State-level Roundtable cum conference on Climate Appropriate Self-Built Housing, Kolkata, West Bengal

Date: July 30, 2022

The Habitat team of CSE organized a state level roundtable cum conference titled ‘Climate Appropriate Self-Built Housing’. The aim of the conference was to identify levers and strategies for reinventing local materials, guiding climate appropriate self-built housing and capacity building along its wider uptake and implementation in the state of West Bengal. The conference involved a panel discussion and seminar in which experts from various domains such as policy, professional practice, academia, researchers, and journalists participated. 

CSE released its publication titled ‘Reinventing local material, techniques and skills for sustainable self-built housing: Case study of Odisha and West Bengal’ along with the other panelists namely, Dr. Mainak Ghosh, Head of Department, Architecture, Jadavpur university, Ms. Suktisita Bhattacharya, Special Secretary, Departments of Panchayat and Rural development, Mr. Bikram Das, State Management Officer West Bengal, National Skill Development Council, Mr. Laurent Fournier, Architect, Kolkata, Ms. Saequa Monazza, Chief administrative officer, West Bengal State Council of Technical & Vocational Education and Skill Development and Mr. Jayantu Basu, Environmental journalist. 

Dr. Sidhhartha Koduru, Director of Amity school of architecture and planning delivered the welcome address. Ms Anumita Roy chowdhury, Executive Director of CSE, In her keynote address introduced the findings of the publication which highlighted the relevance of climate appropriate development, the environmental connect, the livelihood connect and the larger gaps within the domain on aspects such as the loss of traditional construction technologies thermal comfort and material density.  Ms. Roy Chowdhury talked about the major challenges that arises out of the obsession for urban mass housing - the fact that self-built housing is the biggest segment of formal housing in India, and yet has has been unguided and unregulated. 

Mr Rajneesh Sareen, Programme Director of the  Sustainable Buildings and Habitat Programme elaborated the methodology of the research, the entire process involving field investigations, and expert interviews, stakeholder surveys, photo documentation, mapping, and discussed the key strategies for a way forward, such as the transition through usage of hybrid technologies, education, skill & capacity building and policy levers which can guide self-built housing sector. 

Dr. Parthasarathi Mukhopadhyay, Architecture, town and regional planning, IIEST Shibpur presented on ‘Diasaster resilient architecture using traditional technologies’ where he provided quantitative evidence on how smart implementation of native technologies can provide disaster resilience. He also introduced traditional technologies used all around the globe and in India such as Adobe House in Peru & Taq in Kashmir. He touched upon the quantification of how much each of these technologies are used in India and introduced simple measures for disaster mitigation such as hinging i.e., bolting of roofs to the superstructure and its success rate. 

Mr. Laurent Fournier, Architect, from Kolkata, presented the collaborative work with different masons including construction practices such as shallow dome, dome without shuttering, funicular shells and the use of lime plaster in various projects ranging from schools, residences, hotels, etc. These practices have low material intensity and bring in innovation in the use of local materials and skill. His presentation pointed out the crucial role that local knowledge can play in making sustainable buildings.  

Ms. Anumita Roy Chowdhury commenced the panel discussion briefly outlining the challenges within the self-built housing segment such as how we can integrate local technologies at Panchayat level housing provision that is tied to government funding to make it carbon sensitive. Ms. Suktisita Bhattacharya responded that current technical evaluation and sanctions does not take materials into account. For instance, an engineering software SECURE that is used by the self-help groups to technically evaluate and sanction projects could be combined with the materials and performance parameters. Further, Ms. Bhattacharya highlighted that the government needs to be made aware of what kind of environmental footprints could be avoided by a guided housing design and choice of materials. 

Ms. Saequa Monazza added to the discussion by sharing that the government is looking into courses on green technologies for masons for urban and rural buildings. However, lack of standards is the biggest challenge. As local materials vary from place to place, much research is needed to standardize the use of traditional technologies. The safety and credibility of these have to be proven and captured in certifications. Following that there is much potential in courses related to sustainable construction technologies and therefore a revised curriculum for skill development is the next step. 

Ms. Roychowdhury pointed the responsibilities of academia for a more scientifically driven approach for influencing the government policy on traditional technologies. To this, Dr. Mainak Ghosh suggested a two-way approach - the top-down policy change and the bottom-up awareness and outreach programmes. This two-pronged approach can bridge the gap between aspirations and market dynamics. Therefore, research is needed and the public needs to be made aware on the benefits of traditional technologies. Experiencing and documenting these technologies is one way.

 Mr Jayanta Basu added to the discussion by focusing on the need to bring the learning curve from the ground in the policy main frame. Cyclone Bulbul affected around 5.7 lakh houses in the Sundarbans, Cyclone Amphan affected around 28.56 lakh dwelling units in West Bengal. The total cost of borne by the state government was about 35,000 Crore. This clearly shows that the existing dwelling structures are not working in Sunderbans. Also, it is not a good idea to go by the nomenclature i.e. people are not exactly looking for concrete houses, they are looking for permanent houses. For instance, turning one room into a shelter against cyclonic events is an adaptive as well as mitigative strategy. Therefore, government’s nomenclature of pucca and kutcha house needs to be revisited and repurposed. Mr Basu added that the most vulnerable areas need to be mapped. They are identifiable. For instance, there are 14 locations that are the most vulnerable point in Sundarbans. Such areas need targeted strategies for disaster and climate resilience and an integrated effort by the union government, panchayat and the state disaster management department among others. 

Ms Roy Chowdhury posed the question of how climatically vulnerable areas such as Sundarbans, should be approached for development while depending on local materials such as bamboo and what should be our policies to deal with the same. Mr. Laurent Fournier agreed with the strategy of one disaster resilient room in the house. It is a valuable concept and provides the owner the freedom to expand it. Also, certification of structures made from local materials is possible. To make this happen, practitioners need to work with these materials and put their scientific knowledge towards this agenda. Standardization will be the last step. Mr. Fournier also explained how hybrid building designs were developed in Sundarbans which is a response to the frequent flooding in the area and that it has been successful. 

To the question of strategies to mainstream climate appropriate self-built housing, Mr Rajneesh Sareen responded that the adoption of fast-paced alternate construction technologies is very high in Schedule of Rates. So can be done with the traditional technologies. There is a need to develop prototypes which will lead to standardization. Also, same standard will not apply to the entire state. The appropriateness of usage of construction technologies can be defined on the basis of vulnerability of the zone in which they lie. For instance, in some zones wind might be an important factor and hence the roofing/walling technologies that are able to resist the winds can be frozen for that zone. This makes vulnerability mapping crucial. Mr Sareen concluded the discussion by stressing on the need for demonstration which will transform the market. Once the focus is on solutions, the ecosystem will start reshaping like inclusion in the schedule of rates.