Minimum Cost Housing Group

Founded in the early 1970s by the initiative of the Colombian architect Álvaro Ortega (1920-1991), the Minimum Cost Housing Group (MCHG) was a unit at the School of Architecture of McGill University committed to working on solutions for human settlement challenges faced by underprivileged peoples worldwide.

Poverty is a universal issue affecting all nations, not just so-called "developing countries" but, the global majority. As such, the group was dedicated to identifying solutions to address these challenges in different countries.

Housing research was a paramount activity of the group. The MCHG participated in several international cooperation projects with the support of Canadian and International aid agencies. Research was carried out on construction materials, small building components, low-cost sanitation and servicing systems, human settlement planning, and urban agriculture.

Field projects were conducted in Argentina, Sri Lanka, Uganda, the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria, India, and China. In addition, MCHG's past members have worked as consultants to the World Bank, the United Nations Environmental Program, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Bunco de Mexico, and the Housing and Urban Development Corporation in New Delhi, among others.

Beyond Academia

Since its inception in the early 1970’s, the MCHG team has been involved in numerous action-research projects. In 1992, MCHG concluded an 8-year collaboration with the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation in India; this was the CIDA-supported "Human Settlements Training" project, which focused on the formulation of appropriate housing standards for new housing developments in India. The project was recognized with the prestigious P/A (Progressive Architecture) Award, in 1991. For further information consult How the Other Half Builds Publications and the Post-occupancy study of Aranya Project.

From 1983 to 1996, MCHG was actively involved in both rural and urban China. Under the CIDA-supported "Village Planning and Sanitation" project, the MCHG assisted the Chongqing Institute of Architecture and Engineering in the identification of appropriate and cost-effective standards for village planning and environmental sanitation. Two demonstrations were developed: a 1000-unit new housing project in the market town of Sifang, and the upgrading proposal for Jianlu, a 200-household village in the province of Sichuan. To disseminate the research findings, an international seminar was organized in Chongqing in February 1993: "Rural Housing - A First Step to Market Housing," with the participation of 40 Chinese delegates, and 10 international housing experts.

The Sifang project was chosen as a winner in the international competition "Sustainable Community Solutions" organized by the American Institute of Architects and the International Union of Architects. In 1992, following a national competition, MCHG was selected by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada to assist the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design and Research in the preparation of a housing redevelopment proposal for the Hua Shi Xie Jie neighborhood in inner-city Beijing as part of the Beijing Housing Renewal Program.

In the new millennia, MCHG started a new "Making the Edible Landscape" Program, a research initiative to study and demonstrate the significance of productive planting or urban agriculture in cities. Between 2003 and 2007, MCHG in collaboration with the Resource Centers on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (the Netherlands) worked on an action research project in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Kampala, Uganda; and Rosario, Argentina, to demonstrate the value of urban agriculture as a permanent feature in city planning and housing design.

In addition, in partnership with several local NGOs, the group developed several Edible Landscape initiatives in Montreal, one of the most significant being the Making the Edible Campus project on the main campus of McGill University, which was the recipient of the 2008 National Urban Design Award of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Canadian Institute of Planners, and Canadian Society of Landscape Architects. The Edible Campus was also recognized by the city of Montreal as one of the 10 most significant sustainable projects in Montreal in 2010.

Awards and Recognition

Throughout the years, the group has received numerous awards and recognition for their outstanding achievements. Under the direction of Emeritus Professor Vikram Bhatt, the MCHG received numerous awards including the AD Architectural Design Research Award in 1991, the American Institute of Architects’ Sustainable Community Design Ideas Competition 1st Prize in 1993, the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute’s Faculty Research Fellowship (twice: 1993-94 and 2000-2001), and the Graham Foundation for the Fine Arts’ Fellowship (twice: 1993 and 2000). OECD Co-operative Research Program Research Fellowship, Biological Resource Management for Sustainable Agricultural Systems. “A study of sustainable urban and peri-urban agriculture Ile de France” with the Laboratoire d’agriculture urbaine team of Ecole Nationale Superieure du Paysage, Versailles, France (2008). 2008 National Urban Design Award of RAIC, Canadian Institute of Planners, and Canadian Society of Landscape Architects for his “Making the Edible Campus” project. In 2010, the same but enlarged project was recognized as “Le jardin du Roulant,” at the city of Montreal’s Gala de reconnaissance en environnement et en développement durable de Montréal.

In partnership with other University colleagues and individually he has held numerous research grants amounting to several million dollars from a wide range of granting agencies including Agriculture Canada, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Canadian International Development Agency, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, International Development Research Centre, La Société d'habitation du Québec (SHQ), and the UN HABITAT’s Urban Management Program.

He has been involved in a number of pioneering research areas: a study of the informal housing sector in India (How the Other Half Builds) which was used to change formal low-cost housing norms; the introduction of market housing ideas in China (Housing a Billion; and the international seminar Rural Housing: The First Step to Market Housing that he organized in Chongqing, Sichuan, 1993).

Most recently, the Minimum Cost Housing Group / Hackathon Group won the 2018 National Urban Design Award for a unique project in Kuujjuaq. Bringing together an interdisciplinary design team from southern Quebec with more than 60 residents, the Kuujjuaq Hackathon, a five-day event in September 2017, capitalized on local building expertise and leadership to reimagine key public spaces. The unique initiative won in the Small and Medium Scale Urban Fragments category. For more details please see: 

Back to top