We can learn a lot from nature which displays a design sense in every object it creates.
A new-born baby is a joyous welcome to any family, eagerly looked forward not only by the parents but by all. However for the baby it must be a strange new world to arrive into, initially with light, sounds and smells. Gradually, the baby observes objects all around her, a world filled with forms created by natural and human actions.
Most of tangible human productions can be seen as objects in 3 dimensions. As such, the making of every building and every city is also an act of making of forms. During the primitive days, humans would have learnt to do so by imitating nature, a stage long forgotten now thanks to the relentless march of our civilization.
However, nature continues with design sense in every object she creates by imbibing principles of ecological life, economical life and performance life. Unfortunately, our life has taken a different path from that of nature. It goes undebated that every object we see in nature has an ecological life, being part of a life cycle. Even though it sounds cruel to read Paul Rosolie who says every animal eats another animal in the jungle, except few like elephants and in turn is eaten up by another animal, we need to realise the fact that all are part of an ecological life. Objects begin and end with nature.
We humans take pride in using the term economy as if nature never knew it, but the economical life invented by nature is nowhere matched by people. There is nothing unwanted or extra in anything we see around us – be in the animated or the unanimated world. The judicious consumption of resources, minimalism of materials and the absence of wastes are much to learn from. We tend to place over-emphasis on the performance life of our products, but even here nature wins over us. Be it fruits and vegetables, foliage and forests, lakes and rocks or the world under sea, everything seems to be performing impeccably.
When nomadic humans settled down, every shelter they built was rooted in the nature around. As they advanced technologically, this connect got diluted. Is it possible to revive this nature-architecture connect? Yes, if only we attempt to apply the design principles of nature in our own creations.
If we realise that the performance of a building is more important than the perceived appearance, we may move closer to nature in building designs.
Let us ask any elderly citizen a simple query about what we learn from nature. With their lifelong wisdom, they may possibly list harmonious living, sense of continuity, resilience to changes, contextual adoption and such others. They may refer to the ecological equilibrium maintained by nature as a unique phenomenon, something we should emulate.
Now let us look at how we humans have been living. Without going into rhetoric, upon simple observations, we know how we live is antithesis to nature. In other words, by observing what we learn from nature we realise, we do not learn from nature.
Architecture today is among the few human activities which is in direct contrast to everything natural. Construction of buildings and destruction of nature are directly connected, with increased construction worldwide contributing to up to one-third of greenhouse emissions, which further on cause ozone hole, global warming and climate change. We have not only moved away from nature, but also have made natural equilibrium lose its balance. Even the word ‘balance’ has lost its meaning in the process.
Most children continue to draw, just like the elders did once, a round circle showing the lifecycle of a butterfly. The line ends where it began, suggesting how everything is connected. In the global sense, we humans are an integral part of such cycles of natural balance, yet we stand apart. We do not claim a life cycle, but a lifestyle.
The problem for nature starts with our lifestyle, which we preserve and enhance as if it’s a precious little gem of human civilization.
In urban India, we have moved from floor-based living to furniture based, from outdoor space uses to indoor enclosures and instead of doing tasks ourselves, we are outsourcing a whole lot of them.
Out of context
Our buildings do not emerge from the context, but from image, imagination, technology and trends. It’s time we realise the image of architecture is less important than the impact it has on nature. The performance of the building is more important than the perceived appearance. Given such theoretical premises, we need to learn how to locate a building in a given locality.
Despite such design approaches much needed today, design has become an anytime- anywhere-anyhow application on architecture and construction. The design by nature, which invariably is contextual and connected, is missing in our human constructions.
The dilemmas of the above kind cannot be resolved fully. The related questions cannot be fully answered, but can only be pondered over.
May be, a sincere pondering over, may lead us to live little closer to nature than what we are now. May be that act of introspection will lead to improve the nature-architecture connect.
Buildings and other infrastructure in hill stations should not mar the beauty and ambience of the locale.
If we ask people “Do you like hill stations like Ooty or Wayanad?” everyone will say yes. Then if we follow it up asking “Do you think hill stations like to have people coming over there?”, not everyone will be equally affirmative. After all, we have spoiled the terrain with roads, exploited the views with buildings, littered the landscape with garbage and contaminated the sources of water.
Could these be the only reasons why hill stations dislike humans? After all, aesthetics goes beyond facilities and services, getting expressed in every one of our individual and collective actions. Here lies the tragedy – we go outdoors to relax in the lap of nature and we spoil that very natural settings with our constructions. Most of the buildings in hill stations make neither green sense nor hill sense.
The reference to hills is only anecdotal, for the issue is with our design approaches which negates anything natural. After all, before humans became designers and builders, nature has been designing, building and creating forms. None of them appear to be out of context; there are no ugly rivers; no terrible looking trees; no stones which appear nonsense or no unattractive animals. What are the principles of beauty found in these elements of nature and have we studied them to adapt in any way in our modern human constructs?
Of course, there is a major difference – natural forms grow in their context, while human needs are built up out of context. Buildings do not grow that way to become big from a miniature model kept at the centre of the site. Act of one-time construction differentiates us from nature, which follows slow evolution.
However, can we find ideas towards sustainable architecture in nature? If so, can they be universal or do we need to search them out in every region? How does nature ensures minimalism in its objects where nothing appears unnecessary in any and every part of the object? Can there be design parameters to be learnt from all such phenomena?
There surely are specific criteria behind everything around us, but we have lost the impulse to read them. During the early civilizations, people lived with nature, hence understood and adapted them. Human constructions blended with natural creations, hence there was harmony of different kinds. Architecture of the locality evolved from the landscape of that locality, both complementing each other. Now, times have changed. Even if we were to discover how nature designs, we may find it difficult to follow them in our designs.
The fact that designing with nature is sustainable goes undebated, but are people and designers willing to seek that path in these days where modern architecture is ruling the world? We need to seek answers to such difficult questions
There are economical and ecological advantages, besides the aesthetic appeal.
Everyone talks about the need to revive the past wisdom and blend it with modern times. But who is going to bell the cat is the million dollar question, especially if there are business risks involved with it.
Among the time-tested construction materials, building with mud tops the list world over. Increased research has shown greater variety of possibilities with this wonderful material, as the French institute CRATerre has published or the well-documented book titled “Building with Mud” by Gernot Minke suggests. Within India, Indian Institute of Science, Auroville Earth Institute, Mrinmayee, Hunnarshala Foundation and such others have worked on it for many decades, besides scores of architects promoting this material.
Among the new trends catching up is the machine-pressed interlocking stabilised mud block, which became popular in Kerala.
Some of the early pioneers there and in Mysuru imported the machines, but now quality machines are made in Coimbatore. Started as a city-centred initiative, now it is catching up in rural areas, which is worth noting.
The family making Suraksha interlocking mud blocks in a village near Mangaluru actually lived in a mud house for generations.
They happen to demolish it, to get a new house with modern materials. Now, following a curious turn of events, the present younger generation returned to the village after studying in Bengaluru, to make mud blocks and despatch them widely, from Kerala in the south to Gulbarga in the north. Presently, they use mud from the uncultivable parts of their property, which has good clay and sand proportion.
After the first round of cleaning, sizing and sieving, it goes into a batch mixer where about 5% cement and stipulated quantity of plasticiser are added, maintaining the correct moisture level. The thoroughly mixed stabilized mud is poured into the moulds, compressed to half the poured volume to get the final block.
Every block has projected and recessed faces on four sides, which fit into each other, so the wall can be built without any mortar. Depending upon the mould, differently sized blocks are made, to suit specific construction demands.
What is interesting is not that another production unit has started.
The fact that a rural family is making them in an area where traditional buildings used mud is interesting.
Today, even villagers have lost faith in un-stabilised mud walls because they crack and disintegrate in rain, so the challenge also lies in re-educating them about the vastly improved versions.
The ecological advantages of minimising on cement, the financial advantages of faster construction, the life cycle advantages of low maintenance and the visual advantages of aesthetics of earthy construction need to be reached out to the masses.
Those who believe that modernity offers a wider choice are not aware of variations in indigenous architecture occurring virtually everywhere in the country. CVA in Bengaluru is committed to the cause of the latter.
A A curious phenomenon occurs as cities grow – as they evolve with a modern image, they also seek to showcase their traditional roots. If not all, a few converted people trace the design from the past and apply it fresh in the new contexts.
Bengaluru has specifically faced this trend; as such, possibly has a notable variety of traditional designs in a modern avatar. During the last two decades, many architects have attempted to promote culture and constructions whenever they get an opportunity, but very few have dared to stay only with the vernacular. Among them is the Centre for Vernacular Architecture (CVA) in Bengaluru, started by R.L. Kumar.
A Chartered Accountant before he gave it up to join the CIEDS (Centre for Informal Education and Development Studies) Collective in 1983, Kumar has been a philosopher activist. Inspired by a wide range of thinkers including Ivan Illich, Michel Foucault, Dharampal, Ashis Nandy and Jeet Singh Oberoi, Kumar’s passions are wide. Many modern architects have forayed into traditional architecture, but Kumar is specially worth mentioning, being neither an engineer nor an architect entering this difficult field.
The idea of starting CVA was not a sudden one, but followed the success of Shramik, a construction workers’ cooperative he found in the late Eighties with labourers from Khader Sharief Garden, where civic amenities for slum dwellers was a major concern.
CVA evolved in the early 90s not merely to build houses but to empower village labourers and bring them into the fold of financial equity. CVA continues to perform today on par with how it was, 4 years after Kumar’s demise, which proves how participatory and decentralised the initiative has been. Incidentally, hand crafts, social equality, natural materials, and such others are all part of vernacular values.
Those who believe that modernity offers a wider choice are not aware of variations in indigenous architecture occurring virtually every tenth mile across India, far beyond the modernity which looks alike everywhere. Kumar believed we need to live this vernacular again, for modernity could not solve problems of today.
Strangely but truly, one of the major reasons for the declining popularity of local tradition, including handcrafted skills, is our professional college education in English, structured by the British, largely ignoring all local wisdoms.
We are still walking the path they mapped, and ignore the gem in our backyards. No wonder, we see no glitter in exposed stone walls, brick patterns, perforated walls, internal courtyards, small windows, sloping roofs, local materials, rural aesthetics, clay tiles, human scale, rustic finish, folk themes and many such others which essentially are vernacular.
How much of Bengaluru do we find in buildings of the city today can be a debatable question, Bengaluru itself having morphed into an international city. Yet, culture, architecture and ecology connections cannot be easily negated. Values like perfection and continuation that the vernacular stands for, cannot be deleted from theories of architecture.
The vernacular has the widest variety of building ideas climatically suited to all contexts, but we are blindly following the ‘one size suits all’ policy.
If we study our past and the present, the Indian music is thriving well; community cuisine has come to be served in restaurants; ritualistic practises continue; traditional dresses stay popular amidst the new haute couture and homestays have returned despite increasing number of hotels.
The major casualty appears to be in architecture, where the vernacular is getting diluted, with the modern going strong. Hence the concern and need to re-think about this ever green and ever appropriate means of making of buildings.
Among the best suited quotes to understand the vernacular could be by Mahatma Gandhi. He says ‘I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”.
For him, the local and the outsider are not mutually competing phenomena, but complementing, hence the need for them to inform each other. Yet, we are discontinuing local traditions, being blown off our feet. It started with the British introducing new professional programmes for architecture and civil engineering, ridiculing our indigenous practices. Across centuries, it is now accelerated by the MNC culture following global practices, informed by internet, media and new images.
Shortage of documentation
We have an acute shortage of replicable drawings and documentation of the local, which was mostly practised with minimal sketches by a few skilled people. It cannot compete with modern approaches equipped with standardised designs, building codes, PWD manuals and textbooks to pass on the knowledge.
Paradoxically, the vernacular has the widest variety of ideas climatically suited to all contexts, but we are blindly following the ‘one size suits all’ policy. The range of ‘architecture without architects’ produced in India is in no way inferior to anything that any other nation has produced across history.
The way vernacular architecture evolves does not change. It can emerge even today by designing with users, specific to a place and responding to the functional need. What is critical is not how the final design appears, but how that design evolves.
As such, there can be a vernacular approach even in an urban setting. The design ethos has not changed, but our mind-set has changed, hence we ignore it.
There are many architects who have turned away from modern practices, like Sudhir from Chennai, who with his aptly named firm ‘Peoples Architecture Commonweal’ has been using the same methods as that of vernacular towards making of urban architecture.
Both the theories of design-like scale, geometry, materiality or character and those outside it like compassion, sensitivity and humility merge here. Designing and building together with the owners, the projects become eco-friendly, with no certification ever required.
Be it vernacular or sustainability, none of these should be a matter of fashion nor a superficially applicable idea, but be the core quality of the project. If we have to move out of unsustainable impersonal designs, we need to adopt personal vernacular approaches.
We need not discard designs with nondescript urban appearance, but only believe that ideas from the past may have validity today.
It’s typical in any metropolitan city, especially Bengaluru, where people meet each other and ask ‘Where are you from?’. Of course both live in the same city, yet majority answer saying they are from some other city or village. Everyone is proud of the place where their life journey began.
Likewise, every design journey too has begun somewhere. With no hesitation, we can place them in some rural context, villages being the early human settlements. Following many centuries of experiments, trial and error, a few construction practices would have survived the test of time, to get passed on to the younger family members. We may call them as rural, local, cultural, vernacular, traditional, routine, folk, desi, indigenous or by any other word; this body of knowledge has been an invaluable design source for generations.
Today vernacular values are either glorified or neglected, with the advent of modernity which claims to be the harbinger of a great future. The last few decades have shown us how humans have changed and climate too, with a bleak future ahead of us. We cannot summarily blame the new age, which has benefited us in many ways, but need to advance with a caution. The traditional systems may be of assistance here, to balance the critical ecological damage we are causing.
Vernacular architecture is a product of its time and context, in a given locality, evolved by the users themselves. There may not be elaborate drawings, design discussions and calculations. The accumulated wisdom of the land ensures there will be familiarity if not novelty and perfection if not innovation. As such, the buildings will be the most appropriate to the climatic conditions, functional demands and aesthetic expectations.
Being rooted in one locality in thought and action, despite exposure of the global, may even be learning from that global is the kind of vernacular approach we need today. To that end, we need to distinguish between local and locally available global materials. After all, without the local, there is no global. Millions of locals have aggregated to create the idea of the global, but what we can see and perceive are around us, in the immediate context.
Gradually, though slowly, people are waking up to the necessity to re-discover our design roots. The cottages at Janapada Loka on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway are a good case in point. Recently completed, the Trust decided to adopt folk aesthetics, natural materials and traditional plan types for their guest cottages. This is not to say we should discard designs with nondescript urban appearance, but only to suggest that ideas from the past may have validity today.
Not many people have deliberated upon the virtues and advantages of local traditions, hence the general negligence of the approach itself.
Vernacular is not necessarily rural, but can be urban too. Jaipur and Madurai are very much urban, yet are vernacular, being products of their place and time.
It is time to re-think the vernacular.
The management of a rural school decided to introduce the ideas of Laurie Baker, both to save on costs and get a new architectural vision.
Let us deeply observe the kind of talk we are engaged with nowadays. Too often it could be revolved around changing values, shifting aspirations and a new age. Of course, they appear to be the need of the hour, the harbinger of a greater future. May be they are, yet it would be wise to check what we are leaving behind and were they worth discontinuing.
The case of Janatha Higher Primary School, Adyanadka, located in the village Kepu in coastal Karnataka can be a case in point. Started by the visionaries of the village in 1922, the school will hit a century soon, one among the few for any rural schools in Karnataka. The time ahead is ideally the time to celebrate, but sadly it appeared different, with the challenge of survival.
Reducing public donations, unviable rural fee structure, lack of government support, rejection of Kannada medium schools and dwindling admissions created a bleak future for the school, none of them of its own doing but caused by our changing times. Gandhiji if alive today, would have lamented the way our villages are being deserted, yet the lure of cities cannot be arrested by merely quoting Gandhiji.
Given this, the management run by local people took a bold step – not to let the school face a slow death, but to revive it by making it on par with urban schools by introducing the English medium, while continuing the Kannada medium to compliment the new. This meant a new building is needed, an opportunity to create a new image.
Visions are fine, if supported by finances. Attempts to seek donations and funds did not go far, with priorities of people with money also having changed. Undeterred, the management decided to introduce the ideas of Laurie Baker, both to save on costs and get a new architectural vision.
The site edging a vertical drop in the levels demanded RCC column frame structure, but it helped in creating large obstruction-free classrooms. Nominal laterite foundations support the non-load bearing walls. The same laterite stone is used for the walls too, which are left un-plastered. A few interior walls were painted with natural brick colour to create the classroom ambience, the rest were finished with simple groove pointing.
The RCC roof was designed using the filler block concept popularised by Baker. To make them free of intermediate beams, thick flat slab design was adopted with 3 layers of cheap, zero quality Mangalore tiles as the filler material. Round clay blocks made up for the verandah pillars with simple cement concrete for the flooring. Interlocking stabilised mud blocks create the few partitions, traditional Mangalore tiles on steel truss covers the first floor, displacement ventilation is ensured by voids below ceiling and windows go up to roof providing ample daylight.
No fancy stuff
No fancy elevation, no false modernism and no pretensions of copying the new urban images.
It is a simple building built the way schools were built in the region for decades, minimalistic in construction with nothing unwanted about it. Yet, a team of educated professionals came together to make it, keeping their career expectations and ego aside, not contributing to an architectural image, but ensuring that an appropriate, practical and contextual school happens.
While fund raising is still being attempted, classes have started in the new school wing with first floor construction on going. The village school is defying dis-continuation as the village is shaping as a small town, hoping to cross a century of service and survival, staying green, cost effective, eco-friendly and retaining its vernacular roots.
It is mostly dumped along the roadside and in empty plots, though large-scale builders are attempting to manage the waste within the site itself.
Every visitor loves to see the neat orderly looks of the house site on the day of grihapravesha , with only the house owner knowing the tension that gripped him or her a few days ago, with construction waste half covering the place. After a few thousands of rupees was spent and a few tractor loads of debris was sent out, the house is clean and shining.
Every construction site in the city, from homes to hospitals, sends out debris, commonly called as construction waste. Does anyone think about where is this ‘outside’ – the magical land where the debris gets hidden? Sadly, the outside is often in the city itself, too often along the road sides and empty plots, showcasing the dirtier part of construction.
Even green buildings are not an exception to this phenomenon, though waste generation is one of the criteria in scoring the green points. Many large-scale builders are aware of the problem and are attempting to manage the waste within the site itself.
The Bangalore city corporation estimates that a typical construction site would generate anywhere between 40 to 60 kg. of waste and has made regulations identifying few landfill sites, mostly in neighbouring erstwhile villages. Legally, proper debris clearance is binding on the owners and occupants. The Karnataka Pollution Control Board has formulated guidelines for waste segregation and management, for mandatory follow-up. All cities across India have enacted similar
legal documents, though smaller towns have no policy at all for waste management.
Yet the problem continues with C & D (Construction and Demolition) waste with increasing magnitude, as our cities are building at a rate never seen before. The landfills identified by the authorities are far and few, which increase the cost of carting away. So, the tractor drivers dump the debris on some vacant area at midnight, which is known but goes unabated. Though these debris clearance contractors are small-time players, today their contacts can be collected from web sites.
Reusing is the key
The first step to greener sense is definitely to minimise waste by salvaging and reusing. Much of bricks, stone, cement blocks, broken concrete, aggregates and earthy materials can be reused within the project itself. Many others like glass, plastics, steel, and wood, can be additives in manufacturing. Broken glazed and flooring tiles can be laid in mosaic pattern.
Electrical and plumbing items can be bought to exact needs. Most containers and packaging can be used by people as storage options. As such, very few materials may have to reach landfills. Of course, all this is easier said than done, because very few people wish to segregate waste and reach each item to its logical end.
Green sense lies not only in building sensibly, but also in building responsibly. We will have to ensure that debris is never dumped on the roadside.
Reluctance to use bamboo is rooted in the absence of design standards and unpredictable performances.
Where do we source design ideas from? Today it is common to check the internet, books and may be a few buildings around us, generally creating buildings with a modern appearance.
Countering these trends, though occasionally, we get to see newly built traditional structures. They are contemporary, yet are traditional as a cultural expression. In many ways they perform better, functionally and climatically. The Nagaland style tourist facility under construction at Puri beach is a proof for both.
Naga bamboo is straighter than the local, besides being stronger thanks to its thicker outer shell and smaller central hole. It has nodes at shorter intervals with strong diaphragms. These average 5-inch diameter culms are being used for all structural purposes, while the rest of non-load bearing members are from Orissa itself.
Selection of bamboo is the most important, with every culm treated to reduce sap content. Lengths with signs of cracks are used for slicing and splitting, Split bamboo is commonly used as walling material, weaving it between the vertical bamboo frame to gain strength and reduce porosity.
Subsequently, mud mixed with hay or grass, stabilised soil cement mix or regular mortar can be applied on the surface. This kind of walling is also called as wattle and daub method.
The floor base has to take live and dead loads, so it is made of thin bamboos laid in close proximity with floor joist members, at 2 feet spacing. The final floor finish could be with mud grass mix topped with cow dung, wooden planks, cement oxides or even layer of local thin stones. The ceiling too may have the interwoven split bamboo appearance, but factory finished bamboo matts are now available as a ceiling finish.
Roofing is among the more critical decisions in bamboo architecture. While the support system could be same as for floor, the final roof has to be appropriate.
Due to the possible unevenness of bamboo, direct placement of interlocking Mangalore tile is difficult.
So, thatch, metal sheets, ferro-cement and such others can be tried. It’s better to keep the roof angle steep, for both structural stability and faster rain runoff. In Puri, they are using local paddy straw which has shorter life, but it’s economical and easily replaceable.
Being wider at the base and thin at the top, round bamboo can be tricky in achieving uniform sizes and well secured joints. It is vulnerable to cracking and splitting, which of course, can be managed by experts. They would also know how to avoid getting harmed by split edges, sharp tips, peeling of skin and such others.
However, professional reluctance in using bamboo does not come from issues like the above. It is rooted in the absence of design standards and unpredictable performances, dependent upon species and location. But if we see how bamboo has lived with us for generations, it’s our duty to give it due regard.