Building budgets have been defined by many terms such as low cost building, cost-effective construction, and affordable housing. By adding a new term called “cost-conscious architecture,” we may not achieve anything substantial, but it may suggest the need for a deeper, studied approach required to tackle the subject.
A low cost material like cement may have high carbon footprint; the cost-effective flooring in vitrified tiles may mean high embodied energy; and the affordable technology of rammed earth walls may be impractical in an urban multi-storey building. These contradictions are challenging our very notion of costs and it’s time to rethink on costs and terms too.
A major source of ideas to enable cost-conscious architecture lies in the way economically deprived people built shelters for themselves. Over the centuries and across nations, we find people building their own homes and they are arguably among the lowest cost houses built in their respective regions.
Technically speaking, they may have many shortcomings, but if we can professionally re-work around such self-built houses, there could be lessons for replicable models.
A major factor that negates cost control in buildings today lies in the increasing number of stakeholders, each to be justifiably and financially compensated for their work.
With the construction field expanding to include architects, structural engineers, quantity surveyors, lead contractors, sub-contractors, vendors, masons and the team at site, the overheads towards getting the house constructed tends to be a burden. The idea of local material has now been replaced by locally available materials with every other material being available everywhere. The temptation of buying them, for whatever benefits, may not always be in the interests of project cost.
Increasing cost of living in urban centres is making a mockery of the term “low cost,” thus excluding the majority of residents from owning an individual house. In addition, real estate prices can throw the whole idea of affordable shelter out of balance. The solution to this contradiction could be to return to self-build, but it is impractical today. More efficient systems in place, pre-casting, high-rise housing, shared resources, and mass production could resolve this problem, despite the cultural differences they may create.
Architects believe that imagination and creativity are key to successful projects, which is true for a large number of projects, especially those with big sites and budgets. However, the cost-conscious projects need to be resolved within innumerable constraints, demanding a pragmatic approach. While creative imagination can undoubtedly help the process, practical considerations can contribute more towards doable projects. Unfortunately, most players in the construction industry are not willing to take up such challenges.
Efforts to merely lower the costs may not aid the design context. Alternatively, context-specific designs help the cost factor, possibly achieving cost consciousness.