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by Micro Home Solutions (mHS) City Labs (visit profile page), 16 June 2014
Disaster Resilience Housing and Self-construction
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Even as incremental housing is an organic and inherently bottom-up process, the complexities with self-construction of housing is that it is by its very nature an unregulated process, and often results in large gaps in safety and health. Design and technical expertise are entirely dependent on local knowledge, stemming largely from the mason who is the cornerstone of the project. He is the architect, builder, engineer, contractor, and in some cases, the materials supplier as well. And yet he typically has no formal training or access to professional technical assistance. In fact, only 2% of India's construction workers go through formal training, which leads to structures that are unsound and are at high risk of collapsing, especially in the case of natural disasters or floods. Even when the structures are able to last multiple years, the homeowner often needs to put extra money into the maintenance of these poorly constructed homes. As these low-income settlements are often densely populated, minimal ventilation and natural light reaches the homes that further contributes to health and hygiene problems.

Bringing access to technical assistance: Disaster resilient construction

mHS (micro Home Solutions) is concerned with how to deliver technical advice in the most effective and scalable way, what the medium of delivery should be, and the content of the technical advice and the target audience. To understand the complexities, in 2010 we embarked on an action research project1, called Design Home Solutions (DHS), with support from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The pilot was carried out in partnership with a microfinance institution (BASIX) and the technical assistance was bundled and made mandatory with housing finance. This ensured compliance with the technical advice as well as the final quality of the projects financed.

What we learned is that in the DHS model, the relationship was extremely high-touch and the product highly customizable based on the family. The design features of the pilot, along with the state of the microfinance industry and its inability to lend to families without proper documentation (the vast majority of the urban poor), inhibited the scaling up beyond the two-resettlement communities.

The Delivery Model: The concept of TeAK (TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE KIOSK)

mHS sought to work on the next phase of the action research project Design Home Solutions, centered on finding a community based method to deliver technical assistance. The strategy included decoupling TA from housing loans, and finding ways to standardize the technical solutions. This would make them standardized across plot sizes, seismic zones, and topographies while keeping them affordable and attractive to the homeowner. These technical solutions would be available broadly through community-based Technical Assistance Kiosks, or TeAKs. TeAKs services would include construction best practices and earthquake tips, consultation on home design, layout, and finishing, easy to interpret architectural and engineering drawings for their masons, detailed cost estimates to help homeowners budget, and monitoring packages to ensure quality and compliance with the planned design of the home. It was envisaged as a one-stop-shop for design consultation and technical assistance low-income neighborhoods.

The kiosk was modeled to be a self-sustaining, profitable business over the long run, operated by a locally based entrepreneur who would be empowered to market and manage the kiosk. The services on offer would range from simple cost estimation, to a full design and construction consultation that would involve customizing the standard layout plans, choosing finishing, and monitoring the construction site to ensure compliance with the technical instructions. mHS would seek out community-based NGO partnerships to help with marketing efforts, raising home safety awareness, and providing necessary support to the entrepreneur.

Kiosk to Toolkit: Delivering models

Rather than a physical kiosk in every suitable neighborhood, mHS team realized that the variance in socioeconomic contexts, mason/contractor/homeowner relationships, levels of awareness and concern for safety standards, political progressiveness, and demand for ground-up rebuilding calls for not only a range of distribution channels, but also a more sophisticated matching of product to market in these low-income urban neighborhoods. The technical solution package, as originally envisaged, is necessary in its entirety in some neighborhoods, but too complicated in others to realistically be adopted. The "package" of technical solutions, then, is now re-imagined as a "toolkit", where different elements can be extracted and customized for a particular urban instance.

With an evolved product "line-up", it was necessary to also adapt the distribution strategy. The "one-stop-shop" kiosk model would not achieve scale, self-sufficiency, or profitability in all or even most of the urban instances like we had originally anticipated. Rather, the new strategy is one that leverages community relationships where we have one, takes advantage of favorable local politics where they exist, and combines forces with private companies where feasible. In essence, mHS recognized in this six month journey that the goal of improving incremental housing safety must itself be approached incrementally. In one neighborhood it starts with mason training, while in another it may start with colony-wide plan pre-approvals from the government. Each trip and each meeting confirmed the complexities and subtleties in self-construction, and mHS consequently evolved its strategy to reflect that reality.

The consultation process made clear that a package of solutions may not be applicable to all neighborhood contexts, and that it may be more impactful to break the "package" into separate elements that can be plugged into different environments. The individual components of this "toolkit" are described below:

1. Architectural and engineering drawings:

From an research & development perspective, developing architectural and engineering solutions that are optimized for ventilation, light, and safety, but result in a finished product that is equally as affordable as the current self-construction methodology produces, is the most challenging and time consuming component. It is also the most critical element in the toolkit, as it is what will make the biggest impact on the housing safety and quality if followed2.

2. Basic construction manual:

mHS worked a basic construction practices manual for distribution in areas that predominantly self construct their homes3. Even if the homeowners can't opt for the full technical solution above, they along with the masons and contractors can benefit from the simple tips that the manual provides in a similar pictorial manner as the technical solutions. Most of the existing manuals that are produced for construction safety are not accessible by the average mason, and thus remained relegated to classrooms or training centers but hardly referenced by the workers at the site.

3. Mason training programs:

mHS is exploring different approaches and materials necessary to begin training programs for masons in informal settlements4. Ahmedabad will be home to the first mHS pilot mason training program, in collaboration with SAATH, which is currently running its own mason training program, but doesn't cover elements such as earthquake or structural safety elements. mHS designed a module based on the construction basics manual that can be standalone or incorporated into other such existing training programs.

Pilot Program: mHS's Mason Training Workshop in Khodiyarnagar settlement with SAATH5

In July 2013, two members of the mHS team6 travelled to Ahmedabad in order to conduct a three-day mason training workshop at the Khodiyarnagar settlement at a SAATH building centre, as an add-on to SAATH's existing two-month mason training program. This pilot training workshop had a three-fold objective from mHS' perspective: first, to confirm whether mHS' current strategy in Ahmedabad, of partnering with on-the-ground organizations such as SAATH, who are clued into the local context, is more appropriate than the original strategy under TeAK, where mHS directly gets involved with all aspects of transmitting technical knowledge; second, to test the construction manual and other training materials developed in-house; third, to understand on the ground how best to prepare a curriculum on building safely on seismic zones and structural safety elements, which SAATH does not cover in its program; During the course of the training, it became clear that due to a variety of factors, including regional differences in construction terminology, building methods and skill levels, and the level of trust and name recognition that SAATH had built up through working with the community over a period of time, which mHS could build on more easily than beginning this process afresh, the evolved strategy of working through multiple channels, and especially with on-the-ground partners rather than operating independently through TeAK was more effective in this context.

Disaster Risk Reduction and Preparedness

Given the link of building quality, life safety and the role of technical assistance, mHS reached out to stakeholders in the disaster preparedness and response communities. Summary of the discussions in the conference are highlighted here. In the absence of a framework to understand informality, it is always hard to assess and prepare for risks. With this seed idea, Surekha Ghogale from Aga Khan Planning and Building Services conducted a hands-on workshop to assess risks and suggest mitigation measures for different types of informal housing situations— temporary (kaccha), semi-permanent (semi-pucca), none-engineered permanent and engineered. Split into four groups, each with a diverse range of experience and expertise, the workshop brought forward valuable insights like understanding materials used to construct kaccha homes, re-imagining building guidelines in the context of the local and the incremental, suggesting approval processes that incorporate periodic certification of structures to monitor safety of incremental home improvements questioning the notion of "engineered" buildings versus non-engineered buildings due to inferior construction materials, graft and other "informal" issues that plague formal as well as informal buildings, how to bundle credit with technical assistance, and the actual implementation of community education on the ground. In the wake of the Uttarakhand calamity8, participants were more than aware of the need to create, in consultation with communities, local disaster preparedness blueprints and widespread awareness generation. Marco (mHS) presented a seismic risk evaluation of Mangolpuri in Delhi through a study titled:"Built to Collapse"9.

The study in collaboration with IIT Kanpur highlighted the dangers of non-engineered vertical additions and advocates the training and sensitization of local masons and contractors regarding the need to correct simple construction errors using a graphic manual. Henry Waller and Davidson from Habitat for Humanity presented their experiences from two years of offering microfinance and technical assistance to minor and moderate housing improvements via NGO partners. Acting as consultants to the local contractors, HFH has been able to reduce or rationalize costs, help homeowners prioritize incremental additions, negotiate with masons and prevent over-engineering, among other benefits.

Conclusion: Reflections on how to scale this effort

The more insightful activity for mHS team was in developing the material for the masters class for Mason in Ahmedabad where we saw first hand the returns of designing yet another mason manual! This reaffirms our belief and vision in continuing to find innovative and tactful strategies to engage the construction workforce- a trade and practice where often the mistry or mason has the final say. As we continue with the different partners to 'train the trainers', it would be wise to leverage the technology platform and make the TeAK Toolkit available through alternative channels.




[2] mHS completed these architectural layouts for three plot sizes, 8x4m, 4x3m, and 4x6m, and has engineering/structural solutions for all but 4x6m ready for Delhi and Ahmedabad. Each pair of solutions must be designed with the local topography, seismic risk, and climate in mind. Given the lengthy R&D time for each solution to be designed and optimized for cost, mHS continues to search for funding and/or engineering partners to help in growing the number of covered plot sizes. The developed solutions are then translated into step-by step, pictorial, 3-D drawings that enable even illiterate masons to interpret and follow the instructions. This is another critical and unique innovation that mHS has tested in the field in both Delhi and Ahmedabad with masons and iterated on over months to ensure comprehensibility.

[3] Through the course of its travels, mHS realized that many sites have homeowners and masons that are not in the position to make use of the above, more sophisticated solution. The reasons range from ability to build from the ground up, financial pressure, lack of awareness of safety problems, amongst others. Many of the safety issues we see in construction can be ameliorated through small fixes: ratio of water and cement in concrete, placement of beams, nominal sizes of columns, beams, slabs, correct wall thicknesses, light and ventilation tips, etc. While small, the aggregate impact of these corrections can make a significant difference in the final product.

[4] Whether a family opts for the full technical solution and builds a new home from the ground up, or simply wants to avail the tips and suggestions in the construction basics manual, there is a need to increase and extend the availability of mason training programs that better prepare masons to design, build, and finish structurally safe buildings. Only 2% of the masons in India receive any sort of formal training, and many of those are employed by the private sector to build in the commercial or high-end residential sectors. Few training programs are aimed at training those workers who build their own homes or are employed locally by others in the self-construction context.

[5] Niran with mHS: SAATH blog

[6] Blog on the training visit by Shreya Krishnan

[7] Extracted from Workshop held at the Ford Foundation offices: Paradigm Shift in Housing: Informality and Self-construction]

[8] Over 10,000 lives were lost in the flash floods in Uttrakhand in June 2013

[9] Download from mHS website: