Shanty of a possible future, by DVS
An Indian professor, Vijay Govindarajan (of Dartmouth) is trying to build a decent houses for less than $300 (300house.com). It sounds impossible if you view it from the frame of a western house, but if you view it from a shanty perspective, it makes some sense. I’ve seen shanties built from advertising material, plywood and asbestos. I semi-regularly have tea in such establishments. People already build houses for less than $300. The question is whether this initiative can build them better.
The idea has gotten a lot of press coverage, but it’s still just an idea. Ideas have just been submitted last month and they’re nowhere near prototyping or building. That said, ideas can change the world. They’ve just finished a contest to find winning (ie, possible) designs. Here are some of my favorites.
Earthbag Innovation, design by PStouter
As cool as it is to live in an adobe or modular unit, most people want to live in something that looks like a house. The winning design looks like a house. Actually, it looks like a wattle and daub (mud) house somewhat common in Sri Lanka.
Goods: This design fills mesh tubes with a clay compound and seats them on clay coated bags filled rocks/sand. It’s a classic design in use in both rural homes and boutique hotels. This design saves money on the walls. The single largest outlay is $112 for the corrugated metal roof.
Bads: Mud and straw and stuff aren’t readily available in urban slums. This is a fairly common rural dwelling in Sri Lanka, but I’ve never seen one in Colombo. It simply wouldn’t make sense in terms of the available elements. If everybody in a slum dug up the earth to build their house the whole area would flood. A few of these designs assume that earth/rubble are freely available materials and they’re actually not. At least not in the city.
Stone Dome, design by Owen Geiger
Earthbagging is an ancient technique, dating back to the Hobbits. Owen Geiger goes a good step further by using chemical stuff to convert the soil into, essentially, stone. Which is pretty cool.
Goods: Stone house is better than dirt house. Circle structure saves money on roof. Igloos are pretty cool.
Bads: Earth is not so widely available in urban environments, but I suppose you can truck this stuff in. Looks kinda weird, circle is not always best use of space.
Perhaps you’ll note that my reviews have become shorter. This is true.
Hybrid House, design by DVS
If you ever visit a slum, what you’re struck by is the sheer amount of people. What makes this design interesting is that it incorporates that community into the design, which can also make a huge difference in terms of financing. Peeps could finance a few houses together, for example, and guarantee each others loans. Or something.
Goods: Incremental change. This hybrid design leverages a lot of existing methods and materials (wood, plywood, etc). This has a bit more chance of catching on that suddenly building tons of stone igloos. The design also accounts for issues like public spaces and gutters, major factors for livability. In most shanties, you seldom see people inside.
Bads: The technology here is not awesomely different. It is basically intellectual capital, which may be hard to distribute vitally. Something like a new type of brick or wall could spread virally, but this would require consultants to get the ideas across. The community thing doesn’t work unless everyone works together, and we all know how commons usually end up.
Take the whole idea of ‘public space’. In practice, someone would just build a house or park their trishaw there.
Does This Help?
I suppose my general question is not whether you can build a $300 house, but whether you can build a $300 house significantly better than what people are building now. Because they are building cheap houses, that’s not really the problem. The problem is that the houses are crappy and often unhealthy/unsafe.
We have wattle and daub houses, just not in urban slums. Instead, people use available materials like plywood, cardboard and even bits of billboard and political signage. I saw one house where a politician’s cast-away plastic hoarding was used as shelter.
What people don’t have is decent drainage, privacy, etc. Most importantly, they don’t have deeds. Which brings us to the next issue.
Will Business Help?
The $300 dollar house project talks about business involvement, but the central fact is that most people living in slums don’t have deeds. They’re squatters. In Colombo, they somewhat regularly get bulldozed. What business is going to invest in products that fund essentially illegal behavior?
None of these criticisms are to say that Professor Vijay Govindarajan’s initiative is not worthwhile. Indeed, raising these questions is important in and of itself. Personally, I think each of the design has major flaws, but it’s a really good start.
My favorite? Probably the hybrid house. It seems to have the most chance of acceptance and it introduces incremental change rather than something completely alien. However, I personally would like to live in a stone igloo.
You can view all the entries here.
For more cheap innovations like the $3000 car and $50 tablet PC check out this post: Cheap “Reverse” Innovations From India