A name that should be written in golden words, a carefree spirit and an elder sister of the poor of Pakistan. These words are not enough to describe her life and work but it would be a small tribute to Ms Perween Rehman on her 62nd birthday. She was an architect, social activist, urban planner, and teacher who possessed a soft corner for the poor. A humble personality, she dedicated her life for the betterment of the poor of Pakistan.

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Perween Rehman with her mother


Born on 22 January 1957 in Dhaka, Perween Rehman migrated to Pakistan during her teenage years along with her mother and sister. She spent her teenage in refugee camps. She studied at St. Joseph, she got her B.Arch degree from Dawood University of Engineering and Technology in 1974 and a post-graduate diploma in housing, building and urban planning in 1986 from the Institute of Housing Studies in Rotterdam.  She did her college thesis on low-income groups of Quaidabad. She was a brilliant student and a nature-loving human being. Her work depicts her days spent in the refugee camps.

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After graduation, Perween Rehman started to work in one of the top architectural firms in Karachi. After some time, Dr Akhtr Hameed Khan, the founder of OPP-RTI (Orangi Pilot Project– Research Training Institute) offered her to join OPP and she joined OPP as an intern. After two months she saw her life in those streets of Orangi, she left the architectural firm and joined OPP, and since then had never looked back. She started as a joint director and became the director of OPP when the parent organization split into four units in 1988 and she became director of OPP-RTI (Orangi Pilot Project – Research and Training Institute), managing programmes in education, youth training, water supply and secure housing.

Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) – Ms Rehman’s Identity

OPP gave Ms Rehman an identity and a path she wanted to follow for her lifetime. Orangi Township in Karachi is a massive squatter settlement with a population of 1.2 million. The infrastructure of the city dated back to 1960s when government agencies only constructed roads, basic water supply systems, electricity lines and schools and hospitals. Until the 1980s, most households had no access to sanitation facilities and used bucket latrines and soak pits for the disposal of human waste and open sewers for the disposal of waste, resulting in a high rate of water-borne diseases.

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Source: URC (Urban Research Centre)

The project was a research institution whose objective was to analyze the problems of the Orangi settlement and then through action research and extension education discover viable solutions. Its strategy had always been to help local people achieve their own development needs. Ms Rehman was the first high profile architect of this project and research.

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Mapping of Orangi (Source: URC)

Perween Rehman along with Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan worked on low-cost housing and sanitation scheme. Ms Parween Rehman and her team spread awareness on how to build low-cost housing and sanitation.

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(Source: URC)

In 1986, having seen the success of the sanitation project, OPP-RTI initiated a housing project using the same research and action approach. The research was carried out in conjunction with the University of Karachi and the Dawood College and this established that almost all of the houses in the Orangi squatter settlement were substandard. The poor quality of building materials, the hand-made concrete blocks which were the traditional main components of the walls and foundations were substandard due to the use of poor quality materials and construction methods; severe cracks had therefore developed in the main structural components of the dwellings. Building skills were inadequate, faulty construction techniques were used due to ignorance, as well as the quick-fix attitude of masons and residents, the inequitable relationship between contractor and mason and the house owner, poor ventilation in the houses.

After two years of research, OPP- RTI developed an action research project to develop pilot solutions, which included:

  • Upgrading the thallas (building component manufacturing yards) in the Orangi settlement of Karachi to improve the quality of the concrete blocks available for construction and by introducing the manufacture of alternative roofing components.
  • Evolving standard construction designs and techniques and training masons to use them, as well as providing accurate plans and estimates.
  • Preparing standardized steel shuttering and lending these and other tools and equipment to local communities.
  • Preparing audio-visual aids, manuals and instruction sheets that could be easily understood by the local population.Commemorating Architects on their Birthdays - Sheet6

    Manufacturing of bricks and blocks (Source: Low-Cost Housing Report by OPP)

Owners of building component yards were persuaded to participate in the research and development of improved building materials and to manufacture the improved quality bricks using a simple machine. An improved ratio of the concrete mix was identified and the compaction, vibration, curing and drying process was streamlined. This enabled the blocks to be four times stronger than the ones manufactured previously, without any increase in price. The initial research was carried out in 1987 in four yards with OPP-RTI providing a loan and technical support.

All 57 building component yards in the Orangi area have adopted these methods and Orangi has now become a centre for the production of mechanized blocks in Karachi.173 local masons have been trained in the improved design and construction techniques and the better use of tools.

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Roof construction- OPP approach towards sustainability

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After Construction (Source: Low-cost housing – OPP Report)

Adopting a holistic approach to sanitation; technological innovation in the method by which the drains and sewers were constructed, making ‘community participation’ a key aspect of the project were some of the achievements of Ms Rehman and her team.

Karachi became an orphan city

In an interview, Perween Rehman said: ”When I joined OPP we used to go into all the streets and lanes making maps, Just like an x-ray is important for doctors, maps were necessary for planning.”

She headed a research centre in Orangi and also taught in architecture colleges. She was a brave lady and her only sin was her concern for the poor, she recorded and documented the lands of poor which were grabbed by land mafia. She said on record that around 1,500 Goths (villages) had been merged into the city for 15 years. Land-grabbers subdivided them into plots and earned billions by their sale. She had been receiving threats on her life for a long time apparently from the land mafia. On March 13, 2013, Pakistan lost this brave lady, she was killed when four gunmen opened fire on her vehicle near Pirabad Police Station, ending her 28-year-long career for land and basic services for Pakistan’s poor. Parween Rehman: The Rebel Optimist, a documentary on the life and work of her, directed by Mahera Omar won the award for best documentary in the ‘Across the Border’ category of the 7th Delhi International Film Festival 2018 and the 6th Nepal Human Rights International Film Festival.

Rabail Anjum is a final year architecture student currently studying at Dawood University of engineering and technology Karachi. She has done an internship in a firm named as R-chitect, Karachi and has experiences of volunteering in IAPEX and ABAD Expo. She has written articles for Square factor and is an active member of the team, besides she participated in 2018 International Essay Contest for Young People organized by Goi Peace Foundation Tokyo, Japan.  She is multi-talented, committed to her career and her passion for writing cannot be described in words. She wants to empower the architecture through her designs, writings and contribution in community and vernacular architecture.  She is a voracious reader of History of Architecture, Heritage and Conservation. She is determined to find the lost classical architecture of sub-continent.


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