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$300 slum house? Worthy but worthless

Jason Corburn, associate professor, city and regional planning | June 3, 2011

The Economist published an article last month on the competition to build a $300 house intended to improve the lives of slum dwellers.  The article came from a blog post in the Harvard Business Review by Vijay Govindarajan, of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, and Christian Sarkar, a marketing consultant, who set out to explore the possibility of Govindarajan’s idea of  ‘reverse innovation’ – or an idea that starts in the Global South and makes its way to more wealthy nations (many of us know this already happens through stolen intellectual property, but that is a topic for another post).

What is the problem you ask? Well, for starters, the response, Hands off Our Houses, in the NY Times captures why this is fundamentally a bad idea for the urban poor – it doesn’t include those intended to live in these houses in the design process.  This is a also a BAD idea because it fails to grapple with the complex relationships in informal settlements between housing, land rights, economic opportunities, gender rights, health and safety and a host of other issues.  With worthy intentions, this idea is likely to redirect resources toward a worthless outcome – a rational and nice looking house that will not improve the lives of slum dwellers.

A fundamental error here is that design alone is NOT the solution – despite what green builders, architects, entrepreneurs and others continue to say.  The solution is an urban planning process where:

  1. slum dwellers drive the process;
  2. designs are not one-size-fits-all – but flexible to accommodate different uses, can expand and improve the existing social and cultural fabric of a community;
  3. donor & private sector resources support improvements to basic infrastructure (i.e., water, sanitation, roads, electricity, etc), schools, health care facilities AND housing, and;
  4. the process offers jobs, new skills, and builds community power.

Well, this isn’t easy either, but it is being done.  Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) has been doing just this in tens of countries around the world.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our team at UC Berkeley has been working with one SDI-affiliated network, Muungano WA Wanavijiji, since 2008 to support community-led planning in the Mathare Valley informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.  Our process aims to act as an alternative to other planning and housing improvement schemes in Kenya, particularly the Government of Kenya’s slum upgrading project in Kibera – –  where the government built housing for the urban poor, but local people prefer to rent out the housing rather than live in it!

We must avoid the boutique design and technological quick-fixes promoted by business schools and the global elite in the donor andentrepreneurial community and invest in complex, messy, people-centered, locally-driven processes.

Cross-posted from Jason Corburn’s blog Healthy Cities.

Comments to “$300 slum house? Worthy but worthless

  1. Hello,
    Thanks for the nice post. This project is quite intriguing and I would like to know what would be the out come. If it will be successful, it will surely help lot of slum dwellers.

  2. I personally think this program only works based on the demographic location. In some parts of the world a $300 would be sufficient and provide shelter without lowing the market value of its location.

    Regards, Ed

  3. Thais is right on the money. The reasons people are homeless are so diverse and conditional that it’s impossible to provide a cure-all solution. I know a teacher who has three kids who are living out of their car. These families are not going to have the same needs as say, a soldier suffering from PTSD or a unemployed construction worker. Money has to be put into the infrastructure itself rather than trying to build on the existing failing one. Great post -thanks.

  4. Wow. I’m neither a slum-dweller nor an architect, but it’s quite clear to me that your “holier-than-thou” attitude is not helpful. The title of your piece is utterly mistaken. The designs aren’t worthless — they’re useful and thought-provoking.

    Your slum-dwellers can sit in a circle all day long, talk about what they want, and sing “kumbaya,” but at the end of the day they need concrete ideas. Because resources are limited they are NOT going to get everything they want, and they need to know what it possible. The results of this contest help show them what might be done.

    Instead of criticizing the contest you should applaud the effort. We need more people thinking about these issues and more collaboration. What we don’t need is the kind of attitude you’ve expressed.

  5. Mr. Corburn-

    I am a designer with a special interest in housing solutions for the developing world. When I was first presented with the opportunity some months ago to formulate a proposal based on the “$300 House challenge”, I quickly focused on a specific question posed in the competition brief: “What might a $300 house look like?” After mulling this over for a bit- I realized a specific answer was not important. As Slum Dwellers International puts it- the architects and engineers of the world’s slums will continue to be who they have always been- the citizens who live in them. A house built for $300 will be built out of whatever these builders can get their hands on with whatever means they have mastered. It was upon this basis that I developed my proposal- which is antithetical to a $300 “silver bullet design.” I decided to formulate a center – which I’ve called “SLUM_SHOP”- whose mission is to better train and equip citizen architects and builders in the design and construction of their own homes. Here, resources and labor can be pooled in order to raise living standards. Please check it out on the contest site :

    The proposal wasn’t extraordinarily well received by the judges- who seemed to favor narrowly applicable methods and materials rather than community engagement. I hope to continue to develop this idea, on behalf of all of us who believe that “slum-dwellers must drive the process” of their own development. Great article- hope you share thoughts about my proposal.

    Toby R. Keeton
    Project Hope House

  6. One of the judges the $300 Design Competition posted a comment on the briefing of the competition as follows; It goes in the specifics of the plan of action charted by the organizers:
    The Judege Wrote-
    The $300 House Challenge/s as set forth by Prof Vijay Govindrajan remains promising despite cancellation of the prototype building workshop. As one of the 16 members of the Jury, one week to vote 3 Winners from 300 fantastic submissions and enthusiastic updates.. Everyone concerned (specially the Judges) hopefully have read the given brief first or you would keep wondering (like myself) how these quaint cubicle type designs came about!

    The Brief for the 300 House Design Contest with the Mandatory Requirements, Guidelines, Update Comments etc. was brought to my attention only recently, as follows:
    The $ 300 House design should meet the following points:

    • Primarily for tropical and sub-tropical climates.
    • Minimum living space of about 80 square feet
    (previously briefed as 2.2 Sq Meters or 52 Square feet)
    • With an elevated floor.
    • A roof and at least two walls.
    Must be completely enclosed by something (eg screens) to keep insects out
    • Able to survive sustained 110 mph winds.
    • Able to survive a earthquake measuring 7 on the richter scale.
    • A well maintained life span of 50 years.
    • Easy to assemble by a moderately skilled worker.
    • Made from readily available materials including but not exclusive to reuse or recycled

    All the numbers in this Brief have formidable implications for costs besides a Design and/or a Business Plan. At 110 mph Winds or Earthquake measuring 7 on Richter, most of the modern civic infrastructure would be seriously compromised. Rather these specifications seems opt for Disaster Shelters (to be brought at IKEAs/Home Depots) corresponding to challenge/s as deliberated in $300 House blog by Prof V Govindrajan and Christian Sarkar > consider (IKEA extending) a 5 or 50 year guarantee coverage on anything and how it’d affect the pricing …

    The Design Competition makes the architects single handedly responsible for coming up with a solution. With inherent flaws in the briefing and acknowledged lack of accurancy in the Ranking by online viewers, there remains a huge question mark on participation of Judges however competent they may be, and so the fairness of this whole competition and the exercise.

    Hope the Organizers publish a Combined Jury Report -they owe it to all the participants in the discussion

  7. Hi, Jason.

    Happy to see the $300 House generating more discussion. I’m the editor at HBR working on this with Govindarajan and Sarkar. I hope you take a look at the blog series, and especially the post found here: which is a rebuttal to the Times op ed.

    I think you will see in this response and in the series as a whole that this is being treated as a much more holistic project than just designing a small building.

    Scott Berinato

  8. Wow.

    I wish I had read your comment before I entered into the contest.

    In fact, I wish I had known what you know about seven months ago. Then I wouldn’t have all this time, effort, and financial drain wearing me down.

    But, a Kenyan architect named Ronald Omyonga made a statement that intrigued me. He used the term “holistic housing” to describe the remedy for the slums of Nairobi. That was last November here in Dallas.

    A week after listening to Ronald I came up with an idea. It’s probably not as smart as your the-problem-is-too-difficult perspective. But we’ve fleshed it out and have entered it into the Jovoto contest. We don’t have the popularity vote but we feel we have a good chance for the jury to like us.

    It does reflect Ronald’s “holistic” vision. It revolves around the idea that the cheapest building product available in any of the places where they need housing for the poorest of the poor is plastic trash.

    We have a manual compactor that bales or compacts ALL plastic trash into blocks. The plastic is constrained into the block shape with wire. The blocks are held in place in a wall with wire. The finished product is decided by those building their idea of a house. All we are contributing is a better building product that costs little to nothing.

    We have built a model home for the Hunt Institute of Engineering and Humanity at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.

    That model was winched upon a trailer and hauled to the University of Oklahoma where it is waiting to be tested by the Fear Laboratory in Norman, OK.

    Couple of things you might find interesting. The first thing I did was to go open source with everything. You can find the plans for making the manual compactor online, they’re free. You can find the ideas for building walls with the blocks online, again, free.

    During the incubation of the idea I had two architects hammering me with one constant. That was to keep it simple and always keep in mind that 70 percent of the poorest of the poor in our world are female. The last barrier to gender equality is home building. It has always been passed down male to male

    I listened to Ronald Omyonga and Owen Geiger. I kept it simple. In fact we’ve kept it simpler than that. The hand tools are either available anywhere or they are made as simple as possible. The tool we use to tension the wire so tight you can play a tune on it is a T handle with a groove in one end. It uses leverage instead of brute strength. Boys and girls ten and up have successfully used it to tension the wire.

    Visit us on facebook, Ubuntu-Blox (cause) (group)

    We haven’t designed the $300.00 house. But we have invented a machine and process that can enable the poorest of the poor to build a $300.00 house.

  9. Dear Jason,

    I wanted to take this quick opportunity to let you know that I enjoyed your post, and although I agree with most of the remarks and critiques you make, I do not entirely agree with your dismissal of “design.”

    We are very much on the same page when you state that we must question and reject “boutique design and technological quick-fixes,” viewing solutions as simple Products (as these tend to neglect local realities, customs, and underlying dynamics; only to reflect the imposition of foreign standards). The critical point, as you well stated, is to acknowledge and address the solution as a Process- one that is contextual and responsive to the politics of place. Nevertheless, within this Process, it is not only urban planning but URBAN and ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN which play a large role.

    You are right, “designs are not one-size-fits-all.” This is exactly why DESIGN is so critical- steering away from a repeated kit of parts and generalized notions of best practices, and instead pushing towards a more coherent, contextual and comprehensive proposal; linking to the physical and urban needs, socio-economic dynamics, employment, tenure and policy, amongst others. Contingent on this, I agree that DESIGN cannot be solely the architects’ creation, but needs to involve and engage the community, leading towards the development of new skills, a further appropriation of the project, as well as engaging a large spectrum of issues and dynamics that are essential. Thus, we cannot solely talk about an URBAN PLANNING process where DESIGN has no place; but instead, because of the importance of DESIGN in the process, we need to re-conceptualize and evolve the notion of DESIGN to become more interdisciplinary in its practice, engaging sociologist, economist and anthropologist, and becoming more ethnographic in the approach.

    Thanks again for the post and I look forward to continuing the conversation…

    Adriana Navarro-Sertich
    University of California at Berkeley
    College of Environmental Design

    2010 John K Branner Fellow
    Master of Architecture 2011
    Master of City and Regional Planning 2011

  10. Yes and no:

    (I have a design in that process, for a heads up.)

    While the process doesn’t include the people who would be construction the house as part of the ratings, which is really who should be voting, some on the jury are in these areas and would be putting these designs to use. But I think you missed a major point:

    Without a way for people to build some of these houses, your urban planning would require huge government involvement. This is a cart/horse issue.

    We are just designing the horse. Figure out the planning involved, fine, that will be good in most situations. But without an affordable option or series of options we are developing your point #1 and #2 are not really viable. We are trying to do that in this process, and if you take a look at the entries, quite a few do try and cover all your points also.

    In the case of my design it is a very easy, below the $300 budget option that is used to build full houses, and is a rare now but in the past common way to build a house for low income people. I expanded on what is known as “Depression Housing” to make it more viable for various areas. Building a house, sauna, barn, or shop can all be done with that building concept with houses that often last over 100 years. And it can meet US building code.

    My design is like several that are extremely flexible to the needs of those around it and the supplies availible, and with time and small effort the worth of the house will exceed the value of the materials.

    We all realize the design alone is not the solution, but the design is just as critical as the planning, infastructure, and social building.

    With out the design, and the options, the planning has nothing to pull it.

  11. Dear Jason,

    Thanks for the post,I think the most important thing in the context of $300 house is that Prof.Vijay and Mr.Sarkar have tried to bring the issue that is poverty and the one solution to overcome that in an orthodox way.The $300 house serves as a paradox. The underlying spirit is compassionate and full of love. It is not a matter of competition but co-operation i.e.,join hand with them to deliver this project to the needy.

    Kindest Regards,


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