Village houses may be artists' delight, and cement structures in villages may look like incongruous ugly dots in a picturesque landscape. But while urbanites may feel that village houses should retain their traditional appearance - and therefore be made of wood, stone, mud etc. - villagers themselves are quick to point to the irony in this: the well-meaning urbanites themselves have long ago abandoned traditional housing! Low cost, aesthetics, preserving traditions, and living in climatically suitable houses are all fine notions, but the durability of homes is also an important consideration. A mud house with a thatched roof needs continuous maintenance, whereas a brick and cement house is far sturdier, and has a longer life span. And villagers are as interested in the longevity of their homes as their urban counterparts.

But a traditional rural residence has important advantages - it is almost always based on adaptations to the local environment, and is often built with the labour of the villagers themselves without the need for external mechanised inputs. The simplest way to build a house, in the past, was to look around for the materials needed for the structure, and begin building the structure yourself. For the construction of village homes, therefore, the challenge today is to acknowledge people's desire for long-lasting structures, and thereafter ask what elements of functionality, value and aesthetics can be infused into the buildings. One person who took up this challenge vigorously was M N Joglekar, a former Executive Director of the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO).

A professional architect, Joglekar went beyond the standard knowledge of construction to study not just how these houses are constructed but how they are lived in. He set out to use rationalized traditional technologies, which are amply displayed at the Rural Building Centre of National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD) in Hyderabad.

Fourteen typologies of rural buildings - from those in the Himalayan region to the hilly North-East to the rain-battered coasts to arid Kutch and the Deccan Plateau - stand in a circle, exuding aesthetics enhanced by the pictorial natural setting of the Rural Technology Park of NIRD campus. Recognising the great potential in promoting local-material-based traditional technologies, HUDCO had initiated the Rural Building Centre concept where building components can be manufactured by the rural people using local available material and through skill upgradation. Through this centre, precast components could be given to the rural people instead of cash, which is the typical form of assistance for home construction.

Adobe mud house (Wardha).


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Through this centre, precast components could be given to the rural people instead of cash, which is the typical form of assistance for home construction.

 •  Low-income housing policy

A visit to this centre debunks the notion that durable houses cannot be without steel and cement, and that permanent, long lasting houses are a costly affair. During the recent heavy downpours, a few cement buildings nearby suffered leakages, but all these houses withstood the onslaught of the monsoon, and retained their exterior and interior intact.

The Rural Building Centre project depicting these 14 typologies is result of a trio working relentlessly with a vision. While Joglekar conceptualised the entire project, Brigadier G B Reddy (Retd) made it happen in just one and half year using army man's go-getting skills in executing the project. However, it still would have been just a dream, had it not been for NIRD's Director General Lalit Mathur's quickly sanctioning and enthusiastically supporting the project at crucial junctures. The Rural Building Centre was inaugurated on November 8, 2005 by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Rajasekhar Reddy, and was opened to the public to offer a view of rural traditional aesthetics reinforced through simple technical innovations for low-cost construction using local materials.

"When you dig up the ground to lay the foundation, you have soil which can be used for making mud-blocks and clay tiles right at the location. Thus there is no need to source building materials from the market, it is right there in the foundation" says Joglekar. The innovation is about strengthening mud-blocks through various simple technologies. Local availability of materials is also key; the west coast houses use laterite extensively, the Rajasthan houses too use stones even for columns, beams and the roof.

Joglekar recognised that the challenge of providing long-lasting, utility-rich homes was particularly emphatic after a natural disaster, when people have lost their weaker old homes to the calamity, but only local materials are available for reconstruction, and victims must often respond to their situation using their own wits and wisdom. He evolved expertise in post-disaster reconstruction while working on rehabilitation projects for Bhopal gas tragedy affected people. Later the devastating earthquakes in Latur, Jabalpur, Chaumoli, and Bhuj left millions homeless, and Joglekar's knowledge and studies of rural housing gained during his tours in different parts of the country helped victims rebuild their homes keeping in mind utility, culture and climate.

Interestingly, the Kutch earthquake saw several industries - especially steel, cement and construction - come to the 'rescue' of the disaster victims. But many of these efforts were eventually abandoned as unprofitable. Rural reconstruction is not a high priority for builders; the houses are small structures of Rs.25,000-50,000, and there isn't much of a profit margin.

It is in this context that the Rural Building Centre like at NIRD assumes importance. The RBC's models and ideas have much potential to develop under housing assistance programs, and might even help circumvent the contractors' lobby that prefers to build houses based on the materials it can source cheaply from anywhere, without much consideration of the users' needs. The ideas from the RBC need to be taken to regional centres that further explore the details of various local construction options and demonstrate them, build capacities and make building components available. The need for doing this in the rural areas themselves is critical, since HUDCO found that its centre in an urban area aroused curiosity and interest, but did not lead to large-scale implementation. Centres more accessible to villagers who could then immediately apply its ideas would have been much more preferable.