take much less time to build compared to traditional construction methods and can be mass produced using pre-fab methods. Finished units can be easily transported from mobile production factories to isolated locations, providing access to remote regions.

The Evolution of an Idea

Over the past three years, Moba’s concept for a system that simultaneously addresses emergency housing needs and improves existing housing conditions has evolved. Matias Lastra, one of the founders of Moba, was working in an architectural office in Argentina when the local government requested a design to house a group of single mothers living in poor conditions in Patagonia, a region with extreme weather throughout the year. “They asked us to solve this problem in two months without working on the [actual] site, and just [requested] a solution that could be placed right there where people can live,” Lastra says, describing the initial contact.

The proposal involved prefabricated housing units that could be easily transported to the isolated site and expanded at a low cost. Throughout the process the team was in regular contact with the families in order to see how they were adapting to the houses, curious about how they might want to modify them. For Lastra, these initial conversations were very revealing: “It was a lesson for us. We all have these ideas as architects, but they are very different sometimes from what people want for their houses. We did a house with a flat roof and the first thing the owners did was put on a sloped roof — they wanted a typical styled house with a slanted roof.” Through discussions with the families — who had the team’s phone numbers and would call regularly to ask questions such as where to put a wall in the living room or how to add a window — they recognized the importance and the need to involve the community throughout the entire process. The team also realized that with the right support, the individual housing unit could scale up from a local solution to a global one.

Following the initial project, Moba applied and was accepted to Startup Chile, a prominent global accelerator program in Santiago. Their proposal was for a prefabricated housing unit that uses efficient construction and high-quality materials intended for use in post-disaster areas. While researching existing housing solutions on the market, one of the founders realized that there weren’t any that addressed the transition from emergency to permanent. Many existing solutions focused on fulfilling the initial requirement of shelter, but weren’t made of durable materials and failed to meet the requirements of a home with a longer life-span. Moba saw that the true value of their work would be in bridging the gap between temporary and permanent housing.

Image courtesy of Moba.

Through the accelerator program, Moba quickly discovered that despite having a strong architectural background, they needed a lot more than architectural prowess to make the project work. “Even with a really great idea, you need to understand how the economic system works to make an impact,” says Lastra. Indeed, after the six-month acceleration period and the initial investment from Startup Chile of $30,000 USD, Moba still lacked the essential funds necessary to continue developing the units, as building and testing physical prototypes can be extremely expensive. The team members continued to work in different architectural offices, finding time here and there to work on Moba when they could. Lastra took this opportunity to research natural disasters in Nepal, traveling there to investigate different materials and construction methods used throughout the region. Once he returned, the team decided to invest their own money in the design of three new prototypes in order to move the project forward.

Iterating Towards the Future

Moba’s newest prototypes build upon the initial project and incorporate several key elements. Firstly, they now provide a visual instruction manual with the units so that families can better understand the proper ways to expand their structure. Additionally, Moba has developed a network of mobile, off-site factories that facilitate quick construction of the units so that, when disasters occur and many houses need to be rebuilt at once, local workers can be employed and trained to assemble the pre-fabricated concrete panels into individual units.

But the challenges in scaling the system to improve living conditions around the world aren’t merely questions of design — the materials themselves require innovation. Standard concrete, for instance, has proven too heavy and wasteful to provide a sustainable solution. Moba found a company that is developing a concrete that uses recycled waste plastic as an aggregate (instead of gravel or crushed stone) which provides an equally durable, yet lighter, material while simultaneously reducing the amount of plastic in landfills.

Image courtesy of Moba.

And finally there is the human element. While startups tend to move at a rapid pace, constantly iterating and evolving ideas, the government operates at a different speed, often taking months to provide feedback on submitted proposals. The importance of connections and contacts within the government in order to gain traction has become increasingly evident. Moba’s founders have had the opportunity to present their new prototypes to the housing and infrastructure government departments of Buenos Aires, and the need to build strong relationships with government officials has become a key part of their design approach.

“The government in Argentina just went through a political change and we hope that the new administration understands the importance of investing in social innovation,” says Lastra, noting that startups and small businesses need more opportunities and facilities to make real and tangible social projects. “The future is positive and we are looking forward to have the opportunity to participate in the social housing plan.” The hope is that the future will include more and more communities around the world, and that the same experimental process that brought them this far will prove its worth well beyond Buenos Aires and Argentina. Whether facing funding setbacks, or challenges with materials, or the perils of bureaucracy, the team behind Moba has learned that, like their design, it is crucial to be both flexible and durable.

Aja Jeanty has a Master of Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design and a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture and Psychology from Lehigh University. She has studied architecture at the Danish Institute in Copenhagen as well as in Venice and Kyoto. As a designer, maker, and explorer, she believes in the power of design to create a more sustainable and equitable world. Aja is currently based in Santiago, Chile and is part of the Sustainability and Foundation team at Autodesk, working with the Entrepreneur Impact Program to support entrepreneurs who are generating positive social and environmental impact.

All images courtesy of Moba.

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