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Glass Half Full | Anand Sonecha, SEALAB

Anand Sonecha and Mariana Paisana founded SEALAB in 2015, to shelter the works they were developing in India and Portugal. It was born out of a common interest to design with time and quality and reflect on the social and cultural implications of Architecture. Recently, Anand Sonecha has designed and built projects like the Jai Jagat theatre at the historic Sabarmati Ashram and Housing for Loving Community in Ahmedabad, and School for the blind and visually impaired children in Gandhinagar.

We interviewed Anand Sonecha, to know the inside story of his journey and his projects, and understand how his contribution makes the glass half full.

Tell us about your journey. What inspired you?

Mariana and I started SEALAB in 2015, with an intention to shelter the work that we were doing in India and Portugal and, to look at the social and cultural implications of architecture. We had worked in diverse places, before starting our journey. I worked at Sangath, Ahmedabad with Professor Balkrishna Doshi and Rajeev Kathpalia in India and I have also worked with Alvaro Siza and Carlos Castanheira, in Portugal. These experiences have moulded us. Also, I  volunteered at Manav Sadhana, an NGO at Gandhi Ashram in 2012, which has had a significant impact on me. This is where I was introduced to the sensitive issues in our society, particularly those for marginalized communities in and around Ahmedabad. The Loving Community Housing Project was a result of a collaboration with Manav Sadhna and De Montfort University. It is a community of people, affected by leprosy disease, who have migrated from different parts of India and are now settled in Vastral. School for Blind and Visually impaired students, Gandhinagar, another project we are working with Manav Sadhana and Service Association for the Blind. The new school will provide better education and environment for the students coming from remote villages and towns with very limited resources across India.

Site Section of Loving Community Housing before intervention ©SEALAB

As a young architect, the initial projects form the basis of certain values. Architecture is a wide discipline and there are many issues that architects deal with. I was listening to a lecture on the Z-axis by Charles Correa foundation. Someone quoted Charles Correa “Only two-three percent of the population of this country is being served by architects”. It made me question many things, the way we are trained as architects; and how we are looking at this discipline. 

While working on these projects, I realized that we are serving a very small population of this country who can afford our service as Architect. The rest of the people have less or no access to the services. It made me question the role of architects in today’s time, in India. 

I questioned myself about what should be our focus,  because there are many other issues that you need to look at. We are in a phase right now, where we are questioning many things, and learning as we go along. 

Which project would you like to talk about today?

I would like to talk about the Loving Community Housing project, a project very close to my heart. This community settled on a land parcel in Vastral, provided by the Government of Gujarat in 1968 to people affected by leprosy. These people were migrants from different states of India and were previously settled in informal housing in Jamalpur, which flooded in monsoons. 

Monsoons 2018 ©SEALAB

Leprosy, as a disease, has a social stigma. People treat them as outcasts. If you see any leprosy settlement across countries, you will always find them outside a city. In 1968, Vastral was the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Initially, the community used to live in informal houses, and later they made mud houses with thatch roofs. In the 1990s, Lions Club, with limited resources, built a few houses with one room and  asbestos roof.

As and when the community members got money, they kept building. But the overall condition was poor. The land that the government gave  was a low-lying area, and with infrastructural developments happening in the surroundings, the water did not have a path to leave the parcel. The community became like a saucer that flooded every monsoon. Manav Sadhna has been working with the community for the past 10-12 years. They initially built the Community hall. During floods, people moved with their belongings to live in the hall. Sometimes, the women would stay in the house, on a brick platform with their bedding. The first time I heard this story, I was not able to believe this.

L to R: 1.Existing house below road level, 2.Flooding upto 30-45cm during monsoons, 3.Building plinth +90cm from debris of old house, 4.Courtyard, an extension of cooking area, important for natural light and ventilation, 5.House designed for possible incremental growth ©SEALAB

Manav Sadhana and De Montfort University came up with a vision to rebuild houses on a plinth, so that they don’t flood. They invited us as the architect of the project. The University has been fundraising the houses and sending students to volunteer, Manav Sadhana supported the project as they are involved in the community for more than a decade, and we were designing it. 

Two beneficiaries were chosen by the community, to build the prototype houses. I went to their homes to study their current conditions. Consider this, the road is 2.00m high, the community land is at 0.00m level, and the house is at -0.30M. The existing house had only one room, one entry and a precast opening. There was no proper light and ventilation. It was an unbearable condition inside, with the asbestos roof  warming up significantly during harsh summers in Ahmedabad. I saw that the interiors were on a slightly raised platform to protect from flooding. The flooding level ranges from 30cm-60cm. On average, 3-5 members were living, cooking, and sleeping in one room. They had one toilet, but no bathing facility. They used to bath on the streets in the front, or in a courtyard. 

By initially understanding the condition in the community we developed certain design concerns which guided the project as: the house needs to be flood Resilient (Higher plinth 90 CM), improve natural light and ventilation, incremental for future expansion, engage the community to participate in design and building process, engage contractors, fabricators, from the community itself.

Whatever we do, it has to be locally sourced so that whatever money we spend, stays within the community. 

For the prototype houses, we choose the contractor from the community itself. When we gave him a set of drawings for estimation, he was clueless. He did not know how to read the drawings, or how to calculate an estimate. But, after a week, he gave me a small piece of paper, with some random figures as an estimate. I still have it. When I asked him, how should we proceed with building the houses, he suggested I should stay on the site all the time, and tell him what to build and where. We needed a middle ground to solve this situation. 

The way we are taught/trained to make working drawings is a plethora of information, and to visualize in three dimensions for a layman is not easy. One way to solve this problem was to write the dimensions on a physical model.

Physical model marked with dimensions for contractor ©SEALAB

It would be like a miniature house, and things might be easy to read for him. So we tried this with a quick model, and the contractor understood it very well. We marked all the necessary information on the model. The other things started following easily, as he now knew the sizes of the room, the doors and windows, etc. It worked pretty well. I had to clarify only a few times because the model could not capture all the details, but major things were conveyed. I find it very strange as to why we have never tried this before. I understand that in larger projects it is difficult, but it can be done easily for small houses. 

Another major change in the communication technique was the architectural models for users themselves. We documented and photographed all the belongings of the family, scaled and placed them in the model. We showed the users how their houses could be organized. Now, they could visualize better, and a better dialogue started. We got rid of the beautiful monochromatic models that we had made earlier, and instead prepared crude, big models with cut out photographs of their belongings. 

Detailed model for Community ©SEALAB

It is inspiring to see a community composed of people from different parts of the country, and of varied religious and economic backgrounds. What united them was a disease. 

A constraint arose while building the second prototype house. When the plinth is raised, it would block ventilation of the rear newly built house. I was expecting the rear house owner to be furious about it. Instead, they asked us to build the second house anyway, as the second house was getting flooded. I took it as a challenge to design in a way that addresses both the issues. And, the idea of the courtyard came into being. 

Courtyards, Loving Community Housing ©SEALAB

The third house had 6 family members, who were living in a plot size of 4m by 6m, a very tight plot compared to previous houses. Now, the first house cost us 5.5 lakh rupees, and the second cost us 4.2 lakh rupees because the plot sizes and requirements were different. It was not fair. Manav Sadhna suggested that we fixed a budget of Rs. 4 lakh for each house. For a family of six on a small plot, we required two floors, with Rs. 4 lakhs as the cap. We came up with a strategy to keep the construction area (400-450sqft) the same for all future houses while having the freedom to do one or two floors. But we couldn’t do two RCC slabs within the given budget. So, we invited Arjun Doshi from Pune to teach us to make ferrocement construction technique, which was affordable compared to RCC. He and his team Dilip Tupede, Ramakant Thakur, Rahul Ubale generously conducted a workshop, where we made a staircase, loft and roof for Arunabens house.

Ferro-cement roof and loft - interior view ©SEALAB

Similarly, we invited Professor Jayesh Shukla, Ravi Umraniya and from IPSA Rajkot to conduct a tile making workshop with waste marble dust and cement. The workshop was conducted at the community. Students from DMU, IPSA participated and many people from the community learned the skill. For the first two houses, we used the tiles that they made for Rs. 14/sq.ft. The owners made tiles for their own house while getting paid for the same. For the next houses, many women in the community wanted to take this forward. So, we jointly decided Rs.8 per tile as labour and to provide the required materials. If two people spent 4-6 hours a day, they could produce 90-100 tiles per day, which equals Rs.400 per person per day. Many of them worked in nearby metal factories or other workplaces getting Rs.200 a day. Now, this became their own business, they chose when and how they want to work. It was bringing them a sense of pride. Slowly, they bought the materials themselves, managed the entire thing themselves, and we started buying the product directly from them, instead of giving them labour wages. We are still testing this micro business, hoping to improve for its long term feasibility.

Community people making tiles ©SEALAB

How has your design evolved with time?

The first two prototype houses made us learn many things. We did a post-occupancy survey and critically analysed how the residents lived and utilized spaces. We realized storage was not working very well, and that the access to the terrace was important. We realized we should try to engage more in discussions with the residents.

Initially, the houses were selected based on a lottery. So the 55 selected houses were scattered in different locations. This was consuming a lot of costs and it was difficult for the logistics of the contractor . After the third house, houses with common walls and services were grouped while picking a lottery. The extra money from common walls could be used to provide other better facilities as storage or common staircase.

Many people did not trust Ferrocement as a material, as it was new for them. So, they insisted for a metal roof. As an architect, we can only suggest, but we should not impose it on the client if they are not comfortable with it. Also, few people felt that courtyard was a waste of space, considering the large family size and amount of belongings. In community meetings, there were long discussions on the value of courtyard  for natural light and ventilation and its multiple uses. Considering the inputs of the community, we developed another typology of house (stepping roofs) without a courtyard. 

Many families said they were ready to invest more money to build another room for a large family. We decided on a cap of Rs. 50,000 per house, as additional investment by the owners. Then we worked on new typologies with staggered terraces and common staircases. Housing is a very complex scenario. 

New Houses, Loving Community Housing © SEALAB

Till now, we have built nine houses. We are going to build four more houses this year. We sit with each beneficiary, try to understand their point of view, their family structure, plot sizes; and we design each house differently. 

As Professor Doshi says, a house is like an organism. The process gets refined with each house. I am very happy that it is going slowly. We are carefully observing what we are doing. We are critical of ourselves, readily changing our mistakes, as we go along.

How do you strive for a glass half full in your work?

The project is not complete. It is in a process. Even when the projects are built, they are in different stages of their use. We built Jai Jagat Theatre in 2017, and I still feel it is not complete. I try to find how children experience it and use the space. 

I feel that what architects build with their buildings is not static. It is being used, maybe in ways not foreseen by the architect. It has its own life.

This is what makes the glass half full, to be able to observe, learn and get better.

L to R : 1.Existing house below road level, 2.Proposed G+1 house with setback, 3.Ferro-cement roof stairs and loft, 4.Setback to provide humane scale to street, 5.Various types of roof as per user preference © SEALAB

What message would you like to share for our readers?

This project can be a ground for debates and discussions in the area of housing. This project opened my eyes to the profession and many other things; the way we communicate architecture, and how we engage with the users, contractors, fabricators. I am hoping that reading about this project would trigger a discussion. I am not saying that this is a model, but I feel it is opening up a possibility that housing can be thought of in this way.

Also, as mentioned earlier, our profession is serving a small part of the population of the country. We should critically look at architectural education, to assure schools are preparing students to serve more than a minor segment of society.


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