The ideals and problems of an award-winning collective housing project
In 1997 a severe housing shortage forced the Entry Group to ‘close' Auroville, refusing to entertain new applicants. People came together to find solutions. Many expressed the need for affordable housing in a collective environment. Since the early days of Auroville, when the Aspiration and Matrimandir Camp communities had been built, no other large-scale collective housing project with a community focus had come up. One solution proffered was a housing project called ‘Endurance' proposed by architect Anupama. “It would have shared common resources and alternative approaches to energy supply and water and wastewater management. But after a year of dialogue, and for all kinds of reasons, this project did not get built,” she explains.
“At around the same time I had been given a research fellowship from the Indian Vastu-Shilpa Foundation to do a study on an ideal urban eco-community. A lot of eco stuff had been happening in Auroville but on an individual scale. I wanted to find out if it would be possible to mainstream these models through building a housing prototype for urban areas. In this research I was guided by Chamanlal Gupta, the renewable energy expert from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He stimulated me to not only do research, but also make sure that my work would be tested on site and be monitored for a period of five years, so that we could develop standards. My research work resulted in a paper: Urban Eco community: Design and Analysis for Sustainability. It contains theoretical standards for anyone designing in similar climatic conditions as Auroville. For example, there are calculations about how many square metres of roof are needed in order to flush toilets with harvested rainwater without tapping into the groundwater. But I still needed to test these theoretical standards ‘on site'.”
The genesis of Creativity
Soon afterwards a design competition was floated by the Housing Group for a collective housing project. Initially the project holders aimed at a sprawling development, but soon became convinced that such land use was not sustainable and instead opted for a high density design. Kolam, Anupama's architect unit, was one of those invited to submit a proposal. Based on its experience with the Endurance project, it presented an innovative low-cost prototype ‘Mangalam', a collective housing project with spaces for common facilities to accommodate approximately 360 residents on an area of about 2.17 hectares. ‘Creativity' would be the name of the first of its six clusters.
The Housing and the Planning Groups accepted Kolam's proposal and a site was allocated. Kolam was appointed as architect, Endurance was the model, and Auronirmatha became contractor. Though the Housing Group was the de-facto client, the project was actually undertaken by Gillian and Kathy and later Jocelyn, Shyama and Jürgen. Gillian recollects how, in the early days, she was fired by the project's ideals. “More than anything else, the fact that so many strong women decided to participate in the project gave me the inner conviction that it had Mother's blessings. It was a true shakti project – the project holders and the architects were all female.”
Ideals of Creativity
Unlike other collective housing projects, the project holders also sought to map out the sociological, economic and environmental objectives of Creativity. It was to become “a social research endeavour and a dynamic experiment in sustainable urban living for a culturally-diverse group of approximately 50 Aurovilians, Newcomers and guests, with an emphasis on shared common facilities such as kitchen and recreational areas”. The project aimed at a healthy mix of singles, couples and families, and a Residents' Charter was drawn up and signed by all future residents as “a tool for alignment around the values of no personal ownership of spaces, sharing and contribution.” It prescribed, amongst other things, that all residents, regardless of personal preference and private facilities, should take up work for the community. As an experiment in sustainable urban living, Creativity aimed at being a demonstration site for eco-technologies for urban projects. The community would use alternative forms of energy such as solar power, harvest rainwater for toilet flushing and use water from the wastewater treatment plant for gardening. Eco-friendly building materials were to be used. More than 50% of the area was to be green with a kitchen garden to grow organic food for consumption within the community.
As the need for this project arose at a time when Auroville was facing an acute shortage of housing, the project holders also planned to give special consideration to those Aurovilians who did not have the financial means to build a house. They realised that those without funds tended to find themselves grouped together in ‘cheap-quality' housing, which was widely felt to be undesirable. Serious consideration was given as to whether the Housing Service could allocate spaces in the new project according to need, and not as per an individual's financial input. In other words, would it be feasible that individuals make donations to the project as a whole instead of to their private apartment? If so, the project could offer a positive alternative to the trend of individually-funded private housing. But even if this could be realised, it was obvious that the total costs, estimated at 1.5 crores [at the time US $ 325,000] would make fundraising necessary. It was agreed that neither the project holders nor the architect would charge a fee for their services and that Kolam would only bill for part-maintenance of the site architect, Sonali. The entire project was based on much idealism.
The project takes off
The planning of the project started in June 1999. Attempts were made to document every stage of the development of Creativity: each planning session, meeting, issue, and setback were to be recorded. On August 15th 2001, the first brick was laid in a ceremony attended by Dr. Chamanlal Gupta and the then Chairman of the Governing Board of the Auroville Foundation, Dr. Kireet Joshi.
At the beginning, the construction work proceeded so well that both architect and contractor optimistically predicted that the project would be completed within a year. However, that was not to be. One of the main reasons was that basic agreements about the roles and responsibilities of the architect, the contractor and the project holders were not made.
The project holders started to work with the architect and injected ideas and changed concepts that were felt to be inadequate. They substantially redesigned the internal layout: apartment designs and sizes of rooms were altered, staircases were re-located, heights of ceilings were increased and terraces were created for each apartment. They did not touch the external lay-out of the Creativity cluster and its housing blocks as they had agreed in the beginning that this would remain solely the architect's responsibility. This degree of involvement by the project holders, however, was not always to the liking of the architect and gradually differences of opinion led to estrangement. The architect complained that the project holders had neither the architectural knowledge nor technical expertise to tackle large-scale constructions. “There was an increased interference with our work, original concepts were questioned and designs were changed after the project had taken off. Project holders became architects and residents expressed their desires for their own tailor-made apartments. That took an increasing amount of time and design-energy and we got very discouraged. If they would have let us built what we had designed, the project would have been much cheaper.” says Anupama. “Also the lack of harmony between the project holders and residents themselves made our work difficult.”
The project holders in turn were dissatisfied that some of their changes, which were discussed and agreed on before the final plans were made, were not being implemented if they did not meet with the approval of the architect, that they were never given copies of the complete working drawings, and that the working drawings that were given were often incomplete and not really understood by them. The architects complained that as the project holders lacked technical experience they were made to prepare many versions of working drawings of every changing idea and that the project holders stopped the construction at times as they couldn't arrive at a decision unanimously. “This all led to months of delay and bitter exchanges, and added to the project's costs,” observes Gillian. “Gradually, the pace of the project slowed down. We observed that working drawings were also not being provided in time to the contractor. He started to pull workers off the Creativity project to work on other projects of the same architect to the extent that we found that he was over-extending himself.” Ultimately Anupama withdrew from the direct interaction with project holders after a gradual breakdown of the relationship with them. Her place was taken by Sonali who, however, in the opinion of the project holders, lacked sufficient experience. During her 4-months' maternity leave, a student draftsman took over the site supervision temporarily.
The fundraising proved a major challenge, in particular as about a third of the intended residents lacked personal means. A seed-donation from an anonymous donor of Rs 50 lakhs [US $ 108,000] had launched the project. With the consent of all involved, this money was used for the common infrastructure, and not to sponsor housing for those without means. Says Gillian: “We asked the prospective residents to be committed to live in an intentional community and offer whatever finances they could. The ideal was you give what you can regardless of the spaces you are going to occupy so that those without means can be sponsored. But this proved to be unrealistic. Ultimately, the donation to be made for each apartment was calculated on a square metre basis, and those without sufficient means were asked to arrange for a loan with Auroville's Financial Service, resulting in stress and personal hardships.” A few people were subsidized, not by the project, but by a special fund of Auroville. The mood had changed from ‘very off the ground' to ‘very on the ground'.
Added to this was that the estimates submitted were based on an unrealistic time schedule of one year, whereas in reality it took three and half years, creating added expenses. The estimates also did not include the infrastructure costs, as the project holders and architect planned to seek funding for the rain water harvesting and the solar energy systems. This funding, however, never materialised. The project holders later blamed themselves for being naive and inexperienced, relying on the expertise of the architect and expecting a professional approach which would have included the complete infrastructure costs within the estimates. Nevertheless, the project was always adequately supported financially and construction never needed to be halted due to lack of funds.
Meanwhile, the residents waited and endured the seemingly interminable delays. They were, as per the original ideals, ‘a healthy mix of different nationalities', though not of all age groups. “We noticed, a bit to our amazement, that younger people did not want to live here,” says Gillian. “The average age is over 40; most people are over 50 years old. There is one family, one single parent with children, two couples and the rest are singles. But it is a very integrated group. They are facing the problems together and are committed to make Creativity work. Their goodwill and endurance to put up with a two and half years longer waiting than anticipated and meeting the substantial cost increases – neither the architect nor the contractor took financial responsibility for mistakes or delays – can only be commended.”
Architect of the Year Award
Judging Creativity from an aesthetic point of view, the consensus is that it is attractive and inviting. It is perhaps small wonder that, in April 2005, the jury for the prestigious Indian Architects of the Year Award conferred a Commendation for Group Housing 2003 to Anupama for the Creativity project. It cited the experimental technical, social and environmental aspects of this housing project, and the quality of life which it provides – an interactive neighbourhood where each living space has the maximum possible greenery and open spaces. Says Anu: “The prize really should go to Sonali. Without her dedication and commitment we would not have materialised this project.” Both are proud to have been associated with the project, the problems notwithstanding. For the residents of Creativity, the prize is an acknowledgment that their collective hard work has paid off, even if they have to find solutions to live with the results of some of the design failures.
In fact, unique to Auroville, the residents of Creativity have written to the Auroville Planning and Development Council that building permission for Citadines, the second cluster of Mangalam, should be refused until the problems experienced by Creativity have been properly addressed. “We have made an objective evaluation of this project, both in terms of the building process and design errors,” says Gillian, “so that the mistakes of Creativity are not repeated in Citadines.” Asked about the design flaws of the project, Gillian mentions as major issues the noise pollution and the roof design. “From the beginning there were doubts if the lay-out of the housing blocks in a semi-circle wouldn't create sound pollution. The architect replied that a certain amount of noise has to be accepted, and that full noise-control can only be obtained by closing all windows and air-conditioning the rooms. At the time we consulted a sound specialist, and though his opinion on the design was negative, we let the issue rest in view of our agreement not to touch the external lay-out. We made the mistake not to insist on a proper sound evaluation of the structures. But as we feared, the semi-circular shape of the structure indeed creates sound vortexes. What we did not realise was that two design elements would escalate the noise problem. One is that the large roof overhangs reflect sound so that those in the upper floors hear everything that is being said below. The other is that the elevated walkways are not connected to the apartments but are detached from the wall at a distance of over a metre. The idea was to increase air circulation but it funnels sound from the ground floor to the top floor. It also causes rain to fall on the windows. The community has solved the noise problem from audio or video devices by prescribing earphones. But conversations can still be overheard.
“The other failure is the roof design. It was intended to be a cool, insulated and energy-efficient roof, a model of solar passive architecture, but it was not properly researched. When the design was finally completed nearly a year into the construction, the costs were double the original estimate. We rejected the design, and insisted on a different roof. The roof is now built with hollow burnt clay units, using a minimum of steel. However, the roof heats up during the day and radiates the heat back at night. Painting the roof white has reduced the heat. But it added to the costs.” Anupama, disagrees. “We think that the roof design was a success as the radiation is still far less than if we had built a conventional concrete roof.” Another concept that did not work was ‘the collective singles,' eight private rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchenettes. Says Gillian, “When the first floor was finished we realised that there were no takers for this idea and we changed the second floor into two separate apartments. Other mistakes are that access to some apartments is through the kitchenette or that entrance doors face bathroom doors.”
Asked what lessons have been learned, Anupama retorts “Not to work anymore with a group client. We will henceforth only deal with one person who represents the group. And if the group disagrees amongst themselves, we'll wait till they have reached consensus. Secondly, the parameters on who decides what will need to be clarified. Nowhere in the world does a future resident have anything to say about construction aspects of a collective housing project. In most places, he or she can only express a preference about the finishing details of his or her apartment. So perhaps I would propose a scheme with 6 or 7 options for finishing.” The experiences of Creativity are now the basis for the design of Citadines. “In Citadines there are three or four project holders, each with a different task. But we only deal with one person. The idea is to provide fully-furnished flats, which will be allocated once they have been finished. And contrary to the Creativity project, we want to make sure that here all designs are ready before the first spade goes into the ground. We don't want to start before every detail is ready and the funding is fully secured.” Looking back, the architects feel that Creativity has managed to achieve many technical aims, though on the social level much was left to be desired.
For the project holders too, the design and building experience of Creativity should not be repeated. Says Gillian: “Housing in Auroville is collective property, and Auroville must make sure that collective housing has the best standard possible. In future, a project like this must be assessed by a group of independent specialists to prevent mistakes and ensure that the project costs are realistic. The mistakes of Creativity must be lessons for future collective housing projects. After all, Auroville is about infusing consciousness into matter.”
Gillian concludes “We all failed in that we are supposed to be doing a collective karma yoga here, which implies that we should not be attached to the results of our work, that we should be doing it with dedication and surrender. But it has been a hard path for all of us to tread.”
See also: "Planning Creativity"
Creativity fact sheet
Beginning of construction: August 2001
Expected date of completion: Autumn 2005
Work pending: doors and windows multi purpose room, courtyard landscaping.
No. of apartments: 13 single units, 6 units for couples without children, 2 family units, 5 single rooms with shared facilities,
2 guest rooms for singles, 3 guest rooms for couples.
Collective spaces: Kitchen, dining, multi-purpose room, atelier, office, laundry, motorbike parking, storeroom.
No of permanent inhabitants: 38
Nationality of inhabitants: Indian, German, Dutch, Italian, French, Australian, Colombian, Canadian, Spanish, English, American.
Average age of inhabitants: 50 years
Waste water treatment system: Root zone type, treated water is used for irrigation.
Total built-up area: 1715 sq.m.
Total costs: Rs 1.79 crores
Cost per square metre including collective spaces and infrastructure: Rs 10,500