Contest seeks ideas for $300 houses to shelter world's poor


June 19, 2011

The Project Ground-Up from Architecture Commons uses a staggered street design that creates a courtyard for industry, light, shade, ventilation and privacy simultaneously

Credit: Architecture Commons

The Project Ground-Up from Architecture Commons uses a staggered street design that creates a courtyard for industry, light, shade, ventilation and privacy simultaneously Credit: Architecture Commons

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What started as a theoretical question posed on the obstacles to global housing-for-the-poor has reached fruition as voting closed June 15th on the 300House project. Contestants around the world were challenged to design a house that could be constructed for less than US$300. Prize money of $25,000 was shared among the top sixteen ranked ideas, with two-week prototyping workshops worth $15,000 for the first, second and third designs ranked by the online voting community, and three awarded the Jury Prize.

The problem of housing is one faced by two billion people around the world. Initially a conceptual argument by bloggers Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar, the hypothetical idea of a house constructed for under US$300 received an overwhelming response and they began to bring together a collective of thinkers, designers and investors from around the world. Eventually, with partners Jovoto, a crowd-sourcing forum for sponsored design competitions, and US$25,000 prize money underwritten by international industrial firm Ingersoll Rand, a challenge was thrown down to bring affordable housing to the world's poor.

The detailed briefing was to provide a dwelling that was weather-proof & fire-proof, sustainable, secure, durable (up to fifty years) replicable and dignified, with a guideline cost of $300. The dwelling should be standardized, and yet take into consideration differences in region and available materials. It should therefore also be affordable, and self-improvable. It should be no smaller than 2.2 meters square (23.68 sq ft), with space to sleep and cook, access to light, drinking water and electricity and be secure. Sanitation was not part of the briefing, however, as it was envisaged as part of a centralized communal facility.

The highest community-ranked project awarded a monetary prize is "300 Possibilities" - a basic modular housing design that allows for adaptation based on the available materials and climate. A basic block house with sloping roof and modular wood formation was proposed with different features, in different street layouts, with ventilation via courtyards, windows or raised stilts to take advantage of different airflow. The key to the winning design is its adaptability, something the organizers admitted was a problem in tackling the issue of housing the global poor. Housing two billion people simply cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach, and yet this simple modular design has nevertheless taken into consideration each regions local materials and specified building materials accordingly, and adjusted street layout to make the best use of space, light and air possible.

The second award went to "Project Ground-Up" from Architecture Commons. Their house design uses the economies of scale to support a self-managed village cooperative between 100 families, and a micro-enterprise approach to create jobs manufacturing housing materials. The scheme also outlines opportunities for future investments in further technologies that will aid the community (such as rainwater tanks and solar) whilst also alleviating poverty and reducing the cost of building.

The Hybrid House is an earth block and wood structure with a corrugated roof makes use of available materials, and features a simple design that is adaptable to different climates. Its communality allows for lower costs and greater shared utility; each cluster of six would have a solar panel, solar cooker, solar water purifier, cistern and washing station that feeds a central planter. Inside each house a stove provides light and heat and warms a bed for nights.

Number one ranked by online voters, and one to be awarded the prototyping workshop was Totally Tubular - a design comprising tubes of light fiber and clay known as hyper-wattle standing on a lower wall of masonry or heavy earthbags filled with trash and rubble. These allow waterproofing and stability, while the hyper-wattle is overlaid with a matrix of mesh to form a structural skin that allows high-quality earthen wall construction for very little cost.

The SuperAdobe project from Rogerio Almeida and Gustavo Thron also wins a workshop for their adobe project using limited industrial products and readily available materials, such as wood, concrete, wire, polypropylene and corrugated roofing. Cross-walls create an extra building out of extended walls from two others, reducing labor and costs, and maximizing shared walls. Key aspects of the idea are rain-catchment via shared gutters and speed and ease of construction.

Finally the Earthbag Community uses earthbags filled with free local materials, barbed wire, bamboo poles, hemp rope, cardboard insulation and trapezoidal corrugated roofing, and a skin from whatever local material is appropriate, such as clay, adobe earth and papercrete. Community living decreases costs, materials and labor while increasing insulation, security and shared facilities.

"We're delighted by the depth and breadth of the submissions we received," said creator Vijay Govindarajan, Professor of International Business and the Founding Director of Tuck's Center for Global Leadership. "Hosting this contest on Jovoto's open, co-creation platform gave us a wealth of ideas and identified the people who we believe have the passion, skill, and commitment, to take the project to the next level, prototyping and actually building a $300 house for the poor."

Possibilities for amalgamating other designs remain open as contestants were urged to see this as a open discussion, and not a closed-door competition. The six finalists will be making plans for their prototyping workshops and we look forward to seeing progress and potential uptake of the designs in future!


I love Kharmachanic\'s new contest idea, and support the sentiment in all the comments. I think it\'s been well shown that absence of property ownership rights is insidious.


Here\'s an idea: Tie this contest together with Burning Man!


When stationed in Morocco (\'66-\'67) I saw how the country had become much poorer since the French were thrown out. The country took many thriving businesses and ran them into the ground. Why? Were Moroccans less intelligent? No. A monarchy ruled. No business was safe from the greedy government. It taxed everyone to death. The lesson I learned was that poverty is created by government. The poor don\'t need advice. They need freedom. If you give them technology and they create wealth without freedom, it will be taken away and they will be poor again. Famine is often gov made also.

Great ideas but they need to be taught to be free: reject authoritarianism.


Louvavel a iniciativa do concurso para residências de baixo valor. Sugiro, porém, que os projetos contemplem condomínios de pequenos prédios; por uma questão de economia de espaço.

(The initiative for low-value homes is welcome. I suggest, however, that the projects include condominiums of small buildings, for the sake of saving space.)

Alf Lee

voluntaryist is right on the money. Inventing special housing for \"Poor People\" is like putting band aids on a battered wife. Fix the real problem. Some countries make it hard to get title to land. Would you invest your time and money improving land that you didn\'t own and were likely to be thrown off of by the \"real\" owner after you fix it up? Many countries make it almost impossible to legally start a business. How can an economy grow if people can\'t buy land or start businesses? And people won\'t do anything to gain wealth if it\'s just going to be stolen by the government, uh, I mean taxed. There\'s more to this subject than just these issues, but these are real and crushing problems around the world. Politics: Many blood sucking parasites.


Agree with voluntaryist and kuryus. These feel-good initiatives will make us feel better, but unfortunately history shows devastating consequences when corrupt governments are constantly \'rescued\' by do-gooders.

The worst damage is all is caused when dictators are relieved of their responsibilities, effectively given carte blanche to keep killing and starving their people. With the Peace Corps and UN driving up to the rescue, dictators can continue to stuff their Swiss bank accounts and the people will be fed, clothed and housed.

It sounds very counterintuitive that the most help can be done by not helping. I\'m increasingly staunchly opposed to any and all third-world aid, and that even includes schools. They are not doing it themselves because we are not letting them.

Todd Dunning

Voluntaryist is somewhat off topic, but unfortunately correct in essence, bureaucracy is the main problem everywhere. Give power to the jobsworths and social climbers [note no capitalisation!], and destroy enthusiasm and creativity.


Ok.. so lets make the contest.. \"How to get rid of an Evil Dictatorial Regime for 300.00 or less using local materials\". These soulutions are not only for \"third word\" countries they could be used for emergency housing / post catostraphic, low income housing for people living in \"third world\" areas in first world countries. people in general who have realized they dont need a 5000 sq ft house to \"live\" in with their cat. anything that helps people realize the excess has become the necessary or vice versa. Kudos for projects like this..


May be adopted in developing countries with ingenuity and local material.


Totally on board with voluntaryist, kuryus, Todd Dunning, TexByrnes, Kharmachanic, PeterCapek. There are good reasons why Americas have it so good and why many others around the world don\'t. You have to take responsiblity for, and stand up for, yourself. D-gooders tend to be \"A\" types that \"HAVE TO DO SOOOOMMMEETHING\", when the best course is usually to stand back them and the Govt.) and let people run their own lives - sink or swim they are responsible. Lets do the \"Ousts the Dictator\" contest!!


How many unused shipping containers are there,surely a robust solution for many.


It has been shown that property rights are what can make or break a country.

Look at Haiti for example. The Haitian system of establishing property rights is so convoluted, complicated and corrupt that for the average citizen of Haiti, owning any property will always remain just a dream. Obtaining a legally recognized title to property in Haiti takes over 11 years and 111 bureaucratic steps involving 32 separate offices and countless forms to be filed and officials to bribe.

The ability to build $300 house, or even a $100 house, doesn\'t mean squat if the \"owner\" can buy the land to put it on.


building houses is a noble thought. placing them in the community is also a noble thought. Third world countries receive container shipping everyday. Build the containers so they can be converted to housing after one shipping experience and transport them to site. not the answer to dictatorships but an improvement over dirt floors.

Lynn Black
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