At the Cuckoo Hostel in Bangalore, a radical project is afoot that could not only reduce the ecological footprint of our built-up spaces but shelter homeless and low-income populations. I sit with Rajat Kukreja, founder of the hostel in his new home - a 100-square foot structure on the hostel’s terrace and talk about how he seeks to turn the problem of urban housing on its head.
The last census brought to light the problem of affordable housing in India - a shortage of 1.8 crore homes, 96 percent of which would serve low-income populations. The conventional construction industry, which builds most homes in India, has a large carbon footprint. In India, it is responsible for 22 percent of the total annual CO2 emissions, a major part of which come from the highly energy-intensive materials it uses - steel, cement, bricks and lime. The race to meet the demand for housing is only going to mean using more such building materials.
Tiny houses - the next big thing
The tiny house movement emerged in the West as a response to the increasing average size of homes and a focus on rampant consumerism. It advocates moving away from outrageous McMansions to small environmentally and financially sustainable homes that foster a simpler, less cluttered lifestyle. The “living small” zeitgeist is quickly gaining support from billionaires and tree huggers alike with houses available in all shapes and sizes, from the luxe to the rustic, to meet every need, space and budget.
An offshoot of the movement are popup homes - light, low-cost structures built by assembling component parts. Think of them as “Lego homes”. Their highly adaptable nature makes them suitable solutions for homelessness, emergency disaster housing, and temporary mass housing during gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela. Popup homes have a lower carbon footprint than conventional brick-and-mortar structures because they are smaller, use materials that consume fewer resources, and employ fundamentally different construction methods that use lesser energy. Additionally, their small size requires far fewer light bulbs, less water usage for cleaning, and an overall reduction in the greenhouse gases they emit.
Cuckoo Hostel’s rooftop popup home is the brainchild and handiwork of Sampath Reddy, aerospace engineer turned urban systems designer and founder of Popup Housing, which specialises in low-cost, adaptable housing using sustainable materials. Sampath, inspired by the global tiny house movement, is particularly interested in building modular portable housing on underutilised urban spaces to address problems of homelessness.
“Portable homes free people from ties to land while the ownership of the structure remains with the individual who only leases the land.”
This reasoning is couched in new urbanism - a movement for sustainable urban planning practices centred around open, collaborative, and environment-friendly planning.
“City dwellers are always complaining about the congestion and lack of space yet space presents itself in often overlooked places: garages, terraces, backyards, and basements. Any of these little-used spaces can provide shelter.”
Popup structures can either be erected as standalone units or stacked vertically to provide affordable mass housing. The latter was most notably done in London in 2014 to create a popup village and in Auckland in 2017 to provide emergency housing to 200 people.
Room on the roof
The popup home project began as part of an effort to build more private spaces for guests at Cuckoo Hostel. The first prototype is an 8-foot-by-8-foot cube whose frame is made of reused slotted angles, the walls of recycled woodchip board panels bought from the scrap market, and the roof of corrugated metal. The entire structure uses no nails and is held together by nuts and bolts. It is completely customisable and modular from setup to dismantling. After each use, it can be disassembled, folded, packed, and transported anywhere in the world. The absence of a foundation further reduces its ecological costs. While the materials used might not be eco-friendly, they can all be reused infinitely, Rajat informs; the slotted angle frames for furniture or storage racks and the metal roof in new homes.
On the inside, the house makes optimum use of natural light and ventilation and keeps its walls free of paint. The current prototype has electricity but new designs, still in development, will include water, a sewerage connection and other amenities. The house is lightweight and sturdy enough to last 5-6 years with good maintenance.
Alternative materials such as bamboo, discarded plastics and mycelium board are being tested to make the home more sustainable. Rajat and team are also on the lookout for local recyclable materials that are better suited to the Indian weather. The home is soon to be solar-powered and fitted with rainwater harvesting. Its exterior walls will become vertical food gardens that will cool and soundproof the inside, making it a self-sustaining structure.
Simplifying doesn’t mean sacrifice
The home may be tiny but it is practical and functional. Rajat uses it as a home, workspace, and music studio with all the comforts of a regular brick and mortar structure. Construction costs between INR 30,000-50,000, a fraction of the cost of a conventional home and might soon be available as a DIY kit that anyone with basic tinkering skills can set up and make habitable in a few hours.
“The coolest part of the home is that the external shell and the interiors are completely bespoke. The Lego-like steel angles can be used in any sort of framework and a variety of materials can be employed for the walls. So the structure can as easily transform into a gardener’s greenhouse, a cafe or a dormitory as a family home or an office,”
The team however is most excited by the potential solutions the structure offers to the urban housing crisis by its ability to meet diverse housing needs at scale. Sampath is keen on partnering with the government and using the many available public lands. Presently, either congested slums and informal poor-condition settlements sit on these lands or they are too small to be of interest to developers to create affordable living for the urban poor, street vendors and under-bridge populations. This suggests that popup housing can open up entirely new sources of income for the local governments.
How we can help scale this project
To finance the effort, the team has launched a crowdfunding project to raise INR 2 lakh. The money will be used to sample more sustainable building materials, build more prototypes of different sizes that allow different components to be plugged in, outfit them with solar panels and rainwater harvesting and simplify the building process making it amenable to DIY. Rajat explains his decision to crowdfund by saying it will get the word out about the popup home project, democratise the idea, decentralise the funding process and encourage co-ownership over resources by the community. “We want to show that it is possible to address the housing problem in a unique, environmentally and financially sustainable way. It will encourage people to relook at the spaces around them and put them to better use.”
Read more about the popup home project and donate to the idea.
Images: Cuckoo Hostel