Pondicherry, India

The context is disturbing. Across the road from the Sharanam site, several hundred acres of village land has been illegally appropriated and quarried. Into the ravaged landscape, municipal waste is dumped and burnt smothering adjacent villages with noxious fumes.

The villages are chronically impoverished. Poverty, violence and alcoholism are deeply entrenched.

Generational skills have been disregarded and lost. Secure jobs are scarce and employable skills near absent.

Meanwhile, the regional construction industry continues apace - frenzied and unchecked. Fertile farmlands are sold-off and filled, seemingly overnight, with substandard concrete framed buildings built by poorly paid migrant workers, including women and children, who are expected to live in squalor on the construction site. Corruption is rife and the exploitation of land, resources and workers for profit is rampant.

Faced with these alarming conditions, the construction of the Sharanam Centre for Rural Development was set up by the architect as a social development project in its own right to address the severe environmental degradation, poverty and skills shortage impacting local communities. The aim was to build a modern, cost-effective building using sustainable materials and techniques with local village workers in an ethical way.

Deliberately there was no contractor. Under Jateen Lad’s guidance the project directly employed and trained local workers on-the-job in a range of skills including blockmaking, rammed earth foundations,  innovative masonry, precasting, carpentry, metalwork, stonework and finishing techniques. Daily supervision, step-by-step instructions and the procurement of all materials by the architect’s team ensured quality, financial accountability and transparent payments to workers - many of whom learned to write their names for the first time. Throughout, the workers established their own wages, working hours and holidays.

New techniques were continuously developed in collaboration with more skilled workers further refining details. From the precise, high quality compressed earth blocks, masonry details and castings to the hundreds of interlocking granite slabs and teakwood sections, the project encouraged each worker to fulfill their potential. Workers photographing their daily accomplishments on mobile phones became a common sight conveying a confidence, pride and identity with the work.

Between 2007-2014 Sharanam employed over 300 workers enabling at least 50% of construction costs to be directly invested into the villages through wages. Furthermore, the increased skill levels helped improve livelihoods. Workers who possessed no skills are today employed as masons, metalworkers and painters. Those previously dismissed as illiterate can today read technical drawings. Masons habituated to infilling walls now understand the science of masonry and are empowered to establish themselves as independent contractors. Specialist tradesmen such as carpenters and stoneworkers are now undertaking lucrative, professional contracts.

This ethical and developmental approach to construction regularly attracted numerous visitors including the United Nations Environment Programme (who consider Sharanam to be one of the top five green buildings of India), the World Bank, government agencies, corporate houses undertaking CSR projects, local NGOs as well as international architects, engineers and student groups.

Project: Sharanam Centre for Rural Development
Pondicherry, India
Client: SARVAM, Sri Aurobindo Society
Funding Partner: Cadburys Schweppes Asia Pacific

Status: Completed
Size: 5 acres (20,200 sqm)

Architecture, Project Management & Construction Management: Jateen Lad
Project Assistants: Trupti Doshi, Chandranath Sinha
Head Masons: Bhaktawatchalam, Palani, Velmurugan


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