Tobias Jimenez spent his childhood in the type of settlement that he and his colleague Sean Anderson are now striving to improve.

The structures “have no electricity,” Jimenez says. “None have potable water. They’re not connected to the sewer. It’s not sanitary.”

Jimenez (’17 Arch., ’19 M.Arch.) was born in Pasco but moved to Colima, Mexico, with his parents as an infant. They raised him in an informal settlement— “like a favela,” he explains—on the city’s outskirts. “You’re focusing on surviving. You’re spending most of your time and energy trying to meet your basic needs. Living there is one of the reasons I decided to come back and help people who are in this type of situation. I grew up there. My mom still lives there. I could understand the problem.”

Jimenez and Anderson aren’t aiming to simply make shelters but, through architecture, to “inspire and empower the people living in these settlements to live a life with dignity,” says Anderson (’17 Arch., ’19 M.Arch.). “We are trying to make residents feel proud about who they are and where they live and, as a result, be motivated to maintain long-term improvements and play an active role in their communities and society, rather than remain silent and forgotten by the rest of the world.”

Tobias Jimenez (Courtesy [inform]al)

About one in eight people worldwide live in informal settlements, and numbers are even higher in metropolitan areas like Colima. About a quarter of the global urban population live in slums, according to the United Nations. UN figures show the total number of informal settlement dwellers now tops 1 billion people and, by 2050, the number is expected to grow to more than 3 billion, or 30 percent of the projected 9.7 billion global population.

The UN calls these settlements “systemic human rights violations, the effects of state actions, inaction, and policies that deprive millions of their fundamental human rights.” Conditions “are often inhumane,” according to a 2018 UN report. “Many residents live in overcrowded, insecure dwellings, without water and sanitation, fearful of eviction and subject to preventable life-threatening illnesses.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean, an estimated one in five people lives this way.

“There is a huge need for this type of architecture,” Anderson says. “The world is facing a global housing crisis.”

The summer after he and Jimenez finished graduate school, they went to work on their passion project: designing affordable, safe, easy and quick to build, multi-functional homes to help empower people who live in informal settlements. The homes can be built in stages, as people are able to afford them. They use local building materials and design elements meant to inspire self-confidence and self-reliance—features such as solar panels, rainwater catchment systems, and rooftop vegetable gardens. Movable walls give homeowners the ability to customize their space. Each unit is also meant to be easily repaired by the homeowner, rather than requiring expert and often expensive repairs.

“We both saw a big responsibility—not only as architects but as humans—to try to do something to resolve this issue, which is the root of bigger problems: delinquency, immigration, even environmental issues,” says Jimenez, a first-generation college student.

He was 12 when he returned to Pasco to live with an aunt and pursue his education. Summers, he worked in the fields. Sometimes, he worked two jobs: picking or pruning cherries, pears, grapes, or apples as well as stocking shelves at Fiesta Foods, a Hispanic grocery store. “I was trying to support my family while I was in school,” he says.

In 2019, Jimenez and Anderson, along with fellow graduate student Haley Ladenburg (’17 Arch., ’19 M.Arch.) created a concept to integrate a waste-to-energy plant into a mixed-use building in a Seattle neighborhood. Their project was among the winners of the 2019 American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment Top Ten for Students Design Competition. They were selected out of 172 nationwide entries.

Jimenez also earned an honorable mention in the international student design competition Timber in the City: Urban Habitats, organized by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, the Binational Softwood Lumber Council, and Parsons School of Design. His “Parcelas Verticales,” or vertical plots, proposed an affordable housing concept for New York City.

Omar Al-Hassawi, assistant professor in the School of Design and Construction, was the faculty sponsor for both competitions and serves as a mentor to Jimenez and Anderson on their project, which they hope to eventually expand throughout Mexico, Latin America, and around the world.

“I have seen how they have grown and how their designs have matured,” Al-Hassawi says. “It’s not easy to get out of school and go a different way while their colleagues are joining design firms and the corporate world. But they have a plan. And whoever hears their story has been willing to help.”

Anderson and Jimenez traveled to Mexico after graduate school to work on the logistics for their prototype, which stretches about twenty-two by sixty feet and is designed to be built in about two months. The design can be adapted to the location as well as the homeowner’s needs.

They’re exploring partnerships with nonprofits as well as the possibility of incorporating their project, [inform]al, as its own nonprofit. Anderson has since returned to the United States to work on crowdfunding and other fundraising for their first home, meant for Jimenez’s mom, a widow who’s lived in the same unpermitted structure for more than 20 ears.

“We’re lucky because she owns the land,” Jimenez says. But, “structural elements are decaying. She’s worried about the settlement falling part.”

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