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Design a $300 House, Win Thousands and a Chance to Go Big!

5/23/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: housing, design

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailCould you design a $300 house that keeps a family safe and sheltered—with dignity? You could win a $3,000 prize and the chance to turn your design into reality.

Designers, architects, students and professionals are invited to submit affordable housing designs for the poorest of the poor through the $300 House Project, a contest that began as a challenge to businesses in a Harvard Business Review blog post by Dartmouth professor Vijay (V.G.) Govindarajan, founding director of Tuck's Center for Global  Leadership, and business consultant Christian Sarkar. Observing that homeless people often build shoddy, unsafe shanty towns because they don’t have better options, Govindarajan and Sarkar asked themselves the following five questions about building proper shelter for the poor:

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

In an attempt to answer those questions, Govindarjan and Sarkar launched an Open Social Co-creation Contest, sponsored by Ingersoll Rand and hosted by Jovoto, asking people to submit designs for simple dwellings that could be constructed for $300 or less. Winners, selected by the community and a panel of judges that includes Yves Behar, Rahul Mehrotra, Bob Freling, Stuart Hart and David Hinds of reggae group Steel Pulse, will receive cash awards and scholarships to a June 'prototyping workshop' in rural Alabama led by COMMON, a social business incubator. There, participants will build actual prototypes of the $300 houses and operationalize social ventures to manufacture and distribute the homes.

Govindarjan and Sarkar believe that capping the house budget at $300 would “encourage lean design.” They followed an old 'rule of thumb' that says if a house costs $3,000 in the United States, it could be built for $300 in India. According to Grameen's poverty metrics cited in Muhammad Yunus' book Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, the average house value for a Grameen member who had escaped poverty was $370. “We rounded that number downwards for someone who was still living in poverty and came up with $300 yet again,” Govindarjan explains. “Despite the political challenges in the U.S., our point is that innovations required to create the $300 house can be scaled up to the benefit of the $3,000 or the $30,000 house. The materials, design and layout will all be informed by the decisions made in the design of the $300 house.”

To be successful, the organizers say, designers must address the following design challenges:

  • Low-cost. The $300 figure is largely arbitrary but a useful means of anchoring expectations. The organizers say $300 is a reasonable, yet aggressive, price.
  • Self-built or self-improvable. This lowers the cost and reduces the potential for corruption in capturing donor aid.
  • Low-tech. If slum dwellers can build or improve their houses themselves, it generates income for them and reduces the risk of value capture by landlords and rent-seekers.
  • Local materials. Find materials that can be salvaged or bought very cheaply.
  • Green. Encourage sustainable homes and communities.
  • Replicable. The slums are proliferating faster than any government's or formal sector's capacity to cope.

Jovoto, an open collaboration platform, allows all participants to engage with each other’s projects and collaborate. “The fun really begins when people start talking about what can be done to improve each others’ submissions. It’s social co-creation in action,” says Jovoto founder Bastian Unterberg.

“We want designers and architects to see this as a business opportunity, not as a charity case study,” says Govindarajan. “This design challenge will help us get some innovative people to focus on a vast un-served market waiting to be created across the world.”

The deadline for this contest is Thursday, May 26. Learn more at 

 300 house 

Dartmouth professor Vijay (V.G.) Govindarajan and business consultant Christian Sarkar came up with this quick napkin drawing as an example of what the $300 house should include. 

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