Written in 3 volumes of research papers, How the other half builds is an insightful attempt at understanding and analysing the informal urban settlements and planning in developing countries. This extensive research is done by Vikram Bhatt and his team consisting of Jesus Navarrete, Avi Friedman, Walid Baharoon, Sun Minhui, Rubenilson Teixeira and Stefan Wiedemann. 

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Published in 1984, the relevance of these papers is imminent today as well. The ideas presented and the illustrations drawn are used by students to understand the complex nature of informal urban settlements.

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How the Other Half Builds

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As the name suggests, the book talks about those who are often overlooked, the marginalised and underprivileged, belonging to the economically weaker sections of society. The work done by them can be compared to the blood that runs through the veins of the city. The migration of workers in the 1980s and the formation of informal settlements due to it was considered a major problem. The authors suggest the opposite. 

The informal settlements act as a solution for housing that would otherwise be impossible for the state to provide. The ‘slums’ have been the only mass solution to the housing crisis. These settlements also become a home away from home for those who work in a city with whose culture they are unfamiliar.  The housing and settlement patterns formed to focus on the basic functions rather than aesthetics and design principles. 

Yet, it would be naïve to assume that these spaces are not well designed. The plethora of unique functions that they must fulfil, makes these spaces efficient. From rope making, pottery, garbage collection to grocery shops and household work, the spaces that are formed automatically answer to all these functions.  

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The research is divided into three volumes. The authors have managed to do an in-depth site study to paint the actual picture and better understand the urban settlements and their intricate spaces. The research papers also talk about how the present standards of construction and areas are inadequate and do not consider local uniqueness. They are homogenised to a point of being culturally insensitive and lead to unnecessary design interventions. 

The authors thus felt necessary to document the areas and spaces they saw to make a local standard of their own for the area of study. The book comprises Volume I which focuses on spaces, Volume II on Plots and Volume III on Self- Selection Process.

Volume I: Spaces

This volume focuses on the various segments of the built form and how the spaces perform during different times of the day. The volume also focuses on the relationship between nature and the built form. Development of mass housing usually consists of the allocation of small plots and the development of tracks and roads to build infrastructure. This separates the living and circulation spaces. 

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In reality, the circulation spaces are used for much more than movement alone. They act as a place to work, have festivals, sell and buy goods. The activities and their spaces have been studied in the following manner:

House Extensions

The extension of a house on the street acts as an important place of interaction and utility. House extensions can be stoops, platforms, porches and outdoor rooms. Stoops are small extensions at the front of the house made of stone or informal material. Known as “Otla” in Gujarat, platforms are bigger house extensions made of rough stone or concrete. Porches allow for multiple activities and more interactive spaces. Porches or verandas also transition between public to semi-private spaces. The last is outdoor rooms and yards.

Due to their relatively larger size, they allow for more activity. From reading the newspaper to sieving maize and rice to making rangolis in front of the house, these spaces are multifunctional.

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while studying these informal spaces, their activities and the study of the areas they require becomes essential. The authors have made an anthropometric standard of different local activities like dressing a baby, putting on a sari, squatting, sieving, grinding and putting on a Chula. Usually ignored, these standards allow us to understand the human movement in a space which is fundamental while designing.

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In informal settlements, often a separate workplace does not exist. The streets and the house extensions transform into workspaces. In this section different activities like bracelet, cigarette bud, rope making and many more are studied. This plethora of activities requires different sizes and a unique functional layout of the space. The areas are then summarized in a tabular form to better understand them. 

The authors have been with the people and spent time with them to understand their ways of working. This humane approach had not been seen before for squatter settlements.

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In this section, shops are analysed as an interactive and public space while performing their intended function. There are many two types of shops in informal settlements. Shops attached to living spaces are generally small shops run by women from their house of cigarettes and groceries. Shops detached from living quarters like cycle repair shops are usually larger. Small clusters of shops in the intersection of streets can be observed.

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While trees might be considered redundant in low-cost and informal housing, that could not be further from reality. Due to the absence of covered public space, the trees often larger species act as the natural magnet for larger public discourse, functions or even day-to-day interactions. Trees and their shade are a constant in the lives of the people living there. The authors have documented various species used to understand its shade, flowering, and other features.

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Public Structures

Having no public authority on the neighbourhood level, the presence of any public structure is a testament to the people’s effort despite minimal resources. In Indian towns, chaurahas, temples and water fountains and bird feeders are structures that provide an identity to the area. A simple element as a tap of water becomes a public structure with large gatherings around.

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Vehicles and Access Streets

 Vikram Bhatt and the team have focused on the vehicles used and the street widths required for them in different settings. From pull carts to cycle rickshaws, the vehicles are also used to generate income and thus are important. Streets are divided into mains streets, narrow lanes and alleys based on their widths and type of traffic.

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Volume II: Plots

This volume of the series, written by Carlos Barquir, Richard Brook, Rajinder Puri and  Witold Rybczynski focuses on surveying, analysing and designing strategies for urban settlements. For this six textile mill areas in Indore are chosen. The authors have relentlessly surveyed and spent time in these areas to understand their settlement patterns. They begin with surveying each area and understanding the areas, space, ratios of built and unbuilt, frontage and exposure. 

The data of these characteristics are presented and analysed. Each mill settlement is also compared to the standards to understand how they perform. Conclusions are drawn and the efficiency of standard plans to informal settlements are studied.

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Volume III: Self Selection Process

The ‘site and service’ method discussed in the former sections, has multiple disadvantages. The social aspect of the design is often ignored due to the economic planning, incorrect assumptions about these families are made which lead to unneeded design interventions. The projects also lack any variety and freedom to choose. The implantation of the full benefits usually takes a long time. Due to this a new system was proposed by the authors

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Self Selection Design Process

In this, the characterises and process of informal settlements must be used, in a way that would overcome the lack of infrastructure. The users give more input, and have the freedom to choose the shape and size of their plot. For the users, it provides an opportunity to choose their own lives in a setting that provides adequate infrastructure and standards in planning. 

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The principles of this process 

# Autonomous Growth: The users must have a macro input in the planning of their neighbourhood, thus making the space truly theirs. 

# Continuous Growth: the development of the project is a process and will always continue

#No Preconceived Plan: while a set of rules are essential to prevent chaos, the size, nature, shape and location of the plot must be in the hands of the future residents. 

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#proggressive infrastructure: the infrastructure must develop as the space grows. 

The principles behind the self-selection design process make it suitable for the development of new residential areas within the current formal housing context of developing countries. The work of Vikram Bhatt and his team has been influential in further studies of informal settlements. The biggest achievement of this series of books is the change in perspective it causes. Rather than seeing slums and informal settlements as a problem and spot on the city, one can see it as an indigenous solution to a problem no one was able to solve.

  1. Donald Watson. Time-Saver Standards for Urban Design. How the other half builds, Chapter (McGraw-Hill, 2003). https://www.accessengineeringlibrary.com/content/book/9780070685079/chapter/chapter3
  2. Rybczynski, W., 1984. How the other half builds. Montreal: Centre for Minimum Cost Housing.
  3. Barquin, C., 1986. How the other half builds. Montreal: Centre for Minimum Cost Housing.
  4. Bhatt, Vikram., 1990. How the other half builds. Montreal: Centre for Minimum Cost Housing
  5. IIT Roorkee July 2018. (2018). How the Other Half Builds?, [YouTube video]. Available at: https://youtu.be/rO-_G9t1dkM [Accessed 3 May 2021]. 

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