When two feet of rain fell on Ahmedabad, India, during the monsoon season, residents like Meena Soni thought about upgrading their roofs. Until recently, they had no choice but to go into debt for an expensive concrete slab roof.
Carbon dioxide emissions generated during the creation of these slabs is a major cause of global climate change and they can contain harmful substances like asbestos. Meena’s original roof made from widely used corrugated iron sheeting made her home unbearably hot in the summer and deafeningly loud during the monsoon rains. People like Meena use the corrugated iron sheets because they are affordable. They cost around $1 per square foot while slab roofs run $7 to $10 per square foot. To make matters worse, if Meena’s home was upgraded or torn down, the slabs become waste—concrete can’t be recycled.
A new product aims to change that.
ReMaterials, based in Ahmedabad, is marketing a new roofing product called ModRoof. It is designed for what is known as the circular economy, a new economic system that aims to reduce global climate change. ModRoof tiles link into this new circular economy because they are made of waste materials and because they are produced and installed in easily replaceable pieces.
ReMaterials manufactures the tiles in Ahmedabad, providing local jobs. Individual tiles are made of waste cardboard, pressed together with coconut fiber and non-toxic bonding agents, then covered in a non-toxic waterproof coating. Over their 20-year lifespan, the tiles are waterproof, fireproof and, according to one customer, strong enough even to withstand nuisance monkeys. ReMaterials wants to eventually add solar panels into the roofing tiles.
The ModRoof tiles cost $3.10 per square foot. ReMaterials partners with microfinance companies, which administer payment plans to make the technology accessible to low-income customers.
ModRoof tiles tackle a deficiency in our familiar linear economic system: Waste. The roofs can be disassembled piece by piece and moved. Reuse is an important element of this new way of thinking. The circular economy separates value creation from resource consumption. It mimics the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth by engineering things for their reuse from the beginning. Things die, decompose and are used to create new things—the circle of life.
Shifting to the circular economy is good business for India, too. According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, it could generate an additional $624 billion for India by 2050. There are some signs India is already headed in that direction. In June, the BBC quoted Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi saying India will go "above and beyond" the 2015 Paris accord on combating climate change.
India is an ideal epicenter for a building materials revolution. Construction projects are a major cause of carbon dioxide emissions and India has yet to build much of the infrastructure needed for its 1.3 billion people as they move into cities. Nearly 70 percent of the buildings needed in India by 2030 have yet to be built. If India can innovate new modular construction methods and pioneer the reuse of waste materials through technologies like ModRoof, they will have critical skills that can be exported.
Back in Ahmedabad, Meena says she’s happy with her new roof. Her home is quiet during the yearly monsoon that drops up to two feet of rain each year, and cool during Ahmedabad's summers, when the average temperature climbs over 100 degrees. She says her husband is healthier now, after suffering from breathing problems they attributed to daytime temperatures inside that sometimes reached 115 degrees. The ModRoof technology could make the dream of a better living space, and a healthier planet, a reality for billions like her.
Best of all, if Meena needs to move, she can just take the roof with her.