May 2011 Archives

May 30, 2011

Part 2. Our Journey

For us, the project was more than just that - a project. It was a set of experiences, a journey.

Part 2 captures the essence of our journey while working through the challenges of this project. In this process, we met committed people who were willing to help us along the way. A big thanks to them.

Our Journey

With this, we wish our best of luck to the teams carrying this forward.

So long,

Tuck India Team

Part 1. Business Plan (India)

The spring term at Tuck just ended, and with that our assignment to progress the $300 house concept further. We did a lot of work, and we have tried to capture it in our key findings on how to make this concept a reality in India.

Part 1 captures the essence of our business plan.

Business Plan (Scribd/PDF)


Tuck India Team

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May 27, 2011

299 Design Ideas for the $300 House

Thanks to everyone for their enthusiasm and support!  VG and I are thrilled to see the creative suggestions and the spirit of co-operation that became more and more evident as the $300 House Open Design Challenge went along. 

Special thanks to the Jovoto team - Nathalie, Nadine, Peter (x2), Bastian, and Shaun at Mutopo for making this happen - without your generosity we'd never have gotten off the ground.  Thanks also to Scott Tew from Ingersoll Rand for your willingness to try this experiment.

Now, let the judging begin!

May 23, 2011

Update: The Prototyping Workshop

Over the weekend we were surprised to learn that COMMON (via Alex Bogusky) was not going to be hosting our prototyping workshop after all. They pulled out at the 11th hour, telling us that they decided they "would not be able to meet our expectations for the event."  Big disappointment, but hey, this is an opportunity to rethink the workshop - from scratch.

Just wish they had told us earlier!

This morning we had a chat with Scott Tew of Ingersoll Rand (the workshop sponsor) and they're as committed as ever to going forward with the prototyping workshop - at a new venue and under new management. 

Shaun Abrahamson, one of our great advisors, suggests the following:

once we have the winners, it seems that it might make sense to agree on SCOPE of prototyping with them. from the process so far, it seems we will have

+ diverse range of material and equipment needs
+ some decisions on what we will focus on - whole buildings vs specific components (bricks, earthbags, etc)
+ modeling and estimation for time and cost assumptions

I also think it would be helpful for people to talk to stakeholders, including potential customers. dont want to keep pushing for local, but having been on the ground in brazil, south africa, zimbabwe, etc, I think the local realities are hard to grasp without first hand experience.

We think that this is a better approach than what we had planned in Alabama. We're still going to have a prototyping workshop, but now we get to decide (a) the venue, and (b) who the workshop mentors will be (we've asked David Sands to participate already) and we're looking for a few more visionaries to get involved.  They must be able to roll up sleeves and build prototypes!

If you have any suggestions on (a) or (b) - drop us a line at info [at] !!

Finally, and most importantly, the contest deadline has not changed.

Have you submitted your entry yet? 2 days to go, go, go! >>

Stay tuned for the details on the prototyping workshop, and thanks for your support.

Lesson learned.

Philip Herlihy's Letter to LEGO

The following is part of an exchange between Philip Herlihy (a $300 house supporter) and LEGO:

Hi Kasia,

Thank you for your reply.  However, I don't think you've quite understood what I was suggesting - I wasn't asking for a simple donation.  The potential scope is much greater, and there could be very significant benefit for Lego, both in terms of worldwide goodwill and also commercial profit.

If a home-building system based on plastic bricks were to take off, the worldwide market would be immense.  Economists have talked about the "bottom of the pyramid" as an overlooked market sector, as although margins are small, the potential volumes are vast.  In these days of globalisation, manufacturing itself would be done in a low-cost environment (e.g. China) but with design, marketing and branding located in the West.  What I'm suggesting is that Lego might look into this not just as a charitable venture but as a long-term source of profit, demonstrating that free enterprise can turn a dollar while bringing vast benefits to the world.  Now, think ten years ahead, and imagine that the poorest people are starting to be housed with a system using plastic bricks.  Now imagine that it *isn't* Lego that's behind this, but some other company.  The Decca record company famously turned down the Beatles...

I realise that this is an unusual proposal to be arriving at a customer service desk.  I understand your response, which is thoughtful and respectful, and makes perfect sense when the request is for a donation for a school or hospital.  But what I'm suggesting has the potential for doubling and trebling the company's revenues while making the name Lego as revered as the name Carnegie has become - associated not just with business success but also with philanthropy and civilisation itself.

For this reason, I'd ask you to pass this request up your management chain far enough to reach a director with responsibility for blue-sky business planning - the people who are responsible for making sure that Lego will still be a household name in 30 years' time.

Just to clarify (as I see my original message is not part of this thread):  there is a project "" as described in The Economist ( which seeks to find an affordable way to provide housing for the world's poorest people.  Isn't that something Lego would like to be part of, especially if there's a dollar in it?

Best wishes,

Philip Herlihy

May 22, 2011

Defining Our Goal: A response to comments on The Economist article

A few weeks ago, following The Economist's publication of an article about the $300 House, we read a comment that in many ways epitomizes an opposing view to this concept: simply providing an affordable home is not enough - building entire communities is needed, and that is too expensive.  We will address his main thesis ("A viable shelter doe not a successful person, family, or community make. Success comes from within a positive and empowered person, provided with local opportunity and support.") at the end, but first we want to discuss several other points this reader made.

"If all you wanted to do was increase health and sanitation you would set up community toilets, clinics, centers, and reliable security outposts where citizens could get daily attention."

Anyone familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health knows that his success in fighting Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis in Haiti - and throughout the world - is driven in part by his attention to patients' conditions at home, not just in his clinic.  When patients have a safe place to sleep and food on the table, they are much more likely to follow a drug regimen.  Unfortunately, many clinics in the developing world do not have the means or resources to help their patients outside the clinic.  Providing safe, reliable, and cheap housing is only one piece of this puzzle, but it plays an important role.  Most importantly, we need to realize that "increasing health and sanitation" is about the entire community and a person's entire life/customs, not just building clinics or toilets.


"Any camper or outdoorsperson can live weeks or months in the most basic un-serviced accommodation and even thrive if the right facilities are available nearby."

One trap that is easy to fall into is associating other people and cultures to your own social norms.  As we researched Haiti as a potential market for the $300 House, our teams often fell into this very trap.  For instance, we assumed Haitian homes could have one door and open windows.  Upon further research we learned that cultural beliefs lead many Haitians to have two front doors and to close all openings to the house overnight.  In the same way, this comment implies that lacking sanitation conditions may not be the primary objective because outdoorspeople survive and thrive without them.  However, we would argue that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people living in slums cannot survive on the same trowel-and-leaf program that hikers in the first world do.  In Haiti, community latrines are overflowing, and people are loading human waste by hand onto trucks that then dump it in landfills or other empty latrines. The situation is simply not comparable.  This is why it is important to truly understand the markets you hope to help, so you can understand the situation from the proper frame of reference.

"So, the answer is to create communities - and this is where the true costs lies. Setting up the businesses, education, and other support systems that allows this collection of inhabitants to push past extreme poverty into simple self-sufficiency and independence."

In our minds, the answer is absolutely about creating communities, but this is not necessarily where the true cost lies.  As mentioned above with respect to Partners in Health, it is clear that communities are needed to solve the problems that face the bottom of the pyramid.  Having an education but no employment, or medicine but unsanitary living conditions will simply not work.  That being said, any attempt to "build" a community from the outside (building a school, a hospital, roads, etc.) is unlikely to succeed.  Communities form organically, and the members of a community are the most important component.  Spending money to build the infrastructure of a community would indeed be costly, but spending money on one basic component, such as safe, affordable housing, is within reason.  We believe that housing is a fundamental part of the community: it is a place to learn and study, a place to rest and heal, and a source of pride and responsibility. By helping individuals obtain safer, sanitary housing we can serve as a catalyst to help spur the growth of a community.


Eradicating poverty from the world would indeed be costly, if not impossible, and we certainly don't believe affordable housing alone can accomplish that.  However, affordable housing is one key component - a building block - to solving many of the issues faced by impoverished people.  We believe that a business solution to provide affordable housing is the most practical approach to many problems.  As a business venture, it would be self-sufficient, a "going concern", making it a permanent solution.  And, by providing housing, it would have an impact across many social issues.  While the housing might not solve those issues, we believe it would set a strong foundation to support future progress - and perhaps one day, to support a whole new community.

May 10, 2011

The Tuck-Haiti Team: Who are we?

So, here we are - The original and simple Tuck Haiti Team. From the left - Amith, Pablo, Sam, Jonathan and Soni.

Tuck Haiti Team.jpg

The capacity to see the world around you with open eyes!

Paul Polak - Pop!Tech 2008

Image by kk+ via Flickr

This is a quote that will remain etched in my mind for some time. Paul Polak in his book - Out of Poverty! What works when traditional approaches fail - vividly describes his attempts at solving the problems of poverty-stricken people through various examples from around the world. And not surprisingly, he comes up with this amazing quote as a fitting conclusion to his experiences: "Seeing and doing the obvious is probably one of the most difficult things to do."

And in that note, Paul states the following twelve commandments to practically solving the problems of poverty-stricken people:

1. Go to where the action is
2. Talk to the people who have the problem and listen to what they say
3. Learn everything you can about the problem's specific context
4. Think big and act big
5. Think like a child
6. See and do the obvious
7. If somebody has already invented it, you don't need to do so again
8. Make sure your approach has positive measurable impacts that can be brought to scale.
9. Design to specific cost and price targets
10. Follow practical three-year plans
11. Continue to learn from your customers
12. Stay positive: don't be distracted by what other people think

I believe that out of these 12 steps, steps 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9 are especially critical to building affordable houses for the poor in Haiti. Clearly, it is important to visit Haiti and spend ample time with the local population to better understand local demographics, culture and climatic conditions. Pursuing conversations with the local people and understanding their challenges around homelessness would help refine the requirements around building affordable houses. For instance, Paul's visit to homeless areas in Denver and pursuing conversations with Joe made him understand the importance of "..."

Similarly, in Haiti, every house entrance needs to have 2 doors, one for the people to get in and out and the other one for the spirits to leave. Such unique cultural implications can impact the underlying cost of affordable housing.

Finally, it is critical that any affordable housing model should be developed with scalability in mind. In Haiti, there are millions of homeless people and without scale it is difficult to solve the problem of homelessness among these people. Any solution around affordable housing would need to consider the population in its entirety than a small sample segment of the homeless population. The resultant effect of an otherwise smaller solution will greatly expand the rich-poor divide and have greater implications on the empowerment of the Haiti homeless society. So yeah, let us think big and implement bigger!

May 4, 2011

The Materials Question

In considering the materials to be utilized for constructing the $300, our team has made the following observations:


1. Construction materials that are most commonly available in India include gypsum, concrete and bamboo. The first option (gypsum), can be used to manufacture building blocks.  If produced locally with natural resources, semi-skilled labor and few transport needs, gypsum-stabilized earth construction for low-cost housing can be very cost effective. Gypsum bricks are a very durable option for the construction of boundary walls and can be produced through the utilization of industrial waste. The second option (concrete) would be the most expensive of the three materials. It is environmentally friendly, energy efficient and entails a simple manufacturing process. The key ingredients would include cement, sand and industry wastes such as fly ash and blast furnace slag. The third option (bamboo) is highly resistant to water, termites, borer, insects and wood rotting fungi. Bamboo is also stronger than plywood, more durable and can withstand severe climatic conditions.


2. Materials will constitute approximately 60-70 percent of construction costs depending on the type or combination used. The challenge is that house will be piloted in three different states (Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra) with different climatic conditions and availability of natural resources. We are exploring various cost options as part of the business plan to propose a combination of materials at minimized costs based on durability, environmental compatibility and availability. At the same time, the more homogenous the product, the less costly and the greater the possibility that it can be modular and be scaled.


We have considered five other material types that could be explored separately or in conjunction with some combination of the aforementioned three common ones.


1. Cellular Concrete would be highly conducive for walling blocks and roofing slabs. This type of concrete is manufactured through an aerated cellular concrete manufacturing process and has a high fire resistance rating and can improve insulation in the house.


2. Micro Concrete can be used for roofing tiles and is made of graded cement mortar layer vibrated and formed over sloping mould and cured. It would be most appropriate where fired clay tiles are not available and timber is costlier. Further cost reductions can be made by using ferro cement rafter and purlins.


3. Corrugated Bamboo is a strong candidate, as it is eco-friendly, light in weight, strong and durable and poses minimal fire hazards compared to thatch and other materials. Corrugated bamboo sheets can be used for roofing, walling, door and window shutters and other components in building construction. It is both termite resistant and fire retardant as well. Moreover, bamboo can also be utilized for walls. A bamboo mat can be placed between horizontal and vertical timber/bamboos as a frame. These walls could be easy to construct, less expensive, and are popular in hilly areas given a self-help system. This walling technique is also relevant from the perspective of earthquake resistance. Treated bamboo can be used for the construction of this with bamboo mat walling between bamboo columns plastered with cement on both sides. The structure is light and economical as bamboo is abundant. Bamboo is also termite resistant and fire retardant.


4. Mud is extensively used for construction in rural areas, as it is readily available and widely accepted. Mud is an alternative building material that is significantly cheaper than conventional brick and concrete, and is also environmentally sustainable. Mud has been used as a construction material on every continent for centuries.


5. Cement is widely available across India and this option must be accorded serious consideration for construction purposes. Gujarat, one of the focus states of the $300 house project, would be very suitable for this material based on the Bhungas of Kutch, where compressed cement stabilized earth blocks are used for the walls. Earthquake resistant features like vertical and horizontal bands are provided to each Bhunga.


Finally, we believe that identifying the right combination of materials will be the single biggest challenge in ensuring a sustainable final product that can meet the needs of low income families. For the house to appeal to customers across the country, it will need to be modifiable in order to conform to local conditions and be affordable. This will require additional discussions with local contractors and raw material suppliers in order to obtain information on prices, product quality and suitability, manufacturing technology and masonry.