Meet Kaif Ali, who is housing the homeless with his ‘architecture for poor’ idea

Kaif Ali with the Diana Award 2021 | Photo: JMI

Born and brought up in New Delhi, twenty-year-old Kaif Ali is an architecture student at Faculty of Architecture & Ekistics, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Ali was honoured with The Diana Award 2021 for his work on Covid-19 Innovation–Space era recently, which is a module for demountable and portable shelter space for Covid-19 era. This is his story.

Afra Abubacker |

Support TwoCircles

NEW DELHI – Every child has drawn their family with a house in the background and most probably made sandcastles at beaches too. However, in the grownup’s world, not everyone can have a house built like that. Twenty-year-old Kaif Ali, an undergraduate student of Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi after entering the world of architecture found out that homelessness is a major issue in the world and there are many without proper houses.

Born and brought up in New Delhi, twenty-year-old Kaif Ali told, “Just 200 meters away from my apartment is a settlement made above the sewage lines. In nights, the people there sleep on footpaths since snakes sneak out of sewage.”

Ali could not help noticing how unjustly the metropolitan city is majorly designed commercially for a few per cent of the population. After witnessing these inequalities, Ali wanted to take up architecture as a profession and develop a sustainable model.

Beyond survival
Homeless people are of many types, which include urban poor, migrant labourers and refugees. However, the government made arrangements for these homeless people can barely be called a home. There is no privacy nor any sense of security as sought by a family since most facilities are gender-separated. Open cooking and sanitation, poor waste management, unavailability of electricity and potable water, the list go on.

Ali recollects that it was a documentary called “Cry for Syria” that sensitized him into the refugee crisis. As an attempt to address the issue, Ali went on to design shelter spaces for Syrian refugees, during his early college days.

When asked whether he is concerned about these temporary shelter spaces becoming the permanent settlement of refugees and others, as is the norm, Ali said that his concept of shelter is a home for living and not for mere survival. Therefore, along with houses, Ali also designs schools, gyms, and other recreational spaces using the same modular technology, which facilitates easy assembling and dismantling.

Quoting a few success stories of refugee assimilation with the host country, Ali believes that if refugees are housed holistically, they will not remain on the fringes. “Shelter is the start of all,” he said.

From housing to quarantining
For the last two years, Ali has invested himself in designing shelter spaces for the homeless. As the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, Ali witnessed the dire demand for quarantining thousands in cramped up cities.

That is how he began working with his project last March and designed a portable intermediary quarantine facility of 2.5m x 6m, using PUF panels or shipping containers, which can be assembled with ease, have massive room for expansion, with natural ventilation and 6 layers of social distancing.

The facility can also be later used as refugee camps or disaster relief camps.

Kaif Ali was awarded the international Diana Award 2021 for the same. His design follows all Covid-19 protocols and is more efficient than home quarantine or mass quarantining facilities.

Ali’s quests stem from his immediate realities. Even his intermediary quarantine shelter came up observing the spread of the virus in enclosed spaces through the air, even before WHO confirmed the spread through the air. “That is the power of observation and study. I apprehended that Covid-19 would spread through the air from my study and by keeping this in mind, I have designed the quarantine facility,” Ali said.

Thinking architecture ‘out of the box’
Having varied interests, Ali is good at juggling different pursuits. The twenty-year-old has taken home several awards in architecture and photography. It is the introduction to various international competitions that expanded Ali’s network.

Upon winning Climate Innovation Lab conducted by Climate Technology Centre and Network, Ali has been receiving mentorship of Biplab Ketan Paul, IIT Kanpur incubation mentor and social entrepreneur.

Referring to Ali’s Covid-19 relief work, Paul said proudly, “Kaif Ali is a good samaritan.”

Soon, Ali’s design would shelter the people of Lagos in Nigeria. His project has received appreciation across the world from architects of Germany, Iran, South Africa, Turkey, the US, & Brazil. Ali has also featured in the United Nations top 11 emerging innovation start-ups solving climate action.

Twenty-year-old Ali has not shied away from approaching several state governments. After the Karnataka government appreciated him, organizations working with the Maharashtra government are willing to implement his project.

To make his designs financially viable, Ali said he uses his father’s counsel, who is in the construction business. “His advice comes in handy, especially when deciding the materials and other factors. It is the context that is my foremost priority,” Ali said, elaborating that climate and clients’ context guides his design.

Moreover, Ali aspires to make the language of architecture accessible to common people. His drawings are easily readable for policymakers and politicians alike. “Future architectures cannot limit themselves to space and cost crises alone. In times of rising refugees of climate, wars and poverty, expanding socially responsible entrepreneurial perspective in architecture is a must,” concludes Ali.