Challenges and Opportunities in Building Affordable Housing in IndiaJun 01 2016 · 0 comments · NISHKIAN DEAN, Residential ·0
Before he joined Nishkian Dean as Project Engineer, Chad Norvell spent three years in India directing the engineering department of a social enterprise building affordable housing for some of the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the Indian population. Recently, Chad was invited to present on his experiences to Architects Without Borders Oregon, based in Portland, OR.
22% of the Indian population, or 275 million people, live under the poverty line, which the United Nations defines as living on less than $1.25 per day. 150 million people live in improvised, non-permanent housing that is at risk of destruction each year during monsoons or other extreme weather events. Nearly 2 million Indians are homeless, according to recent government estimates.
The scale of the housing crisis in India is huge, but so are the potential impacts of affordable housing. Advances in engineering design and manufacturing have made housing construction more efficient and affordable in the United States and other developed countries. Chad helped develop innovative building techniques in India that made housing construction faster and less expensive, with the reasoning that, given the scale of the Indian market, even incremental improvements could have massive impacts. In this blog article, Chad is sharing the top three challenges to building affordable housing in the developing world, based on his years of experience in India.
Challenge 1: Being innovative while still leveraging local skills, trades, materials, and techniques
Thoughtful and creative engineering design can significantly reduce housing construction costs, particularly when the design team, construction team, and homeowners are open to innovative building techniques. At the same time, it may be feasible to apply radically innovative changes to building techniques to a single home, but far more challenging to do so on the scale of hundreds or thousands of homes.
Conventional construction techniques vary from country to country, but regardless of location, those techniques depend on a large network of specialized parties, ranging from skilled tradespeople to building product manufacturers, and from designers up to the government authorities that determine what types of construction are permissible within their jurisdiction. This network of relationships and responsibilities is what allows the complex process of building construction to happen. Introducing radical changes to a conventional building process can be an appealing way to reduce construction costs and produce more affordable housing, but it can also have disruptive and negative consequences:
- Laborers and tradespeople who make a living specializing in conventional construction may feel threatened by the introduction of new construction techniques, and may fear that they will soon be out of a job and left behind if those techniques become popular and they cannot be retrained. In some cases this may lead to organized opposition to innovation in the construction industry.
- Homeowners and permitting authorities may reject the use of radically new building techniques out of unfamiliarity, even if the suitability of those techniques can be proven through engineering analysis and testing.
- The cost savings that come from using innovative techniques may evaporate if lengthy and expensive training is required for each new construction crew that learns the techniques.
In India, Chad helped develop an efficient home construction system using interlocking reinforced masonry block walls and prefabricated lightweight slab panels. The interlocking masonry blocks were composed of a mixture of soil and cement, which was subjected to high pressures in a block press, yielding a high strength building block made primarily of inexpensive local materials. The interlocking feature increased the speed of construction by 25%, reducing labor costs, and the method of construction was similar enough to traditional Indian brickwork that masons could be trained in the new method of building in less than a day. Likewise, the prefabricated lightweight slab panels were constructed very similarly to conventional reinforced concrete slabs that are commonly used in Indian residential construction. The cost savings in using the panels came from their prefabrication and their built-in formwork, but the construction procedure was compatible with the skills that Indian concrete workers already had.
Challenge 2: Cultural perception of materials and structures vary considerably from country to country
One of the first Indian engineers Chad hired once asked him, “Why do Americans build all of their houses out of wood? Isn’t that really flimsy and weak compared to concrete and brick? Is that why we always see images of tornados destroying your homes on the news? It’s like building with paper!”
Skepticism about wood construction makes a lot of sense from that point of view. If Western culture did not have several hundred years of experience with long-lasting wood construction, we might also have a hard time believing that a few studs and a sheet of plywood could resist hurricane or earthquake forces. In fact, the robust quality of wood construction in North America today is based on a web of massive forest resources, cross-industry standardization, engineered wood materials, and advanced metal fastener products, all of which India lacks. Instead, India has its own web of rich clay deposits, small-scale brick kilns local to nearly any village in the country, and a nationwide network of cement and steel rebar production. As a result, people in India have a very different idea of what makes a house solid compared to people in the United States.
Successfully building housing in a particular region means more than just making the housing inexpensive—the houses also need to meet the local cultural expectations of what makes a house a “home.” One of the earliest affordable housing concept prototypes Chad pitched in India was built primarily of load-bearing, reinforced fiberboard panels only two inches thick. The slender panels were inexpensive to manufacture, quick to erect, and could easily be customized to meet any architectural requirement. The thinness of the walls maximized usable floor area, which was critical since some housing plots in India can be as small as 100 square feet. Plus, full scale load testing had proven that houses built with the panels were incredibly strong.
Despite all the clear technical benefits, no one in India was willing to buy a home made from these strong, slender panels, no matter how inexpensive it was. The look and feel of the resulting homes was just too alien to be acceptable to people who associate “strength” with nine inch thick solid brick walls supported by hefty reinforced concrete frames. In the United States, we also have non-technical preferences about the materials and structures we use in housing. Trade organizations in the concrete industry have been promoting concrete masonry housing in the US for many years, touting genuine technical and economic benefits. But because most Americans do not associate concrete masonry buildings with the feeling of a “home”, these promotion efforts have not been particularly successful to date.
To overcome this challenge in India, Chad learned from the failure of the original fiberboard house prototypes and adopted the use of materials and structural systems that matched Indian expectations for the look and feel of residential construction while still incorporating innovations that made housing more affordable.
Challenge 3: Cost of construction is often not a dominant factor in housing affordability
Chad’s work in India focused on applying engineering and construction innovation to make housing more affordable for those whose needs were not being met by the conventional housing market. But Chad was surprised to find that the biggest barrier to home ownership for many of the poor in India was not related to construction costs at all.
India is one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries in the world today, and to many of the poor in India, rising up out of poverty is intrinsically tied with moving from rural areas to the cities. The accelerating population growth in India’s major cities is driving land costs up exponentially. While the average home in an Indian city is an apartment (condominium) in a multi-story residential building rather than a detached house, the proportion of the purchase price corresponding to the price of the land that the apartment building sits on can be as high as 80%, meaning that only 20% of the cost of a house is from the actual cost of construction. If the cost of construction is responsible for 20% of the cost of a house, technological innovations that reduce the cost of construction by even 25% (an ambitious number) will only reduce the total cost of the apartment by 5%. Because housing is at a premium in Indian cities, developers can afford to charge full market rate for their homes regardless of construction cost savings, meaning that a well-intended desire to make housing more affordable by making it cheaper to build is actually more likely to pad a developer’s bottom line than make housing accessible to the poor.
This means that housing affordability and accessibility is about more than just the cost of construction. A complex interaction of market forces, government policies, and demographic trends all combine with the local cost of construction to determine the threshold of housing affordability in a particular area. India’s rural poor often own land or have access to inexpensive land, and for them the cost of construction is the dominant barrier to owning a durable, livable home. For India’s urban poor, barriers to homeownership are much more complex. Chad’s approach in India was to specifically target markets where construction cost was a major factor in order to maximize the utility of his cost-saving construction methods.