The concept of group housing or collective housing, where homes share land and community facilities and are built together to standard designs through a single agency, has its beginning in contemporary India during the first quarter of this century. First, it was the setting up of the colonial state machinery and the consolidation of the Armed Forces that promoted the provision of family homes by the employer. Later, a similar pattern was adopted by pioneering industry and the new institutions of learning for whom townships and campuses were developed on greenfield sites in order to settle new communities. This form of housing provision – design and construction of typical units by a central agency, with an object of sharing land and community amenities – was a natural answer to institutional employment. Those who shared the housing estate and its amenities were cast in the common culture of the institution. The housing community had a basis for sharing and being together. But, significantly all such housing was tied to employment. It was not a system of providing houses for ownership.
Building a house of your own, on the other hand, has remained by and large a matter of individual enterprise. In the tradition of the old cities and villages a new home would be built alongside the home of one's own kin. The community would be geographically stable and cohesive. While houses were built largely according to individual family needs and by individual initiative, they belonged to a territory shared by the community. Here to there was a basis for togetherness and sharing.
In recent times two important changes have occurred which resulted in a new form of housing. First was the mobility of the educated middle-class that would travel, following new avenues of employment for status and stability, leaving their traditional homes and accepting new societal environments. The emergence of the nuclear family within the traditional extended family, came as part of this transition. As a unit for housing provision the household came to be defined in terms of the nuclear family. Second, these middle-class families adopted, as their model for the ideal home, the bungalow of the civil lines and the cantonment. It is perhaps true to say that today most middle-class families aspire towards the ideal of an independent home on one's own piece of land in the quiet and green of a suburban estate. Indeed, this model became the basis for extensive amounts of planned urban expansion all over the country – the suburban housing colony, promoted by the city authorities, where individual families would acquire a plot of developed land to build their own homes, became the norm.
It is interesting to note that this preferred pattern of housing for the middle-class was no longer built on a sociological base, either of the institution which we referred to earlier, or of the traditional community. The present-day housing colony is more and expression of individuality and independence rather than togetherness and collectivism.
It is now being recognised that such an approach to housing is not compatible with an ideal form of urban growth. Ironically, in the pursuit of the ideal home, this pattern of housing has become a major contributor to land shortage and urban stress, since it needs to be serviced by ample roads and gracious open space which consume a great deal of land. The complexity of legal and governmental procedure in acquisition and development of land cannot keep pace with this burgeoning demand. The horizontal spread at low densities means high costs for development. It also means a higher energy consumption for transportation and the distribution of electricity and water. Indeed there is barely a city that has been able to provide adequately for the desired infrastructural services of water supply, sewerage, electricity and especially, transportation. Yet another concern is that of maintaining an ecological balance between the city and hinterland. Valuable agricultural land needs to be conserved to provide for the city's needs of vegetables and dairy products. Urban forms that make intensive use of land and are internally efficient in the distribution of services are required to conserve agricultural hinterland. It is clear that urban expansion has to adopt compact forms.
It is in this context that patterns of group housing have validity as a system for housing provision. Such patterns make possible a more intensive utilisation of land by building dwelling units as contiguous structures, both horizontally and vertically, which share land and common services and amenities. But, it is a form that does demand a high level of collective management and community consciousness. These are complex issues that need understanding and resolution.
There are other factors that support the group housing idea. Apart from the precedence of employer-provided institutional group housing, living in multi-storey flats has been in existence now for a few decades in the major metropolitan centres. Today one can find instances of smaller towns and suburbs around the metropolitan centres where multi-storey flats are being built as homes for city dwellers.
By far the most significant reason to expect a growing acceptance of group housing is the increasing difficulty for middle-class people to build homes individually. For the large proportion of those employed in the organised sector of the urban economy, the pattern of work hardly permits the time and energy required to negotiate all the operations, ranging from clearances and building permission of Development Authorities and Municipalities, to selecting and briefing architects, arranging building materials and supplies, and dealing with contractors. For the middle income group to buy a ready-built house is thus becoming a desirable alternative. This inability to self-build must also, in some measure, be responsible for the urban housing shortage.
In order to meet this housing need, governmental agencies – Municipalities, Development Authorities and Housing Boards are gradually changing from the exclusive use of a plotted development pattern to various forms of group housing. In the earliest stages the system was to provide developed plots for individual house construction. Today many agencies are selling built accommodation under a variety of financial systems. Developed land is being given to cooperative housing societies to build group housing schemes under stipulations of minimum densities to be achieved. The parameters of housing development in these cases are largely determined by urban planning considerations. The private developer, on the other hand, finds that the nature of housing development is determined not only by urban planning controls but also by the market value of the land.
Broadly, the forces that determine group housing design are the result of sociological changes on the one hand and the systems, bot managerial and technical, of housing delivery on the other. The middle-class is confronting a reality of housing environment which is distant from its commonly cherished notion of an ideal home. Yet the pattern of urban living are beginning to change the perception of home more towards a 'city convenience' which and be obtained and purchased like many other services extent in the city. The systems of housing provision now impose a collective form of living on an urban population that may or may not share a common social base. The conflicts of collective living with the new found individuality of the nuclear family are a real issue in the design of group housing.
Given the context of the changing social framework, other critical issue affecting the quality of housing provision need to be understood before a realistic appraisal can be made of built solutions.
Housing Delivery System and the Client's Brief
In group housing the client's brief seeks to represent the eventual user – as a collective as well as the individual household. The process of arriving at the clients brief is inevitably a function of the system through which housing is produced – the nature of the promoter of a housing scheme. The content of this brief is prejudiced according to whether the promoter is a cooperative society or a private developer, an institution building for its employees or a housing agency building for hire-purchase. This is the stage where creative consultation between the main participant in the housing delivery can play a critical role. The quality of the potential of such consultation is conditioned by the structure of relationships between the participants. And this has its effect on the nature of the client's brief.
There are today four types of systems through which group housing is developed:
- Institutional – Government departments, institutions of learning, industry, etc., who build to house their own employees and departments.
- Public Authority Housing – State Housing Boards, Development Authorities, Municipalities, etc., who build for either hire-purchase or sale to an anonymous clientèle, with an emphasis on making homes comfortable.
- Co-operative Societies – an organised set of prospective owners who undertake to build collectively for their own needs.
- Private Developers – who build to make profit from sale to a defined target group
Common to all these systems are those factors that broadly define group housing:
- Collective ownership of land, services, and community facilities.
- Centralised design of a number of houses based on a representative brief.
- Simultaneous construction of homes through a centralised agency under a financing discipline.
But there are significant differences amongst these systems in the nature of relationship between the participants in the housing delivery system. One can simply say that there are four participants.
The promoter is the principal participant as initiative and control rests with him. The promoter, in effect, acts on behalf of the user in preparing the housing brief. How responsive is the promoter to the needs of the user? How does he engage in the expertise of the designer and builder?
In the case of a Co-Operative Housing Society there is a close and immediate relationship with the users which can govern the working out of the housing brief. The users are known households who cane consulted from the start. The designer can be brought in to advise on feasibility of what the users wish to have, and to frame realistic options and choices for them. Where consultative procedures are sensitively worked out it is possible to take account of peculiar needs and priorities and to arrive at a housing brief that finds fair acceptance – at the individual as well as a collective level. And, most importantly, designs prepared by the designers can be assessed by the users themselves before they are executed.
A private developer has to produce designs to entice the buyer to purchase, and to convince him on his offer being “good value for money spent”. He prepares a design brief on the basis of his observation of the buyer's needs and his experience on previous projects. With an understanding of the lifestyles and aspirations of his target group, a progressive developer would incorporate improvements and innovations that improve his saleability. He may create needs artificially by promoting new symbols of status and wealth. As a function of the system of sale to individual buyers he will place greater emphasis on the concerns of the individual buyer – maximising what is saleable as part of the dwelling unit and minimising common areas and facilities. Most developers are builders too and so are able to be very precise in determining technical and budgetary issues for the designer.
In the case of housing developed by institutions for their employees, the user again does not participate directly in the preparation of the brief. Often the construction of housing precedes his taking up employment, and in any case he will not be a permanent resident. As his status improves he will move to another house rather than improve his present one, and if he leaves employment or retires, his house will be occupied by another employee. In institutional housing the user is ascribed standards according to his status, and social or cultural characteristics are assumed to be subservient to the self-image of the institution. The brief is framed from the institutional standpoint. The pattern of segregating different categories of house types, a common practice in this type of housing, is a reflection of the institutional structure. It is also natural that requirements of houses for employees who are near the status of the decision makers are better defined than for those of a distant status. In the institution's thinking, considerations for flexibility and change to suit individual residents may not figure. But in contrast to the private developer, common grounds and services as well as questions of maintenance and management will be given greater importance. The more bureaucratic the institution the stricter are its norms. All aspects of the brief are often predetermined and laid down as rules which neither the designer nor the builder can transgress or contribute to.
A government or public authority housing agency starts with the objective of making housing affordable. Affordability as defined by financing schemes becomes the main reference point for the belief. This is rather literally converted into rules ascribing maximum plinth areas and construction cost limits, and the other norms prescribed by town planning regulations and building bye-laws are taken as given. In what way these are met is the left to the ingenuity of the designer. The user is an anonymous future buyer who would in any case be too glad to have a home, irrespective of what kind it is. The designer works in a socio-cultural vacuum, where neither the user nor an interested representative on his behalf are present.
How to make a design brief user-sensitive, especially when the user is not present at the stage of preparing the brief? This is an important area of concern which has received little attention from promoters and designers alike. Even in the case of cooperative housing societies where the user is present from the outset, it requires technique and organisation to elicit data from a large number of individuals regarding their real and felt needs and to obtain a balanced consensus. A range of surveying and consultation techniques need be developed to reach out to prospective users, as well as learn from the experience of previous projects.
Today, the bias of the promoter shows in two main areas. The first is the social composition of the housing community. Each housing community would have cultural characteristics – there may be cultural cohesion in an institutional housing project or co-operative society, but in public authority or private developers housing here may be considerable divergence. Conversely, private developers' and public authority housing would tend toward greater homogenizing in terms of economic status whereas institutions will bring together a wide range of income groups to share the same estate. The subsequent decisions on whether these different groups are to be differentiated or not, and if so in what way, depends often on the promoter's view of social balance. In co-operative housing societies one may find a mixing of different economic groups, whereas in institutional housing there may be rather rigid segregation. This is a sociological issue of importance and the nature of decisions made in this regard have a definite qualitative impact on the housing environment.
Given the fact that building costs have risen faster than income levels for the middle income group, the importance in middle income group housing of ordering priorities for expenditure assumes primary significance. There is not the money available to meet all of one's aspirations.
Decisions have to be made on where the limited funds would be spent. How much is to be spent on provisions within the individual home, and how much on the common areas and community facilities? Which expenditures can be postponed and which ones are absolutely essential? Which areas of expertise can be met individually by each owner for his own home, and how much must be spent collectively? Where to strike a balance between initial costs and maintenance and operational costs? Well considered answers to such questions can greatly improve the quality of the built housing. This is the other area where the bias of the promoter shows up very significantly.
Urban Context and Housing Design
While the architect or designer certainly carries a major responsibility in the making of built environment, in the present day systems of housing development, his activity is nevertheless restricted to manipulating design within a given framework. This framework is 'designed' so to speak prior to the architect's arrival into the housing process, and it concerns basically three factors: the site – its size configuration, topography and locational context; the town planing regulations and building bye-laws; and of course, the client's requirements. It is within this framework that the designer deploys design strategies to try to met his criteria for a desirable housing environment.
The designer's work is seen in high relief as the main contributor to environmental quality amongst all the other processes that go into the production of housing. While this is as it should be, it is important to recognise that the 'given framework' we referred to above, itself determines in no insignificant way many of the qualitative aspects of housing. And if one intends to expand the potential for environmental quality, one would need to understand how these factors impinge on housing quality and then seek to design at the level of the 'given framework' as much as at the level of the buildings themselves.
If a housing development is to be seen as a contributor to a larger whole, its urban-design qualities or its good fit within its neighbourhood will depend on its layout planning emerging from the combined effect of the given characteristics of the site and the planning controls in force in the area.
A project may be located adjacent to a historic/traditional urban settlement, be part of a contemporary suburban development or be an independent campus. The spatial structures of the neighbourhood that will be created by the designer is determined largely by the development plans and layouts of the local authority, the zoning principles and planning controls which fix the limits of the building envelop and densities of the population.
By and large, present day urban planning regulations view each project site as a island separated from neighbouring developments by set-backs and boundary walls. Where such regulations are applied to areas adjacent to or within traditional/historic parts of towns which have a dense and continuous built fabric, there is inevitably a discordant break in the neighbourhood rather than a harmonious continuity. Similarly the character of an urban environment depends on the balanced relationship between a range of activities – homes, workplaces, shops, recreational areas, health care and educational facilities. Planning norms today tend to segregate these into separate parcels, whereas traditional settlements always exhibited a rich intermixing which gave urban neighbourhoods their special character. Thus the contemporary designers of urban housing schemes are generally hard put to resolve their designs into a culturally meaningful housing environment.
The monetary value ascribed to urban land today is yet another parameter affecting the planner's prescription of development controls. The floor area ratio, and density (usually counted as the number of dwelling units per hectare) naturally determine “built-upness”. In group housing these two factors are perhaps the most critical determinants of environmental quality. With the scarcity of developed land pushing for higher intensities of its utilisation, we are now seeing minimum densities being prescribed for group housing projects in metropolitan centres. This intensification of dwelling density has direct implications on housing design. Compactness of layout has to be balanced with the requirements of community open spaces, circulation spaces for vehicles and pedestrians, and the requirement of privacy for individual homes.
Beyond the questions that arise out of the “given framework” we have been talking of, there are universal issues in the design of urban housing that exercise the designer's mind. These deal with the basic considerations of shelter and habitat – physical comfort generated by climatically appropriate design, psychological comfort provided by resolving the conflicting requirements of community and privacy, considerations of ecological balance which place a special value on the structuring and treatment of outdoor space and landscape, the concern with efficiency and economy in the choice of materials and techniques – both for building structures as well as utilities infrastructure – such that construction costs as well as maintenance costs are controlled, and the need to give a sense of place and identity to a community of residents so that they may feel at home.
The importance of good climatic design cannot be over-emphasised, especially in the context of raising energy costs tending to prohibit the use of mechanical devices which require to be powered by fast-depleting fossil fuels. The answer would lie in layout and design making optimum use of nature's bounty by proper solar orientation, control of wind movement, good insulation of the building fabric, and by encouraging vegetation in the outdoor spaces. This could generate a comfortable micro-climate within the housing neighbourhood, even though this may be located in a harsh and inhospitable region.
As much as group housing offers the potential for gains from collective action, it does mean a corresponding compromise for the individual in defining his home environment. A sense of security and companionship can be enhanced by bringing together homes in a cluster or neighbourhood and yet, given the reality of divergent backgrounds of families thrown together in an urban housing scheme, each house wishes to protect its privacy. The two requirements, equally valid but contradictory to each other need to be carefully balanced in layout and building design.
A common and justifiable complaint in urban housing schemes is the regimentation and unrelieved repetition of identical arrangements of house types and clusters. This is very much the situation in designs where the identity of the individual dwelling is reduced to that of a number.
Each selling or a cluster of them needs a sense of identity which distinguishes it from others. The structuring of layouts as streets, courts, clusters, avoiding repetitious arrangement while providing a hierarchical system of spaces and movement, and variety in the design of different dwelling units to complement the structure of the settlement, are some of the ways and means which could improve the sense of belonging in a housing environment.
A successful housing environment is considered so not merely because of the way it was designed. Its success is dependent equally on how well it has been built and how well it is being used and maintained. Efficiency and economy in building is first generated through the design by a variety of means – optimising the use of land by the volume of construction proposed, sharing of structural and servicing elements, planning dwellings and clusters to reduce the ratio of movement areas to habitable areas, and so on – depending on the ingenuity of the design team. Economy at all costs, however, is never the object of design. It is for the designers to reconcile the desire to save costs with the requirements of efficiency and well-being.
Partial or substandard executions is a bane of the majority of housing produced in the country. This reflects both a lack of realism at the time of budgeting and planning and lack of sincerity and application at the time of construction. Maintenance is generally given a low priority. Maintenance departments are weak, in motivation as well as financially. The vigour with which home owners look after their private domain should e matched with a corresponding concern for that which is shared by the community – its paths, gardens, services and the like. One could work towards designing for least maintenance of the shared property, but what is needed ultimately is a culture where people care collectively for their environment and take pride in keeping it shipshape. It must be stressed that the maintenance of shard property does not depend so much on how wealthy a community is. It depends on what value it places on its collective property, on whether it knows how to organise the tasks of maintenance, and the skill of the designer in reducing the complexity of maintenance tasks.
Another significant task of resolution for the designer is to balance the desire for the housing community to have a collaborative image with the need for each home to establish an individual identity. Ways of giving greater flexibility to the internal provisions of the dwelling unit, accepting the possibility of outward extension or individual expression on the facades of buildings, without losing the cohesion and discipline of the community as a whole – these are important design issues that are just beginning to be explored in contemporary urban housing.
The discussion here of all these factors can provide a frame of reference against which the illustrated projects can be understood. Each example can be seen as a design strategy attempting to attain qualitative goals by building upon the potentials while mitigating the constraints of a given situation. Architectural design skills and imagination are needed to find balanced solutions, where a humane and aesthetically pleasing environment is created by giving symbolic expression to humane activity and carefully ordering the building fabric with respect to its constructional details, structural systems and servicing patterns. The projects shown here have been selected from across the country to illustrate some of the possibilities and variations among the many housing schemes of the last decade.