Affordable, sustainable, and climate resilient housing in Rural India

Nicole Little and team of researchers in India.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Little

By Nicole Little

Published November 7, 2018

Each year, monsoon season causes considerable damage to the traditional mud homes of rural farmers in India, requiring time-consuming and labor-intensive repairs. In addition to climatic issues, traditional home designs create unhealthy indoor environments due to air pollution from kitchen smoke, poor insulative performance, and water damage. Typical government homes, built from brick or concrete, are highly prevalent “solutions” since they are cheap, durable, and easy to construct. However, these homes overheat to unlivable temperatures during hot summer months, negatively impact the environment with high production emissions and embodied energy,  and consist of unaffordable materials for most rural families, especially those 82% who make a living off of subsistence farming.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities – aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable by “ensuring access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.” Shelter is a basic human need. Proper shelter is undeniably necessary for health and security. For example, a house that includes a kitchen, yet no proper ventilation system, may lead to acute respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis, pregnancy complications, and infant and perinatal mortality. A house that lacks proper water resistance and ventilation can produce mold and cause allergies, respiratory infections, and asthma. Moreover, neighborhoods and the built environment – including access to food, environmental conditions, crime and violence, and quality of housing – is included in the Social Determinants of Health, the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.

With support from the Community for Global Health Equity, in January 2018, I participated in the Amrita Live-in-Labs, 101 villages in rural India where student researchers live, assess local challenges, and apply their educational training in the testing and creation of potential solutions. Our team – a group of civil engineering students, faculty, and PhD mentors – designed and conducted a comprehensive study of traditional homes in Devgain, a community in the State of Jharkand, to understand the social, cultural, economic, and environmental factors that affect housing. We categorized building typologies, materials used, and construction methods through sketches, surveys, maps, photographs and analysis. We also collected, analyzed, and experimented with locally available construction materials. Since my return to the United States, I have continued on the project, moving on to design phases of a community center and housing.

For several reasons our team decided to pursue research on rammed earth, a method where earth material is stabilized with cement and packed into formwork at high pressure. First, the material is culturally sensitive. The aesthetic of rammed earth is similar to traditional mud walls, although much more durable. Villagers are more familiar with, and can source the earth as usual. Second, the only additional cost is the purchase of cement from the nearby market, which can be bartered for or purchased through government subsidies at a much lower cost than that of the government homes currently being built. Third, the construction method is inclusive, with easily taught modifications to current techniques . Lastly, in addition to these social, cultural, and economic factors, rammed earth is more sustainable and performs better within sub-tropical climates like southern India.

My interest in this project stemmed from previous coursework at UB.  I researched housing for South Sudanese refugees who have fled/are fleeing to settlement areas in Uganda. Seeing the housing structures and speaking with community members in India further informed, for me, the importance of adequate housing to health, and what factors contribute to the feasibility of appropriate housing construction.

On a more personal level, I learned a lot about myself – developing cultural competency, emotional intelligence, and self-efficacy. I also gained empathy and knowledge from the local community members I met while honing my research methods and in-situ problem solving. Finally, I learned how to work on a complex global project with a multidisciplinary team – the personalities, skills, and dynamic relationships that contribute to sustainable, relevant work.