From Tragedy to Triumph: A Community Initiated Sustainable Habitat Project

In Veerabagupathy, the villagers had acquired a new site (in February 2005) through their own collective initiative to rebuild their houses, beyond the 500m of the High Tide Line. Habitat Technology Group (HTG) has initiated a reconstruction project from a participatory and long term development perspective within this community by building a low cost, appropriate technology pilot project of 58 houses jointly with its partner Architecture & Development.

 Preeti Goel Sanghi

Veerabagupathy is a beautiful, small village in Kanyakumari District, about 12 kilometers from the town of Nagercoil. What is unique about it is that although this is a coastal village, the main occupation here is not fishing. The villagers are mostly daily-wage labourers engaged as masons, carpenters, farm-workers, soil /stonecutters etc, and consists of only 76 families all belonging to Hindu Maruthuvar caste.

The tsunami of 26th December 2004 did not spare this village. In Veerabagupathy, 7 lives were lost and quite a few people injured. But what it really destroyed were the houses, mostly huts built with soil bricks walls called vettuckals with thatched roofs. As this village comprised almost entirely of Hindu non-fish worker families in an area full of Christian fish worker villages, in the initial days following the tsunami, relief bypassed the village (the administration was relying on the Church for information). When this was brought to the attention of the administration, their initial response was to deny that such a village existed. Subsequently, after several representations from the community, the government constructed 38 temporary shelters using tar sheets tied to bamboo poles with a tin door. (Later round wall foundation and thatched roof were added).

With the cash each family received as immediate relief the families joined together under the leadership of Mr. Ezhaya Perumal (age 51) the then village administration committee president and utilized it for purchasing land measuring 3 acres and 32 cents at Therivilai area that is 500 meters away from the sea shore. This site was purchased from 7 parties and the community approached Habitat Technology Group (HTG), a non-governmental organisation providing architectural solutions using appropriate building technologies. HTG is founded by Architect G Shankar, who is known for his passion for providing housing solutions. His set up is such that any person can walk into his office and ask for his services - the only precondition being that the building be constructed solely with environment sensitive technologies.

After registration of the plot, the community with help from HTG, divided the site into 3 cents plots for 82 families (76 families and 6 families who were visiting them) that had contributed and bought the land in this area. 18 cents of land was reserved for community use. People whose houses were fully damaged by Tsunami contributed Rs.18000 for the 3 cents land, those from partially damaged houses contributed Rs.20000 and those who did not have any damage gave Rs. 25000. To avoid misunderstanding among themselves the community decided that they allot the plots based on a system of lottery.

On behalf of the community, HTG approached Architecture and Development (A&D), another NGO (founded in Paris in 1997) to help raise funds for the actual construction of houses. A&D works in partnership with other NGOs for exchange, cooperation and know-how of sustainable habitat in many parts of the world. In this project A&D adopted the role of a facilitator and integrated this housing project into the larger proposal for the setting up of the Reconstruction Development Campaign (RDC) programme to demonstrate the importance of a holistic and participatory approach of reconstruction, that takes into account not only the house construction but total built environment and includes all elements of sustainable habitat design. A&D approached the Foundation de France who agreed to sponsor the RDC project and allocated Rs 90 lakhs for the reconstruction of the houses in Veerabagupathy. The project started in June 2005.

The first step was a village mapping exercise of the whole village - affected areas and some of the surrounding areas. In addition socio-economic surveys were also done to identify and assess social impacts, including loss of assets and sources income. In addition HTG held many consultations with the local community for suggestions and considerations in designing the layout plan of the houses. They decided that the houses be almost similar in design and each could opt for typology they wanted from the various design options (simple house, house with internal toilet and house with toilet and external staircase). Most of the community opted for a simple unit comprising of a sitout, a multipurpose room, room and kitchenette. In the meanwhile the government identified only 20 fully damaged houses, and most of the other houses were declared as only partially damaged. Among these, 18 persons were allotted houses in-situ from Matha Amarthanantha Trust and 2 persons did not accept to build in-situ and asked to be shifted to a new area. Thus although A&D and HTG had planned to build for all 76 beneficiaries, they now decided to only construct only 58 houses for the remaining persons.

What really sets these houses apart from the other conventional houses is that they use two low cost techniques in their construction - the rat trap bond (RTB) and the filler slab technology. Both technologies were first introduced by eminent architect Laurie Baker in India and supported by HUDCO.

In the RTB bricks are placed on edge in 1:6 cement mortar as shown in the figure. With this technique there is reduction in cost of the wall by 25% as with conventional English bond (9’’thk wall) 350 bricks are required per cu. m whereas in Rat-trap bond only 280 bricks are required. Also the reduced number of joints reduces the mortar consumption. No plastering of the outside face is required and the wall usually is quite aesthetically pleasing and the air gaps created within the wall help make the house thermally comfortable. In summer, the temperature inside the house is usually atleast 5 degrees lower that the outside ambient temperature and vice versa in winter.

The filler slab is based on the principle that for roofs which are simply supported, the upper part of the slab is subjected to compressive forces and the lower part of the slab experience tensile forces. Concrete is very good in withstanding compressive forces and steel bears the load due to tensile forces. Thus the lower tensile region of the slab does not need any concrete except for holding the steel reinforcements together. Therefore in a conventional RCC slab lot of concrete is wasted and it needs extra reinforcement due to added load of the concrete which can otherwise be replaced by low-cost and light weight filler materials, which will reduce the dead weight as well as the cost of the slab to 25% (as 40% less steel is used and 30% less concrete). The simplest filler is to use two fifth grade Mangalore tiles, that is what is used here, does not have any structural value- they are mere ‘fillers’. Besides the roof this technique was also used for the window sun-shades.

Other features that are used in the houses here are stone foundations with a concrete tie beam at plinth level (the owners could add additional height to the plinth at their own cost), pre cast cement doors and window frames, brick bat flooring and no internal plaster but pointing is done.

The masons were all from the local community trained by a team of qualified masons of HTG to construct using these techniques. At the end of this project these teams will be able to use these techniques and carry out construction of quality, independently. Another innovative participatory element was that the house owner was required to be present during construction his house, and if possible be part of the team. Apart from providing drinking water and tea to the workers of his house, he was also is responsible for pouring water for curing the building.

In consultation with the community it is now decided that the community center should consist of a large multi purpose function room, a storage room, separate toilets for men and women, and a playground. HTG has just finalized the design and is planning to use of compressed stabilized bricks from the self-help group (SHG) in Talakudy with an estimated budget for Rs 5 lakhs.

Currently at the project site, water (one tap in each plot) and electricity is being connected with the municipal network, roads are being leveled and marked by curb stones and landscaping and planting of trees is in progress. Since the project was sponsored for 76 houses and only 58 houses have been constructed, the balance amount is being planned to be utilized to provide solar streetlights for the village, and additional features to the houses like water harvesting, outdoor kitchen slabs, smokeless chullahs and outdoor toilets with individual or collective septic tanks. Discussions are now on with the community to see if they are ready to involve themselves in maintenance of the installation of a biogas plant.

This reconstruction project can serve as a reference and experiment for other communities. Detailed documentation will help demonstrate the technical and financial credibility of such a contextualized processes of rebuilding that is participative and integrated with environmental, social and economic. issues.

Tsunami Resettlement Scheme at Veerabagupathy,
In Progress at Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu, India

G. Shanker, Chief Architect
Habitat Technology Group
Near Mandapam, Poojapura,
Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
695 012, India.
Tel: 91-471-2344904, 2342723, 2344877
Fax: 91-471-2347282