Designing toward a Slum Free India

With help from MIT and the Hunnarshala Foundation, pilot project seeks safer, more comfortable housing for a desert city shattered by natural disaster.

Madeline Gradillas (right) in Bhuj, where test chambers are gathering data on her roof designs.
Madeline Gradillas (right) in Bhuj, where test chambers are gathering data on her roof designs.

The Great Rann of Kutch in northwestern India is the world’s largest salt desert, a place where summertime temperatures can exceed 120°F (49°C). When Alexander the Great encountered it in 325 BC, he thought he was nearing the edge of the world.

For Tata Fellow Madeline Gradillas, an architect specializing in hot and arid climates, it’s an ideal workspace.

As a native of the Arizona desert, Gradillas can appreciate the difficulty and beauty of life in the Kutch. “There’s a lot to be learned about design from people who have thrived in such an extreme environment for centuries.

“I’m really lucky; I get to develop expertise in building science while contributing to a project that will improve thermal conditions for people who really need it.”

Bhuj City, in the Kutch region of Gujarat, is rebuilding itself after being near the epicenter of a cataclysmic 7.7 magnitude earthquake in 2001. The devastation was startling: 20,000 dead and 87% of the buildings flattened in Bhuj alone.

One thing became clear in the aftermath of 2001: New material solutions for affordable housing were needed. The rebuilding process is still active almost 15 years later, and many residents continue to endure indoor temperatures up to 120°F. But from disaster, a unique opportunity has emerged to reframe the city’s housing practices.

Gradillas is pursuing her S.M. in Architectural Studies as part of the Tata Center Housing Group, and her thesis work centers on solutions for thermal health and comfort in low-cost housing. As a Tata Fellow, she has been working in cooperation with the Hunnarshala Foundation, a Bhuj-based non-profit spearheading “Slum Free Bhuj,” a pilot project of the Indian Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation’s nationwide “Slum Free India” campaign.

“Since the earthquake, there’s been a push to holistically make the building stock better,” Gradillas says. Still, informal settlement housing constructed of asbestos and tin sheeting is not only vulnerable to collapse, but magnifies the ambient heat, creating conditions unbearable to even the most resilient desert-dweller.

“Tin and asbestos sheets don’t provide adequate protection from extreme heat or cold. People say, ‘It can be uncomfortable in here, but what can we do?’ There are currently not a lot of choices for people to build better roofs.”

Old ways, a new vision

One of the test chambers under construction by Hunnarshala.
One of the test chambers under construction by Hunnarshala.

The Hunnarshala Foundation rose from the tragedy of 2001 and empowers community members and artisans to rebuild the city using a combination of modern science and the traditional techniques that the region is known for.

Hunnarshala have asked Gradillas to work with them to design and analyze roof assemblies that apply principles of insulation and ventilation to the house typology they’ve co-designed with local community members.

“What makes Hunnarshala unique is that they innovate and validate traditional ways of building. They also practice community-based design. They have a lab set up to rigorously test seismic performance, but they’re not really outfitted to quantify thermal performance, so that’s where we come in.”

Together, Hunnarshala and Gradillas have designed test chambers outfitted with different roof assembly prototypes, as well as a series of digital models to predict their annual performance. Noting that these sandstone chambers incorporate straw, burlap, and waste materials, Gradillas says “the first round of prototypes are not very pretty, but the idea is that we’re working with readily available materials to validate concepts. This validation will lead to the development of low cost roofs that are aesthetically appropriate to the Bhuj context.”

In January 2015 the chambers began gathering data underneath the punishing Gujarati sun. “We have thermal sensors set up in the five test chambers taking hourly temperatures to compare different designs. We’re also ventilating chambers on different schedules. Once we see which of the designs and schedules work the best, then we can transport those to the Slum Free Bhuj houses.”

During Spring Break, Gradillas will return to Bhuj to assess the results. “We’ll look at how close our predictions were to the measured data. At that point we’ll either do another round of prototypes, or if these work, we’ll start thinking about how to implement them.”

The project has potential to scale nationwide, much like Slum Free India itself. “A long term goal is to develop a system that can be produced at a large scale so that people can install it their own houses. Eventually the roof panels need to be a part of an integrated system that will work in multiple climates for multiple kinds of houses.”

A rich partnership

Tata Fellow David Moses (foreground) chats with Hunnarshala staff members.
Tata Fellow David Moses (foreground) chats with Hunnarshala staff members.

Madeline Gradillas is not the only member of the Tata Center working with the Hunnarshala Foundation. Fellow David Moses and faculty members Miho Mazereeuw and Leon Glicksman are all actively engaged with aspects of the Slum Free Bhuj project. The partnership between the MIT Tata Center and Hunnarshala Foundation has been one of mutual growth.

“The way that we’re bringing a little bit of MIT to the field I think will influence how Hunnarshala runs research projects in the future,” says Gradillas. “It has been great to be able to learn from Hunnarshala and at the same time meaningfully contribute to their toolset.”

The MIT group has gained insight and access to communities that would not be possible without a committed—and highly effective—local partner. It’s an opportunity that Gradillas says she never could have envisioned when she arrived at MIT. Joining the Tata Center program, which is part of the MIT Energy Initiative, changed that.

“I think it’s really amazing that Tata Fellows are given the opportunity to partner with people who are doing real work, who are doing good work. Because I got the opportunity to work with Hunnarshala, my one year [as a Tata Fellow] is going to have an impact.”

Gradillas is set to graduate this Spring and relocate to Northern California, but she plans to pursue design for development research projects, and will stay involved in this project as it transitions into the hands of a new crop of students.

More on this project.

Photos courtesy of Madeline Gradillas.