Business Today

Thinking Inside the Box

Delhi-based social enterprise Aadhan aims to create affordable and eco-friendly living spaces.
By Sonal Khetarpal | Print Edition: February 12, 2017
Thinking Inside the Box
Co-founders Nikhil Dugal (L) and Akshat Goel Photo: Vivan Mehra

The thought of living inside a shipping container would elicit unpleasant reactions from most of us. But one look at the architectural marvels that they can be turned into will convince you why inside-the-box living is gaining ground. Architects and advocates of sustainability the world over are taking to it. Delhi-based social enterprise Aadhan, too, is creating houses, classrooms and more, by using containers that are past their prime from shipyards.

With rising pollution levels and incessant environmental degradation, the need for an alternative form of building infrastructure is imminent. Nikhil Dugal and Akshat Goel, the co-founders of Aadhan, are taking a step in that direction by repurposing old steel containers - that will be left lying around till the end of time since a copious amount of energy is required to scrap them - into living spaces.

Container homes are not only eco-friendly, but also indestructible (much like Thor's hammer from Marvel Comics). They are built and designed such that they can be stacked on top of each other, hold cargo of up to 26 tonnes, and brave harsh weather; they are earthquake resistant and hurricane proof, too. Moreover, they are mobile - can be loaded into trucks and transported to the remotest of locations. Container homes are also cost-efficient; they are 30 per cent cheaper than brick-and-mortar structures.

Container infrastructure made sense to the duo as Dugal was exploring ways to solve the infrastructure needs of the country in the hinterlands where development work gets stalled because of lack of proper facilities. He had observed this for years while studying development economics at New York University, and also while working for the think tank IFMR LEAD in Chennai. "I was tired of working on policy suggestions. Millions of dollars get wasted year after year on research that never gets implemented," Dugal says. He contacted his friend, Goel, who was then running his family's 75-year-old furniture manufacturing business Annapoorna. The skills required to fabricate containers isn't much different from making furniture, and the partnership was forged easily.

The duo started by focusing on finding NGOS and government bodies that work in smaller towns and cities, often lacking the means to create hospitals or schools. Aadhan's first project was a classroom under the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (DDU-GKY), the skill training initiative of the Ministry of Rural Development. The Ministry is usually unable to find the right infrastructure in tier 3 and 4 locations. Since containers can be easily modified and installed on the site, Aadhan built a 400-sq-ft classroom with two restrooms in Govardhan, near Mathura, in three days.

With NGOS, Aadhan works on the container-as-a-service model, where the former pays them a monthly rent of Rs 20,000. To private players, Aadhan sells its containers as a product with a profit margin of 15-20 per cent. The cost of prefabricating the container for the above project was Rs 5 lakh. "It is still in pilot mode; the rent will go down if the project is approved for scale," Dugal says. Currently, they buy container shells through retail - a 20-foot container costs around Rs 80,000, and a 40-foot one Rs 1.1 lakh.

The duo pursued this project for six months and incorporated the company once the deal was sealed in September 2015. "We spent a lot of time chasing NGOS that don't have the resources and often need too many approvals. Now we are targeting private players," says Goel.

In December 2015, they set up an office and a storage facility for St. Mark's Senior Secondary Public School in West Delhi. Rahul Aggarwal, Director, St. Mark's Group of Schools, says, "From order to installation, it was all done in 15-20 days. There was no dirt and mud from traditional construction. It's been a year now and we haven't faced any problem." He is contemplating having two more container art and craft rooms.

Housing is another market Aadhan hopes to tap, especially people with land in the hills who don't build homes due to the constant supervision required in traditional construction. It is building a container house in Mukteshwar for Mainak Das, a professor at IIT Kanpur. "The 320 sq. ft. house will be fabricated and designed in Delhi with a bedroom, kitchenette, common room, and a bathroom - including finishes, electricals and plumbing - within the budget of Rs 8 lakh, excluding the land cost," says Das.

The size of ISO shipping containers is standard across the world - 8-foot wide and 8.5-foot high; and in lengths of 20 feet (6.06 m) and 40 feet (12.2 m). Building a house from containers, Dugal says, is like putting lego blocks together. For instance, for a three-storey house, three containers can be stacked on top of each other, with one placed vertically along them for the staircase. Alternatively, two or more containers can be combined to increase the carpet area of a house. All the electrical and sewage lines are prefitted during the fabrication stage, and connected to one main line outside the house so only the installation has to be done on the site with the unit functioning like a plugand-play system.

For the unversed, the company has opened an experience centre in Noida, which doubles up as its office, wherein potential customers can get the feel of the product and understand the concept better.

Vivek Varma, Principal Architect at Vivek Varma Architects, finds containers to be very interesting for architecture due to their versatility, good texture and colours. "With the right technique, they can be used to create interesting forms in very less time. The biggest utility for this kind of infrastructure is the mobility it offers for plug-andplay spaces. However, for outdoor use, they have to be insulated from the extreme hot and cold weather conditions in our country," he adds. Aadhan uses PET insulation, made by recycling plastic bottles into insulation foam.

Dugal and Goel invested Rs 12 lakh in the company, and claim to have earned Rs 6.5 lakh till December 2016. As per MCA, Aadhan posted a revenue of Rs 2.35 lakh till March 2016. For now, the duo runs the show, with an HR associate, two architects, a lawyer and several interns working with them on contract basis. It currently outsources container modification to vendors. The biggest challenge has been to find vendors who will fabricate the containers as per the required guidelines, says Goel. It is imperative to remove the layer of paint and scrape clean or seal the flooring before using the containers as they are toxic. Meant for storing goods, their floors are sprayed with hazardous chemicals to keep away pests. But since container infrastructure is considered chattel, regular architectural guidelines don't apply, and vendors overlook these processes to save cost. Goel informs that on attaining scale, Aadhan will undertake container modification in house, for better control on quality.

"Our product is expensive by Rs 40,000 because of these two processes, but we cannot compromise on this," Goel adds. They are working on forming a network of vendors across India who will treat the containers requisitely, so they can get work done nearer to the project locations, and save on transportation cost.

Perhaps, soon, wherever people go, they will be able to take their homes with them. ~



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