It all started with a blog post over at Harvard Business Review by Vijay Govindrajan of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and marketing consultant Christian Sarkar on the the idea of designing a “$300-House-for-the-Poor”: a mass-produced, standardized and disaster-resistant structure conceived as a for-profit model that would make the poor owners of their homes, rather than recipients of charity.

As we see ever increasingly in this age of global activism, the initiative struck a chord with the design community at large, and next thing a $300 House Open Design Challenge was up and running and a $25,000 prize up for grabs. As word flew fast across the web, the contest picked up speed, garnering 300 submissions from around the world and enabling the participation of esteemed jury members like Yves Behar and Umair Haque. The challenge chose its winners and now plans to create the first prototypes for a pilot project in the field, specifically for India, Haiti and Indonesia.

Iniatives like these are always positive in the sense that they demonstrate a willingness to put innovation at the service of the greater good. But we must always be careful to not get so caught up in our good intentions that we lose sight of the very complex issues that these challenges face and forget to approach them in a critically constructive manner. Though the $300 House idea may well deserve the praise it has won from the likes of The Economist and Fast Company, it is also important to take a close look at its critics. The debate that these triggered offers valuable insight for designers, architects, and the general public in understanding the very real and often overlooked implications of designing for the poor:

Victo Ngai © The New York Times

  • Hands Off Our Houses – In this NY Times Op-Ed by the co-founders of the Institute of Urbanology, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava argue that “the $300 house responds to our misconceptions more than to real needs,” citing that it would be better suited as a short-term shelter rather than a permanent home.
  • The $300 House: A Hands-On Approach to a Wicked Problem – A rebuttal to the NY Times Op-Ed piece by the $300 House creators, defending the for-profit model as both a business and social solution and affirming the inclusion of the poor community in the design process.
  • The $300 House: A real solution or a utopic exercise – A great review that analyzes the previous articles and emphasizes the idea’s failure to address the preservation of community and pre-existing commercial and living patterns. They give a great example of a failed case study and offer a array of links to related articles.
  • $300 Slum House? Worthy but Worthless – From the UC Berkely Blog, Jason Corburn, associate professor of city and regional planning criticizes the one-size-fits-all notion and its failure “to grapple with the complex relationships in informal settlements between housing, land rights, economic opportunities, gender rights, health and safety”.
  • $300 House Might be a Disaster Solution, not a Social Solution – This article also cites previous articles, points out the failure of previous slum removal efforts in Delhi, and draws a parallel to post-Katrina New Orleans.
  • This thread on the $300 House Googlegroups forum not only demonstrates an effort on the part of both the initiative and the audience to engage in a discussion about the viability of the $300 House, but also delivers detailed insight into very specific yet crucial details that we often take for granted. As commentor Hugo de Toronja points out, “It’s surprisingly easy for altruistic projects such as yours to have lethal unintended consequences for the world’s most vulnerable populations,” giving examples that address critical technical and cultural nuances.

We hope this brief rundown serves as a useful overview of a (hopefully) ongoing debate on what is just one of a myriad of humanitarian initiatives taking root in the design world today. In an unjust and complex world where philanthropy is the new business model, we need critical debate to keep our good intentions in check, lest they betray us, or worse, those whom our intention it was to help in the first place.


  • Thanks for the roundup. You left out our series of blog posts in HBR which discuss the various challenges:

    – The Financial Challenge by David A. Smith
    – The Design Challenge by Bill Gross
    – The Energy Challenge by Bob Freling
    – The Co-Creation Challenge by Gaurav Bhalla
    – The Marketing Challenge by Seth Godin
    – The Performance Challenge by Doug Smith
    – The Corporate Challenge by Stephanie Burns
    – The Sustainability Challenge by David Sands
    – The Urban Challenge by Sunil Suri

    Visit for details >>

  • old hungry n cold says:

    give em a laptop bill gates. while your own people still sit and watch with their anger, cold and hunger…

  • Billie says:

    Praise for prof govindrajan but Criticism for Christian Sarkar
    HBR series of challenges only reinforce the myths recommended by Sarkar who puts onus on the shoulders of Designers via the competition throwing them the ‘wicked problem’ to change the world. Sarkar remains poorly prepared to understand the poor – or the market at the bottom of the pyramid.

    Harvard business review and 300 house – under catchy headings- mostly jargon.
    —————–why not to waste your time – here is summary—————-

    The $300 house: the sustainability challenge february 2, 2011 by david sands =
    “ all about bamboo” – (have bamboo – be sustainable)

    The $300 house: the design challenge – oct 25, 2010 by bill gross =
    “my company, idealab, has been working on this very problem with worldhaus, a $2,500 eco-friendly kit home for the aspiring middle class” (got the challange?)

    The $300 house: the co-creation challenge: nov 11, 2010 by gaurav bhalla=
    “.. Look to the design of the chulha (hindi for cooking stove) …”
    (clean cooking stoves remains remote, go figure if it creates co house)

    The $300 house: the urban challenge feb 24, 2011 by sunil suri =
    “the value of the annuity derived from the “margin” produced from consumption of utilities (produced on-site and off-grid using all green, carbon-neutral systems) and the daily needs for goods and services is so powerful that, properly modulated, it can be used as a subsidy to deliver very-low cost or “free” homes”

    The $300 house: the financial challenge oct 1, 2010 by david a. Smith=
    “cost repayable over 4 years with monthly payments of 35% of household average income &38212; then we have a killer-app …mees a concept detailed in our us-uk study (256 pages; free on request)”

    The $300 house: the energy challenge nov 8, 2010 by bob freling =
    “first- use the latest led solar technologies” “second- use of solar micro-grids”
    “the solar integrated development maturity model is realized when we’re also able to provide exactly what govindarajan and sarkar are proposing”

    This goes on – you got the gist right?

    Emerging as an expert christian sarkar shall reign the housing sector like ‘florence nightingale amongst the wounded’ Its a harsh criticism, yet his attitude is not befitting Govindrajan’s foresight and as NY Times Op Ed suggested – could harm the poor. Its time Christian Sarkar take the critic in stride, be inclusive (critical comments are curtailed on 300 House Blog and Google Group. Christian should stop referring to luminaries listed on the HBR Blog who generously lent their brand equity. The experts should revisit their write ups – a six month reality check.

    ‘Salaam Bombay’

  • Billie says:

    Thanks for compiling the Praise and Criticism on the same page.
    Govindrajan has challenged himself as well as the world to look in housing for the poorest. It all started with HBR Blog posting and went viral. Good that ‘International Cooperation’ Blog has started to follow the frenzy to bring out the best of it.

    Sarkar as moderator of the 300 House blog and Google Group forum prominently features Praise and systematically declines to publish Criticism. ‘Civil or Evil’ blocking free speech has been detrimental to democracy and in turn humanity.

    Distinguished experts listed on the Blog (making it highly credible to the responsive readers) for this reason remain there without any more responses or comments.

    Rejecting readers responses that are against the feel good posting and debatable presumptions as the $ 300 House discussion now hinged on architectural design -as if that was the root of the ‘wicked problem’

    Now preparing to build these prototypes by potentially attracting Millions of dollars of Corporate Social Responsibility and sponsorships that otherwise also seldom percolate to the poor – steering the discussion one sided, unbalanced, not open diminishes the possibility that the next steps – jet-set workshops in lime-lit slums- spending of all the philanthropic/corporate dollars – be open and transparent ????
    Don’t expect it on 300House.Com It categorically excludes such ‘uncivil’ opinions.

  • The person here is venting because I refused to publish their derogatory messages on the $300 House forum. Sorry, man, you are too full of hate, as I told you in my private message back to you. If you have specific things you want to say – why something may or may not work, go ahead. If you have a better idea, please present it. But simply bashing stuff because you have an ax to grind is bad form.

    Finally, we are not raising funds – either for VG or myself, period. Instead we are asking – challenging – businesses, NGOs, and governments to get together and innovate.

    You don’t even have the guts to sign your real name on any of your comments or even give me your phone number, so we can talk. Once again, I don’t think your spiteful comments were constructive, and you know it.

    That is all.

  • Billie says:

    Christian Sarkar draws attention to the ‘challenges’ posted on Harvard Business Review. With due respect, without hate or prejudice, taking his suggestion- we took the time to review the HBR Challenges he suggested were left out.

    Any diligent reader would confirm- these challenges/posting are ‘evolving’ Should they be taken as underlying principles for House Design? No way.

    We do not want to talk/write to Christian Sarkar. Time and again its proved pointless. We appreciate this space provided for dialogue otherwise Sarkar censors criticism on the blogs he owns.

    We don’t know him and we still wish him well. Call us evil, hateful, spiteful etc but we would like Christian Sarkar to do his homework on housing. Period.

    Finally as Sarkar writes- ” We (He and VG?) are asking -challenging – Businesses, NGOs, and governments to get together and innovate”

    That sounds wonderful. We have no better or specific ideas to achieve that. Given an open forum we could at the least point out what does not work- and as elaborated in previous posting – the HBR challenges seem lame.

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