'Mass housing is a self-defeating concept'

SUHASINI AYER-GUIGAN is an architect concerned with issues of rural development and habitat. Holding a degree in architecture from the Delhi-based School of Planning and Architecture, she has spent nearly a decade working on earth construction, and is currently the head of architecture at the Centre for Scientific Research (CSR), Auroville Building Centre, Auroville, in Tamil Nadu. Suhasini was in Delhi recently to participate in the international design workshop (March 27-30, 1995) on climatically responsive low-energy architecture. She spoke to Koshy Cherail about her work and the role of earth architecture in rural housing

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

What are the activities of the CSR?
We are a very small organisation of just 5 people working on appropriate building technology and materials, water and sanitation. We have also been promoting alternative energy sources -- wind for water pumping and solar photovoltaic for lighting; now we are introducing solar thermal energy for steam generation.

The rural communities we work with are not very technical people. They live off the land in simple habitats. The area lacks energy and other resources. There is no connection to the local grid. So we have to find technologies that can help them survive in such conditions. Therefore, our work is a more need-based than experimentation and research. Our organisation -- the Auroville Building Centre and the CSR -- stands for both research and application.

What construction technologies have you been promoting?
We deal mostly with development within Auroville, where we apply what we have worked on in the laboratory. We train the local people to use low-input technology in construction. It is aimed at the non-organised sector.

Often, when an agency comes in, they bring the manpower, resources and everything, and when they move out things return to the previous state. Instead of trying to interfere with the locals' living habits, we do it ourselves and let them see that it works.

Normally the poor people have very little money and they cannot experiment with that. When they realize that a certain technology works, they adopt it themselves and come to us for machines, expertise or training. All our construction sites are training sites also; at least 1/2 the workers at a construction site are unskilled people who are trained in block making, masonry, plumbing and carpentry.

Our main thrust is on earth construction and ferrocement. In earth construction, we mostly do the walling and foundation. For compressed mud blocks, we use 5 per cent cement, or 3 per cent lime and 2 per cent cement, and various mixtures. We have an earth testing laboratory; we use proportions of lime or cement according to the soil consistency and texture.

Ferrocement, a very versatile material, is used for roofs, water tanks, doors or window shutters and prefabricated toilets. We even make walling materials from it, although climatically it is not very appropriate since it lets the heat in too fast.

Have you utilised industrial waste products, such as flyash, in your construction?
We have not done much with flyash as it is unavailable in our area. We would like to try it out. The Neyveli Lignite Corporation has a lot of flyash but they are not very cooperative. There are administrative hassles which we have to go through. We cannot get it, as we are neither a government department nor an NGO in the strict sense. We are a governmental organisation created by the Parliament, having the status of an NGO.

How much of technology development and training do you undertake ?
We do research in earth construction, develop equipment for it and manufacture block making machines, weaving machines, mixers and crushing provenders/machines for stones in the soil. We conduct training in earth technology. Every 3 months we have a hands-on training course for 1 week. Since 1992, we have been training 15 people every month in ferrocement technology and another 15 every 3 months in earth construction. We have training programmes for entrepreneurs, architects and engineers as well as for master masons.

We also provide training to trainers -- master masons, for instance -- on behalf of other building centres created by the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO). We have taken on trainees from Anil Laul's building centre at Serai Kale Khan in Delhi.

How extensive is your work in the South? Are there others working on earth construction in your area?
Yes, Ray Meeker of Pondicherry is well known for his work in fired houses. His technology is appropriate wherever ours is not. When the soil is clayey, you can make fired houses; but when the soil is sandy, you use stabilised earth blocks or rammed earth. Our work complements each other, depending on where the projects are. We concentrate mostly in Auroville and the Pondicherry area.

How extensively can you apply your technology ?
We have expertise in different aspects of earth construction. But our main thrust is on compressed earth blocks, rammed earth and ferrocement. They are applicable locally where people have been building with earth, and we do not think compressed earth block is the last word in earth construction. In our area it works, but if you go to more moderate climates, you use the adobe, wattle and dobb techniques.

How have the people responded to your technologies?
Locally, we have constructed about 20 houses for harijans ourselves. If you ride down to Maddur, about 15 km from Auroville, you will find people using ferrocement channels for housing. They have been trained at our sites, they have seen us do it; they come to the building centre, take the measurements for ferrocement, go back and do it themselves.

I find this the best way to transfer technology -- when people do it themselves and know that it works. If you try to make them do it, they are not very convinced. When people saw us planting indigenous species in our afforestation programme, they were sceptical. But after 20 years when they see that our cash crops are of better quality, they come to our nurseries and ask for particular species.

We have been researching on various plants and planting indigenous species since the beginning of Auroville in 1968. The CSR was started in 1984. I came to the Centre as a trainee in 1985 and joined the CSR in 1987.

There is a serious shortage of housing in India. Mass housing programmes often fail as the buildings do not respond to the social and cultural needs of the people. What do you think is the best way to provide houses for the masses? Mass housing is a self-defeating concept. Government and public sector agencies -- ignorant of how man wants to live -- concentrate on building mass houses, instead of giving people the skills and material resources to do it themselves.

The best way is to organise people to be self-willed. The economically weaker sections know very well what they want. Professionals can only help by giving them technology and know-how. But the design of the spaces, the way they live and interact with each other -- these adaptations have to be done by the people themselves. This will ensure less wastage of public funds, reduce the involvement of middlemen and agencies and check the proliferation of substandard material.

How do you empower the people in terms of resources, especially land?
It is a very difficult thing because most of the time they are used to having things done for them. Today, people depend upon the government for housing. So it is a complete cultural reversal that we have to attempt.

We have to find out where we can provide an occupational niche for house building. It is not an easy thing to do. Our applications are based on local needs. At the Centre, even though we have technical experts, our approach is to find simple thumb-rule techniques for complex things.

Why have some of the mud-based mass housing projects, like the Karnataka Housing Board (KHB) project in Bangalore in the 1980s, failed?
The KHB experience in mud housing was a failure because they went too fast. There is an organic process in all this. Mud as a material is not for the organised sector.

The urban population should provide visible examples. These technologies have to be introduced in public buildings, higher income group housing, government offices, hospitals, schools and railway stations. Then, automatically, the technology transfer will take place. Once these groups and institutions adopt them, they will be acceptable to the middle and lower income groups.

Why is it that every time you talk of a new concept, you like to experiment it only on the poor?

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