Mihika Jindal caught up with Aadhan, to understand recycled infrastructure and its future in India

No one would think that old shipping containers would make for good classrooms, no one maybe except Nikhil Dugal and Akshal Goel , who founded Aadhan, a social enterprise that transforms shipping containers into functional structures like portable skill training classrooms for rural areas. The concept is bizarrely clever as well as functional, we caught up with Dugal to understand their journey into recycled infrastructure, its viability and the future ahead.

Tell us how did it all start?
We started about two years ago. I have been in the development sector and I had been looking to start a social enterprise. And Akshat, a childhood friend, brought to my attention that people in South Africa are making classrooms in containers. His desire was to start a chain of budget private schools in rural India that would be using these containers. But then I realised that our expertise was not in running a school. It was more about fabricating this product, for which Akshat had the required skill-set.

So we decided to assume the ‘making’ part of it to hand it over to other organisations instead.

So is Aadhan only working for the social sector?
For the first one year, yes. Because one, the intention was to do something in the social sector, and also because we got a successful pilot project with the government of UP where they wanted to set up skill training classrooms to teach kids from rural areas.

But then we reassessed. And so we thought of focussing only on providing eco-friendly solution and recycling this waste (containers). We decided to fabricate these containers, keep it eco-friendly, and offer them to any company—private, public or social. And further provide other ancillary products to this container that are eco-friendly.

You must have heard of MDF boards that everyone uses. But we did some research and found out about OSB boards which are similar, are made out of reusable forests and are not being used by anyone. We provide this as an integrated product within the containers. Other products are eco-friendly insulation that we source from Kolkata—recycled pet bottles put together to create sheets. These are slightly more expensive and are relatively unknown but it in line with our intention of providing eco-friendly solution.

Wow. This plastic bottle sheets is screaming another story. But tell us, is Aadhan making all these products in-house?
No. We have collaborated with vendors who, in their individual capacities, are creating products that are eco-friendly and can be integrated within these containers. Each container is customised according to the needs of the client.

And where do you get these containers from? Do you just pick them up?
Usually, old containers are sold in bigger lots—about 20-25 of them together through an auction. But we buy these containers on singe unit as and when we get a project. These containers are sold across major ports and in major cities. Once a container retires from the seas, it is typically used for road transportation, you know, on the back of those huge trucks.

So, you’re saying the containers that carry good on sea and on road are actually the same? But what leads to them becoming surplus?
These containers have actually changed the way world trade works and has boosted the trade economy. Until the 50s, there were no standardised units; the goods were delivered in different sized boxes. What containers did was that it made it super easy for the good to get transported, brought down the loading cost and reduced the overall effort by a factor of 6.

But now the problem is different—since most of the stuff is being transported from China, and the containers are being bought there, it’s cheaper to buy a new container every time to ship products than to spend on calling back an empty container from anywhere in the world. And this is the reason there are so many extra containers.

Help us understand—how is India tackling all these extra containers?
These containers are typically scrapped, by which I mean that they’re melted down. And melting down one container uses 8,000 kWh which is what an average household uses over two years. Crazy amount of energy. What Aadhan is trying to do is to take at least some of the containers out of that cycle and recycle it to put it to some good use.

Can you also help us understand that once these are ready, where do you place them?
This depends primarily on the client. If the ground is not proper, then an extra investment has to be made to get the foundation right. Which can be as simple as placing cement blocks. Or something a little more intensive like making cement pillars that are placed under these containers.

Legally, these containers are placed in the category of chattel, which basically means non-permanent structures, which further means that architectural guidelines are not applicable. So, these can be placed anywhere.

Which means it’s a good thing since you’re starting out? And by the time the government realises the need for regulation, you and other projects like yourself will be in a good place.
Yes. And, No. If you’ve seen those metro container offices around metros, most of them are not following eco-friendly practices. By which I mean that, for starters, one should check the paint used inside in the containers before appropriating it. Because the paint is harmful. And cleaning it out is an expensive project. Same story for the floors. One has to understand that these containers are meant to carry goods, not for people to stay in it. And if one directly starts living in these containers before taking required measures, it can be very harmful.

So that means that the containers you make are completely treated and fit for human occupancy?
Absolutely. We make sure everything is cleaned out. Which is a practice no one follows.

Is Aadhan one of its own kind?
Not really. There is a woman in Pune who is doing similar things. Except she’s not into product development. She’s more into interiors. And there’s another couple in Mumbai who haven’t built anything yet but they are working on similar things.

Is this concept prevalent outside India?
Abroad, this has been a very successful concept and they are doing premium things with it. There are student housing made in London out of containers, there’s an entire shopping district in New Zealand that they built out of containers after an earthquake. And nothing like this exists here yet. We just have to change the perception of people.

What’s the average lifespan of a container structure? And how much do they cost?
These containers should be treated as a regular building. It should be painted every five years from the outside. The container can last anywhere between 25-50 years. The only important thing to remember is that it has to be treated properly. The price range is between Rs. 1200-1500 per sq. foot for a finished product which includes paneling, flooring, electrical and plumbing. It can go up to Rs. 2500 per sq. ft. in case the client chooses to use niche stuff. And this is about 70% of the normal building.

So what are the projects that have you’ve done so far?
Like I mentioned, our pilot project was with the UP government. After that we have built showrooms in Noida, some extra classrooms, office and storage space for a school. Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of interest from people who’re looking to build structures in the hilly area. Because the cost of construction is almost the double of what it takes in the cities. With containers, they are all built here and the finished product is transported. So the cost remains the same.

The containers are always finished and then just plugged in on-site. The only time any construction happens on-site is when the structure requires multiple containers to be put together.

 

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