The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1493] Constructing dignity: a design for empowering the urban poor


"When I see the city from my window, I don't feel how small I am but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body."

This Ayn Rand quote runs through my mind as I witness the growth of metropolitan cities in my country. These are exciting times for India. The country is rapidly emerging as an economic powerhouse. On the downside, India is suffering from a terrible disorder. The country of many paradoxes; of slum dogs and millionaires, of growth and rising inequalities, is suffering from chronic poverty, with 29.5 % of India’s population living below the poverty line.

It has been almost seventy years since we gained independence. We have been fighting to curb acute poverty since then, with heavy doses of policies and legislations, and yet, the malaise is widespread. India’s democracy provides its people with the freedom to pursue their dreams anywhere in the country. Its aspiring population, with their determination to do so, have fallen into the trap of urban slums. The nation’s inability to cope with the rapid rate of this influx is reflected in its haphazard development. Clearly, the growth has been exclusively beneficial to the privileged citizens. In such a context, how can an architect play a role in providing quality life to both the privileged as well as the disadvantaged?

The slums I am going to talk about are situated in Bangalore, Karnataka. No city, illustrates India's growth potential better than Bangalore. The rapidly evolving city, appropriately called the ‘silicon valley of India’ because of its position as a major technology hub, houses some of the leading institutions in the world. The city is cosmopolitan, culturally diverse and is considered as one of the best habitable cities. Given its geographical location and altitude, it has a fairly pleasant, tropical climate. Winter temperatures drop to 12°C (54°F), and summer temperatures rise up to 35°C (95°F). In a fast advancing India, high-tech Bangalore houses approximately 1000 slums.

A typical slum in Bangalore has constrained spaces with poorly constructed shanties. The dwellings are improvised with bamboo poles, earth, bricks and tarpaulin sheets. Tiny heaps of construction debris, narrow meandering streams of water and perpetual mud outline the slums. Clean municipal water supply is virtually non-existent. The quality and the source of slum drinking water is questionable. Toilets are generally at a distance from the places of living and more often than not, they are open. These deplorable living conditions continue as long as the slums exist, posing a grave threat to the health of the slum-dwellers.

Situated behind a software technology park and a row of upper middle class houses, lies the LRDE slum that house almost 300 dwellings. It borrows its name from the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) headquarters, which is in close proximity to the slum. With a metro line approximately 2 kilometres away and dotted with the national defence and research establishments, technology parks and well-to-do houses, it wouldn't be wrong to call the area ‘posh’.

Poverty has been described by the World Bank as a situation of “pronounced deprivation in well-being”, and being poor as “to be hungry, to lack shelter and clothing, to be sick and not cared for, to be illiterate and not schooled”. The residents of the LRDE slums are familiar with all of the above mentioned attributes. Termed as “Ultra-Poor” by Mrs. Elaine Ghosh, founder of Parinaam Foundation, a local non-governmental organization (NGO), the slum has existed here in uncomfortable conditions for over a decade.

I almost missed the narrow, mud track that led to the shanties which were safely hidden away behind a row of middle class houses, so as not to be recognized as a blight amidst its immediate environs. The dwellings were made out of a hodgepodge of construction waste materials. Plastic tarpaulin sheets formed the roof of these tenements, some sloped and some arched, these were held up by bamboo posts; crooked wooden planks for doors, and an unsightly mix of bricks and corrugated metal sheets for walls. Occupying an average footprint of 4-6sq. m. , the tiny single room-dwellings were incapacitated to house all the residents of the family, leading a few or all members to sleep outside their tent structures during the night and stay outside during the day time irrespective of the climate.

As I walked through the narrow lanes in between the chaotic organization of tenements on a Sunday afternoon, I was greeted with looks of curiosity from all the children who were running about while the older ladies seated themselves on makeshift cots outside. Some of the women engaged themselves in cooking sweets for the festive occasion of winter solstice, while others were cooking for their daily meals on the chulhas. The men sat aside on their rest day, lending a helping hand, when required. For every set of houses, I came across a huge pile of wooden logs piled up, for cooking, close to the other storage that spilled out of the tiny houses. A calm hush was spread across the slum, except for the occasional squeals of the happy kids, or the belches of the content older women, as I walked past different shapes and sizes of houses, through the entire length of the slum. Clothes laid to dry on a few of the roofs while some roofs just had bundled up old shawls, probably in an attempt to keep the interiors warm. A few doors were left ajar, giving me the opportunity to peep in, while others were held shut with hasps and staples that used toothbrushes as padlocks. Some of the roofs had almost caved in, leaving the residents with little space. Living in close proximity and co-existing, has made the residents of this slum, majority of whom are construction workers and house maids, a close-knit community. Conversations with a few of the residents, brought to light the issues they had been facing and the do-gooders in their lives.

Almost six years ago, when Mrs. Ghosh from Parinaam Foundation took to the cause of tending to the urban poor, she discovered the terrible lives led by these slum-dwellers. These families earned less than USD 1.25 a day or on some days, nothing at all. The men, frustrated with their meagre earnings, invariably squandered on drinks and gambling, leaving their poor wives to manage the children and fend for themselves. These families were living with no access to basic necessities such as electricity, water supply and toilets. They lived in constant fear of being evicted from their houses by the landowners. This scenario is true with a majority of slum-dwellers in the country, and this was exactly the kind of condition Parinaam was searching for, for their Urban Ultra Poor Programme. Acting as a holistic intervention, the programme addressed their poverty by offering solutions to their lack of livelihood. It provided resources that ensured better lives, access to education, financial advice and security. The neighbourhood also contributed to these efforts by offering work to these people in their homes and offices.

A few residents of the LRDE slums, one of the larger slums in the city, have only recently started to rebuild their dwellings using more pucca materials, on the land whose ownership is currently under dispute. While Parinaam has helped the slum by introducing them to solar- powered appliances, the slum-dwellers have arranged for themselves, access to water at $0.12 per can, the quality of which, is suspect. Toilets, however, remain an unfamiliar concept to these poor residents, who walk to a distant cubicle, where they openly defecate.

It was only through the efforts of the NGO that Alok Shetty, a 28 year-old architect, was introduced to the slums. This young founder of Bhumiputra Architecture is a beneficiary of the Academic Adoption Programmes of Parinaam Foundation. Having made the decision to dedicate two-fifth of the architectural fee they received to social projects, his firm sponsored the education for a few children of the ultra-poor community served by the NGO. His regular visits to the slums led him to the glaring realisation of the miserable living conditions of the same people who build and maintain beautiful houses and offices for us. This compelled him to offer his services as an architect. Shetty volunteered to build low-cost dwellings for the residents of the slums and after two years of in-depth analysis of the current housing designs, he came up with an elegant and resourceful design solution that uses waste material which can be easily sourced from construction sites.

The urban landscapes of India are built almost entirely of concrete and brick masonry. The construction debris generated, goes unused, and is at the disposal of the construction workers. They re-use these materials to create viable living spaces for their families, but fail to do so, not for want of skill, but for sufficient time, space and design sensitivity. The architect and his team used these same materials to provide a solution that is affordable, viable and health friendly.

There were several major issues he noted during his personal interactions with the squatters. The first being that of flooding during the monsoons, that caused the settlements to turn into water pools, becoming breeding grounds for diseases and also creating easy access for rodents. Another issue was the lack of space in the house that catered to their living as well as cooking requirements. As a result, the excessive accumulation of smoke, soot and carbon monoxide in their claustrophobic volumes with no chimneys or windows only caused further harm to their health. In addition, there was absence of adequate natural light and air ventilation indoors. Alok Shetty’s approach to these problems was towards rendering smart design solutions. He experimented with two kinds of low-cost houses, one that uses scrap material and the other that uses new, but affordable material, with an overall cost falling between USD 300-600.

The design is simple, as Alok informs, “Each house is a 100-square-foot living area with sloping galvanised rooftops to protect from rains.” They waited an entire monsoon to test the sturdiness of the structure in the city’s heavy rainfall. The sloping design of the roof allows the residents to collect the rainwater, filter and use it as potable water. By providing an overhanging roof, the architect has left space between the ceiling and roof to increase air circulation and create a pleasant interior climate. Each unit houses two dwellings and has a common corridor in between. The neatly built units are held together by scaffolding posts and metal straps. The structure stands at about a foot above ground level, to prevent flooding. Sturdy wooden sheets that were previously used as form-work on construction sites make the flooring of the units. The architect says that while the framework and the floor are the constants in his design, the partitions are a variable. Depending on the parameters of site context, privacy requirements and climate conditions, the options for the partitions are woven bamboo mats, bison board or waterproofed gypsum board. Ample light runs through the entire unit that also avails space for a window in one corner. It is easy to visualise a happy family living comfortably in this design, with sufficient space for their living as well as storage needs. Shetty provided cooking space in the corridors in between two dwellings, thus keeping the harmful smoke out of the houses. According to the calculations made by the architect’s office, the scrap material salvaged from one construction site can build atleast 150 such homes.

Having recognized that his designs would be dealing with users that are itinerant, and migrate with their work, as is the case with most construction workers, Alok’s design is easy to transport. It takes only four hours to erect as well as dismantle. Inspired by IKEA’s packaging strategies, Shetty plans to sell the houses to the workers in boxes that can be used as wardrobes after the house is completely set-up. Currently working on a construction manual for the dwellings, he expects the skilled residents to build their own dwellings after a demonstration. The architect’s firm has completed testing the design for stability, loading, air and light quality for ten homes and these houses are currently occupied by families to help analyse potential design issues. Shetty is set to roll out his plans in a few months.

The slum dwellers are extremely excited at the idea of improved living conditions. Being well-aware of the problems of their existing living environment, they are looking forward to this betterment and are contributing their inputs to the entire process with great vigour.

A hard- hitting truth about India is that despite the combined efforts of non-governmental, governmental and private organizations, their contribution is negligible in comparison to the total affordable housing needs of the country. A large number of architects are designing for the under-served population. However, a lot of these designs remain as topics of discussions at forums. What is the future of housing for the poor when even government-housing schemes pay no attention to good design, cost-effective and quality construction? Adding to the already dense cityscapes, these projects result in the loss of sense of community and create detached families that live divorced from their immediate surroundings.

Architect Alok Shetty, with his new-found international and national recognition, after being ranked amongst Time magazine’s ‘Young Leaders of Tomorrow' and Forbes’ list of ‘30 under 30’, wants his design to be implemented on a larger scale. Already having partnered with an NGO, he has also had successful meetings with the State Labour Welfare Board and ensured fair wages, proper healthcare, academic and financial education and transit housing schemes for labourers. At the same time, his firm is designing portable toilets for the slums, as the next phase, after the housing project. His ingenuity has generated interest from various organizations. Collaboration initiates success, in the case of this architect.

In a democratic landscape, this young architect has taken initiative locally to address the needs of the underprivileged. He has created the opportunity for participatory decision making, thus involving the users in crucial decisions of their own built environment. Alok Shetty is working towards making his design accessible to all the slums in the city and plans to reach out to other cities as well. He has thus made efforts to induct impoverished citizens into more civilized living.

This project is a standing example of the power of collaboration and civic engagement. The architect, Parinaam foundation and all the other individuals involved, with their willingness to look for the best solutions to existing housing problems, are creating lasting positive effects on the welfare of the poorer communities in Bangalore. With projects like this making their way into dialogues in the architectural fraternity, there is hope in the nation of crores of shelter-deprived, displaced and ignored. There might still be a long way for a better future, but the need of the hour is inclusive designs by socially sensitive architects, working towards the well-being of all communities.

The LRDE slum sits behind the glass building of a technology park and a row of middle class houses

Residents use every inch of available space for their cooking and storage needs

Women cook inside their houses in dim light conditions, literally breathing in the smoke

Prototypes of the design with woven bamboo mat partitions. The corridors are designed for cooking.

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