Successful design responds to local needs

Successful design responds to local needs
Successful design responds to local needs

The Dean of the Faculty at De Montfort University Leicester highlights how architecture is building a new future for a community in Ahmedabad. The value of architecture goes far beyond mere buildings - it can change lives and communities for the better. And perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the gradual rebuilding of the Loving Community, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The Loving Community was established 40 years ago as a home for former lepers and their families, who had been forced to leave their villages because of the stigma surrounding leprosy. Today, the poor-quality single storey houses are not fit for purpose. During the monsoons, the residents' homes - often cramped, poorly-lit with limited ventilation - flood, forcing them to leave for months on end. In the summer, their homes become so hot that people are unable to occupy them for much of the day. The Loving Community is supported by local charity Manav Sadhna and it was through working with this group that DMU became involved in helping to improve the lives of people in the community. I met local architect Anand Sonecha, of SEALAB Architecture, and we discussed how the homes in the community could be redesigned to withstand these annual floods and improve the general living conditions of families. Together, we developed the designs for the first two homes to raise the buildings above the flood level and create light, more space and even a courtyard area for people to have a pleasant space to sit outside. We were keen to involve our architecture students as much as possible, to give them a real-life experience of design, housing standards and dealing with clients. Our PhD students interviewed members of the Loving Community about their daily lives to get an idea of what would be most useful. Anand has subsequently worked closely with community leaders and held meetings with local businesses to ensure that as many materials as possible could be sourced within the area and supported employment within the community itself. He has also developed detailed designs for further homes. It was critical that the community were involved in every part of the project and they were the ones who developed the brief for what was needed and chose which homes were rebuilt and in which order. This was done by initially the community identifying which homes were a priority for redevelopment and then developing the process for selection. Every time new homes are being selected for redevelopment, residents' names go into a hat and are drawn out to keep the process fair. In addition, a fixed cost for construction for each home was set at approximately £5000. Now work will begin on the next homes to be rebuilt. Work began on the first two homes in April 2018, with the cost of work met by support from Graham Cartledge, Jane Grant and contributions from DMU staff and students, as well as the local community in Leicester - a city with a significant Gujarati-origin population. In addition, Pick Everard sponsored a member of their staff an architectural assistant and DMU graduate, Nish Tailor, to project manage the student engagement. The new houses have been designed to be comfortable and energy efficient with carefully positioned openings for cross ventilation, providing a cool and light environment. Previously, the old homes had only a single opening, which didn't allow for sufficient lighting or ventilation, making them almost uninhabitable.

Detailed design

Anand has thought meticulously about every design decision in collaboration with each family, raised floors for flood prevention, and created small courtyards for working spaces. Each house is being raised up by at least half a metre and given adequate drainage which means that no longer will contaminated flood water run through their houses. Each home is designed to be slightly different from its neighbour, unique to each family's needs. The homes have been personally customised with different coloured tiles and painted decorations, to ensure that they feel a sense of ownership and pride in their new homes. Importantly, each home has been designed to enable future expansion should the family grow or they desire additional space. It is not just the homes which have been redesigned. Native trees have been planted in the surrounding open spaces which will eventually create shade during the summertime and areas are being cleared of scrub to form new play areas for young children. The project has led to other wider community benefits include creating a potential source of income. Anand sourced waste materials from local marble industries and residents were taught how to make their own floor tiles for the homes, giving them a new skill. This has resulted in the residents setting up a micro industry to supply tiles for future homes and other projects.

Feedback and research

Families living in the Loving Community have loved their new homes and it has been rewarding for everyone working on the project to see what a difference it has made. Widow Narshamabhan told us: “Before I was so fed up and tired and every monsoon it was a very bad and unhealthy situation for all of us. I never had a thought or even a dream that I would be living in such a nice home. I thank the Lord that finally, I have a nice home.” A research project is also underway to test the finished design and to see how much more comfortable they are than other homes and how the homes and residents will cope with flood water during the monsoon season. It is anticipated this learning will feed into future designs in the community but also be valuable for other communities and architects working on similar projects.

A holistic approach

The project in Ahmedabad is different because it offers a community focused solution to housing design in response to specific local needs. Unlike other models of social housing that may provide standard house designs without direct access to architects, this project has enabled residents to have homes designed around their lives and needs. Our students have benefited enormously from being able to meet residents and see how their lives link with the buildings that have been designed. This has been achieved in collaboration with the residents, Manav Sahnda, Anand Sonecha and our generous donors and partners. The holistic approach to the project which we have taken with the 430 people who call the Loving Community home, has created homes with dignity, which will improve health outcomes for residents, lead to new sources of income for the community and offer a different vision for how to deliver homes that has relevance well beyond Ahmedabad and India.
Architect Simon Bradbury is the Dean of the Faculty at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), UK.
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