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Understanding the nature of a low-cost architectural practice through the buildings of Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker (1917–2007) was an English

architect who settled in India in 1945. He mar-
ried an Indian doctor, Elisabeth Chandy, and
started assisting her with leprosy patients in
the remote district of Pithoragarh, in the Hi-
malayas. The buildings in which the patients
were being treated were becoming increas-
ingly inadequate for new developments in their
treatments. Baker’s task often involved
renovating old buildings and transforming old
asylums into modern hospitals with miniscule
budgets. He worked with the local populace,
observing them and gaining valuable knowl-
edge of a variety of building techniques and
materials. Becoming increasingly fascinated by
the age-old vernacular architecture and tra-
ditional settlements of the Himalayan region,
he started to question the text-book education
that had been imparted to him at the Architec-
ture School in Birmingham. Observing the pov-
erty around him, he became engaged with the
issue of shelter and of finding the least costly
solutions to housing the millions of Indians liv-
ing under the poverty-line.
Laurie Baker, an architect for the Indian poor
In the Himalayas, Baker saw how the honest
use of local materials and age-old building
techniques and typology of spaces that had
evolved over several hundred years. He devel-
oped a healthy respect for optimum and cau-
tious use of scarce materials; for the timeless
skills of local masons and craftsmen and for
an architecture that was responsive in its style
and identity to the local region and climate.
He became anxious with the dogma of mod-
ern architecture, with its quest for a universal
technology, that was decimating ancient ideas
of place-making and regional identity.

The treatment ‘throne’ in the hospital (LB).

Pg 1
Memories of Mountain Living The House and Home

Words of Mahatma Gandhi were to influence Baker for the rest of his life:

“The ideal houses in the ideal village will be built from materials which are all found within a five-
mile radius of the house.”

Pg 2
Laurie Baker wrote:

“To me, this vernacular architecture was a perfect example of vernacular architecture. Simple, ef-
ficient, inexpensive....As usual this delightful, dignified housing demonstrated hundreds of years of
building research on how to cope with local materials, how to cope with local climate hazards, and
how to accommodate the local social pattern of living. It dealt with incidental difficult problems on
how to build on a steeply sloping site, or how to cope with earthquakes, and how to avoid landslid-
ing areas and paths. The few examples of attempts to modernise housing merely demonstrated,
only too clearly, our modern conceit and showed how very foolish we are when we attempt to
ignore or abandon these hundreds of years of ‘research’ in local building materials....”

“Our ‘backward’ ancestors had learned how to live with and cope with the problems of climate.
They had learned that a pitched or sloping roof lessened the effects of all these hazards. They
knew the movements of air currents and placed their wall openings almost at ground level. They
knew that hot air rises and allowed it to travel upwards from the low eaves to the openings at the
end of the high ridge. They understood and applied principles of insulation; their roofing materials
formed hollow cellular protective layers and their storage spaces provided insulation from the mid-
day sun. They had understood that all wall surfaces can absorb and retain just as much heat as a
roof surface, so they kept these walls as small in area as possible and never left them unprotected.
They knew that eye-strain from working out in the sun could be alleviated by rest in an area where
glare was eliminated and they used smooth, hard, light-coloured surfaces sparingly and left the
natural materials-wood, laterite, brick, stone-exposed. Their practical knowledge of the properties
of these differing building materials was amazing. They knew, for instance, how to design their
timber and wood work to avoid warping, twisting and cracking.”

“The necessity for speed was one of the big factors that contributes to that break with tradition. It
probably took a thousand years for us to find out by trial-and-error how to make a mud wall imper-
vious to rain and wind, another thousand years to learn how to keep termites out of it, and another
two or three thousand years to learn how to build multi-storeyed mud buildings.”I

The Rs.2,000 Demonstration House in Pattom, Baker uses an ornamental brick-jali for light
Trivandrum, 1970 and ventilation in the humid climate of

Pg 3
In 1969, Laurie Baker, wih his wife Elisabeth and the three children, he moved to Trivandrum (now
Thiruvanathapuram), where he started his own architectural practice (on a very modest basis)
from his home in Nilanchira. One of the first commissions he was offered was to reveal his lifelong
passion for designing and building homes for the urban poor. The Archbishop of Trivandrum asked
Baker to build simple, prototype houses for very poor families in the parish. With a paltry budget of
Rs 3,000, Baker took up the challenge of showing to government bodies such as the PWD that he
had the necessary skill and acumen to build with such little money. Baker had always been suspi-
cious of government-led housing schemes for the EWS (economically weaker sections of society)
and had previously made detailed calculations on how much money was wasted in overheads and
government expenditure (such as salaries, travel etc) rather than on the actual house, ie, labour
and materials.

One such study, which he calls ‘The System of Establishment Charges in 1986’, reveals his
anxiety at wasted public funds when it came to housing poor families.

According to Baker, if Rs.8000 is spent on land and house for an Economically Weaker Section
(EWS) family: of this sum approximately, Rs.2500 should be spent on land, and Rs.5500 should
be spent on the house.

The Housing Board charges:

for its overheads, 12.5% = Rs.690
for electricity, water and sanitation 15%= Rs.725
for contractors profit 10% = Rs.550
for storage fees (cement and steel) etc, 8% = Rs.160

The total for these fees and charges etc. is Rs.2125 which leaves for materials and labour etc.
Rs.3375. So only 42% of the overall sum is used on actual building (out of Rs.8000).

Baker then extrapolated these figures to show how chronic, this wastage of money was when the
government was thinking of putting up a million homes all over the country. In the year 1986, for
example, a million houses would cost Rs.800 crores (at the Rs.8000 per house figure). Of this land
would cost-Rs.200 crores and buildings would cost Rs.600 crores.

The establishment charges for the average State Housing Boards would be 12.5% (the highest al-
lowed by the Act) , equivalent to Rs. 75 crores (12.5% of Rs.600 crores). This fee is for designing
one small house plan with, say, ten different variations to suit differing conditions throughout the

With contractors’ profit at 10%=Rs.60 crores and storage charges’ at Rs.16 crores, charges alone
would account for Rs.151 crores.

This led Baker to formulate a policy of decentralisation of skills and resources when it came to the
issue of designing and constructing sustainable communities for the poor and the lower-middle-
classes. His portfolio of clients was now full of NGOs, government officers on fixed government
salaries, state-run schools, and ecclesiastical bodies looking to build on very tight budgets.

Pg 4
With Baker they knew they had found a truly honest and ethical man, who would also champion
their cause for a more socialist India.

Houses Commissioned by The Archbishop of Trivandrum

Pattom, Trivandrum, 1970

With a paltry sum of Rs.3000 at his disposal, Baker offered, not one, but a set of two houses, sited
adjacent to one another in the compound of the Archbishop’s house in Pattom, Trivandrum. This
was Baker’s first project in the city. When I recently visited the site, only one house remained,
though saldy unused and ignored. The brick walls are still resilient but the Mangalore tile roof
needs repair, especially in certain places where the tiles have cracked. Otherwise, the house bears
testimony to the longevity of Baker’s simple resolutions to the idea of housing poor familiies.

Demonstration house-Laurie Baker’s first project in Trivandrum, 1970.

Laurie Baker prepared the architectural drawings

for this project in such a manner that even the most
illiterate mason or unitiated person could build these
houses without guidance from an architect, or a
contractor. There were instructions alongside the
drawings on how-to-make the house much like a
3. TOILET DIY manual instead of the harsh specifications often
4. BEDROOM prepared by architects which are difficult to compre-
hend for the uninitiated. Architecture for Baker, was
an unglamorous profession, a means to serving poor
clients around the world in his desire to offer them af-
fordable shelter along with proper sanitation.

To reduce costs, Baker writes:

“Excavation should be as shallow as is reason-
able: stop digging when solid consistent earth is
reached....,” he instructs.
2. OPEN COURT The houses were both constructed in exposed brick,
3. KITCHEN with a Mangalore tile roof on a structure of cheap
5. STORE jackwood. Baker designed built-in furniture to further
6. TOILET reduce the cost of the house.

Pg 5
To further reduce costs, Baker
uses half-brick walls and jali
windows instead of timber-framed
window openings. Timber is an
increasingly scarce resource and
therefore Baker was sparing in its

In the words of Laurie Baker:

“These were small family houses which had cost anything from Rs.1,200 to Rs.3,000; the price
including sanitation, minimal electrical facilities, and a kitchen. Obviously such buildings are of
necessity, small and basic- a compact group of rooms under a minimum roof area. There are very
few internal doors, but the arrangement of space allows for privacy between different areas so that
differing occupations in the house do not intrude on each other.”

Baker was keen to provide extra private space to some the houses with the insertion of an open-
to-sky courtyard or ‘anganam’, in the centre of the house, as a space for such activities as dry-
ing-fish or basket-weaving; these activities are sources of income for the very poor in Kerala. In
both houses, Baker also provides a granite plinth that can be used for both sitting or sleeping, as a
means to reducing cost by providing built-in furniture, a principle of Baker’s architectural strategies
in several projects.

However, these houses were sneered at by technocrats as “too good a quality for the very poor!”
When the Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department (PWD) visited the houses and was in-
formed of their cost, he exclaimed that, “Our establishment fees for such a project would be more
than the cost of these houses.”

The Rs.10,000 house for Mr. E. Namboodripad

Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1973

Pg 6
Following the success of Baker’s cheap houses for the Archbishop of Kerala, several discening
clients called Baker to ask him if he could design for them a low-cost, ‘Baker’ house.

Laurie Baker:
“I still get calls,” he once said “from people who say I have a small plot of land, four thousand
rupees, a wife and seven children, a brother and sister-in-law, and old parents who cannot walk
upstairs. I need a house. Will you build if for me?”

He continues:
“We have already forgotten that many of our big old irrigation and power
dams, which still serve us efficiently, were built with lime mortar and knew
nothing about cement. By developing economic, simple, widespread lime
production units, we could solve many unemployment problems and pro-
duce fine, efficient, versatile building material with tremendous savings in
building costs and energy throughout the land. It is only necessary for us
to go one step further with the research work which our forefathers have
done-that is for us to add on our twentieth century contribution.

The underlying philosophy behind a ‘Baker’ house is always the application of local materials
appropriate to climate. Brick, tiles, lime, palm thatch, stone, granite and laterite (which are found in
abundance in Kerala) and country timber (cheaper wood such as jackwood) are the alternatives to
steel and glass. These materials are not only appropriate for the hot,wet, humid climate of Kerala
where most of his buildings are located, but they also minimise the use of non-renewable resourc-
es and maximise local employment by encouraging small-scale industry.

One of the principles behind Baker’s socially responsive architecture is maximum use of manpow-
er, the creation of rural employment and minimum use of mechanisation.

With Baker’s uncanny ability to build low-cost houses and consistently so, a large
number of low-income families began to appreciate his methods of building. Like
the Namboodripads, several other clients knocked at his doors, seeing him as the
only viable alternative to the unaffordable maze of conventional practice.

Baker’s architectural practice now consisted of a small team of masons and car-
penters trained in his own workshop. Almost all his buildings have been built under
his intense personal supervision and scrutiny; every minute detail is cared for and
dealt with and Baker would spend a large part of his day on site, working and col-
laborating with the masons. In a recent interview with Gautam Bhatia, he described
Baker’s architectural practice to me as “The architecture of the cooperative”; so-
cially responsive enterprise, where there was no hierarchy between the client, the
architect and the building workforce. Laurie Baker, the architectural firm, worked
as a social charity in several ways, unlike a conventional practice. In fact, Baker’s
architecural and environmental philosophies, became the cornerstones for devel-
opment practitioners all over the world.


Pg 7
Laurie Baker:
“To me probably, the most interesting part of designing a building is dealing with the clients –
getting to know them, how they live and work and finding out what sort of a building they dream of.
It is exciting to put onto paper what you think is in their heads, and then to go on altering or add-
ing or deleting until you think you have put down what they want. We were taught very firmly and
consistently that the client should always be our prime consideration and indeed our inspiration.

“You will be putting up their building, not yours,” we were often told. An equally interesting and
absorbing part of practising architecture is translating your two-dimension drawings into three-di-
mension buildings. I have to be on the site to enjoy this transition from drawings to buildings. From
a practical point of view also, while I clamber about on the scaffolding, I suddenly realise that I will
get a much better view, or more breeze, if I move the window or make it bigger. And so on. I like
to make the most of the colour and texture of materials, rather than to plaster everything over and
then paint on colours. To do this, I have to work with the masons and other workers to show them
how I want them to use materials-not necessarily the same way in each building. So, to me, in-
volvement in the construction work is a must and far more important than desk work.”

This fundamental difference between conventional, desk-based architectural practice and Baker’s
way of operating is a moot point for discussion for present-day development practitioners. Students
of architecture who have worked with Baker were struck by his remarkable capacity to improvise.
Baker, like the contemporary Colombian architect, Simon Velez, who works in structural bamboo,
shunned cumbersome working drawings and production information packages hat detailed the
building for the contractor. Instead, because he spent so much time on site, he used any available
material that could be used in the project – whether they were electrical fixtures or bricks. Waste
harvesting on site and surroundings was an essential principle of Baker’s buildings.

Due to the enormous immigration of Keralites to the booming Gulf countries in the 1980s and
1990s, there was a terrific insurge of funds coming into the State economy. Thousands of historic
houses were destroyed to make way for flashy’Gulf-style’ palatial houses, entirely inapproriate to
climate, vernacular and the environment. Materials and items from these old houses was then sent
to architectural salvage enterprises. Baker was often found rummaging through the remains in
search of any architectural salvage.

Baker again:
“Architectural salvage re-use does not violate the historic integrity of the old materials because the

Architectural salvage at the Hamlet,

Laurie Baker’s family residence in
Nalanchira, Trivandrum. The pillar
and the brackets are made of wood
and belonged to a temple in Kerala
that was demolished.

Pg 8
For the circular E. Namboodripad house, where the site slopes down steeply towards a small
stream, Baker designed a brick tower. He wrote, “the length of a wall enclosing a given area is
shorter when the shape is circular.” The plan develops out of intersecting circles-the larger circle
being the living and dining rooms on the ground floor and the bedrooms above; the smaller being
the stair tower. The slope of the staircase slab is truthfully expressed in the curve of the circular
wall. Pivoted windows and doors, made of simple wooden shutters, are built without frames di-
rectly into the jambs. Extensive use of the brick jali in exposed brickwork, in areas that require no
permanent weather barrier, helped reduce the cost further. The bedrooms upstairs also incorporate
some of Baker’s ideas about built-in furniture, where space for four beds is provided by creating a
system of bunks within the wall dividing the circle.

He wrote of the house later:

“Everyone found it difficult to believe you could have such a large house with all the plumbing,
lighting and built-in furniture for Rs.10,000; but it really was done with that figure. Engineers are
convinced that I must have skimped on steel or cement, and frequently still inspect it for cracks.
But it remains as neat and solid and safe as ever, and they are not very pleased with Mr. Nam-
boodiripad or myself, because the house refuses to deteriorate or collapse!”

In the words of Laurie Baker:

“Windows are costly. One square foot of window
can cost upto ten times the cost of the simple brick
or stone wall it replaces. A window has varied func-
tions: to look out of, to let light inside a room, to let
in fresh air, to let out stale air, and so on. In many of
these situations, a jali or ‘honey-combed’ wall is just
as effective. Far from being a lot more costly than the
basic wall, if made of brick it can be less costly than
the house wall. Wide vertical joints are left open and
not filled with mortar. This is an excellent inexpensive
alternative to the costly window.”

“The simplest window consists of a vertical plank set

into two holes (or pivot hinges), one at the top and
one at the bottom. The traditional design consists of
two short wood pieces with a circular hole in each,
and the vertical shutter has two small round protru-
sions (as shown on the left) to fit into the holes. Only
a nine-inch wide hole is necessary for the ‘window.’
This is strong, simple, inexpensive, requires very little
labour, no ironmongery, lets in light and air and pro-
vides security.”

Pg 9
House for Nalini Nayak in Anayara, Trivandrum, 1989

Initial sketches 3. WORK AREA

This house was designed for Nalini Nayak, a social

worker, who is also a leading figure in a NGO called
SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association). The
main house is formed by a simple three-floor stack-
ing on nine-inch thick brick walls; internally each
floor divides into the bedroom, bath and landing. The
additional segment on the ground, forming the living/
dining and kitchen, is structured with bays of half-brick
thickness, alternating wall and window, wall and door.
The thicker wall was felt unnecessary in a part of the
house rising only a single floor. The stair occupies the
pivotal position at the centre and fuses with the penta-
gon above.
Nalini Nayak, uses the house for meetings of basket-
weavers and fisherwomen, and for training of home
nurses. This requires the rooms to function as class-
rooms in the day and as dormitories at night. Built-in
furniture of brick, surfaced with terracotta tile serve
as sofa and bed; frameless pivot windows have been
used, with the protecting grille itself serving as the

Pg 10
House for Nalini Nayak in Anayara, Trivandrum, 1989

Multiple application of cost-saving pivot windows and brick jalis in the Nalini Nayak house.

Red oxide is added to

cement/lime plaster to
create a warm, soft finish
for the treads.
External and internal elevations of circular tower in brick, housing the
staircase in the Nalini Nayak house.

Pg 11
House for Nalini Nayak in Anayara, Trivandrum, 1989

Built-in furniture designed and built to further reduce costs. As Baker says, “After building a house,
there is often little cash left over for furniture.” Often, the seating is articulated around windows and
brick jalis, so that the user can benefit from light and ventilation.

Pg 12
Details of the House for Nalini Nayak in Anayara, Trivandrum, 1989

Baker articulates the minutest of details in the house; from brick pedestals for washbasins, to con-
crete plinths for the Indian WC. The electrical sockets are fixed to an ornamental wooden bracket
and the door has drawings by him etched into the wood. The last picture shows the corbelled
opening between kitchen and living/dining for the purpose of serving food.

One of the principles of Baker’s (DOs and

DONTs) cost-saving devices is illustrated here.
Built-in seats, beds, work tables, etc can easily
and inexpensively be had, merely by building the
basement wall to a suitable height as shown in
the lower sketch.

Pg 13
Chenkal Choola Urban Colony Development, Trivandrum (ongoing)
Baker’s growing reputation as a master-builder brought him to the attention of the then Chief Min-
ister of Kerala, Mr. C. Achutha Menon. In 1985, The Centre of Science and Technology for Rural
Development (COSTFORD) was founded with Laurie Baker as the chief architectural consultant
along with radical economists such as Dr.K.N.Raj, the then chairman of the Centre for Develop-
ment Studies and Mr. T.R. Chandraduth. COSTFORD includes social workers, educators, archi-
tects, engineers, scientists, technologists, and others representing grassroots architectural prac-
tice operating as a living laboratory with eco-friendly design and social consciousness as a path
to positive societal change.
The Chenkal Choola project for housing the urban poor and finding ways of seeking employment
for them has been a very successful project. Baker was actively involved in the design and con-
struction of this housing scheme whereby several families are housed in three-storeyed, exposed
brick and concrete units. The area is still very poor and waste-harvesting such as collecting news-
paper and plastic bags is done manually.

Exterior views of Chenkal Choola Housing for

the Urban Poor in Chenkal Choola, Trivandrum.

Pg 14
Chenkal Choola Urban Colony Development, Trivandrum

Views of the Chenkal Choola housing by Laurie Baker.

Views of the PWD housing in the same area of Chenkal Choola, Trivandrum.

Views of adjacent slums as

one approaches Baker’s
housing project.

Views of commercial hous-

ing for the wealthy citizens of
Trivandrum, just across from
the slum in the same area of
Chenkal Choola, Trivandrum.
Pg 15
Chenkal Choola Urban Colony Development, Trivandrum

Pg 16
Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

This was Laurie Baker’s magnum opus – a project where he exhibits the entire range of skills ac-
quired over 60 years of living in India. The client for this project was a path breaking institution for
economics especially concerned with social reforms in the changing scenario of post-independent
India. Baker was given a free hand to create an institution that is spread over 9 acres of a very hilly
and rocky site. The brief was to accommodate administrative offices, a computer centre, a large
library, classrooms, hostels for both men and women graduates, an auditorium, an amphitheatre
and other essential components of an institution of this scale.

From what he observed in his so-

journ in the Himalayas, Baker ob-
served that the native people never
destoyed or disturbed any contours.
Baker was also a pacifist and for
him cutting up the site or levelling
the land was an act of violence.
The site of the proposed institute
was very rocky but Baker cleverly
incorporates the level changes in
the circulation of the buildings, both
horizontally and vertically.
In the Baker’s practical book of low-
cost building, he advises on build-
ing the house in the centre of the
terrace. If the house is to be built
near the edge of the terrace, a more
costly foundation and basement wall
has to be built.
Pg 17
Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

The entire institution reflects Baker’s mastery over brick wall compositions and brick jalis along
with the extensive use of the reinforced concrete filler slab for roof structures. The bricks were
made close to the site with locally-available coconut palm wood. Various bonding techniques are
used as well as Baker’s favourite rat-trap bond to create exquisite brick jalis. Openings are arched,
corbelled or spanned with brick lintels. Baker also experimented with four-and-a-half-inch brick
walls and uses several folding techniques to show that load bearing brick walls need not necessar-
ily be the conventional nine inch thickness.

Pg 18
Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

This drawing shows how two waste Man-

galore tiles come together to form an ex-
cellent light-weight filler, and how they are
placed between the steel reinforcement
rods creating a grid of RCC or beams.

Baker invented the RCC filler slab which is based again on the principles of saving cement and
therefore the cost of constructing a slab. Reinforced cement concrete slabs are very costly and
use a lot of iron and cement. As there is quite a lot of unnecessary concrete in an orthodox RCC
slab, some of this redundant concrete can be replaced by any light-weight, cheap material in order
to reduce the overall cost of the slab. This alternative RCC roof is called a filler slab. For fillers,
light-weight bricks, or Mangalore or country tiles can be used. This filler slab costs thirty five per-
cent less than the conventional RCC slab. As roofs and intermediate floors account for twenty to
twenty-five percent of the total cost of a house, the saving by using a filler slab is considerable.

On the left:The conical roof over

the library tower at the Centre for
Development Studies. Baker would
cast the filler slab in different forms
and sizes in all his projects.

On the right:The staggered filler

slab was rarely used by Baker but
the example on the right is from his
house, the Hamlet, in Nalanchira,
Pg 19
The Computer Centre-Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

This was an extremely difficult commission for Baker as it was in direct conflict with his way of
designing; such as using brick jalis. The building required strict environment controls for the com-
puters to function properly in the hot,wer, humid climate of Kerala. Baker responded with a double-
walled building with an outer surface of interesecting circles of brick jalis which followed the design
of the main academic block, while the internal shell fulfilled the constraints and controls necessary
for a computer laboratory.


The two-storey high outer wall of single-brick thickness is stiffened by
2. CLASSROOM a series of intersecting circle segments; the mid-level slab is also fused
3. WORK AREA into it for additional support. Larger corbelled window-openings of the
inner wall control the diffused light of the outer wall and create a continu-
6. STORE ous glare-free atmosphere. The roof is a folded concrete slab.

Pg 20
The Computer Centre-Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

The photograph above depicts Baker’s

extreme concern for saving every exist-
ing tree on the site and moulding the
building footprint around. Baker was
always on site working with the masons
and improvising as he developed the

Pg 21
Men’s Hostel-Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

The linear plan is developed with 8 rooms on four floors,

organised around a verandah enclosed by a brick-jali wall.
The rationalised arrangement of rooms in the plan is offset by
the playful qualities of the brick-jali wall which is only a four-
and-a-half-inch brick structure. Baker skilfully weaves the wall
taking care of local contours and employs folding techniques
to strengthen the wall at regular intervals. Baker was trying
to save on bricks and materials and this folding allows him to
build walls with a single brick thickness.
He wrote:
“I was very keen to demonstrate the use of four-and-a-half-
inch thick load bearing wall. When such a wall is taken to four
storeys the curves and circles give it that added stiffness.”

The balcony balustrade is designed by having a

built-in timber bench, another one of Baker’s cost-
saving devices.



Pg 22
Men’s Hostel-Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

The verandah leading to the rooms is organised The circular staircase tower
around the existing contours of the site

Folded filler slab ceiling in the hostel rooms

Pg 23
The Libary building-Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

The library building is approached through the administrative/reception block and sits on a higher
contour than the entrance level. Baker was faced with the issues of a difficult site in terms of steep
gradients and rocky outcrops; at the summit of the hill, the library with its seven-storey tower domi-
nates while the administrative offices and classrooms are placed in a random pattern determined
largely by the contours. Baker was trying to demonstrate that tall buildings could be constructed in
load-bearing brick walls with upstand RCC beams.

The seven-storeyed library tower One of the approaches to the seven-storeyed

library tower is through a courtyard enclosed
by brick-jalis.

Pg 24
The Libary building-Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, Trivandrum, 1971

This photograph above is the new addition to the library built by COSTFORD

Pg 25
Lessons for Architects and Development practitioners from the practice of Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker on site working alongside masons

Laurie Baker was a firm believer that “low-cost techniques should not be considered only for
the poor – our aim should be design only the simplest buildings for all.”

Baker built cheaply by ruthlessly eschewing non-local materials. Thus cement plasters were largely
eliminated by lime/surkhi mortars, filler slabs were put into use instead of conventional RCC slabs,
and windows and glazing were replaced by exquisite brick-jalis and cheaper to construct pivot-win-
dows. Because timber is a scarce resource, Baker used folded RCC filler slab roofs to inventively
recreate the traditional timber and tile roof patterns of Kerala.
Baker’s building reflect a constant passion for innovation in construction and techniques to further
reduce costs for millions of people who cannot afford even the basic shelter. Baker was a vision-
ary development practitioner and showed that a development practitioner could never subsist on a
conventional practice based on working in an office and constructing through the traditional tender
process. His entire working life was about research and innovation and then demonstrating the
lessons he had learnt by building on site. When conventional builders refused to work with him, he
created his own team of trained masons and carpenters who then collaborated with him on every
project. This was possibly the beginning of “Design and Build” in India.
Baker’s work was pilloried by government officials of the PWD(Public Works Department) as “loin-
cloth architecture” but he carried on relentlessly with his crusade against current trends of making
Western-style buildings in India that did not respond appropriately to the country’s climate or re-
gional identity. Baker’s confidence in locking horns with the establishment was based on the hard
experience of several decades of work as a designer and builder of rural hospitals in the remote
Himalayas. He writes of his earlier work that,“Wherever he went I saw the local indigenous style
of architecture, the result of thousands of years of research on how to use only locally available
materials.....this was an incredible achievement.”
Pg 26
Lessons for Architects and Development practitioners from the practice of Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker’s architecture, especially the later work, is char-

acterised by an uncanny use of the site, cleverly exploiting its
slopes and gradients, an uncompromising simplicity, a genu-
ine delight in using natural and locally available materials and
encouraging local craftsmanship; and ultimately boldly experi-
mental in a lifelong pursuit of cost-reduction and of providing
shelter to the poorest families. During the 1970s, and as his
reputation grew around India, he was invited as an architec-
tural consultant on several prestigious governement bodies as
well as to give lectures. A series of natural disasters in India
brought him in touch with issues of disaster mitigation and
relief, and he wrote valuable guidance on how local construc-
tion techniques could be adapted to create disaster-resistant
buildings. In 1990, Baker was awarded the Gold Medal of the
Indian Institute of Architects and became an Indian citizen.
Over the past twenty years, dissemination of Baker’s archi-
tectural philosophy has been undertaken by the non-profit
Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development
(COSTFORD). COSTFORD is a self-funded NGO and gets no
government or state funding. All his life, Baker was possessed
with finding cheap ways of providing shelter for the teeming
millions.He was truly a pioneering development practitioner
and his legacy lives on.

Pg 27
This essay arose from a field visit to Trivandrum in Kerala in January 2009 and from interviews
with the following: Dr Elisabeth Baker, Mr Tilak Baker, Mr Gautam Bhatia (previously interviewed
in New Delhi), and Professor Robin Spence.


1. Gautam Bhatia, Laurie Baker: Life, Works & Writings, Penguin Books India, 1991.

2. Robin Spence, Laurie Baker: Architect for the Indian Poor, date and source unknown (text
provided by the author)