Alternative building materials for the poor


For the last two years I have been fortunate enough to be linked with the leaders of lo-cost housing in Pakistan–the likes of Tasneem Siddiqui and Arif Hassan, as well as others.  During this time, and with my involvement at Saiban, I have seen many individuals and organizations come forth with lo-cost solutions to building materials.  The common features in all of the proposals are two: alternative materials are a fraction of a cost of conventional materials, and (the claim is) the material is more efficient.    

For an ‘educated/privileged’ person, there are 3 questions that need to be answered before accepting the technology:

-How long has the technology been available in this region?

-Is there scientific data endorsing the claims of efficiency?

-Where has this been tested on a larger scale?

Once these 3 questions are answered properly, one is ready to continue a conversation with the salesperson.

A ‘less educated/poorer’ person does not ask the same questions.  He/she has one question: Is this the conventional method?  If not, he/she is not interested.  The misconception in lo-cost housing is that the poor man needs a low priced house/a roof over his head.  In reality, he wants a low priced house/roof over his head that looks like everyone elses.  If the alternative material does not meet this simple criteria, then it is not welcome.

A well known townplanner recently visited our site with a group of professionals and told some of the proponents of alternative material, ‘For the love of God, do not run your alternative building materials market tests on the poor.  If you want to be successful, get the rich folks to accept it, let it become mainstream, then offer it to the poor’.

A waiter once told a friend, ‘In all my years as a waiter in Pakistan I have noticed one thing–a rich man will always leave a small tip, and a poor man will always leave a big tip….the reason is that the rich man never wants to be identified as rich (for safety and security reasons) and the poor man never wants to be identified as poor’

The same principal holds true in lo-cost housing!

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One Response to “Alternative building materials for the poor”

  1. Chris Walker Says:

    Great post! It makes me think about the new Tata car just unveiled in India this past week, the one selling for $2500. The story I heard is that the automaker was inspired to build an inexpensive car to put a roof over the heads of those who have to drive their motorbikes through the rain because they can’t afford a car. Your post makes me wonder if it will sell to the poor–after all, it’s not what the rich drive, and it’s clearly identifiable as the least expensive car on the road. Cars are different from houses, of course, so the same principle may not hold. I also imagine it will depend on how Tata markets the car. Rather than focusing on its low cost, maybe they should be selling it for its other features. Like the fact that it can more easily maneuver through the traffic-clogged roads in major Indian cities?

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