Why a slum house is like a factory

by David Week on 26 May 2011


Commenting on my post on the $300 house, Yodan said:

And yet, David, it seems that in every advanced economy housing does become a commodity and is predominantly produced by big companies, and financed by big banks and savings and loans societies, and that is usually connected with levels of poverty going down significantly.

In response, I suggested that when wages are low, it makes more sense to do things “in house”, but as cost of external made goods falls, and wages rise, work is outsourced from the house, to the industrial economy. Clothing is a good example. You can now buy a T-shirt for $5. It would probably cost you hundreds of dollars (including the wage value of your own time) if you tried to make one yourself.

The pre-industrial house

But this response is only part of the picture. It masks a major social shift in our conception of the house. In the pre-industrial era, the house was a centre of production. It produced food and clothing, as well as specialist trade goods like ironmongery for sale to other households. In the industrial era, the house becomes a place of consumption. Almost everything of value is made outside the house, in factories, and imported into the household.

From: House as place of productionTo: House as place of consumption
Source: Medieval News
Source: The Helium Balloon

This corresponds to a shift in the economy, which has been neatly summarised in the following short slideshow. 1

Pre-Industrial Family Economy

The hidden products of the house

But wait! There’s more. Because the modern house is still the site of production. But you might not think of what it produces as “products” since they are not counted as production, precisely because they are produced inside the house, and not traded for cash. (If you want to know more about why its not counted, and just how that non-counting distorts our economic thinking, read Marilyn Waring.)

Here the three big ones, what I call the three “R”s:

  • The house is the where the most important form of social production takes place: the Reproduction of the human race
  • It’s also where we build our most important human Relationships: partner, children, family, friends
  • And its where the workers, worn out from toiling in the streets and the factories, Restores their energies: the original meaning of the word Recreation, which comes from re-creation, a profound process very different from the current day connotation of “just foolin’ around.”

If you think about the standard rooms in a Western house, each of these rooms is involved in one or more of the above forms of production: Bedroom, Kitchen, Lounge Room, Dining Room…

And over at homeliberation.com, I’ll seen be writing more on this topic of the home, and how to manage and design it so it helps to produce these intangible essentials.

The house in the slums

People in urban slums, usually, are situated somewhere between the pre-industrial and the industrial worlds. They may work in factories, in the industrial world. But they are often recent migrants from a pre-industrial countryside, and do not yet have the skills, education or bargaining power to live in an industrial house.

For this reasons, most slum houses are also the sites of trade production. This set of photographs shows a range of typical household industries from slums around the world:

  • Necklaces, Mumbai 2
  • Tofu, Jakarta 3
  • Carpentry, Jakarta 4
  • Garments, Dhaka 5
  • Kitchen supplying street food, Jakarta 6
  • Incense sticks, Bangalore 7
  • Bicycle repair, somewhere in Africa 8
  • Glass bracelets, Firozabad 9
  • Household microgarden, Caracas 10

What these photos show us is that in addition to my three “Rs, an important product of the slum house is what what’s called in the development game Livelihoods.

Yet another product, hinted at but not made explicit by the $300 House diagram’s depiction of a mosquito net and a water filter is Health. [Paul Farmer and UN Habitat have something to say about this.]

Implicit too, in the fact that the house is in involved in the Reproduction of the human race, is that the house is engaged in producing education. Part of this is school education via homework, a fact which Solar Sister has made a central to its arguments for solar lighting to combat “energy poverty.” But education goes beyond that, because underlying school education is the broader process of socialisation, which happens in the home. And there are studies that show too that the quality home environment—such as the presence or absence of books—has a larger impact on school performance than does the quality of the school itself.

So let’s sum up what the slum house produces:

  • Relationships
  • Re-creation [hyphenated, to recollect its importance in restoring your energies for the next day]
  • Reproduction [of the human race]
  • Livelihoods
  • Health
  • Education

Design of the slum house

Let me define now what I think this teaches us about the nature of the slum house:

A slum house is a factory which produces some of the most important products in human society: relationships, human energy, children, livelihoods, health and education. Many of these are intangibles.

The people who live in the house are both producers and consumers of these products. The processes they use are complex, heavily interlinked, and constantly changing. The physical house is the infrastructure to support these processes. If you don’t understand the processes, you don’t understand the house.

You can help these workers to improve their factory. But it’s not by designing it by afar. It’s not by designing it for them. In fact, it’s not by designing at all.

I want to compare this definition with what is implied in the diagram that constitutes the logo, and inception diagram, for the $300 house, which I critiqued last post.

First, this is a drawing of an object. It’s not a drawing of a process. It’s certainly not a drawing of an extremely complex, heavily interlinked, and always changing process.

Second, this object is a box filled with appliances.

If I said that a factory was a big shed filled with machine tools, I would be stating a fact. However, that fact would be missing the whole point. This is not how a factory manager sees a factory. It’s not how the workers understand the factory. And designing a factory around this image would be unlikely to succeed.

And if I told you that I was going to now host an international competition “to design a factory for manufacturers of complex intangibles”, without understanding those intangibles, how they are produced, how production changes over time, the workers, the management, or the consumers… How likely would this be to succeed?

But this is what comes from thinking of a house as a box full of appliances.

This depiction is not accidental. It’s merely an expression of how many designers, and many people, understand the house. That understanding is radically incomplete. If you’ve been in the development trade for 30+ years, you will know that many smart people have tried to “design a house for the poor.” That even now, there are many programs out there to produce house designs for poor people. And all of them have led nowhere.

This approach is not new. It treads down old paths.

An alternative

So what’s the alternative? This post is long enough. I’ll continue on another day.

In the meantime: what do you think the alternative is to understanding the house as product?


  1. Shared on docstoc.com by yxm80800
  2. Source: Daylife
  3. Source: Jakarta Hidden Tour
  4. Source: Jakarta Hidden Tour
  5. Source: Mega Cities
  6. Reuters
  7. Source: Think Outside The Watermelon
  8. Source: Blue 2
  9. Source: Alex Masi
  10. FAO

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