Building with the community


It was that time of the year where anxiety was its peak. Everyone was sending out their portfolios for the college internship. While I had set my mind on trying to get into something that was often talked about in architecture schools but rarely ever see being implemented- where architects design for the community with the community.

I had sent my portfolio to Shelter Associates (SA) with low expectations and an honest email about how I am interested in working with the community and learning more about the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY). On being accepted to work at, I was excited and curious to find out how an NGO works with the community and whether the design process is different or similar.

During my first month in SA I was assigned to work on an Area Resource Centre (ARC) in one community of Kolhapur city in Maharashtra where a community toilet block was to be converted into an ARC. SA had provided individual toilets for most of the houses in that settlement making several community toilet blocks redundant or highly underutilised. Hence SA jointly with the community, decided to convert one of them into an ARC that could be used more meaningfully by the community.

On my visit to the site, I noticed the poor maintenance of community toilet blocks (CTB’s) where a lot of of the pans were clogged  SA motivated the community to participate in their ‘One Home One Toilet’ project which completely freed them of their dependency on CTB’s as 70% families opted for a private toilet in their homes. Moreover SA also forged an excellent working relationship with the urban local body including the elected members. I learnt how the community especially the women aspired for an Area Resource Centre in terms of ownership and the activities. In the meetings conducted it was found that the people of the community wanted the ARC to be run by the women of the community. There was also an exit meeting which I got to attend, which happens when SA completes the OHOT project. It felt like a festival of its own kind, there was a lot of joy on the faces of the people and the children in the community.

Other than the Area Resource Centre, I also got to learn about the various sanitation options provided by SA depending on the ground situation. These ranged from tiger toilets in Donaje, the use of various prototypes of septic tanks done in Kolhapur and Thane and a biogas project in Kolhapur.

There were also settlements that I visited in Navi Mumbai and Thane that were compact. There was a lack of open spaces in these settlements. The houses in these settlements are extremely small and lack natural light. The houses in Navi Mumbai and Thane are heavily dependent on the Community toilet blocks. I learnt that the people in such settlements were very repulsed initially to the idea of having a toilet in their own house. They are slowly adapting to this change since for a long time it was frowned upon to have a toilet in the household.

I was also able to closely follow an ongoing housing project in Bondre Nagar, a settlement of Kolhapur. This has helped me understand how the spatial data using Geographical Information systems (GIS) collected in the slum is used to identify certain important aspects of the settlement. Other than that, I found that the various mobilization activities conducted in the settlement have helped in engaging the community in the design process.

All in all, the experience of working at Shelter Associates has been extremely humbling and comforting. The interactions I have had with the people in various communities and settlement  during the community meetings have made me believe in the inclusiveness of this process. It has been a very enriching experience working at Shelter Associates and understanding how the communities are affected and the countless ways in which they can be helped. I intend to use the participatory design approach in various projects in the future.


Community participation in the design process
Community participation in the design process

Architect Intern



SA participates at the Tech4dev conference

The weekend of November 30th and December 1st, 2018 has been one of the most fulfilling weekends for us at Shelter Associates. We got a chance to showcase, learn and discuss our experiences with technologies with a variety of industry veterans and self-starters at the Tech4Dev Conference organized by the Chintu Gudiya Foundation and Social Alpha in Pune. It was quite an enriching experience where we got a deeper look into the functioning of Open Source Technologies, tactical problem solving methodologies adopted by NGOs like ours and a feeling of comfort knowing that we are not alone in the process of trying to solve the most pressing needs of the society using technology.

The first day started with a keynote given by our founder Mrs. Pratima Joshi, where she outlined her journey of 25 years into key learnings that resonate with most NGOs even today. Briefing everyone with Shelter’s success at coming one step closer to improving sanitary conditions of the urban poor, Mrs. Joshi conveyed how automation using data and technology has been an integral part of the day to day workings at Shelter Associates and how they have been able to achieve economies of scale at a low cost because of the same. Later, Mrs. Joshi advocated the need to institutionalise data with the government so that the burden of information does not stay with the NGOs and is passed on to the people who need it the most for years to come.

The keynote set stage for the “unconference” where people presented technologies ranging from integrated systems for education, health and sanitation to the various visualization techniques to ease decision making processes. The 15 minute presentation format that allowed multiple NGOs to present at the same time facilitated maximum consumption of information within a very limited time period. This coupled with the freedom of movement approach, allowing people to use their feet to move to presentations where they felt they could learn or contribute better, made the whole experience quite exciting and involving. This set the stage for the second day where people would vote on the topics they wanted to deep dive into and learn more about after the first day surface level flirtations. Through this format, we were able to discuss the pros and cons of using one technology over other effectively and the common problems we come to face while using them.

By the end of the second day, the idea of the whole Open Source Community echoed more clearly with all the people present, as we were able to identify the need for creating a symbiotic relationship amongst us. We were not only seeking solutions to the problems we faced, but we were looking out for each other in a much more deeper sense. We were able to understand that making better choices takes work and there is a daily give and take in this open source community but it is worth the effort since we are trying to create something greater than ourselves. We ended the day knowing that our NGO community, is a structure of symbiotic processes working towards the good of every person, process and organisation.