Learning can happen anywhere, some wise folks may say. Aadhan, a Delhi-based social enterprise founded by Nikhil Dugal and Akshat Goel, has interpreted the adage in a way you have never seen before.
Aadhan builds classrooms — and a host of other spaces — from discarded shipping containers.
Aadhan is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘box,’ an apt name for the startup that unleashes the design potential of boxed spaces. Shipping containers are unlikely to come in mind when one thinks classrooms, or homes, but the Aadhan team considers it to have many advantages over traditional brick-and-mortar structures.
Nikhil says, “I was working in the development sector and wanted to start a rural enterprise. My partner Akshat (a Kellogg graduate and managing partner at a furniture manufacturing firm) was interested in developing budget private schools for rural areas. He came across container spaces in South Africa and suggested we start a non-profit initiative.”
The private schools idea took a backseat as the duo worked to develop these containers. Neither Nikhil nor Akshat has hands-on experience working with containers, and plunged into months of research and field activity.
“We found that containers were already being used in India, as temporary offices for construction sites,” Nikhil says. But there were two major drawbacks. The shipping containers weren’t always old — some construction sites even had it built from scratch leading to a lot of energy consumption. They also did not take contamination measures, which was harmful for people living and working regularly in these spaces.”
Founded in 2015, Aadhan took an eco-friendly approach to container space keeping in mind everything the co-founders had learnt during their research.
The base materials for these spaces are shipping containers that have been retired from the sea.
The Aadhan team refurbishes these containers in combination with various sustainable material resources like oriented strand box (OSB) and insulation packages built from recycled tetra paks. These containers make buildings not just cost-effective but also faster to build and easier to move.
Moreover, using these containers helps to prevent industrial wastage. According to the Aadhan team, every container used prevents around 1.3 tonnes of Corten Steel from being scrapped, and uses only about 400KWh of energy. In comparison, scrapping an entire container uses about 8,000 kWh.
The company offers turnkey solutions to its customers, including design, fabrication, delivery and installation. Promoting complete sustainability, the company also enhances these spaces with solar energy or dry toilets on request.
Aadhan containers have been used to start a pilot skill training facility in Goverdhan, UP, as well as an office and storage space for a school in New Delhi.
The simple assembling process and mobility makes it a hit among NGOs, who have used these spaces for classrooms and libraries.
“We actually started with approaching governmental organisations, but realised that NGOs would benefit far more from these containers. They often work in rural areas, and have to move their operations,” says Nikhil. “These NGOs often can’t afford the cost of setting up such infrastructure, and we are hoping for investors who may be interested in pitching in.”
While these unique container schools have put Aadhan in the spotlight, the founders use the model to build a variety of spaces. Among their completed projects are: a furniture retail store for Annapoorna Industrial Corporation in Noida, and concept designs for farmhouses, apartments and dentistry clinics.
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Along with building spaces, Aadhan is expanding in other areas of sustainability measures too. “A lot of people who approach us are interested in organic farming and sustainable measures. We are now hoping to develop hydroponic farms in containers,’ says Nikhil.
With their container spaces, Aadhan offers eco-friendly solutions to infrastructural needs in a shrinking world.
The team makes sure that every container-turned-space is approved for habitation and meets the eco-friendly standards of the brand. Since its start in 2015, Aadhan has won a number of awards including the Award for Innovation in Social Entrepreneurship by the Impact Investors Council, India and Top 10 TATA Social Enterprise Challenge 2016.
Emerging in an unexplored territory is among the startup’s biggest challenges. Nikhil says, “The market needs to mature not simply so that we receive more attention and investment, but also so that people realise the importance of investing in eco-friendly measures.”
The need for sustainable infrastructure is more acute than ever. Whether it’s for school or homes in challenging terrains, Nikhil and Akshay offer environment-friendly solutions. As Nikhil says, “It’s a small step, but it’s an important one.”
Who said buildings needed deep foundations?