On his profile on the billionBricks website, Prasoon Kumar’s awards span eleven rows and three columns. They range from First Prize for a Sustainable Housing Competition in 2003 to a Social Innovation Award in 2017. His listed resume includes esteemed positions from all over the world and his history of lectures takes up a full laptop screen. Despite what can absolutely be deemed “bragging rights,” Prasoon, in person, is incredibly humble. During our talk, he walked me through the incredible story of his organization. billionBricks is a nonprofit that aims to not just to alleviate homelessness, but end it. Using design and urban planning principles, the organization sells tent-like houses that are affordable, durable, and, most importantly, mass producible. They also ally with governments and NGOs to find creative solutions to homelessness in densely packed urban areas.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to the idea for billionBricks.
My background professionally is in architecture and urban planning. As a student I took my studies very seriously. Professors would say that as an architect, what you do has a lot of social relevance and impact on people, so I would look for if I was making that impact. I wanted to be in a sector that really stands up to the values you’re taught about sustainable development, equitable cities, and a lot of those heavy words. I wanted the words to have real translations in the work I was doing. And I kind of struggled with this during my professional career. I did make feeble attempts to kind of move into the development sector or look for alternative firms that did this kind of work, but in reality there aren’t a lot. A lot of organizations in the US like the UN are more focused on policy rather than architecture and design. My art was definitely not there. In my day to day career, however, it reached a point where I started questioning the corruption and greed in the work that I was doing, and was asking myself, why am I working for these people who already have everything they need? Also, growing up in India, I was looking at the wealth that was being created, and who it was going to. Even though there is more wealth now than before, the quality of life for people has only suffered. There’s more pollution, more health issues, more lack of safety. And I saw all these problems and thought that instead of continuing to criticize the government, the NGOs, the corporations, that I would go and try to do something.
When first launching billionBricks, did you know exactly what your plan was and how you wanted it to look?
I didn’t have the product idea for sure but there were certain principles that I was very sure of. One of the core beliefs was the fact that we would work to solve homelessness and not work to help the homeless. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity, which are definitely very admirable, can help something like a hundred thousand people a year. But homelessness grows faster than that. We were like, can we bring in a system of change that can help a hundred million people a year. The number of people that are becoming homeless is increasing faster than what organizations like Habitat for Humanity can keep up with. Someone needed to be working on that solution, something scalable. The other thing was that I decided I would not work on individual building designs, I would only work on buildings which get replicated multiple times. Which is where some inherent ideas about productizing buildings came from. The third piece, where I think we have shifted a bit, is that we would only work in urban areas. And a lot of organizations tackle this less than rural homelessness, because it’s definitely more difficult. And we thought, a lot of nonprofits do things just because they are feasible to do, not maybe where the core issue lies. And a lot of nonprofits don’t fund us because they think the battle that we’re fighting is way too hard. We thought, we want to stick to the vision that we have.
So how exactly does billionBricks tackle the huge task of ending homelessness?
When we started, we had values and goals but we didn’t know how to achieve everything we wanted to achieve. The success of our first product, WeatherHYDE, validated everything that I would speak about and didn’t originally have anything to show for. We thought, it’s doable. New models do exist. As I got deeper, we realized that homelessness exists for 3 reasons, and we decided to understand and use these insights to tackle the huge problem we were working to solve. 1. Displacement that happens because of disasters whether they are economic, political, socioeconomic, or climate change related leaving people without homes 2. Rural to urban migration and congestion in urban areas combined with expensive, inaccessible shelter 3. More permanent, long range issues of extreme poverty. Since billionBricks focuses on design and innovation, we know we can't solve every part of the issue, like issues of land availability, but these insights give us a good foundation.
Your original product, WeatherHYDE, was a housing solution for extreme weather situations. Tell us about your newest product, PowerHYDE.
PowerHYDE is built on the premise that 80–85% of the people that we work with who are homeless don’t have access to mortgages to finance their homes. So even if they get access to land, they won’t have money to build homes. And the second premise is that building homes is easy, relatively, but dependency on electricity and water makes things much more difficult. So that’s how we came up with the idea of a house that’s totally off grid. If someone has land, we can build the home. The real creativity is in the fact that the house creates more energy than it needs for the occupants. So this creates an economic engine which would then allow for the homeowner to finance the home as well. People say that if you build a home there needs to be a financial model so that they can pay it back, but really it’s a human right. And having this access to energy allows them to use their extra energy to either sell it to the grid, or even to use it to run a factory or industrial unit to create some income.
What is your philosophy when it comes to social enterprise?
I think one thing I want to say about social enterprise is to address the 1 for 1 model. I don’t think, most of the time, that this model is done well. One of the aspirations of billionBricks, one of the core principals, is that we never design poorly for the poor. The quality changes when you have a one for one model, but why? When we think about the poor why do we want to create poorer solutions? We want to keep the poor poorer because we always give them something different from us. Alternatively,
what we do is design one, good product. We designed for the poor and now we are also selling to rich campers, at a different price. If you design it right for the poorest of the poor, then you can sell it to the richest of the rich.
To learn more about billionBricks and support their mission, check out their website here.