A home designed for the poor is not nearly the same thing as a poorly-designed home – especially if Prasoon Kumar has anything to do with it. The Delhi-born, Singapore-based architect-turned-social crusader, is CEO and co-founder of billionBricks, a non-profit ‘innovation studio’ whose stated goal is to eliminate homelessness in the world, “one brick at a time”. It’s a mega-problem that Mr Kumar, 42, approached from a different perspective: treating homeless people as clients instead of beneficiaries and using design as a tool to address a pressing global issue.
billionBricks was born of a desire to provide housing solutions to the homeless. It was a direct response to riots in India in 2013 that resulted in displacement, homelessness and deaths from freezing temperatures.
Mr Kumar designed a tent-like structure from materials that could insulate occupants from the cold and – when the material was reversed – reflect heat from the sun. The shelter, dubbed weatherHYDE, has been in production since December 2016 and has helped to house 5,000 people in eight countries across the world so far. It won a President’s Design Award last year but a new and improved version of weatherHYDE features an interior large enough for occupants to stand in.
It hasn’t done much to ease the numbers of homeless in the world (estimated at one billion), but Mr Kumar views the first five years since the company was founded in 2013 as an R&D phase. He has been presenting his scalable solutions to potential partners, sponsors and philanthropic organisations across the globe while exploring new concepts to house the homeless.
Another one of these is powerHYDE, a solar-powered, self-sustaining house capable of producing four times the energy it needs. Meanwhile, UrbanHYDE is a programme to match the homeless to vacant houses in cities.
As a working architect, Kumar helped design homes in various countries including India, the United States and Singapore before co-founding billionBricks with his previous employer, entrepreneur Anurag Srivastava.
Improving the lot of the poor and underprivileged is now a full-time commitment. The concepts are not necessarily cheap to build but he argues that they can be made affordable by finding innovative ways to fund their cost (such as selling the surplus energy produced by powerHYDE). “It’s a finance solution,” says Mr Kumar. “I have lots of ideas – I like to think differently.”
Why did you decide to go from working architect to architect for social change?
When I started billionBricks, I looked at it as moving from one job to another. There was no plan – it really started as an experiment. I went to my boss – it was foolish bravado at first, and I began by saying that we need to solve the problem of homelessness. We typically give time, energy, brain power and do these projects on the side. For me it was, why are we not doing it? I looked at everything that exists in the domain from a fresh perspective, thinking that the model does not exist. I thought, what if I were to start right away, to see if it is even possible – or simply accept the fact that it cannot be solved? Why are problems increasing? That means solutions are failing us.
weatherHYDE is a simple concept but it fulfils a desperate need while living up to the billionBricks mantra: “Never design poorly for the poor.”
The ingenuity is in bringing three materials together (Mylar, polyester and synthetic insulation) and designing a product of this nature. In the past, the philosophy was to take an existing product, then value engineer for the poor. When we talk about serving the poor, we do so in the belief that we need to go in and help in the way that we think is right. Everything is driven by us, and it creates a gap between us and them. Here, we design things without the pressure of ‘doing what’s right’, we also look beyond what they can imagine. Our products are not the cheapest but they are the most appropriate. It gives them the pride of ownership, confidence and dignity. The cost is subsidised by donations but in India, people can buy a weatherHYDE at a cost they can afford – between US$10 and US$30.
How will powerHYDE be an answer to the problems of inadequate rural housing?
There are one billion people without homes and the number will double in a few years. powerHYDE is the world’s first house with its own solar roof, which allows owners to finance the cost of the home by selling surplus energy (to power companies, for instance). We estimate it will take 18 to 25 years for the cost of the house to be paid for. We have built prototypes in India and the Philippines – simple single-storey houses with solar panels. If the model works, it will open more opportunities and solve a larger problem.
It costs about US$300 to build a weatherHYDE but $15,000 for a powerHYDE – that’s a major step up.
I never thought of weatherHYDE as a home, it was meant to be a temporary shelter. powerHYDE is a disruptive change. A cluster of 170 homes forms its own mini power plant capable of generating one megawatt of energy. Each house collects its own rainwater, cleans its own waste, has a front yard for growing food. The priority is to be self-contained and overcome the barriers that prevent people from having housing. We will work with governments and civic communities to find partners to get access to land, find buyers of the energy over the long term, then raise capital to build the homes.
As a child you witnessed the plight of the homeless, but made no connection between that experience and what you’re doing now.
I don’t think there was a direct link. I saw the issue up close, but never had the idea of doing something about it. I grew up in one of the oldest parts of Delhi, a bustling market area called Chandni Chowk. It attracted huge numbers of people from all over India, looking for work. Our house was on the third level and below was a street market. Labourers would come and sleep on the street, in winter they’d set a bonfire and huddle around it. They’d also be on our staircase, and my dad would give them empty cardboard boxes to use. A lot of what I observed as a kid helped me to understand the problem better. Now you go to that old part of Delhi and you still see the same thing, nothing has changed.
What does the future hold for billionBricks?
The fact that we survived the first five years is something. The original business plan was: ideas and principles, innovation and disruption, funded by donations and also commercial sales. We’re close to spinning off powerHYDE as a for-profit enterprise. In order to achieve our vision, we’re willing to take whatever path necessary. It’s a long-term commitment – though my parents keep asking me when I’m going back to my old job.
Written by Geoffrey Eu for The Business Times.