Prasoon Kumar, BillionBricks: Innovating homes for the homeless

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Prasoon Kumar, BillionBricks: Innovating homes for the homeless
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Prasoon Kumar, BillionBricks: Innovating homes for the homeless

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Prasoon Kumar, BillionBricks: Innovating homes for the homeless
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More than a billion people are without shelter today. They could be 3 billion by 2050. Is the growing demand a giant opportunity? What if houses for those in need could produce both renewable energy and long-term profits?

This episode focuses on homelessness and the work of Prasoon Kumar, co-founder and director of BillionBricks, a for-profit social enterprise set up in Singapore to tackle the many challenges of this growing global crisis.

Prasoon is an architect by training and an entrepreneur by choice, driven by his desire to make a difference with the BillionBricks Home: a sustainable house tailored to turn the fortunes of impoverished communities around the world. But to reach this goal, its model must be scalable and highly replicable. It must allow mass production and, most importantly, be easily financed.

Episode outline

00:08:33 Homelessness: A humanitarian crisis
00:10:22 “We may look at them as homeless on the streets. But for them, that street, that pavement or that corner is their home.”
00:12:22 “The problem is more about how do we provide fair wages and economic opportunities such that housing, therefore, becomes affordable for these people […] They are not given either fair wages or they are not given fair opportunities in order to be able to compete with people like us.”
00:15:59 Designing for replicability and scale
00:23:22 “We learned over the years, through our work at BillionBricks, that the core problem in providing housing to the poorest of the poor is actually not being able to build them cheaper [homes] or with better materials or different materials or smaller ones or high-rise [buildings]… The real core issue is housing finance.”
00:34:03 “We need to see [this] at [a] mass production level, just how you would look at prices of any of the other products that we market. If you were to build an iPhone — one iPhone — it would be ridiculously expensive, right? […] And [in] the same way, we are developing our unit economics around the scale of 5,000 homes to be built — and not [only based on] a singular house.”
00:39:40 Bridging tech hardware and social software
00:40:22 “We are building communities of people… And people like […] getting to know each other and being, living together […] Density is an advantage to us: the fact that we have a thousand homes… These are all small homes that people are living [in,] in close proximity.”
00:44:12 “Our goal is to leverage, I think, a lot of technology work at [the] community level […] We look at good social media platforms and see if we can create that environment, both in [the] physical and virtual world[s].”
00:44:28 Becoming Prasoon
00:46:48 “I would give up a lot of my learnings — or my preconceived notions of how I need to live my life or how I need to grow it or how business is done, for example, as well… I think there are really no set rules in the world and we have, as human beings, [the] ability to make our rules for ourselves […] You can make your own rules.”
00:50:09 “There’s so much more to do. There’s so much opportunity in the world. There has to be a way out. How back can it be, right?”

Summary

The plight of the homeless is largely misunderstood, says Prasoon. Many of them have jobs. There is dignity in everyday life; even a street corner can be ‘home’ to a child returning from school to the same spot day after day.

The fact they are not paid fair wages remains a major hurdle. They can’t amass the kind of assets that would help them secure the loans they need to purchase permanent homes. A homeless person is deemed ‘high-risk’ and must pay more to borrow — making the transaction, ironically, less feasible.

Many homeless families in India live in makeshift structures on street pavements.
© Palita Mumbai and BillionBricks

Prasoon argues that this vicious cycle must be broken once and for all. He calls for a novel financing instrument that bypasses the prevalent prejudicial view of the occupant. In the BillionBricks proposal, this is achieved by shifting risk to the house itself; specifically, via its capacity to generate energy over time.

The design – so different from low-cost solutions usually favoured elsewhere – taps on a seemingly oversized roof: a photovoltaic canopy that can produce 10-25 times the energy the premises require. The surplus generated can be sold to the power grid over a period of 20-25 years. It can also provide revenues to pay off the house’s initial construction costs and land purchase and secure ongoing profits in the long run.

Single-family units with essential living spaces are built with mass-replicable features and materials.
© BillionBricks

The model for the BillionBricks Home is kept simple: it is a single-family home, 30 m2 in area, made of low-cost materials that can be easily sourced and quickly assembled. Prototypes built in India and the Philippines look very similar, reflecting standardisation of form and detail.

The big roof of a BillionBricks net-zero home produces much more energy than what the premises underneath consume.
© BillionBricks

Prasoon covers the prerequisites for his housing plan to succeed. First, it must be possible to feed energy into a grid on any given site. Second, the number of units per development must exceed 1,000, whereby the energy generation capacity is at least 10 megawatts and financially viable. Third, a match must be found between an investor who foots the bill for the shelters upfront and a buyer who commits to purchase the energy they produced.

A residential cluster of 1,000 units generates the minimum amount of energy that makes the BillionBricks housing plan financially viable.
© BillionBricks

Prasoon also concedes that some challenges remain. A thousand homes constitute a neighbourhood, but a community is more than a cluster of houses; it needs social spaces and programmes to forge cohesion. Therefore, how BillionBricks’ game plan ultimately plays out will also depend on the integration of shared amenities on a site, such as playgrounds and shops.

Integration of gathering spaces like playgrounds and shops between homes where communities can thrive is a critical asset of the BillionBricks scheme.
© BillionBricks

The first of the solar communities is being built in the Philippines. Its impact will shed light on how homelessness can be addressed by the private sector where investors have vast capital at their disposal to shape the problem at scale.

Once these communities start to spread, BillionBricks will gradually transition from its roles of developer and matchmaker to facilitator and manager, to help residents settle in and thrive.

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Episode Notes

Keep reading if you want to deep dive into this interview’s content and get more out of it. You can also find out more about this episode’s guest/s and sponsor/s, and the team that put it all together.

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

As mentioned in this episode

If you heard it in this episode, we likely have a link for it right here. Click on any topics, people, buildings, places, products and/or technologies listed below to learn more about each of them.

00:11:23 “…today, the number stands at about 1.8 billion people…”
Homelessness statistics in the world: causes and facts” | DevelopmentAid
00:03:09 “…I went to Arizona State University in Tempe…”
Arizona State University (ASU)
00:07:03 “…I, at times, go and work with some students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic here in Singapore…”
Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP)
00:11:20 “…So according to United Nations data…”
UNdata
00:03:09 “…I went to Arizona State University in Tempe…”
Tempe” (Arizona, United States) | Britannica
00:03:45 “…And I would always compare us back to what India…”
India” | Britannica
00:05:07 “…then in Hong Kong and then in Singapore…”
Hong Kong” (Special Administrative Region, China) | Britannica
00:05:07 “…then in Hong Kong and then in Singapore…”
Singapore” | Britannica
00:08:21 “…And this is what led to BillionBricks?…”
BillionBricks
00:08:55 “…So, the old city of Delhi, Chandni Chowk…”
Delhi” (India) | Britannica
00:08:55 “…So, the old city of Delhi, Chandni Chowk…”
Chandni Chowk Delhi – Markets, Tourist Attractions & Renovation” | Magicbricks
00:14:51 “…maybe an island [like] Sentosa…”
Sentosa” | Wikipedia
00:21:21 “…If we move to a country like [the] Philippines…”
Philippines” | Britannica

There are no design features mentioned in this episode.

00:18:57 “…Let’s talk about the BillionBricks Home, what was formally known as PowerHYDE…”
Billion Bricks Home – India” | YouTube
00:18:57 “…Let’s talk about the BillionBricks Home, what was formally known as PowerHYDE…”
PowerHYDE / billionBricks Homes / billionBricks + Architecture BRIO” | ArchDaily

Host
Nirmal Kishnani

Producer
Maxime Flores

Editorial assistant
Abhishek Srivastava

Sound technician and editor
Kelvin Brown  |  Phlogiston

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