Technical assistance challenges in self-construction

The self-construction opportunity: A bottom-up answer to low-income housing — Part II

This is a two-part blog on the self-construction housing opportunity in India's informal settlements. Part II highlights innovations needed to address issues of safety and quality in self-constructed housing, guidelines circulated by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), and what we can do to make innovations and information more accessible to communities. Part I highlighted the urgency to acknowledge and facilitate the self-construction market and shared experiences from the mHS pilot.

Self-construction experts, gaps and the NDMA requirements

Self-construction is, and will continue to be, the most prevalent practice of home building in India. Across metros and smaller towns, self-construction needs to be evaluated as an opportunity to be catalyzed to improve quality and safety.

In low-income neighborhoods, the task of construction rests with the homeowners and their trusted mason, who often plays the roles of contractor, engineer, architect, plumber, electrician and, at times, financier, all bundled in one. Typically, the mason hails from the neighborhood and is well known in the community. He starts off as an apprentice under another mason for a few years before setting out on his own. In India only 2% of the construction workforce is trained. By 2022, the additional requirement of skilled masons is projected at 4.2 million, according to a study undertaken in 2011 by the National Skill Development Council (NSDC).

The formal process of construction in planned settlements is governed by a law requiring homeowners to submit technical plans to the local authority for approval prior to construction. Low-income neighborhoods, on the other hand, fall outside the regulatory purview of local municipalities; therefore, there is no approval system in place for building design and construction. This is the true across a range of locations, from urban villages to neighborhoods still considered agricultural or non-residential colonies.

mHS undertook a pilot in Mangolpuri, a slum resettlement colony home to 100,000 people, to provide technical assistance to their masons. After several attempts to find the applicable building code, we could not locate any related information. Despite the lack of written information, people are aware of limits on the permissible number of floors, the street width or setbacks. Masons and residents have an informal understanding on norms mostly based on precedent. No one submits, or is expected to submit, a plan for approval or seek advice of an engineer or architect on a multi-story construction.

The answer is not in requiring the households to go through the formal approval route. This would not be successful for two reasons: First, the local municipalities, as they function today, do not have the capacity to evaluate the potentially high volume of applications, even if they charged a fee for the approvals. Secondly, and more importantly, homeowners in informal settlements do not have access to architects and engineers to draw and submit plans (even if we make a wild assumption that architects are interested in serving this clientele). This leads to building codes not being applied and units getting built often with substandard structures.

There is a growing concern over the haphazard construction activity. With the vertical nature of construction, especially in larger-tiered cities, the cases of building collapses tied to poor construction are on the rise. In 2010, The NDMA issued guidelines highlighting the absence of the techno-legal infrastructure and addressed financial institutions (providing construction finance) to check the quality and be responsible for ensuring disaster resilience features of buildings (despite no infrastructure for accepting submissions within the local authorities).

While the guidelines are a way for the government to acknowledge the problem of inadequate quality construction, clearly they are still far from providing an implementable solution that understands the on-the-ground challenges.

The social-technical challenge

The top priorities for homeowners are to economize on money, time and space. Double brick walls, for example, cost more and take up more space than a single brick one. In the same way, a Reinforced Concrete Cement (RCC) frame structure is often with inadequate steel. The quality of concrete mix is low because of insufficient cement or incorrect mixing composition. We often see that new construction concepts are partially adopted and owners end up spending the same amount as they would in a well-advised structure or paying the price later with higher maintenance expenditure.

Interestingly, is not always true that cost savings is the motive behind current construction practices. In some cases, the local mason or contractor follows a construction system that brings the final cost of the construction higher than what it could be. Often six columns are placed when four could do the work. Unfortunately these structures are still unsafe despite the extra investment.

The underlying problem is that while the mason brings ingenious problem solving ability, he has had no opportunity to be trained by, or work with, professionals from the construction industry. As a result, the proposed solutions are weak on technical logic with trial and error being the only feedback mechanism. The other issue is the construction materials are not designed to serve the pain points of this market. One interesting pilot has been done by Lafarge, the world’s second-largest cement manufacturer. It has come up with a ready-mix concrete that is sold in low-income neighborhoods in small, reusable bags to address the issues of quality construction and time sensitivity of the customers.

Improving construction techniques through technical assistance kiosks

To catalyze the self-construction market, it is paramount to bring access to technical assistance at a large scale with adequate policy support. The government of Brazil has enacted a Technical Assistance Act, which gives citizens the right to avail technical construction assistance to self-construct their homes. India has yet to follow suit, but, in the meantime, it important to begin with on-the-ground initiatives.

The biggest take-away from our work in this pilot project in Delhi was that bringing information on safety and quality would require a community-centric delivery mechanism that is easily accessible. This will require a platform to disseminate information and enhance skill sets of the construction laborers.

Another key insight is the need to develop standardized engineering solutions that can be adapted according to region and settlement. This would make it operationally viable to deliver safer housing. Even if access to professional advice from engineers and architects on a house-to-house level would be unfeasible, it still could be delivered through trained masons and contractors much like the nurse or midwife who delivers support services on behalf of a doctor.

Lastly, there is a need to embark in scientific studies and research in self-built settlements, led by universities in India in cooperation with international experts. One area of study for example, is using scientific data to inform building practices and guide adaption of building norms for low-income neighborhoods. For each seismic zone in India, there is a normative that defines the ground accelerations. Access to computer software that simulates structural strength and the effect of forces generated by earthquakes will help to estimate not only risk for self-constructed homes but also be able to advise new standards. This research can be used for a revision of existing building guidelines to be relevant and applicable for the small unit sizes in low-income settlements.

As an evolution of the pilot in Mangolpuri, mHS is now embarking on a strategic partnership with SAATH Urban Resource Centers in Ahmedabad to introduce technical assistance kiosks. It is envisioned that the centers will be operated and run by local entrepreneurs to provide information, enhance capacity and offer customized technical construction expertise for an affordable fee.. The centers will be linked to a research lab and be supported by appropriate technology and applications to reduce costs of delivery. We invite partners and collaborations that can complement our incubation efforts with expertise in technology, engineering research and materials. A cohesive stakeholder wide effort will help catalyze the self-construction market that is already serving majority of India’s poor and low-income population.

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