Khudi Bari

An interview with the architect Marina Tabassum

In Bangladesh, floods are becoming more frequent as a result of climate change, forcing countless numbers of people to look for a new home. Against this backdrop, Marina Tabassum and the team at her architecture company MTA developed the Khudi Bari – small house – concept. In this interview, Marina Tabassum sheds light on the architectural background as well as her commitment.

What was the inspiration behind the Khudi Bari project?

Inspiration for this mobile house is rooted in the vernacular-style of dwelling that can be found in Bangladesh. These structures are created in the manner of a flatpack system and are generally built along the majestic Padma, Jamuna and Meghna rivers. Fed by the glacial melt from the Himalayan mountains and seasonal monsoon rain, these mighty torrents often inflate and the banks are eroded by the strong current. The houses have a wooden frame structure and corrugated metal facades and roofs, which can be dismantled and relocated in the aftermath of riverbank erosion and reassembled by their owners once they have found a new place to build their homes. The structural idea is taken from the geodesic dome, but is more simple in execution. We were aiming at a rigid frame but with minimal structural members to keep it within a reasonable cost.

Can you explain how the pandemic lockdown influenced the design and development of Khudi Bari?

In 2019 the team at MTA conducted research on riverbank erosion near coastal areas of Bangladesh bordering the Bay of Bengal. This research focused on the impact of global warming, displaced populations and the rights of future generations. During the research we visited sandbars located in the middle of the rivers, where displaced communities live. Sandbars are not permanent land; they are sedimentations formed during periods of low current and change shape or wash away when the current rises. For landless ultra-low-income communities, these sandbars provide a refuge where they can build their lives. We wanted to develop an idea for a house that is transportable yet cheap. So, in 2020 when the world was grappling with the Covid pandemic and our commissioned works came to a halt, we worked on the idea of a mobile modular house and named it Khudi Bari, or small house.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in designing Khudi Bari?

The design part was not difficult. After making a few iterations, we settled on one idea and proceeded to build it. The first house was erected in Dhaka. Then we turned our attention to Char Hijla, where we had done our earlier research on riverbank erosion. From the very beginning our intention was to share the technique used to build the Khudi Bari and make it widely available so that it can be integrated in the vernacular building culture. This aspect of working directly with the displaced communities is our key focus but also the greatest challenge. I would not call it an obstacle, but it required some learning and unlearning on our part as architects. Our work involves the methodology of social anthropologists. The sites are difficult to reach as they are situated in the middle of enormous rivers. There is no infrastructure such as road networks or electricity; at times not even a tree for shade. These conditions can be strenuous for the team. But all our difficulties are forgotten on the day we give out certificates to the homeowners. That is always a day of celebration.

Why did you choose to use bamboo and steel for structural joints?

We chose bamboo because it grows everywhere in Bangladesh and is sold in local markets. It’s not expensive and can be easily replaced if necessary. The steel joints holding the structure take the form of a simple spacer frame. It allows the flexibility to dismantle and move the structures. The homeowners are landless, which means they have no rights to the land where they build their houses. As such, mobility is a defining part of their life.

How did the use of local building materials affect the cost and carbon footprint of the project?

We have not done any calculation of the carbon footprint. The only things our team carry with them are the steel joints, because they are still not produced locally. Everything else is available on the nearest mainland including bamboo, metal roofing, wooden planks. Sourcing components locally drastically reduces the transport costs and also supports the local economy. A single Khudi Bari currently costs $500 including labour and transport. However, this does not incorporate our team’s expenses. Ideally, we want to achieve a self-sustaining system, in which the homeowner, local builder and suppliers will work together to build Khudi Bari without the presence of our team.

What are the main features of the modular design that make Khudi Bari suitable for the marginalised populations living in the sand beds of the Meghna River?

Khudi Bari does not require a heavy foundation. It can be moved easily by dismantling and reassembling. The house has two levels that help people to take shelter on the upper floor during periods of flooding. As a modular structural system, Khudi Bari can be scaled up by combining multiple modules. We have built community centres in the Rohingya refugee camps using the Khudi Bari structural system.

Can you share any feedback from the communities who have used Khudi Bari as a shelter?

The villagers especially appreciate the fact that the Khudi Bari is a two-storey house. They love the upper floor, which is used as a sleeping area. There are two openings on opposite sides to allow ventilation. They love sitting near the window as the breeze flows through. From the upper floor window, they can see far beyond the rivers – that is very new for most of the villagers. Many of the homeowners have made extensions to their houses, adding a room or a kitchen. It is really wonderful for us to see the changes and adaptation process.

How did you involve vulnerable communities in the construction process of Khudi Bari?

There is a long preparation process before the construction starts. As it is a new structural system and we want communities to learn the technics of assembly and disassembly, we conduct a series of workshops, meetings and community engagement activities that include mapping the village, model-making workshops with the Khudi Bari structure, wealth ranking based on daily income and livelihood workshops. The community is involved in the decision-making process including selecting the ten families who will be the first Khudi Bari owners. The community participates in the construction process with our team.

How can Khudi Bari influence indigenous construction practices in Bangladesh?

Our goal is to provide the groundwork, which involves the participation of local governments, suppliers, builders, carpenters and the community, to create a self-sustaining ‘ecosystem’ that also generates income for women and guarantees their livelihood. At the moment, we are focusing on developing this ecosystem. In due time, we hope that people will find creative and innovative ways of appropriating the idea of Khudi Bari.

What kind of dialogues and engagement do you consider crucial to the success of projects like Khudi Bari?

Any intervention in the vernacular landscape cannot be done without spontaneous acceptance of the idea by the user. Khudi Bari is a new system, but once complete with façades, it looks like a regular house in a Bengali landscape. It was a priority for us to make a form that people can relate to. It’s important to engage in direct dialogue with the communities to understand their needs and aspirations. In order to do that, it’s essential to listen and not impose – to build up a relationship with the community based on trust and mutual respect.

Publication date: 26.06.2024, first published in ‘La Repubblica’
Author: Caterina Annie Canova
Images: 1., 2., 3., 4. © Vitra, photo: Julien Lanoo; 5. © Marina Tabassum Architects; 6. NASA; 7., 8. © Marina Tabassum Architects, photo: City Syntax; 9., 11. © Marina Tabassum Architects, photo: Asif Salman; 10. © Marina Tabassum Architects, illustration: Kazi Akif Akash; 12. © Vitra, photo: Dejan Jovanovic