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  • 08.26.15

A Cheap Modular System Will Provide Better Shelter To Indians With Shoddy Metal Roofs

Made from cardboard waste and coconut fibers, ReMaterials roofs are more affordable than concrete but a whole lot better than corrugated iron.

Much of the world will go to sleep tonight under a corrugated iron roof, a quite bumpy, ill-fitting way to cover a house. They’ll get hot in summer, get no insulation in winter, and the thing will probably crack and corrode before too long.

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The alternative from ReMaterials, an Indian startup selling a new type of roofing system, is more expensive, but a lot of better. Made up of a series of interlocking panels, it offers waterproofing and insulation, and at one third of the cost of a concrete roof.

Founder Hasit Ganatra came up with the concept while doing a survey of Indian homes three years ago. He noticed that families tended to spend all their money building the walls of their homes and then not have enough for the roof. And, he saw that when families couldn’t afford concrete–which costs $7 to $10 a square foot–they inevitably turned to iron, which, after insulation, costs about $1 per square foot.

“I thought ‘Why is there nothing else in the market?'” Ganatra says.

ReMaterials’ recycled panels are made of cardboard waste and coconut fibers held together by a natural binder. Then they’re covered in a waterproofing material. The company’s installers place the panels on beams and lock them together with S-shaped grooves. When assembled, the whole roof’s holes are covered up with a sealant.

“Distribution is a huge challenge in rural parts of the world, so our product has to be modular,” Ganatra says. “You should be able to ship it easily, store it easily, and maintain it easily.”

ReMaterials, which won second prize at this year’s Global Social Venture Competition, has been selling the panels since January. It has partnerships with micro-finance groups that provide loans to buy the product, which costs about $3.10 per square foot.

“If you go to a family with a new product, a new company, and the roof is a critical part of their house, and you ask them to shell out $600–it’s very difficult,” Ganatra says. “We want to [build the company by providing] reliability and credibility, but that will take time. So we’ve partnered with micro-finance companies at the beginning.”

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Based in Ahmedabad, ReMaterials has received funding from the U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund as well as from the wife and daughter of the late-C.K. Prahalad, the Harvard professor who coined the “bottom of the pyramid” concept. It has its own manufacturing facility and plans to license “manufacturing kits” to other parts of India, Bangladesh and Africa.

“We’re creating a roofing option for families in slums and villages around the world,” Ganatra says.

It’s not the only alternative roofing concept in the development. We covered this 3-D printed plastic option here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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