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Inspiration Archives

Designers and architects reflect on why they got into design and architecture, and how they stay inspired.

prasoon image

Prasoon Kumar

Prasoon Kumar, Founder and CEO of non-profit BillionBRICKS, discusses how he is working to house the homeless in India and develop innovative housing solutions.

PRASOON'S INSPIRATIONS

How old were you when you first thought about a career in design or architecture?

"I was thirteen or fourteen."

What person most inspires you?

"Mahatma Ghandi’s autobiography had a very strong influence on me. Just the fact of the power of an individual to bring that change. And I think that is something that I keep very close to my heart as I continue to build the organization and do the work of BillionBRICKs."

When I’m not designing buildings, you can find me ____.

"I spend a lot of time with my kids, who are four-and-a-half and one-and-a-half years old."

prasoon story

Prasoon’s story

BillionBRICKS was founded two years ago with the vision to address homelessness issues in the world. The reason for founding BillionBRICKS was the fact that we see a lot of shelters for the poor were being built very poorly. I thought, “how can we provide something dignified and decent and good quality, and not the cheapest and low-quality?” We can show that what we provide is reasonable and it’s aspirational. We use our ability as designers to create something far better than what they’ve seen.

My role at the company is that I’m the founder and CEO. My background is in architecture and urban planning, so we incorporate both into the designs. We have a 360-degree methodology for looking not only at building design, but lots of planning issues at the entire city level as well.

The idea for BillionBRICKS had been floating for almost 4 years in my mind. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would start or what I would do in terms of the entire business. One day, I was working on a project in Mumbai, redeveloping slums into housing. Along with commercial development, we were working on affordable housing to be built as part of the project.

I was very critical of some of the regulations that applied to our designs for the affordable housing fee, and I expressed that a couple of times to the client. I told them they could do something that was far better without compromising on cost or any other factors on the project. I saw that there was a lot of unwillingness to try to do something new and innovative.

And that was the moment that I felt as a designer that if I was to spend my time and energy on similar projects I can make them far better, rather than try to convince clients who have an overriding commercial interest on a particular project. That was the day that I put in my resignation to my boss.



The “winter hyde”, created by BillionBRICKS, is an emergency shelter specifically designed to house the homeless in cold climate regions.

How did you decide to get into design/architecture, and what do you like best about it?

I’m quite old to remember how I got into it! I think I always had fascination for city planning and even as a child I was always very observant of the physical environment around me all the time. I had a lot of interest in urban planning and cities, and was interested in how they functioned how they performed, and in the function of buildings and how they performed together from a very young age. I wanted to be an urban planner.

The education in urban planning in India was very nascent at the time but architecture education was far more mature. That was how I shifted my attention to architecture and getting into an architecture school. The moment I had an opportunity to go into graduate study, I got my masters in urban planning.

How does your background in architecture and design help your NGO?

I grew up in a very old part of New Dehli. It was a historic city and we were living in that environment. The way the whole city was designed, there was a lot of distraction with mixed use activities, which the United States tried to recreate a lot of times. But it was very natural in old parts of town. The vibrancy and the whole interaction of historic buildings and how people live their lives had a very profound influence on how I grew up and how I do work at BillionBRICKS.

Our organization focuses entirely on architecture and design. We want to make sure that design and architecture are the primary tools with which we influence the lives of the poorest of the poor. In every aspect in the design process in terms of how we attract people, community involvement, the design process and the execution.

The only difference with the commercial side of that is that the interaction is much stronger with the user. Our presence on the ground and in communities is very strong as well. One of the key aspects for us is we work closely in transferring the knowledge that we gain from the design perspective or from a construction perspective - we try and ensure we get hands-on experience in future projects. Unlike in a commercial project, we are not proprietary with what we learn.

What limitations or challenges do you face?

As an architect, I tend to be very emotional towards design, towards the impact we want to make in the community in which we’re working. A lot of times, that comes to play in having equally strong abilities to grow the business and be strategic in how we can have longer term influence on society or in carrying forward the mission.

On the ground, the challenge comes in the form of being able to convince people of the value of the design and architecture and how it influences people both in short and long term. We get asked why we put so much focus on design, why don’t we do very basic stuff that's better than if people are living not he streets anyway?

Our response to them, first, is always that we can move into something better than on the streets, our aspirations tend to grow just as folks like you and I move into larger houses, we want a better house in five year’s time. How can we ensure that what we provide can grow with the people as they're economically predisposed, because that’s what we really want to influence.

The second point people make is that the time and money spent on design might not be worth it in the end. Even though we can see through our work that it brings a lot of cost and time savings during the construction as well. But just having a more professional body involved doing in the work we do is typically not very appreciated. The addition of professionals in the communities where we work are not very specialized in design and may not be of very high quality.

Lastly, there’s the challenge of being a nonprofit organization. The model for how we work - with very poor communities and working with small organizations and being financially viable and sustainable - has proven to be a challenge. It’s important for us that we hire talent that share our values and principals, and to sustain that we need resources and are in a competitive market for talent becomes harder as we get into bigger projects.

How does design factor into solving the problems your organization was founded to solve?

One of the key drivers for us is that what we do in terms of design should be scalable beyond us. That model has shown some success for us the last 2 years. The first project we worked on was a shelter in Mumbai for homeless children. As part of that shelter we upgraded it to a very high level that people had not seen in the city of Mumbai being done for these children. What prompted this was that the local partners we were working with would come and give us more shelters to upgrade.

The influence of one project we did was multiplied many times. We were then asked by some of the users of shelters and other shelters to upgrade those as well. We scaled and improved the quality of shelters throughout the city.

In regards to innovating some new products, we have a new product we’ve designed using BIM that we’re bringing to market, called “winter hyde.” This is an emergency shelter specifically meant to prevent death amongst homeless people who live on the streets in cold climate regions. For example, a lot of refugees are coming out of Syria and moving to Lebanon or Georgia, and have no place to live in winter. These are very lightweight shelters that can provide a protective envelope in a very cold environment.

The key aspect of the innovation is they can be built locally as well, by training the homeless and refugee communities. So again the idea being that the scaling of the product is not depended on us, but on the community which not only gets empowered but gives a new skill and way for us and them to develop a new product. We used BIM to help with this effort. We also documented and published a book that we gave to local authorities to influence leaders how they run the shelters, and included our 3D models in that.

What project are you most proud of?

I think it’s the first project we did, which was the homeless shelter in Mumbai. The primary reason being that not only the emotional connection with it the first project, but the fact that we could prove our model, that it works and we could pull it off as well. For me, as an architect, typically you would have large teams working on a project, you’d have a separate agency executing the project here working every day. It was a very incredible learning experience and also very challenging whether I could do it or not. It was very gratifying as well being able to deliver what I think about a lot of the time, but have never actually done in the field. We did everything ourselves. It proved to me that we can do what we promised. It was a great confidence builder for me as well.

How do you define success?

If we are able to see a positive influence from our work in the community and if see that our work is getting scaled beyond our presence. If people are taking our work and making it their own, that would be a measure of success for us.

How do you stay inspired to be creative?

I generally hang around a lot of creative people and get inspired by people. I was at AU [Autodesk University] a few weeks ago and I met so many people that the Autodesk Foundation partners had invited. I was amazed at the ideas that they were pursuing and just the creativity in understanding problems and then solving them. It was very inspiring.

What is your dream project?

One of the big projects we’re pursing right now, is with the government of India. They’ve come up with a vision that they want to make the entire country free of slums and homelessness in the next 7 years. The mission is called “Housing for All.” They’re building about 20 million homes in about seven years. It’s very much aligned with our vision as well that there should be no one who is homeless anywhere in the world.

We see a huge synergy in what the government in India is trying to do. And we are trying to work with the government of India and trying to see how we can influence the design of 20 million units and also ensure that it actually achieves the vision it has set.

So, if India wants to build 20 million units in seven years, that’s almost like doing 3 million housing units in a year. There is no precedence for this in the world, of building affordable housing at that pace, ever. So it requires a very high level of constructive innovation, change, capacity building, capital infusion, and just motivation.

The entire country would need to come together to be able to deliver something like that. So we are trying to work with the government and say, how can you follow through on this grand vision and ensure that it gets built? In this very high-paced environment, is it not compromised from an environment or sustainability standpoint? How can you still ensure that they are well-designed buildings that don’t end up being particle slums, and their environmental footprint, and that they are designed for the future.

For more on Prasoon’s and BillionBRICKS projects, please visit: BillionBRICKS.org

Interested in sharing your story? Email BIMarchitecture@autodesk.com

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