Pakistani innovators design cheap and climate-friendly flat-pack homes for refugees
Three years ago, Mohammed Saquib and his fellow students Yaseen Khalid and Nabeel Siddiqui were seeking inspiration for their final year university project. The Syrian crisis was at its peak and with the plight of refugees filling news bulletins, they decided to try to address the desperate need of some of the world’s most vulnerable people for shelter.
As they began their research, they discovered that Pakistan itself was facing a shortage of 10 million houses, with many people living in overcrowded, unsanitary informal settlements.
“There was no innovation in the construction industry in Pakistan and so we realized we needed to make a prototype, a house that could be assembled by anyone in minimal time and should be affordable as well,” said Saquib, who studied civil engineering at NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi.
Post-graduation, the trio founded ModulusTech, a startup that produces low-cost, energy efficient, flat-pack modular homes that can be used to house refugees but could also serve non-governmental organizations or government agencies seeking to build classrooms or health clinics in rural areas. The houses can also be used in the construction and tourism sectors.
“Each house is 16x16 square feet, with electricity and plumbing and everything pre-integrated in the panel walls. Each house costs around US$3,000 and the lifespan is about 30 years. The houses can be assembled in just three hours, using three people,” said Saquib.
“Primarily, we were targeting refugees and internally displaced people and we wanted them to be able to assemble these houses and get a feeling of ownership … According to a United Nations report, a refugee stays on average 17 years in temporary shelter so we designed (the house) according to this,” the 26-year-old added.
The houses are built around a steel frame with walls made of recyclable materials such as fibre cement composites and wood plastic composites. Glass wool insulation ensures the houses are energy-efficient and cost-effective. It is estimated that a ModulusTech house has a carbon footprint that is up to 52 times lower than traditional concrete homes.
When the team tested the homes in the Thar desert, where the outside temperature was around 50 degrees Celsius, the temperature inside was around 35 degrees, Saquib says.
In 2017, ModulusTech was accepted into The Nest I/O, a Pakistani startup incubator. Since then, the team has won a slew of awards and was selected by the Pakistani office of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to represent the country at the world’s first Global Manufacturing Industrial Summit in Germany last year.
ModulusTech hopes that government departments or relief agencies will buy its houses to set up in refugee camps or other settlements where displaced people are gathered. Pakistan is home to around 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, and around 400,000 people have been displaced internally by conflicts, violence or extreme weather events like floods.
ModulusTech won a grant from UN Environment as part of the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, which supports young people with cutting-edge ideas to foster energy-efficient, low-waste and low-carbon lifestyles.
“With this money, we have set up our own factory and we have labour and a proper manufacturing facility,” Saquib said, adding that the business training offered as part of the award was also very useful.
Dechen Tsering, UN Environment’s director for the Asia-Pacific region, said ModulusTech’s innovation was an example of the ingenuity needed to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems, with this project particularly geared toward helping some of the most vulnerable people.
Around one billion people live in informal settlements around the world, with millions more living in buildings that are not environmentally friendly. Rapid urbanization and economic growth challenge communities to sustainably expand capacity, heightening the need for innovation in building systems and infrastructure.
“Improving lifestyles across Asia and the Pacific must be an inclusive endeavour, and Mohammed … (is) demonstrating how we can get it done,” Tsering said.
Global ingenuity and innovation across all sectors will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March. The motto for that meeting is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
So far ModulusTech has sold around 30 units, mostly to businesses in the construction industry who sought structures for washrooms and site offices. They are also in talks with United Nations agencies about possible uses for their product.
As they seek to build their market, the team are already working to upgrade their basic model by installing a solar-powered water purification system. They are also incorporating a second storey into their designs.
For Saquib, architects, designers and engineers have a critical role in fighting for a better environment, but education is also key.
“As a nation, we really don’t care about climate change now. Signing a Paris (climate change) agreement or creating a Pakistan vision for 2025 will not solve this issue. You have to go to ground level,” he said. “Global warming and our response in Pakistan should be part of the schools’ curriculum … It is the government’s duty to raise awareness of this issue.”
He admits it is frustrating that the environmental benefits of ModulusTech’s flat-pack housing is not recognized locally.
“We have built this house and nobody is looking at how sustainable it is, for example that the lifespan is 30 years. No one cares about that,” he said, adding that this lack of knowledge means designers must also take on the mantle of educators.
“We must educate but we have to take baby steps. People just care about the cost. They don’t care about the energy analysis,” he said. “But we are trying our best to educate them, and we really highlight our achievements, like the fact that the houses save 45 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per house. That’s a huge thing right now.”
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.