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The $300 house : A real solution or a utopic exercise

Shagun

I watched a movie called ‘Dharavi – a slum for sale‘ during the Jugaad Urbanism event in New York. The movie was directed by a Swiss director who had been making trips to India for a few years and decided to make a film on Dharavi. It was well directed, the characters were well developed and I empathized deeply with the residents of Dharavi. The movie talks about an ambitious project that the US trained architect Mukesh Mehta planned to launch. It dealt with public private partnerships and radical makeover of Dharavi. A number of stakeholders were involved but the project was being carried forward with little insight into the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of Dharavi. A lot of families were at a risk of being evicted as billions of dollars would be made as the flats in this prime property would have been sold off to the highest bidders. The project proposed for Dharavi did not take off because of oncoming elections and public pressure. The movie ends with a looming question about the future of Dharavi and its inhabitants.

This article, however, is not about the project that was supposed to change this slum into a skyscraper city by razing everything to the ground. Its about the $300 house, a dramatically different but an equally bizarre option. Vijay Govindrajan of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business with Christian Sarkar, marketing expert issued a challenge in the Harvard Business Review blog to come up with a house for the poor. As per an article in the Economist – They laid down a few simple guidelines. The houses should be built of mass-produced materials tough enough to protect their inhabitants from a hostile world. They should be equipped with the basics of civilized life, including water filters and solar panels. They should be “improvable”, so that families can adapt them to their needs. And they should cost no more than $300. A $300 house since Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank had once calculated, that the average value of the houses of people who have just escaped poverty is $370.

The idea seems like a good one given the fact that there are numerous examples of reverse and frugal innovation making rounds in the social entrepreneurship circles. Tata’s one lakh car being one and GE’s $400 electrocardiogram being another example. One could say houses are different though, since they are fixed in one place and warrant strong community, neighbors, light, ventilation, sanitation and adequate space to make them comfortable. Older houses carry a sense of history, memories, and air of the past. Houses also carry the signature of the owner and the place if there is the use of local materials and craftsmanship in their building process.

Why should the $300 house work then? According to this article which is a response to the NYtimes article by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, the $300 house is not just a clever shack, but answers a number of complex questions. These issues include financing, energy and infrastructure and investment etc. There are some interesting ideas like alternative energy and use of available technology that are being kept in mind. However, the idea does fall flat on its face as far as preservation of the community is concerned. Advising a community on how they can build their own houses versus using them as a test subjects for a prefabricated house are two different things. Introducing township amenities such as shopping, retail areas and commercial office spaces cannot replace the microcosm of businesses that thrive within slums. Slums like Dharavi have rich industries in textiles, pottery and printing where a huge number of products are exported to western countries. Some of the houses are passed down through generations and the urban landscape in not a grid of similar looking houses but a organic mesh of community, people, businesses and social life. One wonders how ‘one house fits all’ approach would respond to an environment like that.

The problem is not just a issue in developing nations. Public housing and transformation plans have failed again and again in the US. Cabrini Green Projects in Chicago is a good example of an ambitious idea gone very wrong. The trend towards mixed income, low rise housing has shown more success rate so the $300 house might be the solution the slums of the world were looking for. However its tough to forget an interesting story that I read in the Knowledge Wharton blog – the Tamil Nadu government built low income housing for milkmen who were squatters and without housing. Once the houses were ready and the milkmen moved in, they came to a realization that the buffaloes gave a lot more milk when they were housed in the quarters and were cosy and comfortable which meant that the milkmen went back to being homeless and the buffaloes lived in the low income housing. Not the scenario the government had envisioned while cutting the ribbon on this not so cheap housing project.

That said, there are millions of people in India living under the poverty line with very little access to safe and secure housing solutions. Some slums have better living conditions, communities and business versus others. The time is right to rethink low income housing in India but I wish it wasn’t as cut and dry as Mukesh Mehta’s high rises and Vijay Govindrajan’s one house fits all solution. Sanitation, running water, security are human rights that should not be denied to any one irrespective of their financial status. The poor should be able to vote on what works for them, where they want to live and how they want to run their businesses. Ideas generated in ivy league schools for the poor, should be a way to open a dialogue with them. Prefabricated housing has a eerie postwar, disaster relief, apocalyptic ring to it, I am sure the brilliant minds in Dartmouth and other architecture and business schools can do better by using community input, local resources and a deep insight into the history and habits of people they are addressing.

More Links on the topic

Hands off our houses in the NY times

Vijay Govindrajan’s video about the $300 house

The winners for the $300 house contest

The $300 house website

Additional post describing the $300 house

5 Responses to “The $300 house : A real solution or a utopic exercise”

  1. No one said the $300 House was one size fits all… All we are saying is that if NGOs and businesses can create new markets by treating the poor as customers (not fools) then maybe we can start solving this problem. Stay tuned, and thanks for your insights Shagun! I’d like to invite you to join our team.

    I’d also like to point out that in our series of blog entries at HBR, we do point to a different way to solve the “Urban Challenge” through the eyes of Sunil Suri.

    All the blog entries are posted at http://www.300house.com

    Thanks again, Designwala!

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for your comment, Christian. The $300 house is surely an interesting initiative. Everyone in the design/urbanism community (including me) is excited to see how the project fares.

    Best of Luck!

  3. Another interesting point we’ve learned along the way. According to one of our advisers, Dharavi is no longer a slum – rather it is a “lower middle class” neighborhood! Yes there is still plenty of informal stuff going on, but the land is managed as are the houses…

    That got me to think twice, to say the least!

  4. shailesh says:

    Its quite interesting , at least in India. Its not that govt has not done anything in last several years to provide low cost housing. In Mumbai alone several projects like Shiv Shahi Prakalp were initiated through joint participation with private firms. Two issues came up- Private firms want profits and slums just do not go away!! Providing housing to the urban poor has always been considered as a problem of the government i.e to say “provide us free whatever you provide” whether its 3$ or 300$ or 3000$. Once you provide free, you know what happens. Ask them to pay for a low cost house, come the argument- Its not our problem. Urban poor is problem of Government and the urban rich. It just goes on and on…….With a square feet of lad in Dharavi valuing over several millions, a $ 300 house is no one’s priority. Priority is to get the urban poor out from there, whatever happen to them. So, it may work for some cases but where the severity of the problem is there like Mumbai, it may just not work out.

  5. Haren says:

    Hi Shagun, another great post!

    Many of the submissions in the competition dont tackle the fact that in the urban context such houses are more effective if they were modular + stackable. this should have been a requirement in the brief imho. i am imagining slums like the ones in dharavi or favelas elsewhere, where land is at a huge premium and one can imagine people willingly going for these solutions if they could stack four houses one on top of the other effectively and with the appropriate services. (i subsequently read sunil suri’s article pointed by christian)

    the house on the ground could provide the services(?), stairs, structural strength and in return collect a little rent from the ones above. i think suri is right the approach of designing for this problem needs to be upended. first create a modular ecosystem: who provides the structure, what does he get for providing it. who provides the components, what do they get for providing the components. what is needed is an app-store for low-budget housing which would provide the basic framework and rules of propagation, but the components would be brought in by independent developers, residents themselves or other stakeholders. and continuing the analogy of the app-store, what are the rules (itunes) and the device (ipod/iphone), the shared components which will provide the backbone to get such an ecosystem going and what facilities would (must) that device have?

    otherwise as you rightly said, you continue to direct this from top-down and no one else, the users or other producers have any say/participation in what is created.

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