Using construction technologies to solve mass housing woes
The article has been authored by Ayush Khare, research associate, Debarpita Roy, fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP), New Delhi and Triveni Prasad Nanda, assistant professor, RICS School of Built Environment, Amity University
The Union government’s flagship affordable housing scheme—Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana–Urban (PMAY-U)—marks a break from previous housing schemes by making serious efforts at mainstreaming alternate construction technologies. Under PMAY-U, the Global Housing Technology Challenge (GHTC) was launched in 2019 to spur innovation in construction technologies and mainstream technologies that can build housing faster, of better quality and more sustainably. The GHTC has been organising expos to identify alternate technologies, funding Light House Projects (LHPs) for demonstratable technologies, and providing incubation support for future technologies. In this column, we reflect on the challenges to adoption of alternative technologies in mass housing projects and the way forward for the GHTC programme.
But first, how do alternative technologies differ from conventional ones and what benefits they bring? Put simply, alternative technologies increase the degree of mechanisation in construction. Several technologies such as prefabricated sandwich panel and precast concrete transfer a significant part of the on-site construction process to a factory site. The use of machines reduces construction time by as much as half. Increased standardisation and monitoring, especially in a factory, improve construction quality. The high degree of planning required improves resource utilisation and reduces the generation of construction waste and the consumption of water. With the suitable design, materials, and planning, the technologies may help improve thermal comfort inside buildings and reduce the overall carbon footprint of construction.
However, the switch from conventional to alternative construction encompasses several financial and operational challenges. First, the developers of mass housing projects will have to deploy substantial initial investment to establish factories and purchase machinery required for alternative construction processes. Second, alternate technologies are currently relevant only for large-scale housing projects and townships since their use becomes commercially viable only when more than 1,500-2,000 housing units need to be built.
Third, construction firms that currently engage in conventional construction will need to completely reorient planning, design and management to incorporate new approaches such as Designing for Manufacture and Assembly and tools such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) used for managing the lifecycle of construction. Fourth, the change in the ecosystem around alternative construction technologies will require construction professionals, vocational workers and labour to undergo a skill shift to prepare them for altered roles and environments.
Fifth, vested interests may block the entry of alternative construction technologies since the high degree of planning and transparency required to execute these processes also reduce opportunities for corruption. Finally, home buyers are often sceptical of purchasing houses built with new technologies. Precast construction often fails the ‘knock test’ as customers associate the hollow knock of certain prefabricated and gypsum-based wall systems with a lack of structural strength. Some home-buyers have reported waterproofing issues in buildings constructed with alternative technologies but these are more likely a result of poor execution.
The demand for affordable housing of better quality built at a faster pace and more sustainably will rise over the next decade and alternative construction technologies can help. The next steps for the GHTC program must be to assess and adapt technologies to Indian conditions using a participative approach, provide financial and policy incentives to encourage their adoption, and upskill construction workers and professionals.
The LHPs that are being built in six different cities using six emerging technologies, under the GHTC programme, have run into delay because of some of the above challenges in addition to labour shortage during the second Covid-19 wave and spike in commodity prices. These projects provide a starting point to assess and improve the viability of the technologies under Indian conditions. The next step for the GHTC program must be to encourage a transparent and multistakeholder evaluation of the LHPs that can help identify and adapt suitable technologies for India’s diverse geographies, generate best practices and provide lessons to all stakeholders involved in alternate construction processes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech while laying the foundation stone for the LHPs, referred LHPs as live laboratories where professionals and students can learn and innovate. Like any good lab experiment, the shortcomings of these projects must also be plainly stated and learned from.
To improve financial viability of the technologies, both supply and demand side interventions by the government can help. To improve supply, the government may replicate Malaysia’s tax incentives for investments in the production of structural components, formwork systems, and building materials that are used in alternate construction processes. Such incentives will help reduce the input costs for alternate construction processes.
To support demand, tenders for mass housing projects developed by the government may mandate higher standards in quality, construction time and environmental impact as was done in Singapore. Since alternate technologies outperform conventional ones on these counts, such quality- and efficiency-driven selection would make the use of alternate technologies more compelling.
Finally, the potential of new technologies to construct buildings of high quality will not be realised if the workmanship remains of low quality. The GHTC programme along with the Skill India mission can bridge this gap by training vocational workers and labourers for the new construction environments. A greater emphasis on alternative technologies in the curricula of civil engineering and architecture graduates will expand the talent pool of high-skill professionals adept in using new technologies.
The demand for better quality and more sustainably built housing will rise rapidly over the next decade. This is the right time to solve teething issues in alternative construction technologies to make them an attractive option for developers of mass housing.
(The article has been authored by Ayush Khare, research associate, Debarpita Roy, fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP), New Delhi and Triveni Prasad Nanda, assistant professor, RICS School of Built Environment, Amity University.)