As CEO of a shelter and infrastructure design studio with the vision of ending one of our biggest global challenges: homelessness, billionBricks founder Prasoon Kumar often recalls the following line from a famous poet:
"...and miles to go before I sleep."
- Robert Frost
Indeed, at times, the scope of the job seems insurmountable, with estimates of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate housing around the world and 78 million homeless in India alone. After the completion of billionBricks’ first project, a night shelter for 100 children sleeping on the streets of Mumbai, Prasoon realized the effort had only helped 0.0001% of his native country’s homeless population.
But through digital media, this one of a kind non-profit social enterprise has been able to travel great distances toward their goal and reach an exceptionally large audience along the way.
In July, one of billionBricks’ current projects was featured on Fast Company. The next week, it appeared in Mashable, and a few days later, existing footage was turned into a video for the most-watched news publisher on Facebook, NowThis. Suddenly, celebrities were sharing their own versions. Ashton Kutcher. Lil Wayne. David Wolfe. By the end of the month, Prasoon was shocked. The total view count was over 25 million. WeatherHYDE had gone viral.
The extreme-weather temporary shelters are the only tents in the world that are reversible, designed to offer lifesaving protection for homeless families in both winter and summer. The power is in their waterproof triple-layered reflective skin, which traps body heat inside for warmth in cold weather and reverses to reflect the sun when temperatures rise.
billionBricks perfected the revolutionary technology over a period of 18 months, picking up an A’ Social Design Award along the way. Weighted tent frames eliminate the need for anchoring and allow for assembly on pavement in urban environments. A simplified production process makes local manufacturing possible, creating jobs for the homeless. And the fully-enclosed opaque structure provides maximum privacy for women so that families, like Kushi’s, can stay together.
Kushi (left), Sameer, and son Arhaan were one of 15 families to call weatherHYDE their first home during pilot testing in New Delhi.
Prasoon created the tents for a very specific reason. “Thousands of people lose their lives because they either live on the streets or in such poor conditions that they are unable to withstand something like harsh rain, heat, or cold.” He was compelled to take action after hearing about an incident in Muzaffarnagar, India, where 30 homeless children living in riot relief camps died in low temperatures that weren’t even at freezing. Prasoon shakes his head, “We just don’t care a lot of times about people and about people dying, and our bureaucratic systems are too slow at churning out solutions.”
So in a moment where more than 25 million were paying attention to weatherHYDE, billionBricks took things into their own hands and acted fast. They launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the product’s first production cycle and deliver tents to the most vulnerable in India, the USA, and across the Asia-Pacific. Anyone can help save more lives by pledging a tent to the homeless or simply spreading the word.
“Going viral has allowed us to raise issues that otherwise aren’t in the forefront,” says Prasoon. “We see that people are able to connect with what we are bringing to the table as a one-of-a-kind organization.”
A Winning Idea For Solving Homelessness
billionBricks was established in 2013 to use design and technology as tools to create appropriately innovative highly-replicable and financially sustainable solutions for the homeless that not only provide physical shelter but, at the same time, empowerment to exit the circle of poverty. “Everything we do has a larger meaning behind it other than just provision of homes,” Prasoon explains.
The concept emerged from a similar winning idea that his team came up with during a social entrepreneurship boot camp at Impact Hub Singapore. Within five days of the accelerator program, he had secured seed funding, quit his job, become an Impact Hub member, and launched billionBricks.
Prasoon Kumar, Founder and CEO of billionBricks
During his 13-year international career in commercial architecture and planning, Prasoon noted that although Asian cities are growing extremely fast and generating an abundance of new wealth, the quality of life for many is actually going down. The huge shift in populations moving from rural to urban areas has created a housing crisis that the world does not know how to solve. “More and more people are living on the streets while you find and more and more fancy condominiums and infrastructure being built. Inequality is rising and no one is addressing it.”
billionBricks seeks to operate where the need is increasing, but the solutions aren’t there.
Prasoon started the organization because “when buildings are designed and built for the poor they are done very poorly.” Sustainable solutions aren’t always the cheapest, making it difficult to raise funds. Moreover, contractors often don’t work at full capacity when they know the clients they are serving aren’t demanding high quality.
That’s why billionBricks is working to create systemic-level changes that are adaptable and flexible enough to be customized by communities on their own, without dependency. “We just want to be the spark of innovation, bring in that fresh thinking and perspective, and then let the idea thrive within a community and move out,” Prasoon summarizes.
Their largest project to date, Smile Village, successfully employed this strategy. 100,000 slum dwellers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia are currently at risk of eviction due to increasing land prices in the capital city. billionBricks designed traditional Khmer-style homes, using a construction method new to the country, and trained locals to build them. The organization built the first two houses in partnership with the community. For the next 48, assistance was only provided when needed. Now Prasoon’s team is working on bringing the technology to another part of the world, and the skilled workers are building the remaining 90 houses on their own. When complete, the village will open its doors to 160 homeless families.
Traditional Khmer-style stilt houses for the homeless at Smile Village
billionBricks has directly worked with over 1,000 homeless people in their two years of existence, first as consultants to local NGOs, then as partners to international NGOs, and today as leaders of a consortium of players who believe that housing for the poor should not be poorly designed.
“We have to turn down projects because we are a very small team,” Prasoon says. “People are realizing the potential of good design in their communities, discovering that it doesn’t have to be expensive, and coming forward to support new ideas.”
However, he doesn’t believe his organization has the right solution yet. “Solving the complex housing problem of a billion people cannot happen on a project-to-project basis. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to do it right and bring systemic change, and we don’t think a single organization like ours, or even a consortium of organizations, can solve it. It needs a movement.”
But the miles to go do not sway Prasoon from his dream of a world without homelessness.
“Until we are able to achieve our vision, nothing can stop us.”