The Building Better Initiative Enabling Resilience in Self-constructed housing in Rural India

Authors: Divya Chand; Shweta Sundar


In rural India, homeowners play a central role in building their houses. While traditional self-constructed rural housing is the epitome of agency and autonomy, this is fast changing as the size and influence of urban centers on villages constantly grows. As vernacular building materials, construction techniques and knowledge dilute from common practice and are replaced by ubiquitous engineered construction practices, many concerns arise. A lacuna of knowledge, skill and awareness is created amongst all stakeholders, which when accompanied with an underdeveloped and unregulated construction ecosystem, and low spending capacities results in a poor quality of housing stock. The last NSSO schedule in 2012 observed that approximately a low 38% of the rural housing in India could be classified as being in good structural condition, as opposed to 62% in its urban counterparts.

Contemporary vernacular housing takes unique forms as contemporary ingenuity is combined with traditional techniques, natural resources with industrial materials, and local skills with ‘modern’ aspirations. Acknowledging such a context, and working with self-constructing homeowners demands a problematic reframing of architectural intervention. Efforts to enable better self-construction need to emerge from the different yet overlapping sectors of finance, construction, material production, housing policy, and architecture. The Building Better project initiated by Lokal Habitat Labs aims not to simply design better low-income housing units but about to increase resilience of houses already being built. The practice works to maximize agency of the homeowner and lets them inform the firm’s operations, instead of the other way around Conserving the existing housing delivery-configuration, co-producing with the lateral-kinships and local micro economies, collaborating with India’s largest private provider of small-finance loans for rural housing, the architecture firm is expanding its conventional role to what works, encouraging incrementality, designing small upgradations and capacity building, all to facilitate better architecture instead of selling it.

The aim of the ‘Building Better’ proposal is to create a framework within this housing bank that supports housing for its customers, which is dignified, durable, resilient, and safe, keeping in mind principles of socio-economic and environmental sustainability. Through targeted interventions with multiple stakeholders, it works to substantially improve the local building ecosystem to benefit their rural-housing loan beneficiaries by offering both housing finance support and technical facilitation; a one-stop solution. Helping the customers build safe and durable houses not only optimizes their consumption of financial and material resources, but also increases the lifespan of the structure, subsequently requiring lesser repair, maintenance and rebuilding. This leads to smarter and sustainable financial and resource consumption. Followed by a detailed Needs Assessment and Proof of Concept of a technical support programme, the team has developed a set of model solutions to be tested with rural homeowners. Experimental drawings are iteratively produced to be accessible and non intimidating to homeowners and it is ensured that locals are represented well. Work is progressing to provide recommendations for a pan-India scale up and digital support systems, based on the model solutions and their feedback from the field.

Keywords: Housing, self construction, capacity building, global south, resilience building