Failures Of Built Environments

SELCO Foundation
Sep 6, 2018 · 4 min read

Reflecting on his work in Chandigarh with the revolutionary modernist architect Le Corbusier, the recent Pritzker award winner B.V Doshi remarked that the buildings looked as if they’d been imported whole and plunked down in India, bearing no relationship to the country around them. More over, Corbusier eschewed mixed-income neighborhoods and street bazaars, both rather characteristic of Indian towns.

This compelling idea that a good design idea can be mass produced and executed at scale is one that India has not really shaken off. As Kabir Vajpeyi of Vinyas puts it,

“If your project requires a lot of sand and the place you’re planning to build doesn’t have any, what are you going to do?”

Doshi, in his own projects, favoured the use of local Indian bricks over the concrete that his mentor preferred.

Failure Of Autonomy, Ownership And Expression

However, the issue transcends the matter of mere materials. How does one get to decide what the ideal environment is for a community that they are largely detached from?

“Feelings play a very important role when it comes to spaces.” says Vajpeyi.

In Kabir’s view, architects are often perceived as creative, but in practice, are driven by top-down chains of command and a need to come up with standardized models.

“What we miss out on is the celebration of local talent, we do not pay enough attention to the genius of local craftsmen, masons, contractors and we go ahead with whatever we feel is right.”

The Problem With Chasing The Numbers

“Affordable housing has become the new thing in the sector.” says Shikha Parakh, who works exclusively on affordable housing projects.

“The main thing we need to tackle here, in this sector and as an ecosystem, from what we’ve seen, is access to capital and access to credit for those who really need it.”

Housing is a capital intensive project with organizations working in affordable housing often seeing extremely slim margins. “So everything has been built and is ready, but the houses don’t seem to be getting sold. Let’s say an IT guy who earns 15 lakhs a year comes up to me and is interested in buying a house, should I sell to him? Or an SME owner says that these houses could be useful for a group of his workers. Do I trust that he will actually give it to his workers or that he will sit on the property and speculate? These are the questions we need to be asking.”

Another problem she encountered is the very definition of who deserves affordable housing, the Government places various conditions to be eligible for such provisions, but despite all the numbers pointing to a particular trend in the market, houses do not end up reaching those that need it most. “It reminds me of what was said earlier today, do we scale the peak or do we retreat and come back when it is right?”

The Failure Of Oversight

Brijal Brahmbhatt of Mahila Housing Sewa Trust, an NGO, is more than familiar with the issues caused due to lack of oversight. In 2010, when the Gujarat government passed a new housing policy that allowed private players to take up housing rehabilitation, the entire process was stymied by a severe lack of cultural context on part of the builders. Proof of identification was demanded of a community that could not provide them, and the land eventually ended up in the hands of the local mafia, who the residents were beholden to by this point.

“When people are facing serious poverty, emancipatory steps are not enough. Some form of oversight and regulation is necessary and the government did not provide it, nor were the private players ready to take up such a task.”

Housing is often seen as a pure infrastructure challenge, but what one fails to understand is that the challenges to access to housing for low income households lie in many other factors. For 10 years, the expected compound annual growth rate is 6.6% till 2022. There is a shortage of over 18 million housing units out of which 96% belong to Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) and Lower Income Groups (LIG) people as of 2012, as per the RNCOS report on Indian affordable housing market.

From the discussion, we also understand that the housing market is not actually addressing this gap, and the housing built for low income households is not actually going to the identified populus because of the challenges that we face around land, tenureship, regulations and a lack of understanding of the definition of ‘affordable’ itself. The solutions usually considered in the sector focus on ensuring at lowering the cost of construction and thus the cost related to ownership as well. But, there is a need to look at it holistically, challenging the existing systems and bring financing, better tenureship regulations and functionality.

For more detailed insights on what ensued in the Failures of Built Environments panel at the Impact Failure Conclave 2018, watch the video below.

For more details visit our website: or write to us at

Impact Failure

The aim of Impact Failure is to provide an in-depth and open discussion about the role of failure in the development space. The goal is also to celebrate learnings that emerge from failures and the impact that can be created through the learnings.

SELCO Foundation

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SELCO Foundation seeks to inspire and implement solutions that alleviate poverty by improving access to sustainable energy to underserved communities.

Impact Failure

The aim of Impact Failure is to provide an in-depth and open discussion about the role of failure in the development space. The goal is also to celebrate learnings that emerge from failures and the impact that can be created through the learnings.

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