Why switch on lights even when there is adequate daylight in the room?
Let us go back in time when only animals lived on earth. They took protection within the elements of nature. Not so long back, during the pre-industrial era a few centuries ago, humans created shelters with materials found in nature. Today, we create shelters with materials made by us.
The distinction between using materials found and made is among the major causes for the ecological imbalance in the construction sector. Humans are habit forming, and we see how easily we have been trapped into switching on electric lights even when there is adequate daylight in the room.
We switch on the fan without fail, irrespective of the natural air inside. Even today, millions of people in villages live with low light and few windows without any complaint. Their senses are accustomed to the available light and air. Most of us have got technologically corrupted senses.
The best example can be how air conditioning has conditioned us, within a few years for the majority and few decades for the rest of us. With our offices, cars, homes and most public spaces air conditioned, we have lost our body tolerance to stay out of it. We have forgotten that human bodies are biologically designed to live with the available temperatures and there are many means of living with heat.
The generations that lived until recently managed to have 6 to 7 people of a middle-class family in a less than 2,000 sq. ft house, managing with available space and building materials. Of course, even now thousands of families across India live with the available light, air, space and materials, but the number of people who aspire for more is increasing drastically. Finally, everything boils down to available resources. Once processed, much is wasted and depleted, while resource unprocessed can replenish itself, like light, air, space and materials.
The very idea of making is an action to counter the nature – if she cannot supply it, we humans will make it. Increasingly, we are even rejecting what is found, in favour of what is made.
Making of good architecture does not need all the marketed manufactured materials; most often they take away the possibility of deeper aesthetic beauty of the building, replacing it with a lavish and superficial surface. Of course, we need to make products for a range of life challenges, be it medication or transportation, but not always for construction.
Generations have lived without electricity, even in crowded areas, using ideas like indoor courts, perforated voids, thick walls, high ceilings, bay windows, mukhamantapas and others.
This is not to say we should live without electricity today, but we need to learn to minimise our dependency on it.
The majority of the poor people on this Earth still live with their five senses aligned with the available light, air, water, space and temperature. If the majority can live so, why not the minority of affluent people?
Recycling every construction material even after demolition would be a great idea, but are we ready for it?
Habitat is a deep word that means how every form lives in a given locality and environment, where human habitation in a typical settlement. During the formative years, we would have observed nature, connected with the context and lived in simple structures which by default are eco-friendly.
With passage of time, patterns of living would have evolved by varied factors. Though nature friendly buildings are mostly simple buildings, we would have relegated nature and discarded simplicity. Our efforts towards sustainable lifestyle will be futile unless we realise how we live.
Our habit of habit forming dilutes living with nature: How often do we observe our daily life – the objects, comforts, services and relations we live with? For most of us, it’s rare, with pressures and pleasures of managing life taking precedence over thinking about life. Despite spirituality having proven the need to think about living, very few indulge in it; so people thinking about ecology could be minuscule. Humans are habit forming animals, so habits shape our lifestyle, which need to be replaced by thinking about nature and ecology.
Materials that waste the least are among the best materials: One of the simplest eco-sutras could be to look for construction materials that waste the least. Many appear efficient, but they ravage nature during their production; furniture making leads to wasted plywood, upholstery and foams; leftover paints, glass or tiles are common in construction sites. The leftovers are not merely wasted materials, but also wasted money and wasted resources. As an extended idea, if every construction material can be recycled even after demolitions, that is a great idea.
Do not buy something because it is available and affordable: Most project costs shoot up and material selection becomes non-judicious because we can afford to buy a product even if it is not necessary. Increasing options in the market has not necessarily made us more happy or effective; but equally led to confusions and complexities.
B alance between capital and operational costs: A closer look at projects shows overemphasising the initial construction costs, ignoring the maintenance cost and sometimes even operation costs. Somehow gather the funds required to start the project – we are on with it, which is incorrect. More energy and resources get consumed across the life span of the building than upfront; hence sustainable strategies have to focus at the complete life cycle.
I ndividually we are building more than collectively what we need: Assessing the actual constructed area needs of a city may be difficult, and even if we do that, the fact could be that some have more than the average need, while majority have less in this unequal society. Many built-up areas are used for part of the day, month or the year, left unused during other times. On any given night, the total number of unoccupied bedrooms in all the houses together may equal half the hotel rooms. We may have no solution to this predicament, but it’s time to think, are we building too much.
It is time to change construction practices and be in tune with nature.
If we agree with the philosophy that we are what we think, then we realise that we are not eco-friendly because we do not think eco-friendly. Our attitudes are not tuned to live with nature.
However many seminars we attend, articles we read or data we collect, most of it will be futile unless we change. So, we console ourselves saying paradigm changes are impossible and continue with our resource consuming lifestyle!
If we intend to change, it will not be so difficult to bring about at least few nature friendly-homes, habits and construction practices. There are a few listed below.
Every design decision should be validated for its ecological sensitivity: In our modern urban living, we all use set of criteria to take individual and collective decisions. Today cost, comfort, image and ego appear to dictate most of our decisions. For Mahatma Gandhi, the litmus test was about truthfulness, which he would apply to most decisions he would take. If we have to create a sustainable future, we also need a litmus test. We should check if every one of our ideas and actions are eco-friendly or not. If not, it is certain that we are harming nature.
Repairable construct i on, replaceable materials and replicable designs: The famous RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) as a solution towards eco-friendly living has had reasonable publicity, with some success too. However, the construction sector has generally ignored this dictum, continuing with its practice of building big, producing more products, introducing new materials and rarely repeating an idea, however appropriate it is. Architecture being an expression of owner aspirations as well, it may be difficult to force RRRs, but we can attempt repairable construction, replaceable materials and replicable designs, which can go a long way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to the construction sector.
Lower the embodied energy, greater the sustainability: Many sets of criteria have been introduced to assess and measure green buildings with varied types of certifications. Surely, they have resulted in marginal reduction in the carbon footprint of buildings, but these rating systems cannot change the future. Given this, one overarching criteria could be to assess the sum total energy a construction project consumes, right from the raw material supply to disposal of debris when it gets demolished someday. This figure is termed as embodied energy and lowering it is the key to a sustainable future.
Culturally appropriate plan and climatically appropriate construction:Architecture is an expression of both aspirations and construction, and as such needs to balance between the two.
Let the design be suited to the lifestyle such that there is a personal acceptance; material to fit aesthetic choices such that it has a societal meaning; construction be eco-friendly such that resources are saved and the overall design be of architectural appropriateness. Such an approach may lead to a sustainable future.
Property owners must test every idea that consultants extend to check for functional and ecological aspects.
Elaborate description and brief checklist pointers have respective roles to play in knowledge transfer. Extensive data can be found in the media, but many of them are so descriptive, readers are unable to apply them. So, this essay lists a few simple facts towards achieving green sense.
Performance of the building is more important than the perceived design:Architecture of the early history evolved from pragmatic approaches and practical designs.
There would have been considerations of visual appeal, but to lesser degree than today where we are obsessed with how the design would be perceived by people, professionals and the media.
Architecture of attraction is the rule of the day, with performance relegated to the back burners. It is time the project owners test every idea that consultants extend to check for their functional perfection and ecological performance, instead of simply going by the advertised hype.
Eco-sensitive ideas do not get accepted only on eco-criteria: People passionate about sustainable architecture are increasing in numbers today, but contrastingly, so too are consultants frustrated by negligible implementation of such design ideas.
To understand this paradox, we need to realise that an idea however great it is ecologically, will not get built unless it is visually attractive, socially acceptable, financially affordable and professionally doable. So, the challenge lies in fusing multiple criteria into the ecological platform.
Not all these can be achieved by the consultants alone, so forming a team of likeminded people has to be the first step, followed by the feasibility of the ideas generated. Much can be achieved if we are willing.
Let the buildings breathe: Imperviousness is not a common phenomenon in nature, with all fruits, vegetables, trees, materials and animals living by breathing through nostrils, skin, bark or surface. Traditional architecture built with mud, wood, lime, tiles, stone and thatch breathed and lasted long.
The moment we apply cement mortar, chemical paints, aluminium cladding and such others, we are blocking the breathing, in terms of air, light and humidity. No wonder, they demand more energy for servicing them, reducing the lifespan of the building and increasing life cycle costs due to greater maintenance.
In the name of architecture, we are not enclosing spaces, but sealing spaces. We are creating boxes of artificial indoors, which need to be opened to nature.
Minimise manufactured materials: If we can classify building materials as natural, processed and manufactured ones, it is the last category of manufactured materials which consume most of Earth resources. As such, they have high embodied energy, effecting irreversible ecological damages during their production, besides producing high quantity of waste. Until a few decades ago, most construction happened with natural materials and very few processed ones like burnt brick.
It’s too late now to refuse manufactured materials, but we surely can minimise their usage. A few centuries ago, produced materials replaced the natural ones, and now the time has come to replace the produced ones with natural materials.
Measures that any builder can follow.
We see larger number of people today opting to live with organic food, less waste, zero preservatives, low carbon footprint and in architecture, with designs closer to nature. Unfortunately, there is no single source at present where one can learn about the basic applicable eco principles applicable to a project. This essay continues from the last, listing some simple applicable measures that anyone can follow.
Common sense can solve what creativity cannot: If we look for the common thought among sustainable buildings of the past, we notice they all had some common sense. Simple observations of what works and what does not, how to put diverse materials together and how to build easy contributed to design decisions. This is not to ridicule contemporary designs emerging from computer software, but to stress on the need to be sensible to a context.
The major impediment towards applying common sense is embedded in increasing professionalism. Young aspirants get academically trained to be part of the industry, with no accumulated knowledge. The construction field itself is being controlled by systems, standards, procedures and formalities, keeping common sense out. If we can bring it in, many more buildings can become eco-friendly.
Build with local materials, not locally available materials: Among the major principles of sustainable buildings, emphasis on local materials is universally agreed upon. Every region inhabited by humans has the required construction materials to provide shelter and security, without which settling down would have been impossible. Invariably, they are economical, suited to the local climate and easy to work with no long distance transport.
In a large metropolitan city, the original local material might have disappeared, yet the regional options would be around. However, today the local materials are being replaced by locally available materials, thanks to the global marketing networks, which does more harm to ecology.
Minimise manufactured materials: With no major exception, most locally available materials are produced somewhere, transported to anywhere and belong to nowhere. They are rooted only to their factory, not to any climate, culture or history, unlike the local materials which have a context. Once built with, the character they give to the buildings also are not rooted in the context, but only in the perceived creativity, publicity and anonymity.
The greater reason to minimize manufactured materials lies in their very high embodied energy, a direct quantitative measure of the consumed Earth resources. Unfortunately, we are increasingly manufacturing and constructing with artificial factory made materials today than ever in our construction history.
Heritage buildings are by default eco-friendly buildings: The past did not permit us to build anyway we wished, but created constraints of wall stability, limited roof options, indoor comfort, maintenance matters, local appropriateness and such others. Most of these resulted in historic structures being climate and construction specific, hence by default energy efficient and sustainable.
We tend to mainly observe beauty and monumentality in traditional buildings, sometimes the vernacular values, not realising how much is there to learn towards an eco-friendly future.
Every region in India can evolve a local, contextual and hence ecological architecture, while being contemporary as well.
In aspiring for ecological architecture, too often, we are lost attempting a paradigm shift in our actions, which cannot be achieved unless we adopt the right methods. Methods themselves are determined by the approach, which needless to say, have not changed much during the last 40 years of ecological awareness. It will be worthwhile to re-focus on a few approaches, without which we cannot make headway in green sense.
Image of the building is less important than its impact on the environment:Visual images have occupied centre stage nowadays, be it in websites, fashion shows, TV news channels or in shopping malls. Architecture cannot singularly escape the trend of the time, so most designs are sold with perspective views, rendered images and unbelievably ‘true to life’ computer-generated walk-throughs. Apartments are launched and institutions are inaugurated with media attention. Amidst all this, how often do we hear about the overall environmental impact of the new construction? Very rarely, may be. Stakeholders of every project need to think of ecology before the elevation.
Contextual designs can also be contemporary expressions: The buzz word sweeping across urban India today is ‘contemporary architecture’, a design approach that originated abroad, especially Europe.
Theoretically, ‘contemporary’ should have meant a design belonging to the present time and place, though majority of these structures in India are disconnected from both, primarily following a pre-established western style.
This is not to demean the imagination and creativity behind the contemporary architecture, but to suggest that a contextual design can also belong to our time and place. If designers can take up such a challenge, every region in India can evolve a local, contextual and hence an ecological architecture, while being contemporary as well.
Difficulty of execution should not be the reason to reject an eco-idea: In a fast-paced lifestyle where time has come to mean money, owners and promoters tend to choose designs which are easy to build.
Accordingly, technology-based approaches using manufactured materials get a priority over labour-intensive methods with natural materials. The fine finish with clean lines and shining surfaces appear more enticing than the rustic and handmade. In this process, we not only neglect the carbon footprint of the building, but also the possible construction variety and design range. The ease and speed of doing is becoming both uniform and universal, diluting climate as a determinant of design.
Designing by intuition is as important as designing by calculations:Construction right from early civilisation up to medieval times was deeply rooted in common sense and contextual possibilities. Industrial revolution followed by varied technological and manufacturing capabilities opened up new avenues, formalising the activity into a profession. Naturally procedures, codes of practice, rules, regulations and all the rest followed. The ecological concerns which led to the new direction of sustainable architecture and the green building movement have gone a step ahead with innumerable standards, ratings and calculations. It is ironic that mind is no more the maker of buildings, but systems are. Ecological architecture demands passion as much as profession, intuition as much as calculation
This essay is the 350th in the Green Sense and Eco-Build series, a weekly column that began in May, 2010. With 8 years completed, stepping onto the 9th year, the present and next few essays would try capturing some simple theories that could convert any building into an essentially ecological project.
Cob walls can take any shape, including curves, sculptural forms and furniture profiles.
Anyone who explored how our past generations built is bound to have discovered mud walls, be it of Didi Contractor up north at Dharamshala or Laurie Baker in deep-south Kerala. We owe much to such pioneers who re-created our confidence in eco-friendly approaches. However, the introduction of newer ideas has eroded societal belief in traditional systems, including the cob wall, which is among the greenest material with not even cement as an additive.
Soil mix with approximately 20% clay, 20% silt and rest sand, a proportion that can vary slightly, is ideal for cob. Chopped straw, rice husk or such non-decomposing fibrous binders are added to control cracking, and lime is added to make it termite proof. Once this smooth mix with no lumps is added with water, it shapes well as a ball or elongated egg. Testing it is important, checking for consistency by how it cracks while dropping, breaks while being pulled or feeling its stickiness to hand.
These handmade lumps are placed side by side, gaps filled with soil, pebbles, or burnt brick pieces. The surface can be leveled by hand and compacted by hammering. Each layer is checked for consistency in width, say 2’ or at least 1’ 6”, and allowed to dry before next layer is placed. The side of the wall needs to be smoothened before it dries too much using wooden leveling bar with the sharpened edge or even hacksaw blade.
Exposed cob is not advisable anywhere, especially the lower part of wall vulnerable to erosion by rain, where we may use stone. Since the soil mix is unstabilised, walls facing lashing rain would also need protection. Besides, the wall surface tends to crack, more initially and slowly later on through one full cycle of all seasons, i.e. up to a year.
Given these reasons, cob walls need crack filling with the same mix, later plastering with mud stabilised with cement and quarry dust. The final coat can be with lime or left as mud wash with oxides for colour effect.
To locate openings, we need to fix temporary shuttering, to be removed once the wall is shaped. Stone or wooden lintels suit the cob most, though thin precast RCC lintels can be inserted above very wide openings, to be finished with mud later. Electrical conduits can be fixed externally on the wall, though they can be embedded by making grooves like in normal construction.
Being a loamy material, cob walls can take any shape, including curves, sculptural forms, and furniture profiles. Feasibility of cob depends much upon space available for wall thickness, local climate, availability of the ideal soil mix, local precedence, the speed of construction expected and of course owner’s acceptance.
In India, we do not document our works adequately and provide knowledge to others. Given this, the documentation at Sacred Groves is really remarkable, besides which workshops by Thannal and website postings by many consulting architects today provide basic information if one desires to revive cob walls.
What was the original material of Bangalore fort? Not all can respond to this quizzical question, but the answer is mud.
The local chieftain Kempegowda moved his capital from Yelahanka to Bangalore in 1537, with a fort surrounding the market area called Pete. As was normal in those days, it was built with mud, possibly a thick solid wall. Increased threats by enemies made Chikkadeva Raya Wodeyar enlarge and strength it around 1700, still power moved to the hands of Maratha ruler Shahaji. When Hyder Ali claimed the territories around Bangalore, he got the mud fort replaced by stones in 1761, considering the changing technology of warfare.
This fascinating piece of history is also a part of history of mud. Mud walls have much to tell about how we lived in the past, for they sheltered the history of human civilizations. Incidentally, mud walls have a future too, in these days of climate change and ecological challenges.
Most of traditional mud walls were not built with sized bricks, but lumps of clay mixed with straw and lime, what we have today termed as cob construction – simply piling up lumps of local clay. Thick walls were the first human impulses towards shelter making to gain strength by thickness, stability by wider base, durability by multiple surface layers and passive cooling by thermal mass.
Though the walls are thick, they breathe being porous, hence can control indoor environment. The thickness also helps as moisture barrier, hence average indoor humidity can be maintained. Of course, we need to protect the base of the wall where rain water can splash back and protect the top of the wall with good overhangs, otherwise they tend to erode as can be seen in many village homes built carelessly. Lack of proper cleaning of clay may also lead to plant growth on wall from the roots left in the mud mix or if raw fertile soil is used, it may result sprouting of seeds settled on the wall during rains. Either of them is not a technology problem, but an operational one.
The wider and more compact the wall is, the greater load it can take. This system is called load bearing by compression, a cheaper and long lasting method. Contrastingly, the RCC framed construction transfers load by tension members, which is costlier and has lesser life span.
The roof weight normally go vertically down, called axial loads, which can be well handled by cob. In case of sloping roofs and other lateral loads, proper wall plate beams are required. Many rural structures were not aware of this, where we can notice cracking of wall tops due to lateral loads. Of course, many of them were made thicker at the lower levels, to partially counter the lateral forces and also be able to transfer larger loads. People have also tried stone wall at the base, which actually works very well, often finished with mud plastering to blend with the wall.
In many ways, a cob house is like an anthill. Termites dig out small balls of earth and build atop, with porosity. It may appear primitive, but the way it is being done now scientifically with studied inputs makes it the most green.
Re-discovering the virtues of cob construction, a mud wall so thick that it can take all load without getting eroded by rains for a long time.
All of us have heard of mud walls, possibly the wall material for the majority of standing structures in India today including all rural buildings. Of course, the increasing presence of burnt bricks and cement blocks are a threat to the popularity of mud, yet traditional mud walls are around us. But how many of us have heard of the term ‘cob walls’?
Dictionary definitions apart, cob walls are the original approach humans used to construct walls with, even before learning how to make mud bricks to specific sizes to sun dry or kiln-burn them. For many thousands of years, cob walls dominated the early human settlements, including those in Babylonian or Gangetic plains.
Have they lost their relevance today? Partly yes, but not entirely. In many rural areas, people continue to build with cob, but in cities, it has almost vanished. Curiously, now there are increasing attempts to revive this technology by groups such as Thannal and Marudam in Thiruvannamalai, Sacred Grove at Auroville, Made in Earth, Mudhands and Biome in Bengaluru and few others in different parts of India.
We are rediscovering the virtues of cob construction. Simply stated, it is a mud wall built so thick that it can take all load without getting eroded by rains for a long time. Some surface moisture, peeling and erosion may occur, which can be repaired periodically. The volume of the wall acts as thermal mass, keeping the building cool in summer and warm in winter. With high compressive strength due to the thickness, cob walls are also earthquake resistant.
Having said this, haven’t we heard, seen or been to such structures like shrines, choultries, monuments, heritage homes or even palaces? Of course, many of us have been there to wonder about the thick walls, not realising their possible potential today. Often these walls were thicker at base, tapering as they reach the top at least in one side, often on both sides.
Cob walls do not need much structural calculations, great construction skills or big budgets. A lump of clay is called cob, so building with them must have been an easy discovery during early civilizations. The fact that even after construction became regular and formalised, cob continued widely, seen even now from lower Himalayas to coastal south India, proves its time-tested qualities.
Cob walls make minimal demands of clean sub-soil with less clay and more silt, space to accommodate thick walls, some local additives to reduce cracking and material options for final finish. Typically, cob walls are plastered with mud mixed with straw, though in poorer homes they were left un-plastered, with mud slurry and lime wash as crack fillers. If we walk into an old house with plastering peeled off, we can see the original clay lumps revealing the origins of wall construction.
While cob uses local soil to build, it is not the same as the other mud architecture techniques. Building with double hand size mud balls dipped into additively mixed mud slurry as the joint binder is seen some rural areas, which is very close to cob practices. Rammed earth walls could be mistaken as a cob. But they are much thinner at 9 inches only, while cob could be 18 to 24 inches thick. The other differences being the smoother surface of rammed earth, very few surface cracks, no need for plastering and such others.
The Adobe system depends upon mud bricks made to size, sun-dried at the site itself and used to build with. Stabilised mud blocks are also sized blocks, with cement and quarry dust added to gain different properties like strength, thinner walls, durability and better surface density. Cob walls are much simpler than all these.
The re-discovered cob walls are not merely repeating the rural practices, but have attempted technical improvements. There also has been deeper studies about the causes behind surface cracking with solutions; possibility of avoiding thicker base where the whole wall width could be same; different options for additives for the mud; scientific modes of quantifying the components of mud into clay, silt, sand and such others to accordingly decide the right kind of proportion ideal for the cob wall.
These methods of improvisation re-validate the use of cob walls again to claim a position in sustainable architecture. It is time we look into it.
The concrete jungles we are creating may endanger the future of our living itself. It is time to adhere to some sets of basic principles.
Words like green sense and eco-build are often mistaken. The converted naturalists tend to overemphasise air, light, heat, rain and humidity as the only or main criticalities in a good building. If these “pancha sutras” are followed, everything will go great.
The critiques would question how other essentials of architecture can be ignored and how mere adherence to few criteria can fulfil the larger role of design. Of course, every word of their critique is right. The real challenge lies not merely in conforming to nature but balancing nature-architecture equilibrium in their respective roles.
There are many other pancha sutras to be followed. We may list construction, maintenance, demolition, disposal and recycling as the second set. While the first two are somewhat discussed at least to consider the options, the rest is completely ignored as if our buildings will last forever. Everything we build today will have to be demolished one day, but we live as if such a day never comes. The concrete jungles we are creating may endanger the future of our urban living itself.
Considering buildings have evolved from the primary need of shelter making, the third list may have space, activity, storage, protection and privacy. These are being increasingly focused upon, at least in structures being put up by professionals like architects.
Possibly, these were not critically considered in the past, since the lifestyle of those days were not so demanding. Designs revolved around simple, multifunctional and large halls, which were open for many adjustments. Today, we indulge in micro-designing, locating every activity in a specific place.
Buildings need to provide a place for body and peace of mind. So comes the fourth list with security, strength, durability, functionality and flexibility. While the first three everyone talks about and also provide for, the last two only some people talk about and very few are able to provide for. It needs critical thinking, wide experience and an understanding of how people live. When we decide how to live, we can design the true architecture.
The last and fifth set of sutras derives from services, facilities and comforts we seek from buildings. They are water, sanitation, power, lift and air conditioning. Evidently, they refer more to modern and urban contexts, than the architecture of the past which would have had none of them. Incidentally, it is this list which ignores the role of nature most, trying to rule it instead. Considering they all have come to stay, we cannot negate them but can be sensitive to do the least harm to nature. Going a step further, we may attempt living with some discomfort and inconveniences, like all our previous generations have done, at least to let future generations have access to resources they too would need.
The five sets of pancha tantras each totalling 25 principles, is not an exhaustive list towards an ideal arch