How Laurie Baker Revolutionized Low Cost Housing In 20th Century India

The coastal state of Kerala, like most places along India’s western shoreline, is dotted with small fishing villages. In the 1970s, rough waves would wash away some village or the other with routine splashes, and every year the displaced fishermen and women would receive a steep government compensation for clothing, blankets and even replacement huts. In 1974, an architect living and working in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) approached Kerala’s Chief Minister to suggest an alternate solution. Instead of wasting Rs. 3,000 of State resources per compensation each year, why not just build pucca (permanent) houses that would ride the storm long-term, literally and figuratively? As the C.M. green lit the project, they acquired land just behind the beach to give Trivandrum’s coastal-dwelling fisher people stability in terms of housing.

While the project was riddled with its fair share of challenges, this architect rose to the occasion. “The fishermen are quarrelsome people, and I didn’t have much time to study the project or think about it,” he described in an interview with Gautum Bhatia, explaining the time constraints he had to work with. As an architect, he rejected the concept of long row houses, each one identical to the next. “…I staggered the housing in a way that they catch the breeze, and they get a view of the sea; at the same time leaving little private triangles of land in between houses where they could dry nets and kids could play; they were all distressed over the storm damage, and we had to get them up as quickly as possible and we mainly wanted to demonstrate that such permanent structures could be put up quickly.” As beautiful, cost-effective and strategically masterful individualistic housing lined the coast, each house resonated with the specific needs of its inhabitants, and didn’t pander to the preferences of the architect. And keeping with this style, Mr. Laurie Baker applied these principles across the 41 years he worked in India, earning the title of the father of low-cost housing.

Laurie Baker. Image Source: DNA

Laurie Baker. Image Source: DNA

Mr. Laurie Baker [March 2, 1917 - April 1, 2007] and his journey

When Laurence Wilfred Baker, a young Englishman, studied at King Edward’s Grammar School in Aston, England, his dissatisfactory marksheet lead his headmaster to ponder long and hard as to what would be a suitable career choice for the young boy, fondly known as Laurie. After much thought, he asked, “Do you know how to sketch houses?” “Yes, I’ve sketched quite a few,” Laurie responded.

Laurie Baker graduated from the Birmingham School of Architecture in 1937, when Europe was on the brink of unrest. As the dark clouds of World War II loomed, the Quakers religious group formed various centres to take care of injured soldiers, and Baker found himself joining the cause. As the Japan-China war continued, the Quakers sent a group of volunteers to help the wounded, and that’s how Baker soaked in the lifestyle, craftsmanship and philosophy of China for three years. Making his way back to England, he came to India to catch the streamer from Mumbai to London. As the streamer would not leave for another three months, he had to stay in India, and as it turned out, his heart would never leave.

Through his Quakers associates, he was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi, who greatly influenced Baker as he expressed his concern over the state of Indian architecture. He began attending Gandhi’s lectures and prayer meetings, and even though he returned to England then, he came back to India in 1945, and never left again. For the first few years he spent in the subcontinent, Baker travelled and helped build leprosy hospitals, spending a long time in Faizabad, U.P. As he met doctor Elizabeth Chandy, he fell in love and they were married in 1948, after which they couple moved to Pithoragarh in the Himalayas. Here, for nearly 15 years they ran clinics, helped the locals by building hospitals and schools, and Baker imbibed techniques of generations of local communities to optimize local resources. Soon after, the pair moved to Elizabeth’s home state of Kerala, where Baker worked for over 40 years and carved out a unique style of architecture, laying the cornerstone for low cost housing in India.

Laurie Baker: Manual for cost cut housing

Laurie Baker: Manual for cost cut housing

The guru of low cost housing and his principles

For over four decades, Baker channelled his principles of simplicity, minimalism and individuality to design low-cost, high-quality, visually unique and energy-saving houses. His vision rejected imported, pricey, energy-guzzling materials, and replaced them with local, cheap and renewable ones. If the last few decades of the 20th century found you in Thiruvananthapuram, you would see exuberant structures built with mud bricks from local clay, bamboo, lime made from clamshells found on the beach, and other inventive natural objects. Western-style flat roofs were traded in for traditional Indian sloping ones with vents and gables. Elaborate windows with glass panels seemed wasteful, wherein jalis could encourage cool breeze as well as diffuse the rays of the sun in beautiful patterns. Even broken bricks and other ‘waste’ material was reused in ingenious ways. With conservation, indigenous methods and innovative natural techniques being the forerunners of Baker’s style, he managed to build houses tailored logically for the needs of his clients, instead of branding his edifices with a trademark design and wasteful mastery. And as he introduced a whole new perspective to the world of architecture, those rooted in their old ways didn’t take too well to Baker’s novel methods. Ms. Kuttaiah, senior associate at a global architecture firm, tells us over email, “His construction/principles are looked at as experimental inquires and as an “alternative” approach (much like alternative cinema). Big builders can’t embrace it because of several limitations in terms of applicability and construction.”

Cost efficiency was the model Baker fathered, and his principles extended from architecture to lifestyle as well. In 1999, Rubbish by Baker was published to remind Indian citizens of all the creative methods of environmental sensibility at their disposal. This insightful work broke down the garbage and waste problems of India from their origin and the role of industrial waste, right up to viable solutions like organic waste compost and public authority responsibilities. And over the years, Baker’s sustainable principles found themselves in print through various volumes and books. “The techniques which Mr. Baker has discussed in this book with suitable explanatory sketches and diagrams, will I am sure, be found useful by the poorest of the poor as well as middle class people. I commend this to the public of Kerala,” former Chief Minister of Kerala C. Achuta Menon wrote in the Foreword of Baker’s book Houses: How To Reduce Building Costs, 1986. Menon was also the Chairman of COSTFORD.

COSTFORD: Baker’s Living Legacy

The philosophy of architect Laurie Baker found roots and vision in the non-profit organisation COSTFORD (The Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development) that was founded in 1985 by C. Achuta Menon, economist K. N. Raj, social activist T. R. Chandradutt and Mr. Baker himself. With projects across Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Kottayam and Kollam, this organisation’s broad spectrum of work, till today, paints across the canvases of local level planning, technical and vernacular architectural growth through research and development, educational programs and rural housing. Dedicated to changing the social, economic, and political position of marginalised or disadvantaged groups in society, COSTFORD engages in various ventures, from environmental conservation to working towards uplifting the status of women.

Their recent Kalladimukham housing colony across five acres of land, implemented as part of the BSUP scheme (Basic Services for the Urban Poor), set up 318 housing units in Kerala. With 105 units for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families and 213 for general category families, September 2015 saw this building endeavour inaugurated by the Minister for Urban Affairs Manjalamkuzhi Ali.

Laurie Baker's house in Kerala: The Hamlet

Laurie Baker’s house in Kerala: The Hamlet

Low cost housing in 2016 India

As Professor Shailaja Nair of Thiruvananthapuram’s College of Engineering, Department of Architecture tells us in a phone interview, “Frankly, there is a disparity between the volume of people who need such housing, and the people who are willing to accept it. Fuelled by propaganda, people aspire for things richer people have, and that is true for housing as well.” Pointing out an important problem with the concept of cost-effective housing, she relates how the perception of low-cost is often low-quality, and low income populations in both urban and rural areas offered such alternative architecture often feel scammed, especially since such offerings come from government organisations. With high land costs and poor planning, the need for a wide range of low-cost and affordable housing in India is becoming more dire.

While aspiration is one issue plaguing low-cost housing in India, the list continues. The concept itself reigns in social scientists that pull out cards such as cultural exclusion, while economists calculate benefits. Politicians support schemes that appease less advantaged groups, and architects are left wondering how to manoeuvre the obstacle course of land costs, local materials, workers adept in traditional building methods and various middle-men. Mass-production is a looming question mark, and space concerns a constant battle. Factions such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CCI)’s Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) strive for green buildings and environmental sensitivity in architecture, adding yet another comment to the dialogue of what is the need of the construction hour.

Laurie Baker with his workers in Kerala, Image Source: bdonline.co.uk

Laurie Baker with his workers in Kerala, Image Source: bdonline.co.uk

An economist’s preference?

Anil Pharande, Chairman of Pharande Spaces, explains, “The ‘affordability gap’ is defined as the difference between the average rent people pay for their homes without having to spend more than 30% of their family income, and the price of acceptable housing units.” With the congested population looming in India, the affordability gap is constantly rising, and while politicians support low-cost housing, economists are on the same page too. Calling it an untapped market, the co-founder and managing director of the Hiranandani Group, Niranjan Hiranandani muses that India’s real estate sector requires the move to low-cost construction and affordable housing. Comparing it to China’s economic growth being fuelled 33 percent by the housing sector, he concludes that this market in India should be explored beyond what it already is. Additionally, the wealth and social security brought by home ownership is often cited by economists as an important reason for affordable housing growth, since appreciation of land and property prices ensures that real estate provides a good future.

As Baker’s techniques strived to prove that his principles benefitted even moneyed people, he said, “Cost-effective houses are not just for the poor, they are for everyone. The equation that a cost-effective house is a house for the poor, implying a bad looking house, can definitely be proved wrong. Isn’t it the responsibility of the upper and middle classes to stop indulging in extravagance and make better looking houses instead? This entire classification is wrong.”

Words: Rhea Almeida

[Update March 4: Edward Grammar School was updated to King Edward's Grammar School.]

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