Beating the heat with micro-innovations

Shivani Raina, Architect, SEEDS

                                                  SEEDS volunteer at a community feedback event at Masudpur slum.

When summer is at its peak, what happens to those living in informal settlements? Slums are  categorised as high risk for heatwaves in India due to occupation, built environment and poor health (NDMA 2016). 

A first look at what makes slum houses vulnerable to heatwaves revealed the typical tin house for what it is—a hot metal box clad incombustible materials. The temperature inside could easily reach 51⁰C, a far cry from ideal temperatures to stay comfortable. 

The story of heatwave vulnerability, however, is not about the tin house but about the people who live in them. The residents of Masudpur slum of Vasant Kunj in Delhi, for example, said that summer was the most difficult time of the year.  It was when their children fell ill and their electricity bills became unaffordable. Yet when asked if they would spend money on retrofitting their houses to make them cooler, there was visible reluctance. When even the pinnacle of construction—Delhi’s lavish mansions—couldn’t survive summer without air conditioners, what could they do?

Mainstream market options to improve thermal comfort were either too expensive or too alien to ever be adopted in settlements like Masudpur. It needed simple do-it-yourself options. To arrive at a meaningful solution the focus had to be shifted from ‘what was wrong to what was strong’ (Cormac Russell 2017).

The story of Masudpur’s strength begins with a tragedy: a massive fire that razed it to the ground in 2014. Within a couple of months, the community banded together and rebuilt a thousand homes. This showed that the community was not only united but also was familiar with construction. Masudpur also has unique access to segregated waste, because the area is involved in the informal waste collection industry, i.e. the kabadi business. This meant that Masudpur has access to a wealth of materials that could be used to build. A fact that the residents took advantage of to make their homes more comfortable. A cursory glance at the homes makes their innovativeness evident. They had everything from waste insulation to plants growing out of tin-cans.

We wondered, is it possible to use these as the basis for effective retrofits to improve thermal comfort? Over a few months, SEEDS helped prototype and test these retrofits and analysed their performance both in real time and through EnergyPlus simulations. Multiple community feedback eventsensured that the five key retrofits developed were acceptable to the slum community.

1. Double Roof: Most of the heatgained by these tin houses comes from the roof. Inspired by the old billboard flex awnings built by the families, SEEDS proposed a double roof made from the same material. Cheap and easy to install, this retrofit can bring down the internal temperature by 5-10⁰C.

2. Skylight-&-Vent: Slum houses usually have no usable windows which results in the house becoming dark, stuffy and filled with smoke whenever the stove is used. The idea was simple: cut a hole in the roof and line it with steel wire mesh to create a skylight. A simple solar exhaust can be made using a plastic bucket and added to this skylight.  This results in the house cooling down due to ventilation and becoming better lit.

Drum wall made of bamboo ladders
3. ‘Drum-Wall’: Families in Masudpur do not have access to piped water supply; instead tankers bring water once in ten days. As a result, the entire area is dotted with an army of water drums. Houses that piled up the drums vertically instead of horizontally, were considerably cooler. This is due to the thermal mass of the water in the drums. The retrofit came in the form of a bamboo-based stand to organise these drums, support a desert cooler and hang plant pots. Made with regular bamboo-ladders, the ‘drum-wall’ improves thermal and visual comfort and food safety. The drum wall also redirects and filters rainwater from the double roof for collection.

4. Flexible False Ceiling: Slum households used stuffed cardboard under their ceiling to insulate it. Cardboard is inflammable and tends to rot over time. Instead a retractable flexible ceiling made of old billboard flex and bamboo was proposed. It can be opened and closed as per the time of the day (and season) to allow the house to cool down and heat up as and when required.

5. Tyre-Tube Thermal Break: Another interesting innovation was cycle tyre-tube lined doorways. The tubing softens the edge of the tin sheet preventing accidental scrapes. The same tubing was used to line the top of the tin walls to create a break between them and the tin roof. This rubber break would stop heat from being conducted from the roof to the walls (breaking the thermal bridge).

Step-by-step instructions on making and installing these retrofits were published through a manual. They were small micro-innovations that truly helped beat the heat. For together, these five retrofits cost just USD35 to make and could reduce internal temperature by over 10 degrees (as validated by Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology Nagpur).

As effective as these retrofits are, they only ensure short term resilience since they don’t yet promote entrepreneurial action. In thelonger term, SEEDS is working with the community to further turn these into marketable products that can build up theirfinancial capacity.

These pilot interventions were part of a larger Disaster and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Innovation Lab initiative; an approach to identify and fund community-based innovative solutions for disaster preparedness. For humanitarian effort in the past has too often been characterised by a top-down approach which dismisses the capacity of communities to help themselves and instead defines them by their problems.

As SEEDS celebrates its 25th year, this question of how to help families reduce their own risks continues to be at the centre of our work. The pilot in Masudpur has emphasised one particular lessonthat is of value. It is that ‘by recognising what is strong in the community, restoring their faith in this strength and using it to address what is wrong, we can make what is strong, even stronger still’ (Cormac Russell 2017). 

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