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Rethinking Affordable Housing

The conventional approach to affordability proceeds from the false premise that well-designed buildings are expensive in their look and budget, viz a viz for a building to be affordable, it must be low in the budget as well as efforts. But while the budget is a huge constraint for designers and developers, the article suggests some strategies that can be deployed to construct affordable housings that are visually appealing, and comfortable to live in, while fulfilling the building regulations and standards.

The world is rapidly urbanizing, and the rate of migration to cities is predicted to accelerate in the coming years. A major portion of this influx of population relies on the government assigned or affordable and mass housing projects. These structures fail to respect the mental and physical well-being of its residents, as well as the aesthetic character of the urbanscape. Many a time, in addition to being unappealing to the eyes, they lack minimum standards for basic facilities like natural light and ventilation.

With so much work being done on making housing affordable for everyone, it makes one think about the cause of the problem. The ever-increasing population, and the rapid urbanization of cities, require looking at the affordable housing problem in a new light. There is a need to combine the economic feasibility of the built structure with the aesthetic demands of the city’s fabric.

Many factors affect the cost optimization of a construction project. There are some simple strategies that should be adopted in every affordable housing project to ensure cost-efficiency. These strategies include using straight-line modular plans, shared walls/structural elements, and foundations, designing simple and dynamic facades, providing common service stacks for plumbing and drainage, using lightweight masonry, minimum floor finish margin to reduce the structural load, Optimizing Electrical and HVAC loads, Standardizing details and dimensions, and reducing wastage by developing plans based on finishing materials sizes.

Besides these simple and effective techniques, given below are a few strategies that can radically change how affordable housing is conceived.

1. Eliminate the unnecessary

The planning and design stage of any construction project plays a crucial role in determining the cost of the project. While working on projects where affordability is the primary focus, the designers should work on a design that is effective and efficient. A design that eliminates unnecessary elements and spaces, that do not provide any livability and functional value to the homeowner, is very important in project cost management.

The Aranya Housing designed by B.V. Doshi is a notable example of affordable housing. The architect planned the houses to minimize the services on the site. For example, one septic tank served two clusters, one manhole for 20 toilets, and one service line for four rows of houses. This helped the project to economize.

2. They don’t need to scream ‘affordable’

Homogeneous and drab are the two words that often get associated with affordable housing. In many cases, designers use the budget as a scapegoat for the poor design and finish of the buildings. The idea should be to create ‘Contemporary Small-Format Urban Living’. When the designers treat these buildings, too as an integral part of the skyline of the city, the outcome is buildings with facades and massing that complements and builds on a creative component to the city’s skyline. Though practicality and functionality reign over aesthetics in an affordable project, we believe that simple tweaks in the zoning and massing, design of the fenestrations, and building color can do wonders for the appearance of a building.

3. A shift from Cost-Centric to Value-centric designs

The design and execution of an affordable housing project require the designers and contractors to privilege cost over values. If the focus is shifted from the cost of the project to the value being offered by the same space, we can get efficient and livable residential buildings. A series of small changes, when deployed across a unit plan, can result in more efficient units. Within individual units, some spaces can have multiple uses and can be segregated using furniture rather than walls. Aligning the kitchen and bathroom on the same wall helps in reducing the plumbing requirement. Flexibly designed units can be rotated and mirrored creatively at a building scale to add variation while also simplifying the construction process.

When presented with a choice between two same budget houses, a tenant will always choose a house that feels homey than punitive. Architects should strive to design buildings that do not conform to this stigma, and the institutional homogeneity often associated with affordable housing.

4. Plan well- Reduce Construction time

Any project which is on a shoe-string budget requires more time investment in the research and planning phase of the project than the construction and execution phase. Reduced construction time decreases the overall budget of construction by avoiding cost overruns in terms of interest payments, and materials and labor costs. It also guarantees a higher ROI for all the stakeholders of the project.

The use of innovative and advanced construction techniques and materials, skilled labor, and lean construction principles help to significantly reduce the construction time. The ‘Just in Time’ concept of the lean construction philosophy forwards materials and manpower only when required, significantly reducing the effort and materials required in the construction process. This results in a significant decrease in the project expenditure and an increase in the productivity value of the construction project.

The poor state of affordable housing reflects a lack of efforts and research by the designers and construction companies. Building affordable housing free from stigma and institutional homogeneity is possible, but it will require better efforts from architects, builders, and developers.

The article is written and composed by Miss Kiran Rathi for Dearc with inputs from Architect Varun Jain who is the partner at Dearc.

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