ALTERNATIVES AND AFFORDABILITY
Each housing project has to be site-specific, culturally appropriate and climatically conforming.
The word ‘cost’ has singular spelling in English, but multiple interpretations when applied to a construction site. To avoid confusion, it is safer to fix the affordability of the owner and accordingly decide upon the area, materials and technology. Even though alternative ideas towards low-cost buildings were liked by people, the term ‘low cost’ was not accepted; as such the term ‘affordable housing’ got introduced.
‘Affordable housing’ is not only a meaningful replacement but also suggests that project costs should be kept appropriate to the income levels of the owner. This ideology is accepted even today, though the term also got criticised on the criteria of affordability. While a millionaire can afford a house costing a crore, the slum dweller cannot go beyond few thousands.
Curiously, both the cases can be termed as affordable housing. Besides, the question about who decides what is affordable and by whom can never be resolved.
Another equally popular term has been ‘cost-effective’ architecture. Simply stated, it means the money spent is effective. More deeply, it justifies the budget based on the materials, quality work, durability, and life cycle and other specific criteria to finally certify that considering all the value addition to the building, the money spent is worth it.
However, certain subjectivity about what is effective and what is not creeps in, deciding cost-effectiveness. By justifying certain high cost in the name of aesthetics or uniqueness, the whole idea of low cost may get defeated. Also price-wise cheap and quality-wise poor bricks may get into the building, saying the price and quality match. With this background, affordable housing also becomes an easy-to-accept term.
In low-cost projects, what critically matters, ironically enough, is not the cost but the context. Innumerable factors like culture, climate, technology, materiality, lifestyle, land value, aspirations and such others make up for the context that actually controls the projects. Unfortunately, majority of designers and builders are oblivious to such a long list, attending to the few criteria they are comfortable with, yet claiming that they are creating affordable buildings.
When some of the valid ideas developed by the architect or engineer fail to get implemented, they tend to blame the system or the project promoters, not realising that they have not considered all the criticalities of the project.
We need to focus more on context than on cost; it demands more of sensitivity than creativity; and the architect needs to be an inclusive participant than exclusive professional. While these theories may sound good, it actually places the cost factor of a project on a difficult pedestal. Each project has to be site specific, culturally appropriate and climatically conforming. Naturally, there can be no standard designs for building across the state, but there can be design themes for possible application in each context. To that end, of course, we need to understand the context first.