The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

[ID:2023] The New Indian Home Owner


Anything that just costs money is cheap. –John Steinbeck

From the first day I walked up the steps and into the building that housed my classes at architecture school, the faculty and my peers emphasized two things. The first was to question everything and the second was to consider what I really wanted to learn to create. The answer seemed simple. I wanted to make good buildings. However, as the semesters progressed, I began to realize that architecture was so much more complex than I imagined and that perhaps, it was not just buildings I wanted to create. I discovered that I had more of a longing to create something of real significance. If it were possible, I wanted to craft something that came without consequence, because, as I also came to realize, a lot of ‘building’ was really tearing through something else- memories, ideologies, and natural resources.

As students, we were also taught a theory subject entitled Professional Practice. It involved reading many paragraphs, most probably written in the twentieth century, which told architects their code of conduct and what their job involved. But I speak for myself and I’m sure, many others, when I say that the section I found most interesting in the entire set of photocopied notes was the table that informed us on how much money we could make, every time we created a built form. I also found it interesting that we were never taught to create value but rather seek value for what we have created.

That was 2014. At the end of the four year period of compulsory classes, I left with unanswered questions. How could I create value without seeking it? How could I create value without first diminishing something already considered valuable, such as property? How could I use the skills I have learned to impact a value system already put in place by the construction industry in my own city? As of July 2014, I am pursuing an internship for a whole year, in fulfilment of my undergraduate degree. The rest of this essay, is perhaps, just a discovery of an idea that helped me understand more about intrinsic value in design that supports the construction industry while adding value to those who are using it as well as building it.

As a city, Bangalore is growing faster than ever before. The combined effects of a booming IT sector, a pleasant year-round climate and the environment that cultivates ideas have put an immense strain on the real estate market in the city. In 2014, a report in The Hindu mentioned that builders carried an unsold inventory amounting to Rs. 65,411 crore, out of which apartments held a majority of the shares at 77 percent. It also stated that the price of the average apartment was Rs. 79 lakh, which, incidentally, is 58-75 per cent higher than the affordability of the average buyer. Underneath the huge hoardings that advertise these unattainable homes live the migrant labourers and daily wage workers who built them. Residing along with their families, they build their own homes out of thin blue sheets of tarpaulin. It is both startling and amazing that this city, where sanitation systems are virtually non-existent in slum areas and pavements double up as dwellings, is still considered “developed”. The city is expanding at an indescribable rate and almost no-one wants to care for those who cannot afford it.

To be fair, the problem of homelessness has been approached by many in various capacities. NGOs, architects and even civilians, who want to try to do their part for society, have stepped forward with their own ideologies for change. The ideas are all well received but hardly any of them make it to the execution stage, frustrating the ideators as well as the needy in equal measure. The government’s housing schemes are not accountable to any other body and thus do not get fully realized. Communication problems and lack of involvement of the end users result in solutions that are nothing more than purely design. In this type of situation, it is not merely architecture that is required, but rather an understanding of spatial parameters and the ability and intent to bring it to life in conjunction with those who will be using it. If architecture is meant to be a social art, it needs a platform where architects can be recognized by the government and not defeated by it, it needs to be allowed to change the basics of shelter as well as social attitudes before it can move outwards into urban culture.

It is in this situation that architect Alok Shetty and his team decided to intervene. The issue was clear – the masses needed a solution for the complex problem of urban housing. He realized that a large population of those in need were not those who resided in the city permanently, but those who lived a transitionary lifestyle, predominantly migrant labourers. Being in the construction industry himself, Shetty’s approach was focused on improving their condition, as he could understand their problems first hand.

The idea that was finally executed was straightforward, relying on its simplicity of thought and construction to be effective. If the labourers needed homes, they could make it out of materials they all had an awareness of and were accustomed to using. The prototype (first envisioned in 2014) was a fifteen foot by thirteen foot structure that did not need a concrete plinth. Instead, metal baseplates held the floors of cement board above the ground at a height of ten inches, to ensure that water seepage from the ground did not occur. In addition, this allowed for the structure to be portable, as most of the end users are often occupying lands that they do not own, wherever their daily wage jobs take them. Each unit makes use of twenty metal poles fixed in a four by three grid, horizontally and vertically through an easy nut and bolt system. The complete framework encloses a space six feet in height. The roof is topped off with a GI sheet that slopes down from the front to the back so that rainwater can drain off, increasing the clear height to eight feet in the front of the enclosed space. Once the framework is ready, bamboo mats, readily available components, are tied to the top of the horizontal poles and when dropped down, form the ‘walls’ of the structure. This entire arrangement takes four hours to build/dismantle.

Twenty units of this first prototype were made and distributed to families in a nearby area. After a prolonged period of testing, several shortcomings began to show themselves. The cement boards began to bend and the bamboo did not do much to keep the rain out. Ten of these were then dismantled and ten are currently in other parts of the country, hoping to learn and absorb characteristics that could make it a more versatile product.

This approach to alleviating the situation, in my opinion, is a way of temporarily addressing the issue. I wonder if something more could have been done to bring back some dignity into their lifestyle, so permeated with poverty and a lack of access to basic necessities. The introduction of a new product, while admirable, could do more to address the problem on a deeper level.

It was not until May of 2015 that a revised unit was built. In this new and improved version, the metal poles are replaced by box sections that are stronger and simpler to assemble. The arrangement of the framework also differs, making the size of the structure four meters square in plan. The flooring is made of metal scaffolding sheets simply laid on the sections below. These sheets are common in construction and are generally cast off or recycled when a project is complete, thus making it a useful component. The most important change of all has been made to the covering material, which consists of a sturdier frame than bamboo mats. Box sections are made into seven frames, with bamboo sticks that are pushed into it from above, interwoven with a horizontal member. These seven frames form the walls. An additional eighth frame, in the front of the unit, has a small roller attached to it and functions as a sliding door, offering more protection and privacy. On two sides, a triangle shaped polycarbonate sheet is sandwiched between the bamboo walls and the roof, pouring light into the space. The three facades (other than the front) have a plastic tarp attached to a simple roller mechanism that can be pulled down over the bamboo in case of rain. While at first glance these changes might seem small, they certainly make a valuable difference. Shetty has attempted to create value, for the user and for materials that are considered scrap. The attention to these small details has the potential to make a large impact.

Alok Shetty has also suffered his share of neglect by the government. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) is the administrative body responsible for the civic and infrastructural assets of the metropolitan area of Bangalore. They were approached in early 2014 with Shetty’s first prototypes. At first, they did not show significant interest; they did not believe that these schemes could work, and saw no potential gain from the project. Additionally, they stated that they had been approached with similar projects before that were met with no follow-up from the creators. (Ironically, after Shetty’s product received positive media coverage from TIME magazine, the BBMP themselves contacted Shetty, asking to be informed of the developments in his project.)To counter this lack of interest and the risk of not being taken seriously in the future, Shetty has proposed that the unit be promoted through government initiatives. If such concepts begin to be accepted as part of the manifestos of political parties (in pre-election periods), it can benefit the government as well as the users. In addition, if it is introduced along with a government scheme, the reach of the product is increased without being limited to a specific region.

The opportunity to test out the new model on a larger and more specific scale presented itself when Bhumiputra Architecture, Shetty’s firm, partnered with a local NGO, SELCO Foundation in 2015. SELCO is a grassroot level body that serves the need of the poor through sustainable solutions that improve their lifestyle. It promotes and develops sustainable solutions for society development. An important part of SELCO is the Urban Community Lab, a team that strives to permeate and work within the existing social conditions in urban areas. They are wholly community driven and extend a branch of support for those in need, through the nature of eco-sensible design.

SELCO has been working in the Kanbargi slum area in Belgaum for the past two years. 260 families from five different communities were evicted from the city area and now live here. Interestingly, they were also evicted on claims of occupying illegal land, as their previous homes were built on a dried-up lake bed. SELCO has been instrumental in setting up a small school and an anganwadi (health clinic) in the area, in partnership with another local NGO, Mahesh Foundation, who are responsible for running it on a day-to-day basis. The Foundation was started by Mahesh, a native of Belgaum, and has been functioning in the area for about four years. The target group of the foundation was HIV+ children in the area. With the involvement of SELCO, a new scheme was started to encourage them to go the school. Families that sent their kids to school could rent solar lights at a nominal charge of Rs. 5 per day. In this way, SELCO and the Foundation have been able to engineer social change in the inhabitants of the slum area. When their challenge extended into providing sustainable housing solutions for the community, Shetty, having already worked on something similar, was able to strike up a partnership with SELCO. In taking on this project, the new site acts as an incubator or a testing ground for the unit that has been developed and is awaiting real time testing. SELCO and Shetty are splitting up the costs of the project equally, while Mahesh works as the ground partner in charge of co-ordination and liaison.

This new environment offers up some interesting challenges that will need to be overcome before the existing product can be rolled out. In addition to just providing a band-aid solution for the housing problem, the fact that five communities are being involved provides the designers ample opportunity to think about the long term impact they are willing to make. Physically designing a shelter unit is going to be the easy part. The social and economic changes are a result of better housing will need to be anticipated and provided for. Perhaps they could provide opportunities for the inhabitants to enhance their craft. Maybe situations like this could be covered by more media, encouraging everyday citizens to participate in the redevelopment. As an architect, I’m hoping to see that the effort put into the design equips the users to someday be more self-sufficient so they won’t need just a temporary shelter.

In terms of social change, the marketing campaign of the product will play a pivotal role. If the designers take full ownership and responsibility of this idea, as a product, rather than giving it to the users themselves to review and construct on their own terms, the users will need to be equipped with the skill sets to build or modify it. If the users are not the designated owners of the product, they could be tenants, renting it out for the same nominal amount that they would spend on their homes. Of course, either way, there will be certain criteria introduced for those who can be involved in the building process and initial prototype testing. These could include those who send their children to school regularly, are already involved in construction, responsible with their finances, or have no history of addiction or substance abuse in the family. In this way, they are accountable for their homes but they recognise that the time they spend in this community is limited. This will ensure that they can use their financial resources to focus on other areas of their lives like their children’s education.

As I analyzed this project, some of my questions are still unanswered, but some of my answers have changed. I have realized that money, is indeed, valuable. I have also understood the value of thoughtfulness and the way in which it can translate architecture into something that could be as much as, if not more valuable, than simply money. But it is my firm belief that the most valuable commodity of all is hope. Without hope and perseverance, design remains a physical, material property that is not worth investing in.

The entire process of construction

A render of the first version

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