‘Tiny Revolutions’ explores initiatives in grassroots architecture around the globe, addressing issues of affordable, sustainable and accessible construction techniques and design solutions for developing communities.
Talk of affordability today focuses on issues of money, rather than in terms of the environmental impact of affordable-housing projects, which architect Dr. Anupama Kundoo has dedicated the last 25 years of her career to. The results of her ongoing research are presented in the form of “Building Knowledge,” the installation of a housing prototype that she is presenting at the Arsenale as part of the 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice this May.
Kundoo is currently exhibiting her research on high-speed housing at the Zaha Hadid–designed Roca London Gallery, where she aims to “counter the notion that urban housing is unachievable, tedious, unaffordable.” Her proposals therefore offer housing solutions that “are developed and delivered very rapidly, very significantly affordably and with a comparatively lesser environmental impact.”
The installation at the Venice Biennale will consist of a model for a Full Fill Home, a low-cost housing unit, as well as an EASY WC, a toilet and shower cubicle to accompany the former design. The structure is made of ferro-cement hollow blocks that behave as both structural elements of the building and storage units to maximize the occupants’ living spaces in the unit. The blocks are fabricated in the backyards of local masons to keep building costs low and provide supplemental sources of income to small-scale artisans.
Architizer talked with the Indian-born architect about her upcoming installation and the future of affordable housing in architecture.
Architizer: There seems to be a lack of site specificity for the Full Fill Home and EASY WC prototypes, which suggests they are adaptable to varied contexts. To what extent is the program flexible in terms of materiality, response to different climates and access to resources?
Dr. Anupama Kundoo: What you see until now is a material investigation where, based on the current context of growing environmental, social and economic crises, affordability of housing has emerged as a general concern across various contexts. I have been discovering the potential of ferro-cement technology as a very interesting and relevant one in addressing these complex issues holistically. The work shared until now is a range of applications using this material in prefabricated assemblies as well as cast-in-situ alternatives.
What we are demonstrating here is the potential and some basic strategies and prototypes that can show its advantages. Then, depending on the geographical and climatic conditions, the building technology is to be adapted to the context through further variations that are being studied. The first case studies are located in India and are suitable to tropical climates and the building culture in developing countries. However, I am currently in Berlin collaborating with the engineering department at TU Berlin headed by Mike Schlaich, investigating further adaptations including seismic areas and other climates.
The technology is flexible in its materiality, too. Once the structural stability is established, the other details are easier to address, and there are many options that are being considered in terms of their affordability and environmental low impact. We are also researching samples using textiles, glass fiber, carbon fibers and jute to substitute the steel mesh through natural as well as hi-tech materials. The intention is not to plant identical homes or toilets everywhere, but to demonstrate a way of quick construction using minimal materials and to design unique solutions to fit site-specific needs.
We are also producing different solutions for joining the units based on seismic and windy contexts alongside less-challenging ones. Some versions are fixed, and others can be dismantled and easily moved to other places when no longer needed.
Where have you tested the prototype so far, and what have been some of the expected and unexpected outcomes?
The first prototype was tested in a village called Kottakarai in Tamil Nadu, South India. It was then carried to Chennai and assembled in a student convention for a while and then dismantled and reinstalled in Auroville where it is being observed. Another one is being produced in Berlin and will be constructed in Venice to show it at the Biennale; thereafter it will be moved to Marghera nearby.
You mention in the press release for Building Knowledge the difference between inner and outer resources. Could you elaborate on this distinction? What are the long-term benefits of focusing efforts on inner resources with the communities you’ve worked with?
I meant that using human resources — taking the time to think and make and using knowledge —can save natural resources, whereas we see over-designed solutions spend a lot of natural materials out of ignorance, depleting the earth while staying expensive. When people use their own capacities, they grow more confident and are empowered to resolve their problems without depending on others and without being left with huge bank debts.
There is a lot of enrichment and community building when people with diverse capacities and skills support or complement each other. Right now we have four Indian ferro-cement masons working with German engineers in a mutually beneficial project where people are constantly learning from each other. We are ‘Building Knowledge’ as well as ‘Building Community.’
How do you feel that this model will influence your other projects moving forward as well as broader architectural practices worldwide?
I have not been speculating its impact on other areas, the impact is always inevitable, but my main focus is on solving the issues at hand, such as optimizing the design with the help of our German collaborating engineers, reducing material consumption and making the houses more affordable. Like my message at the Biennale, I would like to keep the focus on the roots of the tree. The fruits will be a natural consequence.
How do you relate your project with the research done by architects like Tatiana Bilbao’s model for sustainable housing or Alejandro Aravena’s half-house scheme?
Well I haven’t visited any of the projects you mention, but their projects seem to further acknowledge that the affordability of housing is a growing concern worldwide and that urbanization currently is synonymous with urban poverty and accessibility to modest housing.
In your opinion, what is the significance of the architecture world showing such importance to prototypes addressing sustainable and affordable building methods?
I think that in the current context of environmental and socioeconomic concerns, any ideas and strategies that could lead to an alleviation of these issues is worth serious consideration. We already know what doesn’t work, and we already know by now that some of our new lifestyle habits come at a very high cost — not only in financial terms — so any idea that could be a potential solution must be given due attention. It is in the interest of all. However, we also have to ensure that ‘social’ or ‘sustainable’ labelled solutions keep up a high standard of design and architecture that the profession has established through the ages.
Interview edited for clarity. Anupama Kundoo's show at the Roca London Gallery is open until June 18. For the latest on the 2016 Venice Biennale, click here, and be sure to check out previous articles in Architizer’s ‘Tiny Revolutions’ series: