Whenever the problem of providing low-cost houses for the Indian urban dwellers is discussed, it generally arouses feelings of dismay and pessimism. For when the requirement is presented in concrete figures, its cost seems impossibly high compared to the spending capacity of the people and the government. This staggering disparity between the means and ends is one of the reasons why not enough serious effort is being made to find realistic solutions to the problem.

However, the situation is by no means hopeless. The problem can be stated anew so that what at present appear to be its negative aspects are converted into assets. It is possible to provide a 40 meter plinth area—containing a room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a latrine—for Rs. 4,000, inclusive of development costs, even in major cities. This means that such house would cost about Rs. 50 per month in installment payments spread over 20 years. It should, therefore, be possible even for a person earning Rs. 150-200 a month to own this house.

To understand how this is possible let us first look at the so called negative aspects of the present housing situation. The most difficult problem is that of the very great number of people needing houses. But all these people also constitute a vast and free labour force if the housing design allows the maximum use of unskilled and semi-skilled labour. This is a tremendous asset.

The second major problem is the land requirement of such a great number of houses. Densities of up to 250 people per acre can be satisfactorily achieved with only single-storey buildings. This results in surprising bonuses, single-storey buildings can be easily designed to be built on a self-help basis; situated at the ground level close to one another, they can generate a feeling of community among inhabitants and the land is used most intensively. After all, the argument that urban land is extremely expensive makes sense only if one accepts the present system of checkless private speculation based upon it. In fact, the cost in larger social terms is only equal to the value of the product that is foregone when it is taken out of an alternative use, such as agriculture. Thus, land can also be viewed in a positive light.

The third bogey is of the limited resources of the “poor” man, which make it impossible for him to pay for his house. The positive aspect of this is that it is precisely the “poor” man, with no other immovable assets who would be most keen to own a house, if the price is right. And, once he becomes a house owner, he might very possibly change from being a fringe member of society (for even being an anti-social clement) to become a responsible citizen, for he will then be having a positive stake in society. This kind of change might well provide a boost to the national economy. Thus, the contention is that low-cost housing, instead of being a depressing national problem, can be tackled to become a major resource for the country.

To illustrate how this can be done, a specific housing scheme was worked out in response to the house design ideas (urban) competition organised by the housing and urban development corporation (HUDCO) and co-sponsored by the Hari Om ashram trust, Nadiad (Gujarat) in February 1975. The scheme proposes a solution on a five-hectare urban site. The density proposed was 120 dwelling units per hectare, with provision for primary and nursery schools, convenient shopping and an electric substation. Out of the five-hectare total site, these community facilities occupy 0.82 hectare.

The houses provided are of two types—type A has a plinth area of 22.5 sq. m. and contains one room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a latrine: type B has a plinth area of 40 sq. m. and contains two rooms, a kitchen a bathroom and a latrine. Of the total houses (600), two-thirds (400) are of type A and one-third (200) of type B. All of them are single-story houses together covering a plinth area equal to 33 percent of the total site. Every house has, in addition to the plinth area mentioned earlier, an open-to-sky courtyard of about six sq. m. which is so attached that it is completely private and accessible from every room in the house.

The houses are grouped in threes—two of type A and one of type B—to share walls and plumbing lines. This basic module of three houses links up with similar modules in various ways to generate small communal open spaces joined by pedestrian paths which lead to the community facilities—the larger, open spaces and schools.

Close attention is paid to the design of the open spaces since one of the major objectives of the planning is to make intensive use of the land. Most of the cities in our country have a climate suitable for outdoor living for a major part of the year. Especially, if houses are small and the size of the families are large, people tend to be outdoors anyway into the adjoining open spaces. This can also make for a rich community life. However, this active community interaction takes place generally when the open spaces are small enough to be maintainable without an army of gardeners and their scale is intimate enough to relate directly to each house. Anyone familiar with the government housing colonies in New Delhi will recall how barren and desolate are the large open spaces between the houses.

In our scheme, the open space between, three houses, is just large enough to be adequately shaded by one medium-size tree (please see diagram). This is felt to be the appropriate scale at which the inhabitants can relate satisfactorily to one another, and the space can be maintained by them. With one tree for every three houses, the entire site can become a network of shaded spaces between houses, which will lower the temperature of the housing area by about five percent in summer. Trees which shed their leaves in winter should be selected so that sunshine enters the houses in the cold months. These 200 odd trees would be cheap to plant and the comfort they would provide in terms of controlled micro-climate would be amazing.

Another important climatic variable is the orientation of the houses. The planning ensures that all houses are oriented to catch the monsoon winds. The ideal orientation also makes it possible to exclude the sun from the houses in summer and allow sunshine in the winter. Thus, the houses are long and narrow, allowing the breeze to cross-ventilate every room through the private courtyard.

The long, narrow plan also makes for a short span for the roof, thus making the construction easier and cheaper. The roofing can be of a light, standard panel type, which can be erected by even unskilled labour. The cheapest variety would be a sloping roof, but with a little additional cost a flat roof could be provided. The flat roof would provide extra terrace space for each family.

The scale of the building being small, the majority of the labour for construction can be provided by the inhabitants themselves, thus causing a great saving in cost and generating employment opportunities. At the same time, this participation in the building activity would lead to a much higher value being placed by the dwellers on the physical environment. This could lead to a much healthier overall environment.

The construction possibilities, however, have not been explored fully yet. The building industry growth rate is very slow, and with a large scale housing programme, the speed of construction is an essential requirement. Prefabrication of building components is therefore very necessary. Of course, in the Indian context, any attempt at prefabrication requires careful thinking and selection so that the process becomes labour intensive. There are already national ratings and factors which is tackling these problems but the efforts seem to be geared more to satisfying the existing multi-storey-building syndrome. An innovative spirit seems to be lacking.

There is also a tremendous scope for innovation in the servicing infrastructure for urban dwellings. We are at present facing acute shortages of power and water in the cities, also out sanitation systems are outdated and expensive. Even if we can provide houses cheaply, we will have great difficulty in servicing them if we have to rely on the existing systems of their extensions.

The answer may again lie in taking what appears to be a negative factor and reversing it into an asset. Natural sources of energy such as the sun, wind and chemical (some say alchemical), action of plants can be the generators for new servicing systems. There already exists a small but expanding body of theoretical knowledge dealing with these aspects. But a really serious effort to apply this knowledge is still lacking.