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An answer to affordable housing conundrum in Chandigarh

The style pioneered during initial years of Chandigarh’s development still holds valuable lessons for achieving goal of housing for all.

chandigarh Updated: Nov 25, 2017 20:46 IST
Munieshwer A Sagar
A view of old architecture at Sector 23 houses in Chandigarh.
A view of old architecture at Sector 23 houses in Chandigarh.(Sikander Singh/HT)

Brick jallis, standardised facades, row housing with common walls between adjoining houses and exposed concrete and brick facades are among common architectural elements that are not only aesthetically admirable, but also tell a story of how low cost mass housing was achieved using the design and choice of construction material here.

“Though aesthetic beauty of the city’s architecture is much appreciated but its contribution to low cost housing is generally overlooked. In fact, its architectural history and style is a major contribution in the realm of low cost housing.

With three renowned architects taking charge of designing Chandigarh, which included Pierre Jeanneret, Jane B Drew and Maxwell Fry, high degree of economy in the housing cost was achieved,” says Jit Kumar Gupta, former director, College of Architecture, Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), Bhaddal.

‘Housing for all’ challenge

A 2011 study by the ministry of housing and urban affairs pegged the housing shortage in the country at 18.76 million in urban areas, of which the EWS (economically weaker section) segment and in LIG (low income group) housing comprised 96%.

Recently, speaking at a conference in New Delhi, the Union minister of housing and urban affairs Hardeep S Puri said subsequent assessments led to a revision of this figure and in the final analysis and the shortage is likely to be around or in excess of 10 million units, a sizable number and remains a tough target.

Using pre-cost battens and tiles for the roof. (Sikander Singh/HT)

In Punjab as well, the challenge for ‘housing for all poses its own challenges. The task force on Urban Housing Shortage in Punjab in 2012 estimated the shortage at 0.39 million dwelling units. Even though the percentage of poverty rate reduced from 15-20% in 2001 to 10-11% in 2011, the share of poor families is high in big cities of Punjab.

As per the National Building Organisation, 2015, the state has 1.46 million people in slum (2% of India’s total slum population). “In Chanidgarh, nearly 30% population is living in slums and it is estimated that there is shortfall of 2 lakh houses for urban poor,” says Saakaar Foundation architect Surinder Bahga.

Paucity of funds and city housing needs

The city was conceived and conceptualised in 1950 as the new capital city for Punjab. The state government accorded higher priority to the construction of houses for its employees. In the initial programme, it was envisioned for more 20,000 people within three years of start of construction.

Initially, 3,208 dwelling units were to be constructed to which 4,000 units were added in 1956 when PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab State Union) was merged into Punjab. Out of 23,000 residential sites carved out in the first phase of the city’s development, 30% residential sites were marked for government housing, which formed the majority of the accommodation in the first two decades of city’s development.

Small windows to save on the cost of wood. (Sikander Singh/HT)

“Major determinants of Chandigarh architecture, urban form and low cost housing designs, were stringent budget and strict adherence to it, which made the city a low density and low rise city with government housing forming bulk of construction. Since the city was built on a new site, the greatest challenge was to provide large housing stock for government employees who were to be shifted to the new city,” says Gupta.

Availability of funds for the Chandigarh project shaped architectural decisions. “The funds available for the new city at the time were scarce and there was more emphasis on making everything economical, but at the same time not sacrificing harmony, utility and aesthetics of the architecture.

To achieve this, focus was on laid on low cost options both in terms of materials used and the design elements. Jeanneret, Drew and Fry did most of the housing and social infrastructure. Jeanneret was an innovative mind and helped use innovative methods to economise construction,” says SD Sharma, architect, Chandigarh Project, 1963-73.

Low cost housing

For achieving low cost housing, stress was laid on using, “locally made inexpensive brick as the vital material for construction, minimising wood work and glazing, which were seven times more expensive than brick wall, by keeping window sizes minimum, standardisation of doors, windows and sanitary fittings besides using pre-cost roof battens and tiles for economising on time, shuttering, labour and using minimum machinery during construction,” says Gupta.

Using pre-cast gargoyles for draining rain water instead of rain water pipes. (Sikander Singh/HT)

Bricks were used extensively. “Cost-effective bricks were the main building material for construction. It was left in its natural form without plaster or paint, saving on current and future maintenance costs. Large area was brought under exposed brick work in natural form on the facades,” says Sharma.

Different design elements were incorporated to minimise the size and number of openings to save cost on wood. “They made housing openings like windows smaller in size. Windows were properly shaded through an innovative system of sub-breakers to cut off the harsh sun,” adds Gupta.

Majority of air, light and ventilation in the houses was achieved through perforations made in the brick wall and extensive use of brick jallis. But, this didn’t come at the cost of aesthetic elements. For instance, “variety in design was achieved through recessed entrances, small-square windows, projecting structural walls, exposed roof battens,” says Gupta.

Battened door with cross braces (Sikander Singh/HT)

Similarly, innovative technologies involving pre-cast building components were used, “eliminating use of costly machinery and promoting improved local technologies, using vernacular architecture and promoting standardization, which brought about low cost housing,” says Gupta.

Use of cement was minimised and simple structures were used to keep cost low. Similarly, cost-saving design elements like protruding bricks were used in type 13 houses to shade the walls without incurring any additional costs, says Bahga. The design and materials pioneered during the early development years of the city continue to prove resilient even today.

“Take example of jute doors used in the first building constructed in the city, now turned into the Le Corbusier Centre, which are still in good shape after all these years. If we see older buildings, we can notice how low maintenance these required in last 60 years, but still continue to appear beautiful and functional,” says Sangeet Sharma, a Chandigarh-based architect.

Brick jallis installed in houses at Sector 22, one of the oldest sectors in Chandigarh. (Sikander Singh/HT)

Lessons not learnt

Lessons from Chandigarh architecture in low-cost housing have largely been overlooked by planners. “Most new cities are planned focusing on the middle and upper middle class. Housing for poor is either ignored in the planning stage or is done shoddily.

The Chandigarh architecture teaches valuable lessons in low-cost housing and should be emulated,” says Bahga. Even satellite towns of Chandigarh, particularly Mohali, have failed to emulate the lessons. “Where is the second Chandigarh in the country? Chandigarh architecture is a reference, but never served as a reference for low-cost housing development in the country. This must change if we are serious about meeting the challenge of low-cost housing,” says Sangeet.