Hunnarshala, founded in the wake of the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India, facilitates community-driven, artisan-led reconstruction in post-disaster areas, as well as long-term redevelopment of cities and informal settlements. Hunnarshala takes the long view on rehabilitation by training artisans and helping them start businesses, and by facilitating social housing, sustainable tourism, and wastewater treatment schemes in places that are past the point of crisis.
The devastating 2001 earthquake brought together a group of professionals—architects, engineers, and environmental advocates—who had been working in the region for years on the ideal that people can be empowered by shaping their own habitats. The earthquake presented an opportunity for the cofounders, who include Neelkanth Chayya, Tushar Dayal, Sandeep Virmani and Kiran Vaghela, among others, to test this belief. In Kutch, Hunnarshala met with citizens, local builders, and artisans to devise reconstruction strategies that expanded upon local knowledge and the principle that homeowners were capable of replicating and then updating good structures for greater resilience. One such conversation led to the revival of the bhunga, a traditional dwelling with a rounded shape that makes it naturally more quake-resistant than a boxy concrete building. Hunnarshala worked with artisans to further reinforce the bhunga’s rammed-earth construction by adding steel rings at various levels.
This community-driven process has become the cornerstone of Hunnarshala’s approach. Hunnarshala constantly finds new hybrid solutions that elevate vernacular architecture to innovation. Their experiments have led to the reuse of formerly unusable industrial waste, such as adding levigated clay (waste from porcelain factories clogging river systems) in rammed-earth construction and joining thin strips of waste wood from shipwrecks to make structural flooring, doors, and window frames. All new materials and techniques are extensively tested in Hunnarshala’s lab in Bhuj, and the organization works with local governments to develop technical guidelines, which are then added to regional manuals for new construction.
Hunnarshala has worked on disaster rehabilitation in India (Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, and Bihar), Iran, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. It has helped build more than 30,000 interim shelters and about 12,000 permanent reconstructions. The organization consulted on a program to design bamboo homes in the state of Bihar, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where 20,000 homes have been constructed using a traditional system that lashes bamboo poles together without hardware. Hunnarshala is working with the Uttaranchal government to design a social housing program in response to the floods of 2013, this time looking at ways to use local stone.
An example of Hunnarshala’s holistic approach to redevelopment work can be found in its home city of Bhuj. After the 2001 earthquake, Hunnarshala collaborated with the city government on several relocation and social housing projects, including a master plan for the sustainable, culturally sensitive relocation of 500 displaced families. On the outskirts of Bhuj, about 300 homes have been built reusing industrial waste materials; the homes can be expanded by their owners, not a typical perk of post-disaster housing. The residents are being relocated from a dense urban core, so creating public spaces throughout the town is a focus. To address water-shortage issues, partner organizations are creating an urban watershed with a decentralized wastewater treatment system. Helophyte plants filter water for use in irrigation, which stimulates agrarian activities as well as greater community self-sufficiency. The maintenance of these new elements has created jobs: Hunnarshala has trained residents to maintain the solar panels that power the water pumps in the biofilter plant.
The network of artisans Hunnarshala has built during its many reconstruction projects has been an ongoing source of expertise as the organization has continued work in Kutch and other disaster regions. Hunnarshala also has kept some of its artisans engaged by contracting them to work on international historical restoration projects. And Hunnarshala runs a training program to help rural artisans understand urban business practices, and how they can apply their skills in an urban context. Participants get a two-year education in entrepreneurship during which Hunnarshala diverts business to them as they learn how to manage their own enterprises. Today, two hundred Hunnarshala-trained artisans are using their own knowledge systems to help build cities.
Hunnarshala demonstrates that communities given the power to make their own decisions create the best solutions. Hunnarshala understands how to revive local artisanal knowledge and skills to deliver high-quality housing that is sustainable and disaster-safe. Hunnarshala has started an ongoing conversation with artisans that continues to generate new knowledge.
Our work is based on legitimizing the artisan community that is the repository of so much knowledge. When we work with artisans, we take tradition forward.
— Sandeep Virmani