The article was published in Myliveablecity, October 2015 edition (www.myliveablecity.com). Can be viewed here.
In poor countries of the ‘developing’ world, the issue of affordable housing has been a bone of contention between the different stake-holders involved. Resources are scarce, economic and social conditions dire, and populations burgeoning. All these forces create a potent mix which acts as a catalyst for mass distress migration of people from country side to city in search of better employment opportunities, education and health care. The advent of free market capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies as a part of the globalization bandwagon has only further intensified this process, creating a situation where our living environments both rural and urban have become almost uninhabitable. Examples of this can be seen all across the third world landscapes from Latin America, to Africa and South-SE Asia.
Most often efforts of state authorities and agencies to tackle the problem of affordable housing have been to follow models and methods propagated by their former European colonizers. Terms like ‘mass production’, ‘pre-fabrication’, ‘mechanization of the construction process’ work well in the developed world where population densities are low, per capita income and education levels high and the economic and political conditions are not in a constant state of flux. But the blind application of these principles in these primarily agrarian rural countries seek to impose a standardized, one size fits all ideology without understanding the context.
In these areas, there exists an indigenous building knowledge based on empirical and time tested principles of building that has existed for centuries. This knowledge seeks to use hand based skills of local people to build spaces and shelters with locally available materials and technology. Moreover this knowledge is people-centric i.e. it is a community based local effort that is labour intensive. This ensures that valuable capital invested into a building project goes directly to the people who actually need it- those of the local community thereby helping to strengthen and stabilize the local economy. As farm lands disappear and agrarian lifestyles change, our rural areas harbour a huge population of skilled and unskilled labour that is in dire need of work. And here lies the opportunity to tap into our indigenous building knowledge to facilitate these people into the building process so as to produce appropriate and affordable housing.
In the South Indian state of Telangana, there has existed a tradition of building with a mud building technique called cob- balls of wet, stiff mud that are slapped onto each other, course after course to form a load bearing wall. This technique is local, simple and effective and has been refined over a period of time. Mud used for building is excavated from the load bearing foundation trench or an adjoining fresh water tank. It is then mixed on site with sand, rice straw-an agricultural byproduct, slaked lime slurry and water with the help of water buffaloes. This is then laid to rest for a day to allow for the activation of clay particles in the soil. The next day, local community women start making mud balls from this mix of size not more than 6-9 inch in diameter. These become the basic building blocks for the built space and are thrown by hand from one person to another to the hands of the skilled craftsmen, who have honed this technique since many generations. These craftsmen then skillfully slap the mud balls onto one another and slowly massage them into a single homogeneous unit with their hands. Care is taken that balls are not too wet else they will splatter and not too dry else they will not adhere to each other to form the load bearing wall. Walls are generally 1 ½ feet thick to take the load of the floor above. This thickness also aids in the insulation of the space.
Since all material for this building comes from the immediate locality, the cost of transportation of material is drastically reduced. Mud is excavated from the site or an adjoining farm, stone for foundation and plinth from a nearby stone quarry, Neem wood for the pitched roof is grown locally in people’s homes and courtyards. Moreover since most of these materials are natural, their manufacturing or production cost is also very low. As mentioned, these local techniques require the use of intensive labour whose cost sometimes supersedes that of material. But since they are from the local community and labour costs are low, the overall building cost is kept under check. The daily wage of local skilled masons and carpenters in this region is around $7-8 and that of unskilled labour is around $3-4. In this way by using local materials, techniques and craftsmen in a local community based building effort; one can ensure that final cost of the contemporary built house is not more than $12-18 per square foot. This is considerably lesser than reinforced cement concrete (RCC) houses in this region which have a built up cost of $23-38 per square foot. Every saving made here is extremely valuable! Moreover this building process is not only economically more affordable, but also socially more affordable. It ensures that the local community is directly invested into the process of building and is a source of employment generation in a region where it is absolutely needed. The home owners have a direct stake in the building of their own homes.
In conclusion, this local building knowledge has evolved over a period of time and it is imperative that they continue to do so to be relevant in today’s contemporary world. They do have certain limitations and drawbacks and for which we need to use modern technology and knowhow to overcome these particular problems without replacing the whole building system completely. We need to delve deeper and look inward at what we have and how to better it than wait for foreign ideas to be para-dropped into a context they are not suited for. Then and only then can we harbour the dream of housing the millions of homeless in our poor countries by creating a housing system that is truly affordable- both economically and socially.
I see your solution to this problem as only one part of the full answer. This needs more than one solution, and the tricky part is, architects are probably responsible for at least two parts-
1. As you mentioned, building technology, and this is bang-on in my opinion.
2. Aspiration. This is when the poor (or not so poor) village kids visit cities and see the shiny concrete, glass, and steel (or aluminium) around them, they are enamoured by it, there is an intense desire to be a part of this. I think this stems from our quality of education, and the fact that the old vernacular was just not comfortable enough, it never evolved.
It is up to us to bring these technologies up to speed and want everyone to live in architecture that is of the place. Would love to read your thoughts on this, as this is something I have been struggling with for a few years.
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But then again, who are we to preach values of aspiration to anyone, right? Only recently have I realized that it might be a little more complex than that and not as binary as it seems.
i have just started reading Edward Said’s Orientalism to try to comprehend some of these concepts.
It would be very interesting for us to try to probe all the reasons responsible for the loss of indigenous building knowledge systems across india. Aspiration is certainly one of them..
Thanks Sidd. Well written and thought out.
Thanks Thomas. Hope u guys are doing well.