BIM in Low Cost and Temporary HousingAECbytes Feature (March 16, 2016)

It has been over a decade now since the term “Building Information Modeling” or “BIM” was introduced to the AEC industry, and its model-based representation of buildings is unquestionably considered as a much more efficient way of designing and constructing buildings than the earlier drawing-based 2D CAD technology that was the norm before it. Since the introduction of BIM, we have heard stories and case studies galore of how it has been implemented and the many benefits that have been achieved with it. But in most cases, these have been for large and complex projects, many of them considered as “signature” architecture, such as the Freedom Tower in New York by SOM—one of the earliest examples of the use of BIM—to the more recent LVMH (Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation) building in Paris by Frank Gehry.

But what about the other end of the spectrum? Can BIM be also used to design low-cost housing that is direly needed for the millions of people who live below the poverty line in so many parts of the world? And what about the temporary housing that is urgently needed during disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, etc., that happen all too often, or even humanitarian crises such as the current refugee crisis? Can BIM enable making this kind of housing easier to build, with more efficiency, lower cost, and improved quality? You would think so, knowing how the technology is supposed to work. But has it actually been done? Do we have any real-life examples to showcase this aspect of BIM?

As an undergraduate studying architecture, I did my final year design thesis on low-cost housing, so this subject is close to my heart. While BIM was not around at that time and I had to focus my thesis entirely on design strategies for low-cost housing, my interest in the subject was reignited when I heard of a design proposal for low-cost and temporary housing in India which, while not being technology-focused, depends heavily on a technology like BIM for implementation. In addition to studying this proposal, I also did research to find similar low-cost and temporary housing projects in which the use of BIM would be vital to the concept. My findings—or lack thereof—are captured in this article. But let’s start with an overview of the project which brought it all back to me.

The Honeycomb Village Project in India

The Honeycomb Village (Figure 1) is a design proposal for semi-permanent housing that was originally developed for the Kumbh Mela—a Hindu religious festival attended by millions that is regarded as one of the largest human congregations in the world—and is now also being positioned as a low-cost housing option for people livings in slums such as Dharavi in India (popularized by the 2008 Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire). The design has been developed by Scott Knox, a US architect who has worked in several architectural firms including SOM on a variety of housing, airport, clean-tech and other projects. A project of this size, scope, and magnitude requires, of course, the involvement and support of several other firms and organizations, and these include MIT’s Media Lab, IIT Delhi, the Tata Trust, different government agencies, and many local firms and schools for the structure and other aspects of the design. A Kickstarter campaign has been launched for crowdfunding the project. A prototype implementation of the project with a few units has been completed, with a broader implementation planned as and when sufficient funds are raised.

Figure 1. The Honeycomb Village design proposal. (Courtesy: Scott Knox)

The basic design concept of Honeycomb Village is to have an array of light, modular, and affordable pavilions set on a raised platform on a hexagonal grid—hence the name “honeycomb” (Figure 2). Each individual pavilion on a grid would be a residential unit, with the ability to combine multiple adjoining grids into large community pavilions such as a health clinic, a post office, and so on.  The modularity of the overall shape as well of the individual components is key to the basic concept of a temporary structure—it is easy to assemble as well as disassemble, can be scaled up or down to suit different requirements, can be adapted to different locations by using local materials and components, and is comprised of parts that can be easily replaced when they break or get worn out. All the essential utilities including plumbing, electrical ducts, etc., are collected under the raised platform, and these, along with the living spaces above the raised platform, form one complete modular unit, which can be replicated as required based on the number of people to be accommodated, the site, and the surrounding context. Under the platform, the utilities of all the units are joined and ultimately connect to the main public utility lines of the region where the housing will be located.

Figure 2. The hexagonal grid underlying the layout of the Honeycomb Village proposal. (Courtesy: Scott Knox)

The Honeycomb Village proposal also includes sustainable design strategies such as solar panels on the roofs for electricity, bio-digesters for sewage treatment, and connected water lines across all units so that a water truck pumping water in one location makes it available in all of them. Once the housing is no longer needed—as in the case of the Kumbh Mela, other festivals such as the Burning Man, and any kind of temporary camp—each unit can be quickly dismantled, packed in a shipping container, transported to the next required location, and quickly re-assembled.

The use of BIM has been important to the conceptualization and development of the Honeycomb Village project and will be even more critical going forward. While the design of an individual “honeycomb” unit is relatively straightforward, it is in the details of the components and how they fit together that the use of BIM has been invaluable. Being able to model the structure in 3D allowed the structural designer to analyze the structure in depth and determine how indigenous materials like bamboo could be used to erect the structure instead of the more conventional steel rods—making the structure much lighter and easier to transport and assemble—and how canvas could be used for the roofs and in what configuration. Also, the ability of BIM to enable a full-blown simulation of the design will allow the suitability of the project to be assessed for different sites and determine what changes might be necessary based on a site’s weather conditions, location, culture, and other factors.

Other Projects

The one aspect about low-cost and temporary housing that needs to be quickly built in large quantities is the need for modularity, which immediately brings the concept of “prefabrication” in mind. This, in turn, is strongly reminiscent of the seminal book “Refabricating Architecture” by Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, and their Loblolly House project, which won the AIA TAP (Technology in Architectural Practice) BIM Award in 2007 in multiple categories. The Loblolly House (described in detail in my article on the awards) made extensive use of BIM not only for design and development but also for fabrication and assembly—each component was modeled in detail, fabricated off-site, and virtually assembled before being physically assembled on site. Given the commitment and expertise of KieranTimberlake Associates in prefabrication and, by extension, in modular construction, I was far from surprised to find that it was one of the few firms I was able to find that was doing some work in the area of low-cost and temporary housing. It has developed a component-based system for single- and multi-story house construction in India (see Figure 3) taking into account factors such as affordable cost, efficient construction, mass-customizable materials, resource conservation, thermal comfort, water recycling, and owner involvement. The system is currently being prototyped to assess its potential for wide-scale implementation.

Figure 3. The component-based system for house construction in India developed by KieranTimberlake Associates for Ideal Choice Homes. (Courtesy: KieranTimberlake Associates)

Another example that I came across was more mainstream, and while not low-cost, it showed how critical BIM was in developing a modular prototype that could be replicated. This was the prototypical design of the SkyHouse Apartments, a 23-story, 320-unit complex that would be built in ten different US cities; the use of BIM enabled the design to be easily modified for each city and site based on local building ordinances, geology, seismicity, and wind forces (Figure 4). This project was actually the winner in the most recent “Be Inspired Awards” at Bentley’s annual Year in Infrastructure conference where it was selected over other impressive stand-alone design projects, possibly representing a turning point in the AEC industry where modular prototypical construction is celebrated rather than dismissed as “cookie cutter” industrial architecture as it has been in the past.

Figure 4. The SkyHouse Apartments, the prototypical design of which won a recent “Be Inspired Award.” The design will be replicated in ten cities across the US. (Courtesy: Bentley)

Apart from these few examples in professional practice, the only other references to the use of BIM in low-cost and temporary housing that I found were in some academic papers such as BIM for adaptable housing design in the construction industry, Improving Self-Help Housing in Texas Colonias Using Spatial Agents and Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Using BIM for Modeling Client Requirements for Low-Income Housing. I also found a long-standing study done at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) of the pop-up housing (and other aspects) of India’s Kumbh Mela religious festival, but there were no recommendations on how to actually improve the process and provide better housing. Needless to say, we still have a long way to go in understanding the true potential of BIM in facilitating low-cost and temporary housing, let alone in actually implementing it.

Conclusions

According to a recent news report, the richest 62 people in the world now have the same collective wealth as the poorest half of the world's population, a statistic that starkly highlights the growing inequality between the rich and the poor. While addressing this problem is not within the purview of the AEC profession, what we can certainly do is apply our skills and expertise to find better solutions for low-cost and temporary housing that could improve the lives of millions of people. And for those focused on AEC technology—the developers of the solutions as well as the expert users—we could facilitate the process by exploring how advanced technologies such as BIM can be applied, not only towards improving buildings and processes that are already quite good to begin with, but also in tackling the challenges of housing for the lower half of society.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.


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