Feature of the Week

February 12, 2012 11:48 pm

The house that students built

When Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar wrote a blog entry on Harvard Business Review in August 2010 mooting the idea of a “$300-house for the poor”, they were merely expressing a suggestion.

“Of course, the idea we present here is an experiment,” wrote Prof Govindarajan, a professor of international business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Mr Sarkar, a marketing consultant who works on environmental issues – an almost apologetic disclaimer for having such a “far-out” idea. Who could create a house for $300 and if it was possible, why hadn’t it been done before?

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Nonetheless, they closed their blog with a challenge: “We ask chief executives, governments, NGOs, foundations: Are there any takers?”

Fast forward 17 months to 2012, and their idea is fast becoming reality. The blog captivated the imaginations of readers worldwide. Readers debated, argued and exchanged ideas about how to design and build such a house. It was pointed out that the needs of each country and materials available were very disparate; one commentator suggested “a mechanism to harvest rain so that the occupants have access to clean water for their daily needs, especially during drought”; another proposed a “stackable Lego-type design”.

Inspired by the excitement generated, Prof Govindarajan opened a crowd-sourcing site, 300house.com, so that the conversation could continue. More than 2,500 people took part – “architects and engineers and professors, very qualified people, from Harvard and MIT and so on”.

“What we have done is created a company with 2,500 employees and no chief executive. They are willing to share their ideas in an open way. It’s a true, open-innovation platform,” says Prof Govindarajan.

The next step was a competition – the $300 House Open Design Challenge – to design a home that could be bought and built by the world’s poorest people for $300 or less. Entries – coincidentally there were 300 – were judged by a panel of 16 experts and by “the crowd”.

The plans submitted included high-tech designs involving materials such as “compressed earth brick” and steel mesh; a dome-shaped house with a concrete base and bamboo beams; a wooden apartment block for African plains and a “cordwood” home based on a sauna in the US.

The blog was influenced by Prof Govindarajan’s student memories in India and taking a daily shortcut through a slum in Chennai. His experience has shaped the way he sees the problem, as not only one of housing, but also as a wider, cyclical social issue. “Because they are poor, they have a bad house ... they have no sanitation ... they fall sick ... they don’t go to work ... they don’t have money and they are condemned to a bad house. Because they don’t make money, they don’t send their kids to school and [they too] are condemned,” he says.

This is perhaps why the $300 house and all that it symbolises has attracted so much attention.

“There is so much energy, and so many people are interested in it, so why has this problem not been solved?” asks Prof Govindarajan. His answer is that previously, NGOs had tried to tackle it, when what was needed was business acumen.

The problem with the NGO approach he says is one of scale. “They might build one or two houses, but we need billions, and if you only build one or two, you can’t bring prices down, it’s impossible.”

Prof Govindarajan is also critical of the way in which not-for-profit organisations tackle social problems, citing a lack of co-ordination and poor standards of execution; issues echoed by Jim Yong Kim, Dartmouth College president, in his keynote address at the “$300 house” design workshop.

. . .

The event at Tuck was attended by five of the six winners of the original competition; Dartmouth students and faculty, architects, engineers and designers. Also present was Mahindra & Mahindra, the Indian multinational that won a corporate award in the contest.

During the four-day workshop participants produced two prototype house designs: one for urban environments – designed to be built as part of a row; and one for rural environments – an individual home with covered outdoor space.

Haiti has been earmarked as the location for the next step in the Tuck project. Prototype houses will be built there in the coming months with the ultimate aim of creating two villages.

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