With few notable exceptions, social housing provision in transitional economies is characterised by cost-reducing / productivity-enhancing strategies that tend to discount the possibility for inhabitation quality beyond mere sheltering.

Sri Lanka is no exception. The accommodation of informal residents’ populations in the main centre Colombo is being achieved through the construction of high-density in-situ reinforced concrete structures, mostly designed to consolidate residential footprints and make land available for commercial development. The resulting high-rise compounds have several effects over the community they house: they force thousands of people together into single buildings; they place pressures on communal infrastructure; they reduce the possibility to organise commercial activities from home; they deny morphological or cultural identities to the resident population; and they undermine the fabric of the city where they are set. Housing literally becomes bare parking.

Is this the inevitable result of the existing social and environmental pressures, or rather the by-product of a culturally biased way of looking at and assembling the factors of housing production? FAR believes the latter may be the case. A fresh look at the resources available on the ground and a new perspective on their integrative potential could yield design solutions currently escaping the industry’s cone of vision.

In light of this belief, FAR has been working on a study that seeks to verify/demonstrate the potential of local industry to support and/or accept transformations in the way concrete-based social housing is conceived of and procured. This by: 1) identifying economic and social elements that are lying dormant within existing cycles of housing development; 2) checking the ability of alternative and geographically available building fabrication systems to become part of the low-income housing supply chain; 3) considering the possibility of integrating unconventional practices, crafts and materials into such systems; 4) defining how the design and planning process could be modified so as to facilitate the implementation of the framework.

The methodology follows and builds up on the lessons of the school of Duccio Turin and Graham Winch on the analysis of production in construction whilst making an attempt to blend them with literature on industrial clustering and flexible specialisation, particularly Allen Scott, Michael Storper, and Swiss scholarship on the organization of watch-making districts in the Jura Valley.

Upon charting the presence of construction actors and social networks on the territory, FAR is devising, literally, physical maps of the ‘industry in place’, which consider but go beyond ‘in situ concrete’, by outlining alternative geographies of production and industrial organization strategies.

The work carried out in Colombo to date suggests that building strategies and development results can change drastically depending on how the map is ‘drawn’. Large-scale design starts at policy level and demands new analytical approaches.

Bottom images: design and building tools, TOMBESI (2018)