Advances In Construction Technology Could Mean The End Of Inner City Blight

Slum Village, no more. Shanty towns could be a thing of the past as governments embrace strong but cheaply made affordable housing for the masses.

By Jeff Vasishta March 21, 2017
Credit: Marcio Ramalho

When John Lennon wrote, “No need for greed or hunger” as part of the lyrics to “Imagine” he probably had in mind the masses of torrid slums he’s seen in India or the blighted poverty stricken streets of his native post World War II Liverpool. Even he may not have imagined that the living conditions of both places could be dramatically improved, not just by altruistic governments with an eye on the poor but with scientists in labs inventing ways to make the technology used in the construction industry more efficient, bringing down the costs of making buildings down by 20 to 30 percent.

Here are three ways improvements in technology are helping to make city slums and blighted housing a thing of the past.

Modular Housing Made of Cheaper Materials

By pre-fabricating housing in a factory with machines away from the ravages of nature, not only can sections be made a lot more quickly, they can also be more energy efficient. Also materials can be used in innovative ways which would be harder to construct on site. In Finland an 8 storey, cross-laminated timber apartment building won the Finlandia Prize for Architecture. In countries such as Scandinavia and many developing countries where wood is plentiful, the elimination of concrete and heavy construction means buildings can be put up cheaply and quickly. In New York, Mayor de Blasio has laid out plans to build 160,000 of affordable housing for people making under $40,800/year. Sustainable technology and passive buildings are top of the administration’s agenda.

In Pune, India which has seven times the density of people than Manhattan, affordable housing is a necessity recognized by the Indian government. According to CNBC India has a shortage of 18 million urban housing units, cheaper construction is key in helping solve the problem and eliminating slums.

“Technology is a game changer for this,” said Jonathan Woetzel, senior partner at McKinsey Global Institute. “Technology creates a set of solutions that we didn’t have before. It will make housing cheaper and land use better.”

Drone Power

Drones have many uses, one being the accurate mapping of land. In cities throughout the world, there are parcels of land that somehow fell through the cracks and no one, either the public or government agencies are sure who owns it. Clearly sending out a cartographer to map ever spare half acre is immeasurably costly. A drone, however, after the initial purchase price and training just costs the replacement of the batteries and you’re good to go. Accurate mapping will free up more sought after land therefore allowing more space for affordable housing.

“Some really fantastic technologies are being used in mapping by organizations, like Slum Dwellers International,” said Julian Baskin, head of program at the Brussels-based Cities Alliance, a global partnership that includes the UN Habitat and World Bank, among others. “One of the first things they do is map settlements. By giving people an address, you give them a sense of identity within the city.”

Testing the durability of cheaper materials

Laminated timber and reinforced concrete sounds good in theory, until mother nature puts it to the test with people living inside structures made from it. No matter how cutting edge materials may be, of they may not durable they may not be much more used that a corrugated tin roof in a shanty town. However, there are several new products currently being tested which could have a dramatic impact on the construction industry. The Forest Products Laboratory branch of the US Forest Service has granted $1.7 million towards a pilot plant that will work on the production of cellulose nanocrystals – the recycled wood waste product, that has proven to be stronger than kevlar.

A newer light weight steel product has also proven stringer than traditional steel but cheaper too. It’s mass production is being championed by auto and airplane manufacturers and could be a also be a boon for the construction industry.

Solar power

Once it was meant to have changed the world but prohibitive costs and confusion about translating the shiny panels on roofs to real savings seemed to have given solar power a false start. However, more efficient, less costly photovoltaic cells are meant to drop costs by 25 percent by 2020, all of which means its potential could finally be achieved.

In India, the government announced late last year that it would spend $150 million on lighting in the slums in Kolkata. In Egypt, agriculture company Al Tayebat spent $1.1 million on a solar-powered village for its workers.

For the world’s impoverished, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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