Determinants of Built Form: Low Income Urban Housing


Built form of a place is not just the three dimensional physical mass visible. It is a much more complicated concept. Built form of a place can be defined through its functional aspects relating to physical, socio-economic and cultural needs of a community. It is the daily needs, lifestyle, beliefs, socio-economic characteristics of the people that shape the place. The organization of a place is determined by the principles such as income, affordability, beliefs, lifestyles etc. that are embodied in the environment of the place. These factors and principles make an unplanned settlement different from a planned settlement. The physical elements such as roads, open space, street, trees, houses remain same across the settlements but the social and economic factors are responsible for different essence which lead to disparate built forms.


Related: Housing for India’s low-income urban households

Today, we keep on bothering about providing housing to low income group with our concern focused on the physical environment. There is hardly any consideration of social and cultural factors in designing the built environment. This process of planning and designing of urban low income housing has resulted into built form which is functionally not useful and socially not suitable. Fulfilling the demand merely by providing the no. of dwelling units required without considering the needs of the people, socio-cultural and locational aspects have created other problems.

Determinants and their impact on low income urban housing

Determinants are the physical factors that determine the organization of built form of a development. These set of criteria leads to different pattern of built form across different settlements which are planned and unplanned.

Determinants of built form for planned low income housing areas

The following are the major determinants of built form for planned low income housing areas.

1. Population Characteristics

Population characteristics or the user characteristics is an important determinant of built form because it is ultimately the people who would be the user and according to whom the organization of the built form would be determined.
Following are the important user characteristics that affect the built form:

a. Family Size – The size of a family directly affects the dwelling unit size or plot size which results in particular type of built form as it helps in deciding the population density for a housing development of a particular place.

b. Family income and affordability – It indirectly affects the built form as the family income determines the affordable plot size which results in a particular density pattern for the low income settlements.

c. Age groups – The study of age group of a community is very relevant as it helps in deciding the need for various facilities which are all components of built form.

d. Employment status – Kind of employment the people of a community are involved in helps in shaping the housing structure. Also the nearness to the work centers should be considered for the housing development.

2. Housing market forces

Demand for a land is determined by the factors such as land, accessibility, physical and social infrastructure, availability of transport facilities etc. Higher the demand, higher will be the land value. Land value is one of the important factors in deciding the location and intensity of development. It also determines the density pattern to be achieved in order to get returns from the money invested on land. Locational decisions are also governed by the nearness to work center for low income communities. This is also seen in many resettlement schemes for squatter settlements where locational decisions were governed by the availability of cheaper land and nearness to work center.

3. Standards and bye-laws

Standards are important determinants of built form. These standards are based on health, safety, socio-economic conditions of people etc. Master plan is a legal document that provides us the standards for density, FAR, ground coverage, circulation, open spaces and facilities which are inter related aspects of built form.

4. Site Potentials

Housing development for different socio-economic groups requires an assessment of physical and social potential of the site. Physical potentials of the site consist of location, approaches, accessibility, size and shape and boundaries. So, Physical potential of the site would include assessment of topography, accessibility, location with its subsequent return as part of economic appraisal to measure the built from decision.

5. Micro-climate

Micro-climate also determines a particular type of built form. Although the factor is not considered for designing low income settlements, broad guidelines are observed regarding the orientation of dwelling units to minimize the effects of sun rays and wind flow on the built form.

Determinants of built form for unplanned low income settlements

The urban poor are considered as a group of urban population which constitutes the most deprived class who generally resides in substandard conditions like slums and squatter settlements. Due to high population growth rates, inappropriate policies and inequalities in distribution, a situation is created where this large portion of the urban population is unable to afford minimum sized dwelling unit in urban areas. This has resulted in this population finding ways and solutions to house themselves through self-efforts, thus building slums and squatter settlements which represents the present socio-economic and socio-cultural characteristics of the urban poor and is not subjective to the land value, demand for land etc.

The urban poor are generally homogenous with regard to common characteristics such as – income, occupation, family structure, lifestyle etc. The choice of shelter for the urban poor is governed by these characteristics and other attributes like security of tenure, accessibility to work place etc. Family income and affordability play an important role in determining the built form. Following are the important determinants that have an impact on the built form of unplanned settlements of the urban poor:

1. Population characteristics

The population characteristics of the urban poor can be viewed as a socio-economic aspect as well as a socio-cultural aspect.

Socio-economic characteristics

The important socio-economic characteristics that influence the built form are as follows:

a. Family Size – Generally, size and type of family determines the size of dwelling unit. But in case of squatter settlements, the size of dwelling unit is not governed by family size as such and very little variations can be seen in dwelling sizes even if there are variations in family sizes. The joint families existing there have to compromise for space due to various reasons such as scarcity of land, finance, locational advantages etc.

b. Family income and affordability – This is one of the most important factors in determining built form in case of squatter settlements. Urban poor have no security of better job as they have lack of skills. Their incomes are thus affected by the nature of their employment permanency of job, educational background, expenditure and number of earners in the family. They are not able to pay for shelter, even though the shelter tops the priority for them. This is due to the scarce resource with competing uses. The squatter settlements offer affordable housing and does not demand high initial investment from the urban poor.

Socio-cultural characteristics

The socio-cultural characteristics of the urban poor can be identified under the following heads:

  • Social and racial composition
  • Homogenous groups
  • Way of life
  • Social status
  • Feeling of community
  • Stability of population
  • Crime and safety
  • Informal leadership
  • Meaning attached to the place
  • Interaction level

Built form in the squatter settlements or slums are not just a result of the physical factors. Rather, it is the consequence of a whole range of socio-cultural factors as mentioned above. The built form may reflect many socio-cultural factors including religious beliefs, family structure, social organization, way or gaining a livelihood and social relationships among individuals and in homogenous groups.

2. Locational attributes and site potential

Locational attribute affects the shelter decision in case of urban poor as they give highest priority to it. The location for squatting is considered in accordance with the work place and its proximity to day to day needs. Since they do not pay for the land, so land value does not come into picture. As they cannot afford to travel distant places of work and even cannot afford land in the suburbs which are relatively cheaper, they squat in central urban islands where work opportunities are more and land value is also high.
Physical potentials such as topography, landscape, slope of the site are not much important aspects for squatting. But other potential factors such as accessibility to bus stops and workplace for instance are considered as important aspects by them.

3. Security of tenure

Ownership of house offers economic and social security. Tenure is the security of land as well as the dwelling unit against eviction by either owner in case of private land or by the government authority in case of public land since there is no security of squatter communities. Also they tend to spend a minimum amount of money on the dwelling unit by using cheap and temporary material. Thus the built form of squatter gives an ambience which is very compact, has uniform skyline and narrow pathways.


The built form of a settlement isn’t just a result of the various physical factors but also the socio-economic and socio-cultural criteria that helps in shaping it. We as planners always talk about the shortage and demand of houses and try to fulfil the gap by providing dwelling units for the urban poor through low rise or high rise buildings. But urban low housing poses a more complex problem than merely one of quantity. Providing optimum design solution for resolving competing demands for a limited supply of costlier urban land should no more be our goal. As this results in a built form which is functionally not useful, socially not suitable and conflicts with the needs of the user since the users are not pre-determined and their choices and preference towards shelter are not considered. Since low income urban housing forms a major part of the total urban housing supply, all the issues should be sympathetically considered and viewed to arrive at a suitable built form decision.


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