The Forgotten Case of Low-cost Housing: G Shankar Narayan

A decade or more back, I had clients walking into my studio in Hyderabad wanting a ‘Laurie Baker’ house. Given that Baker was considered an architect for the poor, my clients were not in any way economically challenged – in fact they were quite well off. For them a ‘Laurie Baker’ house was one that had exposed rat trap bond walls, filler slabs and brick arches. Forgetting the extra cost and inappropriateness of these in Hyderabad, given the poor quality of local brick and masonry skills, it was the distinctive look that enticed them. The sensual trumped the practical and poor LB (pun intended) was reduced to a brand like Louise Phillipe or Van Huesen! Despite the superficiality of it, there was a visual appeal of the ‘Low-cost’ aesthetic. The material ascetism had a powerful pull and seemed to say to the not so well off, albeit notionally, that ‘we are with you’. But now, even that fig leaf is gone. Houses today of the well-to-do i.e. those that can still afford to buy a plot and build an independent house, are a collage of glass, white walls and floors, atrociously expensive toilets and gypsum false ceilings.

The term Low-cost Housing (LCH) has today fallen off the radar. No one talks about it – it is rarely, if ever, heard in debates and discussions. The media which has so much to say about everything else, only peripherally and seasonally covers the issue when the homeless in Delhi suffer its biting winters. This is true of the architectural press too which is smitten by photogenic architecture. Even among the architectural intelligentsia the dialogue has moved away from equitable housing, leave alone LCH. The focus here has shifted to ‘green’ issues. Though important, I think this is in a way putting the cart before the horse. When the rudimentary shelter needs of multitude of its citizens are far from being met, this obsessive talk about ‘greening’ of architecture in India – that too of the debatable kind – is insensitive and misplaced. If there is one agency that is expected and obliged to do its bit towards LCH, it is the government. However, these days its propaganda machine does not champion LCH any more. The ‘Makaan’ along with ‘Kapada’ has disappeared from the idealistic slogan of ‘Roti, Kapada aur Makaan’. Maybe ‘post 1991 liberalised’ Indians do not need them anymore! The government is now obsessed with ‘Roti’, what with the recently passed Food Bill. Some would demur that LCH now has a new name – ‘Affordable Housing’. On the face of it, it seems so. But a deeper look shows that Affordable Housing is a generic term and has its roots in a real estate, developer oriented vocabulary. It has nothing to do with intelligent architectural design, innovative resource conserving construction or appropriate community based planning. It is all about maximising floor space through clever tweaks of the building regulations to squeeze returns on land cost. It is also about building compact apartments in far flung suburban areas to target the middle classes who have been pushed this far for a home of their own. It is not ‘low-cost’ enough to be affordable to large sections of our homeless populations. Affordable Housing is also a clever play of words – whoever coined the term – as affordability can be at any level of economic strata. This definition by its own wording implies that the rest of the real estate market is unaffordable and only for the super rich! This is of course not far from the truth, given that simple apartments cost anything upwards of Rs 50 lacs in our metros.

In a nation of crores of shelter deprived, you would expect LCH to be a mantra, not just in the government but among the business classes too. You would also think that the economics of supply and demand would come into natural play and this huge almost insatiable market opportunity would be grabbed by developers and construction companies. Curiously, that is not the case. None of the high profile corporate companies has a workable idea to address this massive issue. LCH remains on the periphery of our development and growth paradigm. No one seems interested and enthusiastic. What is lost sight of is that investment in housing has a wide ranging ripple effect stimulating all sectors of the economy from the labour market to consumer goods as owners would then ‘build’ up their homes. It is a known fact that housing or any building has three essential components for it to be complete – land, the building itself and service infrastructure. In the rural areas, villages and small towns, land is relatively cheaper to come by whereas in cities it is a precious resource. If land is the stumbling block in the roll out of LCH schemes, where are the creative ideas to address this issue? Our elite management institutes are also silent with no forthcoming strategies. LCH in its entirety is no doubt intimately connected with land and infrastructure, but, as architects, let us focus on the building component.

To be fair, several architects, engineers and institutions have  over the years come up with systems and materials to have a crack at the problem of cost-effective construction. The underlying assumption in all these ideas is that the ubiquitous RCC frame structure with panel walls in brick/concrete block is not cost-effective enough to qualify for LCH status. There is also an undercurrent; especially among architect innovators that RCC frame is too mainstream to be an ‘alternate’ technology which comes with its own sexiness. Ironically however, when it comes to cost, each of the new systems is benchmarked against the same, much reviled RCC frame! From Stabilised Compressed Earth Blocks (SCEB), RCC precast panel slabs, filler slabs, bamboo reinforcement, brick vaulted roof, arched foundation to ferrocement, a whole range of ideas have been articulated, experimented with, tested and built out in labs and on the field. The LCH bandwagon has varied players – from a hugely bureaucratic, government-run CBRI to a young individual architect working on his own steam deep in the countryside. State housing boards and corporations (the self appointed benefactor of the EWS) have testily adopted some of these technologies but are comfortable in their faith in RCC frame structure. This may be because the engineers who head these departments have a creeping suspicion about alternate technologies from the strength, durability and practicality point of view. They may not be far off the mark; the infamous Yelahanka housing scheme constructed with SCEB in late 1980s which started eroding is an oft quoted example. However, what they end up building is nothing better – poorly constructed and designed RCC buildings often in godforsaken places. Looking out of the train window,  one often comes across rows and rows of boxes that make up ghost colonies in the country side. These are the housing units that the poor are happily living in, at least statistically, in government records!

Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Voluntary groups fare better on the LCH index. They are a large benefactor and user of innovative and cost-effective building technologies. This could be due to their relative freedom from bureaucratic processes and red tape which strangle even the most well intentioned government officer. They have sponsored and got built large swathes of housing for fisher folk, cyclone/tsunami affected, dam and mega project displaced, etc. Not least because of grants, funding and goals set by international agencies, there is a desire to look at LCH as a humane endeavor imbued with design and build quality and not just as a statistic. However, a caveat here. If LCH has to be unsubsidised and true to its actual cost to the end user, the grant and aid which is invariably part of international funding, muddies the water a little.

HUDCO, which was such a proactive promoter of LCH till the early 1990s is unheard of today in this field. In a truly pioneering fashion for those days, a public agency recognised the need for good design as an essential starting point and appointed some of the best architects for the projects. There was a fillip given to local materials and technologies. That momentum died with the exit of its visionary top management. If it had been sustained with the same passion, I am sure the last couple of decades would have witnessed a sea change in the LCH scenario.

Despite the combined efforts of NGOs, Individuals, State Housing Corporations, HUDCO, etc, the glaring fact remains – their contribution is nothing more than an infinitesimal speck of the total housing need of the country in the low-cost sector. Dare I say ten per cent or less. And if you take the overall housing sector need, maybe less than one per cent. This is where the conundrum hits us in the face, like a jack hammer blow to the jaw! Why has there been no credible progress? Whatever has been done by innovative architects are minute islands of newness, barely taking root in people’s imagination and spreading of their own accord. They have remained seminar pieces for discussion in international symposiums or as pretty pictures to be printed in glossies. In the meantime, people have not stopped building. In fact in the rural areas, RCC is making quick inroads to the detriment of vernacular building practices. It does not need an observant eye to catch this one-sided battle as more and more RCC flat roofs are defining the rural skyline. Is RCC really more cost-effective than well established local techniques? Or is it that the villager adopts a foreign material/form to up his social quotient much like his urban counterpart does with imported ones from Singapore and Shanghai. A deeper investigation into this phenomenon is required. Relevant to the discussion here, though, is that all ‘designer’ cost-effective technologies – the funicular shells, brick/Nubian vaults, sloped filler slabs, et al – are more congenial to rural landscape because of their inherent inability to have an upper floor, an imperative in the urban milieu due to limited land availability. But even so, rural folk are not adopting these techniques, notwithstanding efforts of the Nirmithi Kendras, which has limited success in Kerala. They are in fact moving wholesale to RCC, the bugbear of ‘alternatists’! Allow me to meander a bit here. RCC is the most complex component of all processes in the building construction, such as stone masonry, brick work, plaster, etc. It requires a fair amount of skill in centering, steel fabrication, concrete laying, etc. If our so-called simple village folk are taking to it, it means a new genre of craftsmen are beginning to flourish, driving another nail into the vernacular coffin.

That turns us to the urban/metro sector where the need for LCH is glaringly visible in the proliferating pavement dwellings, migrant colonies, squatter housing, etc. One soon realises that the LCH scenario here is even bleaker than in the countryside. And this is when our urban population is set to double in the next couple of decades! Whatever little one sees of LCH, it is in the government sector with its Rajiv Awas Yojana and JNNURM programmes. With almost zero attention to good design and  cost-effective construction, these mega projects (generally around 1000 tenements) are invariably high-rise RCC frame structures – again engineer driven design, as mentioned earlier. Most of the LCH technologies listed earlier are suited for low-rise buildings leaving very few credible options for the dense urban habitat. Given these conditions, the only feasible option seems to be precasting, which is still in its infancy in the regular commercial sector itself. Precasting also requires its own ecosystem in terms of machinery, manufacturing skills upgradation – necessitating huge capital. With no other workable system, the LCH market in the private sector offers conventional RCC at a low cost achieved through low quality. Apartments that leak and crack, leave alone collapse! Or we see people living in unfinished houses, steel reinforcement sticking out, roofless toilets and walls yet to  be plastered.

So have we reached a dead end in the search of effective  cost-effective building ideas? It does not seem a happy picture and architects’ contributions, while worthy on their own, seem to be barely scratching the surface. In this uninviting landscape, let me venture to give some ways forward. Again, these are architect/building centric ideas generally limited to the urban realm and need to be dovetailed into land, infrastructure, policy, finance initiatives to complete the framework:

• The dialogue in the architectural fraternity which has been hijacked by the ‘dubious green’ brigade must be steered towards Low-cost building. One should not miss the point that low-cost often translates to low eco-impact and real green. Strangely, architects seem to be aloof to the issue and have relegated what essentially is their turf to developers and their campaign for affordable housing. Forums must be opened, conventions should be held and websites created on this theme and architects should be in the forefront in collaborating with the government in policy initiatives and influencing the real estate industry. Not that the awards are any barometer of real capability, but the Indian Institute of Architects awards or any other well-known award does not have a category for LC architecture!

• Though there has been a burst of architectural colleges in the past couple of decades and the curriculum gets tweaked now and then, it is quite appalling that it does not include a subject on cost-effective building. The present student community is wholly divorced from the need, techniques and the empathy required for design in this sector and are still fed the staple – and now stale – diet from McKay and Neufert. In fact, the generation of architects since the dawn of the liberalisation era (when, not very coincidentally HUDCO initiatives dried up) have grown up on hi-tech – high cost architectural assignments like resorts, multiplexes, metro stations. One does find a rare brave student thesis taking a shot at LCH, but sadly it falls short due to the lack of ideas, paucity of data, case studies and regulatory standards. The pedagogical initiative in cost-effective construction should extend to the engineering education as civil engineers are prime to the task.

• A comprehensive and creative relook at city planning processes should be initiated to release urban land in city centres (and not disconnected suburbs) for LCH. Thinking out of the box, if metro lines can be built on road medians, why not housing. Multifunctional use of school buildings for sheltering the homeless during night, flexible mobile shelters and earmarked spaces for their installation are other ideas to be explored. Not all LCH needs to be ownership based, as a large segment of the homeless is migrant in nature. Market driven systems can be evolved to offer limited tenancies, which will extract the poor and homeless from the clutches of the slum mafia.

• A comprehensive and dynamic database of material rates, techniques, labour inputs, eco-footprints should be created along with new regulations and standards for low cost building. Only then financial institutions will come forward to fund initiatives in this sector.

• The building developer community is much criticised for corrupting the administration, violating the building regulations and giving rise to land mafias. While much of this is true, it is to their credit that the country’s existing housing stock is almost entirely due to their enterprise. If it was left to the state, I may not have had a home to sit and pen this article now! Unless we turn around the image of LCH as something charitable, subsidised and borne out of pity and make it market oriented and dynamic on its own terms, we will not move ahead.

In a sort of self goal at the fag end of the match, let me suggest that the term ‘Low-cost Housing’ is itself inappropriate. A house is the ultimate physical possession of any human – be it an ‘Ambani’ or the rag picker – and it does not give any sense of pride and dignity to a home owner to be labeled as the proprietor of a cheap house. When neither ‘Affordable Housing’ nor ‘Low-cost Housing’ seems to capture the essence, I leave it to the readers’ imagination to come up with an apt term and more importantly an apt strategy!

About the author:
G Shankar Narayan has had a practice in Hyderabad for the past 25 years and teaches, writes and campaigns on architectural and habitat issues. His work can be viewed at www.shankarch.com. He can be reached at shankar@shankarch.com.

2 thoughts on “The Forgotten Case of Low-cost Housing: G Shankar Narayan”

  1. I have long since dropped the term “low cost housing” from my vocabulary as low cost is equated to “cheap” materials and finishes, and often is associated with poor quality of execution as well. An appropriate term is “cost effective architecture”, which means you get THE BEST of what your money can buy….and that’s the kind of practise I indulge in, keeping in mind the selection of materials and techniques should essentially be ecologically sustainable.

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