Home As a Spa

Be it about living at large, visiting a shrine or enjoying a good meal, people would define them as having an experience. An easier said than understood statement, the abstract notion of experience is also the essence of a lived-in house.

Definitely a subjective term, experience can have certain derivatives that can convert an ordinary place of living into an extra-ordinary abode. There are no fixed rules to achieve the above, yet critical thinking towards plan making, day light, indoor to outdoor connectivity, materiality and such others can create that elusive nature connect.

Light in essence is a phenomena of ecology determining visibility, suggesting distance and offering clarity.  Of course it also creates heat, as such should be handled carefully. Let day light flood into the house from multiple sources in different intensities – external verandas, indoor courts, top skylights, clearstory openings, glass tiles, tall windows, properly oriented jaali’s, split roofs – such that the indoor spaces also come alive with varied moods. Let us connect to light to convert the machine to live in into a meditative space.

A major comfort giving factor is air, unfortunately cloistered up inside houses today, leading up to stuffy spaces or sickening air conditioned interiors. Just placing one large window in one wall does not suffice, but designing for air needs to attend to cross movement, displacement ventilation and body level breeze. Let the building breathe, for us to experience it.

Strangely for many people, the idea of a house has meant creating indoors and shutting out the outdoors. It cannot be justified by any number of reasons like small site, security, dust or mosquitos; unless we ignore the eco experience. Opening up the indoors to outdoor is so easy with the modern hardware enabling us to have sliding and folding shutters, french doors or merely folding doors; without much compromise on security.  Let the outdoors be just an inch lower than indoors, so a child can walk out safely. If none of these, there can be larger windows to look out all the time.

Visually, the best connect to ecology comes from construction materials. Instead of staring at a chemical paint, let us merely glance at a natural material, the experience of feeling one with nature starts. Be it local soil as cob, variety of mud walls, clay bricks, rough stones, wooden windows, bamboo lattice, granite slabs, laterite columns – let them be visible exposed, without cement mortar or artificial paints. Manufactured materials have so dominated us, we have become blind to products of nature, which are like our siblings, we too being a product of nature. We all vibe together. 

We get our best nature connect today while staying at health spa’s, resorts, jungle lodges and weekend retreats. Such eco-experience can be here right within our homes, if we care for eco-architecture and design not for social images, but for natural images.

PLAN FOR A ‘FEEL GOOD’ HOUSE

Sense of entry, how the interior spaces open up, source and intensity of of light and air, smart designing…

Everybody dreams of a good house. If we ask what a good house is, everybody may have his/her own definition. Anyway, one of the simplest and direct answers can be “the good house is where we feel good”.

There will be no unanimous agreement on how to design well, with each owner, designer and builder proposing his/her own subjective ideas. Yet the basics of ‘good’ can be related to the house plan, architectural elements, building materials, construction systems and experiences.

Most people tend to ignore plan making, quickly drawing up some rooms assembled into a rectangle or start with a rectangle, dividing it into rooms. Either of the approach would end up as a piecemeal solution, not a peaceful house. Plan with all enclosed rooms, in a metaphorical way, also closes our minds, while the open plan house lets us to open our minds! So, every room should get maximum external walls, two or three preferably, to get light and air from different directions.

If the outline of the plan is not a rectangle, but with rooms staggered in and out, both the above objectives can be achieved. It also creates outdoor gardens which can be directly connected to the indoors, letting nature enter the house. All these, air, light, space, greens and outside view automatically create a feel good factor.

A major paradox about the house plan is that it can be fully seen in the drawing sheet alone, with only the rooms and spaces that we walk into being visible once the house is built. If so, how to arrive at a ‘feel good’ house, looking only at the drafted plan? Experience in planning, of course, is a pre-requisite to achieve it, besides clarity of mind in what we seek in a house.

People capable of design thinking can easily incorporate theories of plan making, specific to the type of project. Multiple theories of design exist, but what need to be applied is left to the designer and the owner. How we get to view the house would be the first criteria, which is far more important than mere elevation that all talk about. As we near the house, sense of entry becomes crucial.

As we enter the house, how the interior spaces open up comes next, with visual privacy being a determinant there. Spaces and privacy are closely interlinked. As we walk in, the source of light and air with their directions and intensity play a subtle role. Suddenly, the house may open into a garden outside or to a double height courtyard in front. Such a spatiality can be an outcome of the plan configuration – the way rooms are arranged which could be in linear fashion, diagonal angle, curvilinear profile or with sequential privacy.

Depth of the visual spaces and not necessarily the size of the rooms decides how big the house appears. Also, small and compact rooms are not welcoming as we enter. However, we can place small and bigger spaces in a sequence, which the mind finds very attractive.

The idea of room size is a misnomer, where most designers simply make the room larger hoping to get that elusive feel of largeness. In every room, there will be a functional space like just around the dining table; a measurable space which as an example, could be the size of dining room; a visual space covering all that can be seen sitting around the table, say into living room, kitchen, garden or even out of the window; and lastly the experiential space. Planning only for the functional or even measurable spaces does not help much in creating the ideal dining area.

Experiencing the house is an intangible activity of the mind and an equally intangible expression of the house itself, where plan making plays the deepest role. The unskilled designer or the uninitiated owner tends to think that using modern materials or a fascinating structural form creates the goodness. They may contribute to it partially, but the core quality comes from the plan. Our mind has an uncanny capacity to perceive spaces which leads to comfortable or uncomfortable feelings, which is the starting point of experiencing the spaces.

Piece of paper gets connected to peace of mind with the house plan drawn there and built accordingly. So next time, let us plan not only for a good house, but for a ‘feel good’ house.

COB, BAMBOO, WATTLE AND DAUB

Bamboo and mud make for a strong, durable combination.

With climate change and other crises upon us, it’s time to consider mud and bamboo architecture more seriously.

Let us take a quick quiz.

What are the building materials employed during the early days of human settlements? Mud, wood, stone and bamboo.

What could be the most ancient design approach still in use today? Mud architecture.

Which material offers the most sustainable future? Bamboo. Which construction techniques are the easiest to learn? Mud and bamboo.

In these days of cement and steel, the two celebrated construction materials dominating construction all over the world, this quiz may sound sceptical. Contributing to around 15% of direct Green House Gas emissions, cement and steel are not the heroes of world of construction, but the villains of world destruction. Strange but true.

In 50 years, the construction industry in India saw a paradigm shift from its 5,000 years of history. Now with climate change and relatable crisis like corona pandemic, it’s time for a game changer. It’s time to consider mud and bamboo architecture more seriously.Expertise counts while on the job.

Expertise counts while on the job.  

Mud or soil is not very durable if used directly as was done in the past for they shrink, crack and erode in rain. With additives such as rice husk, stone pebbles, coconut coir, fibrous grass, sticky jaggery, animal hair, durable grass, slaked lime, sieved sand, egg yolk, and puzzolana cement, mud can be stabilised to reduce its shrinkage and cracking. Adequate proportions of clay, silt and gravel ensure the load bearing mix, to be ensured by lab tests or studies, increase surface integrity to make it non-erodible. Pre-mixed one or two days earlier, mud also gets the sticky qualities much needed for molecular bonding.

Once ready, the mud mix can be rolled into balls with both hands together to be directly placed to raise the wall. The balls or cobs need to be pressed dense and then tightly placed one above the other, until different balls virtually become homogenous. Continuous width check has to be ensured and periodically, the edges have to be cut to level to take away the bulging mud. Minor variations in wall thickness happen in cob wall, considered to be the real beauty of the cob construction.How the coating is done.

How the coating is done.  

Cob wall is ideally a slow construction method, so we should not build fast up to sill or lintel unlike in a cement block wall filling in RCC frame construction. Being slow, it demands more patience, akin to a meditative process. Beneficially, being slow and steady makes it strong and durable unlike the cement block wall which is weak and short lived, on a comparative note.

Wattle and daub is a western coinage but in Indian vernacular traditions it has varied regional words, primarily meaning mat and mud. Simply saying, this age-old idea is the pre-cursor to modern RCC, concrete reinforced with steel inside. In wattle and daub, mud replaces concrete and bamboo replaces steel. In place of bamboo, other local variants including thin branches of highly fibrous plants or woven mats of durable grass can be tried, but bamboo is best suited.

Spacing of split bamboo can vary for different walls types, but should not be more than 6 inches. More recent innovations have been attaching chicken mesh or grass mats over the frame to provide additional dimensional stability to the wall. Water- and termite-proofing the wall is very important which can be achieved by integrally adding lime or applying surface coats. Treated bamboo is preferred, yet is not a must if it would be completely embedded inside the stabilised mud wall. No rusting metal, bio-degradable component and decomposing ingredients that can create a void should be used in a wattle and daub wall.

Columnar support if provided by bamboo and mud roof supported over split bamboo over bamboo mat completes the picture of a bamboo and mud architecture. In case of all material and labour being local, this would have the least of embodied energy, minimised indoor heat gain, aesthetics that calms the mind, reduced capital costs, possibly lowered construction budget and all of this would return to earth, leaving hardly any debris for landfills. Of course, there could be certain limitations in mud bamboo architecture being applicable to all building types across all sites, yet it has far more applicability than being considered now.

Consistent research and development efforts by institutions such as IISc., Auroville, Mrinmayee, Hunnarshala, Costford, CGBMT, INBAR, Thannal, and National Bamboo Mission, varied state bamboo development corporations and many others have led to a resurgent interest in mud and bamboo architecture. Complimentary consultancy support by private architects and engineers have further promoted them, with the major bottleneck lying now only in shortage of construction teams and contractors.

It is a myth that mud and bamboo architecture is only for the rich, with the consultants and builders being unaffordable by the middle class. Low and high costs exist everywhere including in the three basic needs of food, fabric and shelter, so even the normal conventional house construction sector has it. Hence, the misnomer that alternatives are costly needs to be de-mystified. Like every emerging idea, mud architecture has also been subject to style, site location, skill sets, supply chain, service provider and many such criteria, leading the buildings to cost less, medium or more.

By itself, this ancient design and build approach is not boutique, elitist or only for the rich. The owners can choose mud architecture for frugality, finesse or even for fashion. The choice is ours.

Building for a post-corona world

Architecture of the ordinary, adhering to eight eco design sutras, will keep us healthy and safe.

Corona times are not only to cure the sick, but to question the self as well. Expectedly, people may ask – how will the construction sector respond to a world in future when pandemics will be a part of our lives? How can our buildings, cities and living environment be better prepared for the next generation?

The writing on the wall is clear. We are seeking change. Time to listen to Lao Tzu who said “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”. Very true, but unless we know where to head, can we change directions?

Architecture, as socio-political manifestation and economic expression of our times, will reflect upon and respond to the future world. But would there be a discernible shift, like the kind affected by major causes of the past – invention of steel and cement, structural innovations, design options, new materiality, effective technologies for HVAC, newer software or iconic visions?

Optimistically speaking, we should change the course of our designs and construction, yet one does not see any paradigm shift right now, barring a few insignificant talks about space use and material changes. The society at large is still discussing health matters, with minimal impacts on the design criteria of most building types.

Change-makers for the future

Besides being a societal phenomenon, architecture is also a creative and collaborative outcome of a professional group of people called architects, engineers and builders. Will they shape the new post-pandemic construction, into a sustainable pandemic-free future? Arguably no, with the exception of a small number of thinking professionals. The majority of Indian consultants practise within the imperatives of market economy, unfair competitions and the pressures of earning. The plight of builders, including everybody from developers to workers, is still worse.

This could be a debatable argument, for we are surely capable of improving upon our present crisis, but the question is would we walk that path. Very few architects, engineers and builders are powerful enough to step out of their insular practices, to convince owners, promoters and the government to spread their new post-corona wisdoms. Anyway, let us hope they will do so.

Even as we panic, there are suggestions that pandemics with or without lockdowns will be omnipresent forever, so we need to plan our future constructions accordingly. If we study only the past in retrospect, our proposals for future may fail, not because our prescriptions were impractical, but because the future pandemics may be different. Cholera could be controlled by clean water, polio by vaccine drops, corona by social distancing and the future unknown germ will have its own cure, unknown to us as of now. Of course, this does not mean proposing for future built environment will be futile, only it could be limited in application.

Equally well, the danger of our well-intended ideas for future being appropriated, co-opted and subverted by negative socio-politico-personal agendas, be at local or at national levels, always lurks behind. It’s unfortunate that the majority of our ideas towards urban equality, eco sustainability, social justice, heritage conservation, ecological balance and such others get shot down due to many such causes, despite having thousands of rules and systems.

Given this, building upon a better and safer settlements of future needs to go beyond the current crisis rooted only in COVID-19. The wisdom dawning from the past and present together, may enable us to face the future.

The Internet is already getting overloaded with post-corona predictions, more on health but also on architecture and environment with multiple directions being addressed. Let us anyway take a fresh look, not so much on ‘how will’ construction respond, but on ‘how should’ it respond. If corona has made us live a life that was the norm 50 years ago – without or with minimal AC, flights, supermarkets, driving holidays, hotels, minimal manufacturing and many such others – can architecture also do so?

The AC has been among the major carriers of germs, so let us try living without or minimal air conditioning. Re-look at the way masters of Indian architecture designed early on, be it Correa, Kanvinde, Doshi or Baker, they all designed without AC. It’s actually simple to have an eco-friendly building design considering heat, light, air, rain, humidity, glare, sound and space. These 8 eco design sutras will ensure healthier, germ-free spaces to live, learn and work.

Multi-functionality and adaptive reuse have been among the genius loci of Indian architecture and settlements. There can be thousands of examples from a courtyard house on the eve of a family wedding to the extreme demands of Shivarathri on Varanasi ghats. Modern architecture and town planning have diverted us from these time-tested approaches. May be it is time we re-approach them.

Most of our cities have no proper plans, towns with plans have no neighbourhoods, the few neighbourhoods we can claim have no community spaces and the few community spaces we can identify have no urban design. Yet, town planning and urban design are studied in every school of architecture, besides many taking them up for higher studies. Hundreds of Indian firms claim capacity to be consultants in urban matters.

Given this expertise, every Indian settlement can be re-designed or redeveloped for better living as a future pandemic-ready city. To that end, the 74th amendment to the Constitution, mainly the idea of decentralised governance with powers to urban local bodies and ward committees, may have to be implemented.

Natural materials such as mud, brick, wood, stones, bamboo and such others are not known to be germ friendly, unlike the factory made products for construction, besides being low on embodied energy, chemicals or waste production. So, simply minimise manufactured materials and research on natural materials towards greater efficiency and on site execution. .

Arresting pandemics will be easier in smaller spaces, so we need to build every building small. As a generation, we are building too much for the Earth to feed with materials and support with services. Reducing the quantum of construction may hit the industry economically, but will restore ecology and save humanity from future crises.

Large sprawling spaces with great indoor volumes such as modern airports, prestigious hotels, corporate offices, hospitals with lavish interiors and luxurious corporate offices are nothing but a sheer waste of Earth’s resources. Besides the humongous costs both in capital and operating expenses, keeping them hygienic is a challenge. Shorter spans with multiple courtyards and staggered balconies may serve many building types, with more such design ideas can be explored.

People are already leading fairly individualised living due to gadgets such as laptop, smart phone, and many others. Pandemics may force us towards greater indoor isolation. Internet-enabled information, communication and entertainment would mean we live cocooned within our houses. It is too early even to hazard a guess how it will impact on architecture of the future. However, such scenarios do not sound too well for a healthy society and humanity at large.

Corona has been an extraordinary problem, demanding an extraordinary solution. Not to blame it, for it is caused by all of us, who wish to live an extraordinary life, stimulated by modern times, glitzy world of architecture, iconic apartment elevations, exclusive land development, scintillating media coverage, exciting social image, egoistic individual identity and an enviable bio data.

Philosophically, if only we could live ordinary, frugal, simple and humble, thousands of problems of pandemics and such others can be resolved, if not fully eliminated. Can architecture of the ordinary emerge as an acceptable solution to the future? Is construction for conservation possible? Can health and aesthetics be part of our urban expansions? Can city development mean social development?

Yes, if we have the will.

Some lessons for the construction industry

With COVID-19 impacting the market economy and bringing in frugality, builders may no longer splurge on fancy facades and mindless energy consumption.

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This essay is not a text in parody, spoof or satire, but a serious way to relook at what COVID-19 is doing to our construction industry – an industry which causes one-third of greenhouse gases, encourages building more than we need and leaves behind large built areas unused or underused while millions go homeless in an unjust and unequal world.

Every material ultimately comes from natural resources which we are simply wasting with disregard to the needs of hungry millions and the bleak predictions of extinction. Unfortunately, nearly everyone in the construction industry – administration, architects, engineers, institutions, builders – are all following this mindless approach to wasteful construction, all against nature. Today it is a virus affecting health, tomorrow it can be a virus affecting construction.

The above references to buildings could be factual, but any connection to the killer virus? One interesting parallel could be that COVID-19 is a killer of humans while construction is a killer of nature – both are killers.

Anyway, keeping the pun apart, the spread of the virus should not have happened to our civilisation. Whatever be the cause, it is a curse to the ever enterprising free spirit of our society, always striving towards a growth economy. Irrespective of its varied impacts, the major implication of the loss of human lives is a civilisational tragedy, which should never repeat in future.

Having said that, let’s look at what the virus has caused to us and made us do. While the actual construction at sites might not have stopped yet, it has reduced the manufacture of products, and sales of goods.

Flights, star hotels, national seminars, fine-dine restaurants, holiday resorts, car drives across regions, air conditioned spaces and such others which are among the major consumers of earth energy are going lean. Images of the nearly empty shopping malls from abroad are simply unbelievable. At this rate, the need for more built floors will also reduce.

Social distancing has reduced public events, while closure of offices and institutions has minimised both local and global travel. Large number of people would see a dip in their monthly incomes, a worrisome fact. However, economists well know how reducing incomes also mean reduced expenses and reduced choices. Majority of the pricey, branded, personal goods are not need based, but are aimed at the rich to spend their surplus income. After the initial jolt, the market economy ensures that expenses will adjust to meet the income level, creating the necessary equilibrium, possibly encouraging a simpler lifestyle rooted in lower-cost products and services.

Less use of energy

If global transport gets affected, local manufacturing gets a boost, lowering the embodied energy – a major criteria in sustainable buildings. A few rich nations such as Japan may be living in crammed office and house spaces, but most rich owners in cities build too much with thousands of building materials, especially to showcase the wealth in the facades and the interiors. Hopefully, frugality may step in.

Those who are tracking the global warming are recording a small decrease in temperatures, while the carbon emission during the virus days has already been less. The internet is already reporting the reduced pollution, cleaner air and reduced solid waste generation across the cities with virus breakout. We can wait for validation, yet by intuition we now know that the climate change created by humans is being challenged by the virus!

COVID-19 appears to be achieving what the decade-long climate campaigns have not yet achieved, for the given short period. However deadly it is, we need to be grateful to the lessons it is teaching us. Our ever growing, GDP-based, market-led, manufactured luxury lifestyle with no concern for cost, climate and culture cannot continue for ever.

Of course, shortly we would learn to control the virus and we may return to our bad old ways. Or, we may remember the lessons it has taught us, and thankfully, may not return to the wasteful buying and throwing.

It is time we change our lifestyle forever, with eco-friendly architecture and lower carbon footprint living.

Is your house eco-logic?

Buildings are built completely out of natural resources, yet they do not become a part of nature and blend with it

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We have millions of buildings and we are building millions more. But let’s imagine the shocking possibility that at least 75% of buildings will get demolished during the next 200 years and wonder where all the debris would go. Sounds absurd when we think how every shelter every other animal makes, returns to nature.

Look at the total weight of a building – floors, walls, roofs, doors, windows, toilets, everything. We build them to carry the load of us and our belongings. The building weight would be far more than our total weight. How illogic when we see a bird’s nest weighing less than its occupants. Today buildings figure in books, seminars, schools and tax papers – more as an owned asset, social image, family aspiration, functional performance, capital investment, operational costs, iconic architecture, innovative ideas, human creativity and many others.

Reality is buildings are built completely out of natural resources, located on a natural site, yet they do not become a part of nature – buildings that may blend with nature and become incognito are not always heard of.

Architecture started with shelter making, followed by the need for shade, security, storage, space, safety, protection, familiarity, comfort and such others – on most occasions, each one of these criteria is overdone in our design and construction industry.

From being ecological animals, we have shifted to being economical animals. From economical, it became personal and now we all live our individual aspirations with no due recognition to the eco-impact we are causing.

Connection to nature

We have forgotten that we vibrate better with natural materials due to our connection to nature vide geo, bio, electric, magnetic energy waves surrounding all of us. Of course, we study bio-mimicry, bio-morphism and bio-philia to design bio-climatic architecture, with recent thoughts on building biology also. But how many of us do all this, out of world population?

Our architecture needs to evolve from nature, made of nature and made for nature. Only then, it will become part of nature or someday become nature itself. That’s the simplest mode to realise eco-logics.

Eco-logic is not a great new term. It is what has created our only home called the Earth and the early tribes still live with the logic of their contexts.

Developed human societies created a human knowledge system called rational logic and told us to follow it in every aspect of our lives. In recent centuries, we have evolved modern human logic, as an opposite to eco-logic.

Will the human logic someday overpower the eco-logic is unknown to us, but the way climate change is threatening to change the course of our future, it appears like eco-logic will prevail over human logic.

Maybe its time to change our courses before we too become victims of what we have unleashed on the Earth – the age of Extinction.

 

Sheer Bliss

An indoor courtyard is just what the architect ordered for a happy home. 

01bgppgreenIMG20181222105733jpgAs the world is sizzling with global warming, one design element is staging a major comeback – indoor courtyards. Be it atriums in tall hotels, spectacular indoor space in a mall, roadside restaurants or a finely finished house – designers are relying upon one of the oldest architectural ideas.

It is aesthetically attractive, experientially refreshing, and above all ecologically relieving to observe this trend. For all the mindless enclosure of large indoor space with stuffed-in experience and darker interiors, courtyards let in rejuvenating sunlight and breathe in the fresh air. Hopefully, more the courts, lesser the air conditioning.

 

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The means of achieving courtyards and their impacts can be myriad. There can be a large sky-lit courtyard with green plants, serving as an extension of the living area, doubling as a private family space while having temporary partitions. A well-lit courtyard can take a designer staircase along its wall surface, be it in RCC, steel or stone slabs, becoming a focus of the space. Most often, courtyards connect two otherwise distinct spaces like living and dining, or dining and kitchen, creating a perception of largeness.

Typically, the courtyard is a completely indoor matter, while we call the outdoor spaces like gardens. But if one can intelligently redefine the outside setbacks, and run the building glass wall around it, we may get a larger sense of space within the same site area, thanks to the indoor to outdoor connect we are achieving.

Plants, pavers, seats, sand and other features complete the designer court.

Doors do the trick

There also can be an external courtyard, more like an opened up back or side yard, which is walked up directly from inside the house. Staggering the house walls very easily creates such side spaces, which are an unsaid extension to the inside. They also could be called as outside gardens. But with sliding, folding or collapsible doors, the outside becomes inside once we open the door shutter.

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Most courtyards are enjoyed as an extension of living or dining, so seen across horizontally. The unusual angle of looking down into the court has to be actually experienced, to feel the beauty. The view will capture the space and objects below from a different, hence curious angle.

Let us imagine an internal courtyard with antique columns, large planters, built-in seats, indoor small water fountains and decent interiors – it will be a happy home. Sunlight flowing in may cheerfully flood the living and dining spaces built around it.

If most of this text has focused on aesthetics, it is not to ignore the ecology.

Majority of people in the design and execution teams know of the environmental advantages of the courtyard, but do not promote them out of some apprehension.

The sheer beauty and attractions suggested off the court above may lead more people to adapt them for many multiple advantages – ecological, aesthetical and functional.

Build differently

Your house can be eco-friendly, local, vernacular, rural and yet structurally strong, with NIRD support.

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Today there are thousands of institutions, architects, engineers and builders across India trying to promote non-conventional, eco-friendly alternatives in architecture and construction. And they all know why these appropriate ideas stay in the back burner – the majority of potential owners who are inclined to the non-conventional are apprehensive, and the rest anyway are not convinced!

After all, customised houses cannot have prototypes, demonstrations, samples, test walls, material trials, model houses or any kind of construction rehearsals. Naturally, worries persist tempting people go with the mainstream cement and steel-based house. Habits die hard, even in this age of attraction of the innovation.

Given this apprehension most house owners have the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Rural Development embarked upon a novel idea – actually constructing rooms and houses using the alternative, eco-friendly, local, vernacular and rural typologies handpicked from different regions of India.

Visually sweeping

Innumerable design, material and construction options can be seen, walked into and experienced across 15 built structures, with a visually sweeping master plan.

The list of ideas demonstrated is long, but to state a few – mud walls in stabilised blocks, adobe, cob and rammed earth; stone in random rubble walls; arch foundations; fly ash columns and walls; vaults with conical tiles; jack arch roof; Ferro-cement channels; bricks; laterite; bamboo mats; wattle and daub; filler slabs; stone roofs; corbels; brick domes; CGI sheets, MCR tiles; perforated jaali walls; brick panels roofs; precast slabs; catenary curves; conical tiled roofs; round Bhunga huts; stone and timber lower Himalayan house; skylights; rat-trap bond; bamboo house; stabilised non-eroding mud plastering; walls with exposed materials; rainwater harvesting; lime mortars; boulder pack foundations; sanitation methods; solar energy; tile support in wood and steel; and pre-cast lintels.

Build differently

What makes these structures convincing is partly due to the expert teams who made the centre possible – AP Habtech; CSV – Wardha; Habitat Group of Thiruvananthapuram and Hunnarshala from Bhuj with secondary literature inputs from varied sources. As such, the Rural Technology Park demonstrates the do-ability of cost- and resource-efficient architecture.

Considering that such a unique centre for demonstrating the feasibility of ecological alternatives was done way back in 2003-04, it’s sad to see most of the ideas still being relegated to the back burner.

Being termed as Rural Technology Park could be a reason, for all that we see here can be in our unsustainable urban centres of today. For those who cannot travel all the way to Hyderabad just to see the model constructions, an extremely well-illustrated compilation by the technically qualified project team is available at the centre.

Seeing is believing

Scepticism and apprehension cannot be ruled out by assurances, especially while investing lifelong savings in one house. We cannot experience the house before it’s built, but at least seeing can be believing.

That’s what RTP at NIRD provides and proves.

It’s all in the materials

How to build stylish, yet eco-friendly homes in the wake of radical shift in construction systems. 

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If we invite friends home for dinner, the choice of vegetables is among the starting points to decide upon the menu. The same curry listed in the culinary books becomes a different tasting dish with a different vegetable. Not the best example to quote, but so too in buildings where the same building type, say a school, could become different with varied materials.

All construction materials are sourced from nature, such as stone, bamboo, mud, clay, thatch, lime and timber. Of course, water too comes from there, but is rarely acknowledged! It may surprise many to know that every industrially processed and manufactured material also comes from nature.

Lime as the raw material for cement; iron ore to make steel; bauxite as the ore for aluminium; sand as the basis of glass; clay for ceramics; finally crude oil and coal for plastics. So the equation is simple – as we increasingly use cement, steel, aluminium, glass, ceramics and plastics in construction, we are increasing the resource consumption, process wastes, transportation costs, demolition discards and as such, the embodied energy of the building, which directly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change.

There have been radical shifts in construction systems today, especially in the multi-storey sector, yet standard foundations, walls, lintels, beams and roofs dominate the majority of projects.

Here, materials contribute more than building technology in making the building eco-friendly. This is not to demean construction options – more than half-a-dozen foundation types exist; roofs could be done in a dozen ways; walls can be built in more than 15 ways, and floors have multiple choices – but only to mention the sad state of affairs where very few easy-to-do constructions practises are now popular. Most houses are being built with just one type of foundation, wall and one type of roof!

Strange combinations

In the past, every region had limited access to materials, hence the local vernacular style evolved which today may be wrongly felt by many as simple and monotonous. But that alone need not drive us to design strange combinations of modern materials which by default have lesser choices. Computer software applications with virtual or augmented reality generated images and animated walk-through complete the act of selling design easy ideas.

So, we end up with varied elements, forms, colours and combinations of surfaces to create what is today felt as attractive and unique elevations. Majority of them rely upon RCC frame construction, cement block or cheaper brick masonry, walls plastered and finished with putty, primer and paint.

Public buildings get finished with façade treatments, cladding panels and glass. How many of these are truly attractive, have a sense of collective aesthetics and follow the time-tested theories of beauty are questionable. Hence, the cacophony of architecture in every street, neither aesthetical nor ecological.

Plastered cement block wall coming in varied colours consumes much more of resources, uses chemicals and has more embodied energy than natural mud, stone or exposed clay blocks. As such, minimising cement blocks and painting are among the first step towards eco-friendly architecture. Zero maintenance by avoiding the need to re-paint, hence reduction in life cycle costs comes as a bonus point!

Ecological natural materials provide unlimited options towards wall elevations unlike what many people think. The variety possible by different material mix, pattern making, proportions, stylistic approaches and daylight throw far exceeds what the standard plastered walls offer. It’s the market at large looking for less work and more profits which undermines the aesthetic quality and environmental values of building with ecological materials.

As climate change is threatening every aspect of our lives, let us walk ecological sensitivity in every aspect of our constructions.

Building or heritage?

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The plan to build a seven-storey structure in Cubbon Park may take a further toll on Bengaluru’s already shrunk lung space.

This ‘Green Sense’ essay has to sadly lament about the increasing lack of ‘sense of green’ among the decision takers and urban authorities, who appear to be in a mad rush to build on every piece of land available to build upon.

Last fortnight media was abuzz with the controversial news about the High Court of Karnataka allowing replacing a colonial building with heritage qualities with a new swanky 7-storey structure, edging the Cubbon Park. The park itself, one among the only two lung spaces of Bengaluru, is not only a precinct of natural heritage but also of innumerable events in the memory and history of the city.

Both the natural and built heritage of Bengaluru are at peril with the proposed construction.

Of course, Bengaluru today is a world city, a great achievement, but on the graves of what was Bangalore. More often than not, the majority of builders, residents, leaders and the authorities seem to be in a rat race to erase the invisible, natural and built heritage of the once-fabled city, replacing it with the visible, image-making projects of infrastructure, etc.

A simple truth even a high school student can understand is that constructions increase urban heat and gardens reduce urban heat. Construction activities contribute to nearly one-third of all global greenhouse gases, so directly cause global warming and climate change.

Bengaluru has been warming up at an alarming rate with innumerable heat islands within; so the time now is not for continuing the mindless construction activity that has already taken a toll on the once garden city.

Glaring examples

Developing a settlement as a sustainable city cannot be achieved by the subject experts; incidentally, they are the least capable of doing so. Urban issues need to be equally participated, managed and decided by the people, politicians, administrators and experts. Cases like building in Cubbon Park are glaring examples to prove the state of affairs today, where the four are never brought together through participatory administration, transparency, stakeholders’ meet, public survey or any of them.

These four are the four pillars of urban administration, but sadly the people in power do not think so and go ahead as if only their voice matters. Of course, practically speaking, in democracy people decide their leaders and the leaders decide for the people. But theoretically, people still have the power to decide on matters concerning them.

Hence, the Cubbon Park project enraged people who reacted and protested. If the very first act of governance is taken on consensus, there would not have been any need to react, protest or resist.

As an individual or institution, we all seek to own our own buildings once we have the site, money and maybe the need. We do not cherish being in a rented place for too long, so justify every building project. The local governance refers only to rules and regulations to allow or disallow a project, never looking beyond into its ecological impact, local nuisances, impact on flora/fauna, matters of water table, cultural value, people’s memory, increased load on urban services, ripple effects of the new building, holding capacity of the area or any such deep matter.

Carbon footprint

Naturally, Bengaluru gets hundreds of buildings all over its geographical spread, as if the city can absorb all. It all sounds fair, but sorry, no city can and should grow like this, however beneficial it could be for a few people in the process.

The carbon footprint of Bengaluru could be matching that of any other energy-guzzling global city today, making it a villain of the Earth.

If a sense of garden prevails among our authorities, now is the time to slow down, restrict or even judiciously stop construction activities. Only then can we hope future generations would be able to live in a liveable city.