Please tell us about yourself

Young leader of Tomorrow – It is this recognition from Time magazine recently that showcased to the world the innovative design formulations of architect Alok Shetty’s affordable flood-proof houses for Bangalore’s LRDE slum dwellers. Sounding modest and down to earth, 28-year-old Alok says he was nurtured into thinking that simple solutions are often the right solutions to every challenge encountered. Timemagazine said Mr. Shetty was “building hope in India” as an architect who was “finding simple solutions to complex problems.”

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As a 20-year-old architecture student of RV College in Bangalore, Alok Shetty took up a challenge. He entered a competition where a multi-specialty hospital in Jaipur had to be designed. Even as it may sound precocious, Alok’s blue-print of the intensely researched first mega-project, Narayana Health Hospital, attracted the authorities to have him on board for the project. “I brought it across after one year of interactions with doctors and patients and the 4-lakh sq. ft space finally bagged an international accreditation,” says Alok.

When studying his craft at a local college, Shetty, then 19 years old, won a competition that led him to redesign a hospital in the northern city of Jaipur. Before drawing up blueprints, he spent months talking to the staff and patients, identifying their problems and incorporating solutions in his design. He discovered, for example, that post-operative patients were being wheeled through public corridors that they had to share with the recently deceased, leaving patients prone to infections. His solution: a service corridor to transport dead bodies and a separate, sterile corridor to move patients out of the operating theater. Drinking water was another problem, with Jaipur suffering from regular shortages in supply. Shetty’s answer? Equipping the building with a rainwater-harvesting system to allow the hospital to build up its own reserves during the rains. “He is a power house of futuristic ideas,” says Jatin Hukkeri, an old friend who worked with Shetty on the Jaipur hospital project.

Since then, after completing his Master’s in architecture at Columbia University, he delved into starting a firm, Bhumiputra Architecture, in 2012 that took simple ideas and brought them over with innovative building solutions for designing radical social infrastructure for the needy. Why did he choose to come back? “India has a large scope for designing. Young minds have to work for this. Besides, I wanted to add my bit of value,” says Alok, the third-generation member in his family to enter the construction business.

The seeds for his latest venture — a plan to boost access to healthcare and education in remote communities — were sown while studying for his Master’s in architecture at Columbia University in New York. There, Shetty, along with two friends, designed a shipping container that opens up to become a 250-seat mobile auditorium. Back in India, Shetty has adapted the design to create mobile clinics and classrooms that he says can be attached to trains. The idea is to use the country’s vast rail network — one of the world’s third largest, with nearly 70,000 miles of track — to bring basic services to distant regions. Many rural areas, for example, are severely lacking when it comes to the availability of health services, with 70% of the country’s health infrastructure concentrated in its top 20 cities. Shetty is building prototypes now and hopes to launch the project, which he is funding through other architectural commissions, next year.

Tell us about your work for LRDE

Every summer Alok would be on construction sites interacting with labourers. Every building that he undertook was an added experience not just in absorbing build-technologies, but in knowing more about construction labourers and their living conditions. Meaningful, cost-effective designs to suit specific targets will always be my focus, he says. “I have taken up a pilot of 10 units in the slum project at LRDE, next to Bagmane Tech Park, where re-used material for being design and purse friendly would help the under-privileged have modest good homes,” explains Alok.

Alok’s LRDE slum project has bamboo walls, reused discarded scaffolding material, plastic tarpaulin sheets resting on bamboo for roof and wooden shuttering sheets for the floor that would cost Rs. 35,000 for a 100 sq. ft house. “I have another version with re-used building debris that also costs Rs. 25,000,” he says. It all started with Alok taking up academic adoption programmes for children of construction labourers at each of his projects. Educational fee and books are free for them along with a savings bank account that accrued money for these children for 12 years. Apart from enabling them with education and reasonably good savings for their life post-teens, it is Alok’s simple design effort that is going to help hundreds of houses be made-up at the slum by June 2015. “It was heart-rending to see the dingy make-shift houses of labourers, with no ventilation, and increased carbon-monoxide to make it worse. The make-shift houses were a water pool during rains that became breeding grounds for diseases like malaria,” observes Alok.

How does your work benefit the community?

Bangalore’s LRDE slum lies next to one of the southern Indian city’s sprawling technology parks. Home to some 2,000 people, most of whom live in makeshift dwellings fashioned out of tarpaulin and plastic sheets, it is routinely flooded during the annual monsoon season, with heavy rains turning inundated homes into breeding grounds for diseases like malaria and typhoid.

Working with the Bangalore-based nonprofit Parinaam Foundation, Shetty came at the problem with an approach he brings to all of his projects — marrying smart design with a commitment to sustainability. Conventional bricks-and-mortar houses would keep the water out. But they would also be too expensive for the slum-dwellers. Instead, Shetty designed new, flood-proof houses made out of discarded scaffolding, bamboo and wood. At $300 apiece — or just over a month’s wages for many of LRDE’s residents — they are both affordable and easy to set up. It takes only four hours to erect one of Shetty’s new units (and the same time to dismantle them, a useful feature for the slum’s population of itinerant laborers). For those who can’t afford Shetty’s new houses, he is seeking government subsidies to bring the price down further. “He is an angel in disguise for our work with the underprivileged,” says Mallika Ghosh, Parinaam’s executive director.

“In my travels I saw vast stretches of rural India where infrastructure for health care and education was severely underdeveloped,” he says. “Building facilities in these areas is not impossible but it is time-consuming. Adaptive architecture like this can be an extremely effective solution to help address our developmental problems.” He is building prototypes now and next year hopes to launch the project, which he is funding through other architectural commissions. “Often the simplest solutions are the best solutions,” he says. If Shetty’s prototype clears the testing phase next year, India’s trains could soon be delivering ready-made clinics and schools all over the nation.

What are your future plans?

In 2011, Shetty founded his design firm Bhumiputra. He is currently working on the design and construction of low-cost modular schools and hospitals in Uttarakhand. Shetty has also been chosen to design a state-of-the-art Olympic Training Academy for the Jindal group in Vijayanagar. He has been featured in National Geographic magazine as “one of India’s future leaders”.