Want to Build a Cheap House? How About One For $300?
What began as a speculative blog has become a professional and design challenge - and may well evolve into a worldwide social and economic movement.
Years ago, when Vijay Govindarajan was earning his chartered accountancy degree in India, he would walk through a slum area to his bus stop. Like many people, he never forgot the experience of witnessing poverty firsthand.
“The people you see are wonderful, but they were caught in a vicious cycle,” says Govindarajan, now a professor of international business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “Without a proper house, there is no proper sanitation. They get sick and can’t work, which means they can’t earn money to have a proper house or educate their children.”
Blogging and networking
In 2010, Govindarajan, writing with development consultant Christian Sarkar, posted a blog on the Harvard Business Review Web site that asked a simple but challenging question: Would it be possible to provide basic, decent housing for the world’s poorest at a cost as low as $300 per unit?
They offered few guidelines but did lay down several ground rules. Use locally available materials that can be mass produced; provide for clean water, sanitation and electricity; meet standards for environmental protection and sustainability; and build structures strong enough to withstand heavy rains and even earthquakes. Finally, do it all for $300.
“The blog was purely a thought experiment,” says Govindarajan, noting that it was based on Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus’ observation that when people do get out of poverty, they often build a house that costs around $370. “We just rounded that figure down to $300,” Govindarajan observes.
The initial blog drew so much attention that the authors created a social networking Web site (www.300house.com/) and invited people to join the discussion. More than 2,500 architects, engineers, designers, builders, development experts, academics and business representatives did just that.
Several months after their first blog, Govindarajan and Sarkar launched a global design competition for a $300 house that drew more than 300 entries, along with a key corporate sponsor, Ingersoll Rand, which put up prize money for the contest.
“The point was not so much the price,” Govindarajan says. “We wanted people to think outside the box, as if they had landed on Mars. Assume that we have a clean sheet of paper. The $300 house is really a metaphor about how to bring health, sanitation and other basic services to the poor.”
The 16 finalists were selected through a combination of votes from the $300 house community, together with an independent panel of expert designers, architects and other professionals. The finalists shared a total of $25,000, which included $15,000 in scholarships for the top six winners to turn their concepts into actual prototypes.
At the same time, students from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College traveled to Mumbai and Raipur to meet with local communities, government officials and business representatives to assess the feasibility of a $300 house initiative in India.
The $300 house project was not greeted with universal applause.
Development experts and international NGOs raised a number of objections. Chief among them: a house, no matter how cheap or well designed, won’t solve the housing problems of the estimated 1.5 billion people without adequate shelter. Only a comprehensive approach can succeed, one that grapples “with the complex relationships in informal settlements among housing, land rights, economic opportunities, gender rights, health and safety,” according to a blog by Jason Corburn, associate professor of urban planning at the University of California, Berkeley.
Other objections focused on the unintended consequences of good intentions, such as bringing massive amounts of prefabricated materials and inadvertently undercutting local employment.
Govindarajan and Sarkar, along with supporters who joined the online debate, responded by essentially agreeing that designing a “clever box” alone wasn’t the solution.
“The house in the end wasn’t the real problem,” Sarkar reiterates in his public presentations, and points to the need for “an inclusive ecosystem of services”—from sanitation and electricity to health and education—that can break poverty’s vicious cycle.
He also stresses the need for involvement of the private sector as well as government and nongovernmental organizations. “We don’t want this to be just a charitable thing,” Sarkar says, and repeats a familiar saying—“You can’t donate yourself out of poverty.”
Concept to prototype
The six $300 house winners took a variety of approaches to the challenge, although all stressed readily available materials and the use of local labor. The top-ranked entry, from Patti Stouter of Germany, envisaged upper walls that would be constructed of what is termed hyper-wattle—20-centimeter mesh tubes that contain straw or wood chips dipped in a mixture of clay and water.
Another winning entry, from Eric Ho of Architecture Commons, used compressed-earth blocks and stressed the creation of micro enterprises that would provide construction jobs as the residents build their own homes. A unit comprising about 100 families would participate in the earth-block and roof-tile industries and share in the profits.
In a separate corporate category, the winner was the multinational Mahindra & Mahindra, based in Mumbai, whose design, like several others, incorporated bamboo construction and solar panels for electricity.
The contest winners will gather on the campus of Dartmouth in 2012 and build prototypes of their designs that can be evaluated by outside experts. Meanwhile, Dartmouth is sending a team of faculty, administrators and graduate students to Haiti where they will explore options for constructing an entire prototype village that can be evaluated as a functioning community.
Govindarajan sees the $300 house as an opportunity for what he calls a kind of reverse social engineering. Instead of the standard top-down model, innovation and economic opportunity will percolate up from the bottom of the economic pyramid—a world market estimated at $5 trillion, he points out.
“As businesses get into this field,” Govindarajan and Sarkar wrote in one of many blog postings, “we all want to see their initiatives achieve two levels of success that we believe go hand-in-hand: making a profit and improving the human condition.”
Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.
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