With an increase in world population, authorities around the world envision housing for all. Low-cost housing is a concept developed to provide permanent shelter to the homeless and to make housing affordable to all. In a developing country like India, housing demand peaks at 96% for the lower-income group and economically weaker sections. Housing projects undertaken by various organizations aim to improve the living conditions and discourage the growth of slums. Efficient design, local and sustainable building material, and simple construction techniques impact the cost of construction drastically. Here are a few things to remember while designing low-cost housing.

1. Selecting the Site | Low Cost Housings

Select a site in the residential zone referring to the regional Masterplan for low-cost housings, avoiding future complications, and being away from ecologically sensitive zones. Keep the elevation of the location in mind to avoid flooding during rains. The soil should have a good bearing capacity. The site should not be in any regulatory zone of an archaeological site and away from high-tension lines, water channels, and underground gas pipelines. 

The CIDCO Housing in Navi Mumbai by Architect Raj Rewal, particularly designed in a newly planned city of Navi Mumbai to provide housing for the poor. The site is on a hilly terrain called the Parsik Hills, and the project embraces the levels and the design flows through the contours of the site. The site naturally drains rainwater and avoids water-logging.

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2. Connectivity 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could eliminate the commute? A radical approach may be to house everything under the same building like schools, entertainment, offices, and markets, etc., and drastically reduce commute. Nevertheless, the site should be easy to access from the nearest city or town. Easy access to public transport for people to commute to work and fresh employment opportunities for the residents. 

The Sugar Hill Development in Harlem, NY By Architect David Adjaye is a mixed-use development that has affordable apartments, office spaces, preschool, and a museum of art and storytelling. Apart from minimizing the need to commute, the project is within walking distance to the Metro station and ideally connected to the surrounding city.

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3. Infrastructure

What good is a house without basic amenities? The fundamental necessities like water supply, sanitation, and electricity at the selected site must be adequate, planned, and provided for at the planning stage of the housing complex design.

Aranya housing at Indore designed by Architect B. V. Doshi is an exemplary project where architecture was a series of plots with basic plinths, toilets, electric lines, drinking water taps, nodes, streets, and courtyards laid out and given to the needy. As an initiation to the development, about eighty houses were built by careful observation of the vernacular lifestyle of people and the inside-outside spaces required. 

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4. Planning the Layout

Keep the natural topography of the site, avoiding unnecessary leveling, and help the natural drainage of water within the site. An integrated approach to social interaction-spaces and arrangement of the units mitigates piping costs. Providing basic social infrastructure within the site, such as schools, hospitals, multipurpose halls, places of worship saves the residents’ time and money spent on commuting. The most functional and economical shape of a plot may be rectangular with a length to width ratio of 2:1, although innovative thought can lead to efficient layouts.

Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui of Hyderabad Development Authority received the Aga Khan Award for this planned urban settlement. A conventional grid pattern divided the site with basic physical infrastructure. The site, together with houses, had a school, dispensary, maternity home, vocational training center, community center, parks, church, and a mosque. It involved the participation of the users in the design process and allowed the incremental development of houses.

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5. Building Unit Design | Low Cost Housings

This is ultimately where the people will live. The design of the building unit has to be simple for ease of replication. The optimized number of openings presents an easy relation to the site layout. Clubbing services like the toilets and kitchen together save plumbing costs. Incorporating passive design strategies and low-tech operations like natural light and ventilation, controlling heat gain, etc., lead to healthier living. Eliminate or avoid circulation areas. Common walls between two units are ideal, but again, innovative design ideas can lead to alternative methods. Multipurpose areas in the house provide opportunities to save space. You could encourage semi-finished interiors to help reduce the cost of plastering. 

ATIRA staff housing, Ahmedabad by Architect B. V. Doshi is a simple unit design with a living room, kitchen, rear court, bathroom, and a toilet with parallel walls flanked by vaults on top. The north-south aligned blocks control heat, and the drain lines are located through a series of back-to-back courts, thus maintaining straight drainage lines. The residents use the rear court as a utility area with plants in the center. Doshi projects the vault out to shade the open space in the front.

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6. Community and Occupation-based Design

If housing is being planned for a particular community or people of a single occupation, take care to be sensitive to their specific needs.

The post Tsunami housing by Shigeru Ban in Kirinda, Sri Lanka, is an excellent example of one such housing. The Tsunami washed away a fishing village, Kirinda in Sri Lanka in 2004. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who built the houses for Muslim fishermen families rehabilitated the village. It was Shigeru’s first time designing houses for the Muslim community. He explored their traditions, understood their requirements, and addressed their concerns to maintain the traditional practice of privacy for women. Wooden screens were used to separate spaces for women. The house had two bedrooms, a hall, and a sheltered canopy that was a multipurpose space used as a dining room and sometimes to repair their fishing nets.

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7. Building Material and Technology

Modern expressions of vernacular techniques using local material and labour go a long way in saving costs and introducing much-needed cash into the regional economies. Limiting the material palette is an excellent strategy. An important decision is between prefab vs site-built components or a mix of the two, saving time. Materials familiar to the locals are easy to work with. Using time-tested elements like the Jaalis in place of windows when building in hot, dry climes, can be another technique.

The “S house” in Vietnam, designed in less than 2500 Pounds by Vo Trong Nghia Architects, uses precast concrete structural members roofed with a corrugated sheet below which is a layer of Nipa palm leaves. Space between the palm leaves and corrugated sheet allows plenty of air into the house. The abundantly available Nipa Palm leaves also line the walls of the house. The structure is simple and the residents can replace the palm leaves in the building that makes it economically viable and also in harmony with the surroundings.

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8. Response to the Context

Keep in mind the socio-economic and climatic context of the location chosen for low-cost housing. The design must respond to the local climate and make the living conditions better and sustainable for the inhabitants. Cooling the building naturally in a hot and dry climate can reduce mechanical costs of ventilation, and providing a source of water nearby can help reduce living costs drastically.

The Bhungas of Kutch in Gujarat is traditional houses with curved walls and a thatched roof. The curved walls are a response to the seismic activity of the region, and protect the structure from sandstorms. The low-hanging roofs achieve maximum protection from the sunlight.

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9. Social Sustainability through Involvement and Training

Make considerations for the low maintenance and long life-cycle of the building. One approach can be to educate and train the residents with basic construction techniques and the materials used. This can help sustain the buildings over a long time and with minimal interventions. 

The slum at Chengalchoola was rehabilitated and housing designed at the same place by Architect Laurie Baker. Designed as a series of interesting houses made of exposed brick and concrete instead of a typical row, the design is sustainable, climate-responsive, and low on maintenance.

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10. Incremental Housing | Low Cost Housings

Consider the fundamental possibility of expansion and create building units relative to the site where simple replication helps increase the housing capacities for the future.

Architect Charles Correa’s Artist village in Belapur, Navi Mumbai speaks volumes to the fact that form follows innovation. A house with a private courtyard is rotated and placed perpendicular to the previous one, forming a larger courtyard between them. Correa repeated such blocks to create medium-sized blocks, repeating which creates a superblock of similar structure. The houses do not share a common wall, famously celebrate the interaction-space, and allow for incremental growth, creating one of the few projects ticking all the boxes without formally following all the guidelines.

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Low cost or affordable housing is every country’s dream-tool to house every homeless person and person of low income in their country. While having boisterous claims and seemingly unrealistic targets, countries seem to be in a race to achieve the 2030 UN target of ending poverty in all forms. With the global pandemic speed-bump and the casual attitude of the government regarding the poor in India, it remains to be seen where we figure in the finish line.


Sahil Tanveer is an architect and thinker, who runs a cosmopolitan Architecture studio with work across the country. He believes architecture is all-inclusive and personal. He is continually in search of the unknown, while observing psychology, philosophy, and the influence of culture and society on architecture and design.