From crisis to opportunity: a new model of housing for communities in Puerto Rico

They say that bad times generate new inventions. During this edition of Stay Open, Stay Safe, we spoke with Carla Gautier, an architect who reinvented herself after Hurricane Maria to provide a new model of accessible and safe housing for communities in Puerto Rico. 

After finishing her studies in architecture in the United States, Carla Gautier returned to Puerto Rico just before Hurricane Maria. The job search was put on hold. However, she decided to put her knowledge into practice and began doing construction inspections with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

During that time, she visited about 400 homes, where, many times, FEMA requests were denied. For this reason, Gautier created KONTi Design/Build Studio, an architecture and construction firm that focuses on building in a sustainable and resilient manner, using shipping containers as the base structure.

"We've been using [natural] resources too irresponsibly for too long," she says of the need to look beyond the traditional way of building.

Why containers? According to Gautier, these structures are strong enough to withstand extreme environments.  “We’ve been using [natural] resources too irresponsibly for too long,” she says of the need to look beyond the traditional way of building.

In America, there are over 11M steel containers in disuse, which creates an environmental problem. Through KONTi Design, “we prefer to give them a second life and, at the same time, give security to the people who really need it, without harming the environment”, says Gautier.

The containers always have the option of renewable energy and water collection system. “We want our houses to behave as a complete organism”, emphasizes Gautier, about his company’s 360° vision, to provide people with security and independence.

With the earthquakes in the south, people began to educate themselves about the properties of a flexible house that supports ground movements and provides them with safety. “At the end of the day, what makes a flexible house is steel,” explains Gautier. At the beginning of the year, the firm lent its model house to a nonprofit in the south for use as a school. While they were inside the house, there was an unexpected 4.5 magnitude earthquake, which served as a real-time test of the structure’s viability.

With the pandemic, real estate prices have dropped and people have taken advantage of this time to reinvent themselves within the crisis using these sustainable structures as a base. However, one of the challenges the company faces is how to get banks to finance this type of construction. Therefore, they seek to normalize this model in Puerto Rico.

"It is not a temporary construction. We want it to be understood that it is a new type of construction," says Gautier, who wants the plans and permits to be worked out in the same way as the traditional way.

After being reviewed by CNN as Champion of Change, Gautier feels hopeful about the potential and resilience of Puerto Ricans. One effect of this national exposure is an increase in demand for KONTi’s modular spaces both inside and outside of Puerto Rico, as there are clients interested in supporting this type of locally manufactured product that can easily be exported to other markets. “We have to show the world that we may be small geographically, but we are huge in heart and strength,” concludes Gautier about the opportunities we have to explore in Puerto Rico.

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