Minimum Cost Housing (1971 - 2009)

Survey of a house in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Mexico (1995-96) © Minimum Cost Housing Group

Founded with the assistance of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1971 under the initiative of Professor Alvaro Ortega, the Minimum Cost Housing option of the School of Architecture’s M.Arch. Post-professional program was one of the oldest and most enduring of its kind in the world. Following Ortega, Professors Witold Rybczynski and Vikram Bhatt have been, in order, its leading faculty until 2009. Contributing faculty has included Professors Norbert Schoenauer, Pieter Sijpkes, David Covo, Avi Friedman, Annmarie Adams, Robert Mellin, Ricardo Castro, Adrian Sheppard, Julia Bourke, Raphael Fischler, Jesús Navarrete, and André Casault. The primary objective of Minimum Cost Housing was to return graduates to their architectural careers with an enhanced intellectual base, and the ability to think about housing in a rigorous and imaginative way.

Left: photo of a tipi. Right: photo of a sweat lodge.
Cree traditional architecture in Chisasibi, Quebec. © Minimum Cost Housing Group

The Minimum Cost Housing option was established to focus primarily on the human settlement questions of economically disadvantaged areas and developing countries, by seeking systematic and practical solutions to the problems of building low-cost accommodation. The problem of housing was closely tied to the economic conditions of the user and to the question of how to build a house that ordinary working people could afford. Accordingly, the option dealt with financial resources, cultural values and traditional living patterns, and with the interaction between them. The minimum cost housing architect needed skills to re-examine conventional standards, explore new roles for her/himself in the housing process, and potentially, suggest innovative planning ideas and delivery strategies.

The research focus of Minimum Cost Housing continually evolved over the years. Historically, the option has explored four broad areas in housing: Innovative Housing Strategies, Culturally Appropriate Housing Standards, Building Technologies, and Low-cost Sanitation and Servicing. With the advent of the energy crisis, research on servicing and infrastructure has grown. Finally, since the early 2000s, teaching and practical projects have increasingly focused on food security and urban agriculture. Throughout its years of operation and research areas, participative design was a constant preoccupation.

Left: photo of two-storey rowhouses. Right: photo of a public courtyard with a tree.
Post-occupancy study of Aranya Project. © Minimum Cost Housing Group

The first two semesters of Minimum Cost Housing were devoted to seminars and project work. Seminars covered a variety of housing topics in which actual case studies of past and ongoing projects were included. The studio was generally structured around an ongoing research activity, for example: Upgrading of Dilapidated Housing, Beijing; A Critical Analysis of Mass Housing Projects, China; Evaluation of Public Housing, Egypt; and, Problems and Prospects of the First Nation Territory and its Housing, Kahnawake, Canada. Architects, urban planners and geographers were invited to participate as speakers, critics and seminar participants. Overall, the curriculum allowed students to explore housing, urban design, lifestyle and economic issues in an integrated manner.

The individual thesis (replaced, in 2000, by the Housing Project Report) was completed during the third semester, and based on a research topic that students selected in the first semester. Weekly seminars and personal tutoring with advisors ensured that personal research was well underway by the end of the second semester. Students’ research work was regularly presented at international conferences and was published in major academic journals. Since its inception, more than 100 scholars from more than 25 countries have graduated from this option at McGill. About 20% of graduates went on to pursue doctoral studies and the remaining found work with international aid organizations such as the World Bank and US AID, with housing ministries or agencies in their home countries, NGO’s, in architectural practice, or university teaching.

Left: photo of plants covering an entrance pavilion at McGill Downtown Campus. Right: photo of flowers and rampant plant at McGill Downtown Campus.
Making the Edible Campus (2007-date). © Minimum Cost Housing Group

Finally, Minimum Cost Housing offered candidates from around the world a unique opportunity to participate in the parallel ongoing projects of the still active Minimum Cost Housing Group (MCHG), which included collaborations in China, India, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, the Middle East, as well as in Canada. Furthermore, it offered candidates the opportunity to publish their research work in the Group’s Research Paper Series. Projects done by the MCHG won wide recognition and several awards including the P/A Progressive Architecture Research Award, the AIA and the UIA Research Award for Sustainable Community Design Ideas, and the Government of Canada’s Low-Energy Building Design Award.

For more information on the Minimum Cost Housing Group, please visit its official website

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