Anupama Kundoo/ Architektur Galerie, Berlin

Could DIY homes help ease India’s housing problem?

Could self-build, modular homes be a solution for some of the millions of slum-dwellers in India? Liza Foreman meets the architect who is determined to make a difference.

The architect Anupama Kundoo grew up in Mumbai, close to one of the ubiquitous makeshift slums that house an estimated 65 million people in India, according to official data.

Kundoo, a Professor at UCJC Madrid where she is Chair of Affordable Habitat, and whose subjects include sustainability and urban planning, says her experience of India’s slum dwellings, where poor sanitation and cramped conditions abound, moved her to do something to improve her neighbours’ lives and their living spaces. It prompted her to develop the Full Fill Home, possibly the first designer home for some of India’s most underprivileged citizens.

“I want to do something to help, to take action,” she tells BBC Designed by telephone from Berlin. The city’s Architektur Galerie has been hosting an exhibition about Kundoo and her research and experimentation in architecture that has a low environmental impact and is appropriate for its socioeconomic context.

Estimated to cost around £4,000 ($5,277) each, her low-cost, sustainable houses can be hand assembled by their future owners, with the help of the community. Kundoo is a big fan of self-building initiatives that help “empower people” and can reduce their housing debt, she says.

The home is every DIY fan’s dream. “Artisans can help to build it in their back gardens, community style,” she says. “It is like knitting a sweater. It doesn’t need to take a long time. I prefer for people to contribute to what they are doing or they feel alienated.”

Building blocks

Constructed from a Picasso-like arrangement of minimalist blocks made from ferro-cement, a type of mortar that uses chicken mesh and light steel, the homes look strikingly modern. The lighter material helps to keep transport and assembly costs in check.

The inside resembles a Mondrian painting, but in natural pigments rather than primary colours. The walls of a show home that was open to the public at last year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, were painted in blocks of muted orange, green and yellow.

“There is no need for furniture, the blocks double as furniture and as storage,” says Kundoo. Inside the compact home, there are platforms that can be used for sleeping, cooking and eating. Storage areas have been built into the walls, and the modular structure means each Full Fill Home can be assembled into a different shape and size.

This is a hands-on approach… being contemporary whilst building with what is there

When she graduated in architecture from the University of Mumbai in 1989, Kundoo went to live in a “simple but well-designed hut,” in Auroville, an experimental, new-age city that emerged in southern India in 1968 with a founding charter that stated it “belongs to nobody in particular”.

“I lived with little, to experience what you really need,” she says. First working with terracotta potters to help them develop their skills for use in her housing projects, she built the first Full Fill Home there in 2014. She is now seeking permission to build 15 to 20 more homes.

Potential uses for her houses include disaster-relief housing, student housing, shelter on remote farm plots, and youth hostels. “The technology is versatile,” she says. “I could also build a high-rise model.”

“Full Fill homes came out of the idea that I wanted to build with significantly less.  I then developed the idea of stacking modular boxes that could double as furniture,” says Kundoo.

Hands on

The project began with, “trying to build things quickly and lightly,” she adds. “I was experimenting with ferro-cement. Today, we have too many people on the planet so you need to be high-tech. I thought ferro could help for the future. This is a hands-on approach, using things that are sensible and from the place that you are building in. Being contemporary whilst building with what is there.”

Her academic subjects include development issues relating to rapid urbanisation, and she has a theory about the slums. “Slums exist because we are developing cities without planning properly,” she says. “But there is a larger problem worldwide. Our salaries need to include housing costs, which they do not. In the old days, we were born into houses, whether in Dakar or New York. Even high-level professionals across the world can no longer afford to cover their housing costs.”

“We are now a migrant society,” she says. “It’s not just fixing the slums, you have to find a solution for all. Something is wrong. Things have become over-regulated. The occurrence of slums is the manifestation of an underlying problem with housing. I think you have to prevent slums, not just fix them. Social segregation is also a huge issue here,” she adds.

Everyone in modern-day society has time to spend a day improving their situation - Anupama Kundoo  

Ms Kundoo wants to be part of the solution.  Her approach is to look at technologies that are both affordable in a monetary and environmental way. “I don’t believe that a bigger budget means a better project,” she says.

She’s not alone in her efforts or in her concern. The Indian Government is now beginning to tackle the problem through the ‘Housing for All by 2022’ scheme. It wants to build 20 million units as part of the programme that includes slum rehabilitation and self-build projects.

Professor Rajat Gupta,Professor of Sustainable Architecture and Climate Change at Oxford Brookes University, is leading a team creating an index and study to support this initiative. “Whichever way you look at it, it's resource-intensive housing so there will be an explosion of resources needed,” he says of the planned building spree in India. “We are looking at sustainable social housing, and the impact and benefit of housing.”

“The Full Fill Homes project sounds good,” he adds. “Self-build housing is part of the overall portfolio for this programme but there is no one solution. Not everyone will have that skill of building their own homes,” he says. Another problem, he says, is the cost of land. “I don't think any one group has the answer.”

For Kundoo, self-build housing is a good place to start. “In our post-Industrial society we have become over-reliant on other people doing things, even painting the walls,” she says. “Everyone in modern-day society has time to spend a day improving their situation.”

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