The $300 House: Empowering the Poor

Whatever Happened to the $300 House?

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The idea to design and build a $300 house first appeared here on the HBR site in August 2010, in a post by me (Vijay Govindarajan) and Christian Sarkar, and then again as one of several ideas in theHBR Agenda 2011. Believing that improving housing for the world’s most poor could help them break out of the vicious cycle of poverty, we issued a challenge to the design community to employ the strategies of innovation and disruptive thinking to attack this persistent problem. Our audacious challenge was followed by a spirited effort, in a series of HBR blog posts by experts in design, energy, finance and urban planning, to answer the following questions:

  • How can organic, self-built slums be turned into livable housing?
  • What might a house-for-the-poor look like?
  • How can world-class engineering and design capabilities be utilized to solve the problem?
  • What reverse innovation lessons might be learned by the participants in such a project?
  • How could the poor afford to buy this house?

At Dartmouth College, our home institution, we decided to take the $300 House challenge on the road, by sending interdisciplinary research teams—students and faculty in business, engineering, medicine, architecture, anthropology, environmental studies and other disciplines—to Haiti after the devastation of the earthquake of January 2010 to gather information, establish close relationships with communities, and identify design solutions that might address the critical need for permanent and durable housing there.

At the same time, the $300 House project initiated an international online design competition for the project. The individual and corporate winners of the competition, along with students, faculty, Haitian experts and design professionals, were brought to the Dartmouth campus for a four day design workshop. The workshop had four tracks:

  • Rural House Design Prototype
  • Urban Housing Design Prototype
  • Community Development, Infrastructure, Education, HealthCare Delivery
  • The Development of a Business Plan

Specific sites in Cite de Dieu, Port au Prince and Fond des Blancs in the southern peninsula were utilized for the prototype designs, and partner organizations engaged with these communities participated in the process. The resulting reports and designs were impressive but the work was just beginning.

The next step was to take these ideas back to the communities for feedback on design and implementation concepts. Through meetings with partner organizations and community members it became clear that the implementation in the rural area would be much more straightforward than the urban concept. Fundraising for the rural project progressed and some new strategies were developed to move forward in Port au Prince.

At present two prototype houses are beginning construction in the remote town of Fond des Blancs, a partnership between Dartmouth and the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation. This effort is intended to test the cost of building these homes using traditional construction methods and at the same time evaluate the possibilities to scale up, innovate in terms of construction and materials and bring down costs. In Port au Prince the project has shifted from the Cite de Dieu to the area of Martissant where a large scale comprehensive urban planning initiative is being directed by the Foundation for Knowledge and Leadership (FOKAL). The incorporation of the $300 House Urban Prototype concept into this larger framework offers significant promise in a collaborative initiative between FOKAL and Dartmouth.

As our prototypes are being built, what have we learned so far?

First, that we have to question every day what is achievable and how to get there. We have to think differently and use the principles of reverse innovation to learn from the communities where this housing is desperately needed.

Second, we’ve concluded that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the worldwide affordable housing crisis. The only way to develop viable solutions is through disciplined work in the field. We can help, but the successful solutions will come from the communities themselves. We need to help train a generation of students, professionals and workers in the developing world who can take on these challenges in the next generation, and we are partnering with organizations in Haiti to do just that.

Finally, to guide our work on this project, we established the doctrine of The Three Ds—critical concepts to be kept at the forefront of our thinking:

  • Dignity. After extensive field work in Haiti we have come to believe that differentiating the poor by building their homes out of waste or materials that the middle class and wealthy would never consider for their own homes is not a viable option. Similarly, segregating the poor into new communities that have no variation in socio-economic status and that are separated from their home communities and from economic opportunity is also counter-productive. Any solution to housing for the poor must maintain the dignity of the members of the community.
  • Durability. We will never break the cycle of poverty by creating housing for the poor that falls apart in five to ten years and then becomes so expensive to maintain that the owners cannot improve their general condition. This is a large part of the innovation challenge and where lessons learned from the local community can be so important.
  • Delight.  Life holds challenges for all people, none of us are immune to tragedy and grief. Likewise we all thrive on moments of delight, the smile on a child’s face or perhaps the knowledge that our family is safe and has enough nutritious food to eat. Walking through a remote village in southern Haiti where children walk four kilometers each way to fetch water one sees beautiful ornamental plants at every doorstep—a reminder that even the poorest of the poor take delight in the beauty of life.

The most important lesson to take away from our experience so far?   We cannot successfully build homes without building community, infrastructure and economic opportunity.

Dartmouth Senior Julia McElhinney sums up her experience with the $300 House project with this:  “I feel very fortunate to be involved in such a creative, collaborative and conscientious initiative as an undergraduate student. It is an incredible feeling to be even a small part of such proactive and positive change in our world. Largely because of my experiences on this project, I have decided to dedicate my studies to sustainable urban design and, in particular, public place-making for community building. “

Can the $300 House project deliver on The Three Ds? Stay tuned. Or better yet, help us get there.


The $300 House: Empowering the Poor.

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