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Glass Half Full | Akhila Ramesh, NIVASA

NIVASA is an Architectural Not for Profit , working to enable humane and dignified housing conditions through design. Architectural Intervention in design and materials is essential, but not affordable for the lower income group in India. NIVASA believes in Design Based Thinking - a mindset that focuses on solutions and on actions oriented towards creating a preferred future by drawing on logic and imagination. The approach uses a designer’s methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible. Using a People-Cantered approach, they involve the home owner in the decision making process, and the product.

We interviewed Akhila Ramesh, NIVASA’s founder CEO, to know the inside story of her journey with NIVASA and to understand how the organisation strives to make the glass half full.

How was NIVASA conceived?

I was never in my flow in the broad realm of main stream architecture. On the other hand, it bothered me that the practices weren’t geared to benefit the larger segment of society. In 2009, I took a year off, started researching materials, technologies and villages and thinking about integrating my area of expertise, architecture, with greater meaning. NIVASA was born out of this. I decided to work towards making a difference in the lives of the families ‘below the poverty line’ through design.

It took us three years to gain clarity that it’s not just design, but an all-inclusive design thinking that will make a difference. Design Thinking is an approach developed in 1960s where you blend the designers’ tools of intuition, logic, creative thinking, always keeping the end-user in mind. Technology, design, material are all important, but they are just a means to an end, the end being the satisfaction and happiness of the final user with the space built. That’s how the whole journey started.

Community Activities © NIVASA

Our first project was redeveloping a village and we started by involving the panchayat and the residents in the entire design and construction process. Along the way we had lots of volunteers coming and we made a collective journey. We realised that what people needed was not fancy architectural elements or design, and that we have to move our focus from design to empowering people. We have learnt that to empower people, an asset-based approach gives people the strength. We often say, ‘We don’t just build Homes, We build Hope’.

Sometimes, we have to leave behind the idea that we are star designers or architects and listen to the local people, and learn from their skills. The power of many is far more than the power of one.

Our second project, which focused on villages hit by tsunami, was led by Meenakshi K (Architect, Head-NIVASA Chennai). This is how we moved from a need-based approach to an asset-based approach in the rural areas.

What was the big idea behind it?

While driving to the village of our first project, I started noticing the construction that was happening and for the first time I asked myself, where do these people who construct our houses live? I was teaching at BMS then as a visiting faculty, so I involved a group of final-year students as volunteers for a month. RMZ developers gave us access to study all their construction labour sites, which was quite helpful. With RMZ as our customer, we embarked on the journey to fundamentally change the living conditions of construction labourers. For this project, we initially prepared a hexagonal plan, a fantastic design, and then we realised that this is not what is needed, we need a holistic yet delta x approach. So, we stepped back and thought let’s not push our need into this, the customer comes first, and we have to fade in the process.

The labourers’ housing was already constructed of GI sheets and about 800-1000 people were living there. It was a challenge to figure out what design can do for the construction workers when the site was already put up. We changed a few units, introduced an indoor games area and other community areas. We realised that a lot of people were living in kitchens which were not in a good condition. There was a lot of slush and mosquitos, the roads were in low-lying areas, no ventilation.

Construction Labour Communities © NIVASA

When we looked in detail, we realised that the cook’s eyes are always red and infected, we discussed with the camp doctor and realised that it is because of smoke as there is no place for it to escape. Therefore, it brought us back to design, we incorporated a smokeless chulha and explored if there can be an opening. Then we realised kids have skin problems and as we probed deeper, we realised these are children of cooks who live in smoke for long hours. We started creating awareness for the people. This needed infrastructure guidelines to ensure people do not live inside the kitchen.

There were health, infrastructure and mindset issues. They are all inter-related and needed a holistic solution. We partnered with a grassroots organisation called APSA. Their focus is on health and hygiene awareness, and we worked with them to develop contents for the labourers.

During the course of this pilot project, our ideas evolved. We studied many such places with other developers and the problems were similar. This is how the project ‘Co-creating Construction Labour Communities’ (CLC) started. Though the contractors and developers were very hesitant and not convinced initially, they realised the difference CLC was making in the lives of workers. They were also able to retain the workers and worker attrition went down substantially. Our approach at NIVASA is collaborative, not activist. Therefore, we are able to work with developers and contractors, and the outcome is more intrinsic. We gain knowledge, we create the intention, then we create the ‘Champions of Change’.

For transformative change to happen inside the construction industry, our focus is on three aspects: improved living conditions, improved working conditions and improved worker benefit.

We have created guidelines for the industry to put up a camp at a master plan level, at unit level, how should the kitchen be, size of toilet, where should bathrooms be placed in terms of zoning, design guidelines, monitoring systems, tender guidelines. We also engage project managerial teams in workshops, and get them to contribute as they understand the situation on ground. It was therefore a co-creating process, where we are the catalysts. Therefore, they started taking ownership of the project.

Construction Labour Communities © NIVASA

When RMZ started realising that there were a lot of benefits, they asked us to work on another project and this spread to other sites, other contractors and other developers. What is needed is that the workers not only get good living and working conditions, rather we should create a scenario where they get better conditions even when we are not involved.

How do you implement your design vision on ground?

I would like to talk about RMZ Azure. It had about 500 workers and we got in at a very early stage. We did face some push back from the contractor. We had to assure them that we will be sensitive to their needs and work within their costing. So, we gave them five options of design based on number of workers, vastu etc. Finally, the CEO of JMC contractors selected one. They were using very shoddy sheets, a norm in the industry even now. We managed to convince them to paint the sheets as they could not afford to buy new ones. We also lobbied to increase the clear height, implement a closed-drain system, a crèche, play area for workers, greenery, etc. We did it in a collaborative fashion and therefore all of them started getting involved with the workers and slowly started talking about worker benefit as part of the weekly project meeting.

Construction Labour Communities © NIVASA

To improve the housing conditions, NIVASA is directly involved. We have to understand the entire company, their projects, and how they operate. There are a lot of varying dynamics, so we had to make guidelines specific to each one of those companies. What we have realised is that construction worker welfare is something where the stakeholders, the client, the developer, the contractor, any NGO, even the sub-vendors can get involved. So, the first step is creating awareness of workers’ rights. It can be a small employee engagement programme, consistently done to create a movement.

We are talking about millions of workers. India is one of the topmost countries in the construction industry and one of the worst in terms of worker welfare and human rights.

In our new initiative that we have launched, we are trying to reach out to project managers, contractors, developers and clients and say that they could be the influencers. Since each project manager handles several sites, if we are able to train them, they will be able to reach out further.

Construction Labour Communities © NIVASA

In our first launch with JLL, we are training 20 project and safety managers from various parts of India, for a period of 6 months from a platform called Echo. The problem is huge in construction communities, and the stakeholders don’t realise that there are a lot of things they can do to help them. They talk about workers fighting with one another, but they don’t realise that you put so many workers in one room, sometimes even sharing the same cot during peak hours, that will create aggression in people.

Even prisons in India give 2.6 per person, but in most construction sites 1 per person is provided.

Knowledge is power, once you know these things, at some point you will start taking decisions, doable by each member. So, we are training these different people and we are giving them a toolkit on health and hygiene practices for workers. The awareness will be created in a very structured fashion.

Apart from the work we do, we want to spread the word to create a movement. I may be the spokesperson, but we have an advisory board, trustees and so many well-wishers from corporate world, with whom we discuss what will work and what will not. We are all very interdependent; it is always a collective journey. That awareness of consciously ensuring interdisciplinary expertise makes us effective.

Construction Labour Communities © NIVASA

We are also trying to increase the network of volunteers. We conduct workshops called ‘Dorm to Home’ where we try to talk about how we can make a dormitory more like a home. We are taking baby steps towards policy changes as well. We realised there are no guidelines for minimum area requirement, air volume, ventilation per person. So we have created guidelines like NBC for the workers’ conditions, and we call our project ‘from Camp to Community’. We want to lobby to make these guidelines a part of the law. In India, the law mentions decent human conditions but doesn’t specify anything. We have to bring a change in the living and working conditions of workers. We should also motivate those contractors and project managers who have done their little bit to make the situation better, instead of punishing them for things they have not done. We have an incredible team working at NIVASA. Anitha is the pillar of NIVASA, she creates all the lovely drawings and views to communicate our ideas better to all stakeholders.

What message would you like to share for our readers?

Message by Anitha Mahendra (Project Architect, NIVASA). Once the architects and designers graduate and start working in the real world, everyone wants to design beautiful looking buildings.

‘Construction Labour Communities’ is a unique project. You might be designing a tiny thing for the labourers but it will give those labourers the dignity they deserve. Awareness is something every architect should have, about their surroundings and who are making their designs.

Construction Labour Communities © NIVASA

Our entire work is based on ‘Implement, Influence and Inspire’. Whether we are a team of 5 or 500, just being the doers would not solve the larger issue. But Implementing on ground gives us the necessary insights of what works and what doesn’t. Armed with that, we work towards actively influencing and inspiring change.

There are so many architects for the elite, but we must remember to put people ahead of us.

We should truly work for what is needed out there. There are many of us who can make a difference. We see NIVASA as a catalyst for that kind of change. We want more and more architects, working in their own fashion in the social sector. An inclusive and collective journey with the architect as a means of social change, with the architect at the periphery rather than at the nucleus of the system, will lead to systemic and transformative improvement in the hitherto neglected BPL segment.


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