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.
The overall design of a bamboo structure is not complex, we only need to shed ourpre-conceived notion.
When we see a great work of architecture, it is worthwhile to wonder how such unique construction, style and the building method itself evolved. Typically, we attribute it all to the new generation of qualified engineers, builders and architects. In contrast to these, we also see how the traditional knowledge transmits from generation to generation, possibly improvising the idea each time.
The new visitor facility along the sea beach of Puri town in Orissa is a case in point. A Nagaland-style structure is being built there by Naga craftsmen, with Naga bamboo. The super-structure recently got completed, showcasing how it is built, an ideal time to understand building with bamboo.
Critical thought has been given to the foundation, made in concrete to withstand beach conditions with the bamboo culms embedded into the well ring mass concrete. This also gives the necessary rigidity at the foundation level to reduce the swaying of the structure in wind.
Bamboo is used for all columns, beams, floor joints, diagonal ties, bracket supports and lintels. If single units suffice for a support or beam its fine, but the hall being large single bamboos lack the required strength and load carrying capacity. So, all structural elements are in composites, i.e. multiple bamboos tied together without touching each other, but with one bamboo space in between. Small bamboo pieces are used as spacers.
Cross members are inserted into the gap between bamboos such that column and beam start to act like a single load bearing entity. Diagonal ties are very important in bamboo buildings, which help in creating equilibrium between the horizontal and vertical members, also avoiding sideward swing. Wooden members can be joined at the same alignment, but bamboos cannot. They need to overlap each other and tied together.
Multiple bamboos in one joint is a visual delight, but care should be taken to maintain the alignments, besides proper load carrying junction between any two. Since the location of members shift, so too can the centre lines of plan grid itself. To avoid it, columns are maintained in the same position, with beam members slightly to the left or right of the column bamboos.
Traditionally, thinly split bamboo peels, reeds, jute and such others were used to tie the members, but nowadays long nuts and bolts are becoming common. These bolts need to be cut and threaded to the required length, with rust proof coatings. While drilling the hole for the bolt, bamboo should not get split. It is observed that nut and bolt system may go loose in case of vibration due to heavy footfall, widened hole size or bamboo with more sap content than prescribed. Incidentally, Naga bamboo with thicker outer shell is less vulnerable to this problem.
The overall design of a bamboo structure is not as difficult as people talk about, but are very basic in nature. We only need to shed our pre-conceived notions about bamboo.
It was ideal housing material for long but had lost favour in recent times. However, bamboo is slowly making its mark again.
When an ecologically appropriate material finds less users, it is time to think. What makes the modern, energy guzzling material ride over the ecologically sensitive one? Equally well, if that material regains its popularity, it is also time to think. What brings about the green sense again?
Bamboo could be an apt example to this trend. Actually a grass, it consumes less primary energy than wood; assimilates more carbon dioxide for photosynthesis than trees, ensuring faster sequestering of carbon; reduces soil erosion due to its thick root formation; and produces more bio-mass per hectare than many other plants with its rapid growth.
An easy to transport material with surface tensile strength higher than steel, bamboo is best among the light weight construction options, where speed of execution is required. It sways with flexibility, hence does not break against fast wind; it is not a rigid construction, hence does not collapse during earthquakes; it grows very fast, hence becomes a rapidly renewable resource; and the culm can be used all through its thicker lower parts, thinner upper parts and the sliced surface.
Majority of construction techniques require externally erected scaffolding systems for holding the materials and workers, with larger buildings demanding cranes.
Building with bamboo needs all these minimally, with expert workers using the built part itself as the support. Even though construction happens part by part, once completed the building appears singular and interconnected.
Yet, the execution does not lead to a monolithic construction, which is in favour today. The concrete, ferro-cement and modern organic forms appear monolithic in their final version.
Even the simple brick wall houses we do have a dozen RCC columns with walls plastered and painted to hide the individual masonry units, though they drain the money and strain nature. Bamboo architecture is neither monolithic nor hidden, which is actually its strength, not a weakness.
Bamboo has been best suited for thatch roof, country pan tiles, slates and stones, which can be comfortably fixed despite the slight unevenness of the canes. As roofing materials gave way for interlocking and overlapping tiles like Mangalore tile which demand perfect levels, bamboo lost favour. Coupled with the increasing popularity of RCC roof, bamboo slowly got relegated to the back benches.
In the past, housekeeping and maintenance was part of living in the house. Today people expect that the building be maintenance free, a pre-condition which rules out too many eco-friendly materials and construction types. Bamboo too is a victim to this trend, which cannot be cleaned all around, polished frequently or left exposed to sun and rain once built. As skilled labourers dwindled, popularity of bamboo also waned.
Promoting the cause
But slowly but steadily, bamboo is again in the reckoning. Internationally, books on bamboo are increasing and the one by Gernot Minke proves the value of the material so simply and directly. Vaibhav Kale, Sanjay Prakash, Neelam Manjunath, Uravu group, Sanjeev Karpe, Saajan and many more have been promoting it in their own ways. Bamboo has a future again.
In efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, the common man too plays a huge role.
What is the major shift in the market produces that we can buy today compared to a decade ago?
When we buy LED bulbs, energy star-marked electrical fittings, packaging that suggests it be recycled or pick up paints with low VOC (volatile organic compounds), we may not bother to think what made them available today. The story behind them is the growing awareness and global action about environment.
In the new millennium, there have been a plethora of research, reports and meetings across the world, both at global and local levels. Even small towns and colleges in India today host discussions on the environmental crisis, with the participants releasing press statements. All these have been made possible, indirectly, by the deluge of information and the annual gathering of world leaders happening since then.
It all started in 1995 at Berlin when the first UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCC) was held, being held annually since then. Popularly named as COP (Conference of Parties, nations who are a party to the protocols), the last one held in 2016 at Marrakesh was the 22nd in line.
These meetings are attended by heads of nations or the seniormost officials dealing with climate change issues to discuss progress in reduction in greenhouse gases by the rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol. This protocol was among the major international resolutions until then, adopted in 1997 by 192 nations as the signatory parties placing common but differentiated responsibilities on each nation to fight global warming – mainly placing obligations on developed nations since they are more responsible than others in causing higher levels of greenhouse gases.
COP 17 held at Durban, South Africa, marked another milestone in binding all nations to limit carbon emissions by 2015 and create a Green Climate Fund of $100 billion per year to distribute to poor nations. Accordingly, each nation committed to specific reductions in emissions, which were ratified by the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 by 195 UNFCCC members, which sets 2020 as the year to start major contributions towards adaptation, mitigation and financing. Each signatory develops programmes, action plans, funds and executes to control global warming.
COP has become an annual ritual at exotic places, sometimes failing like at The Hague (2000) or often producing no major results like at Nairobi (2006) or Warsaw (2013). We can take pride in the COP New Delhi (2002), though it too was not a big success. In between, some of them like those held at Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) or Doha (2012) arrive at far reaching conclusions, keeping the hopes alive.
However recently, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that his country is quitting the Paris Agreement, to shock the world which has been struggling to arrive at consensus towards climate action. It reminded one of the days when the then U.S. President George Bush had rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.
We need to realise that leaders and Presidents matter in mitigating climate change, but people like us matter even more.
Interactions among nations for preserving the environment have been going on for quite some time. Concrete action is awaited.
Many of us reading this essay might have stayed past the midnight of December 31, 1999, to sing, dance and welcome the new millennium, waking up to January 1, 2000. We all considered us to be among the lucky few witnesses to the march of civilisation, occurring once in a thousand years.
Now what if we ask, will there be humans to dance on December 31, 2999, and welcome January 1, 3000? It is not a complex question, but a frightening question considering the devastating march of humans on the Earth. May be this rapidly increasing fear is what is catapulting us to greater ideas and actions since 1999.
In the year 2000, 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were set out by the United Nations to be accomplished by 2015, ratified by the largest ever congregation of world leaders in human history.
Though it focused more on societal than environmental issues, it suggested that the humankind could come together, as was later proved by the World Summit of 2005.
A little before it, in 2002, the Earth Summit at Johannesburg placed sustainable development as an overarching concern, further emphasised upon at the Earth Summit of 2012, also called as Rio+20. Here, 192 nation heads, chief executives of private sector companies and innumerable NGOs converged for 10 days to work out the modalities of sustainable development. The major issue that emerged was about reconciling economic and environmental issues, which most often are at loggerheads.
Among the results of these initiatives, an important one is Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with 169 targets. These extended the MDGs beyond 2015 and expanded the inter-governmental agreements.
With the word ‘sustainability’ appearing 13 times in this list, besides climate change, equitable quality, inclusiveness, consumption, production patterns, energy, inequality among nations, global partnership, economic growth and such others, the SDGs must be the most ambitious set of visions ever envisioned by humankind.
The multiple meetings being held from 1972 onwards have reduced as decades advanced and the UN summits paved the path for global leaders to be on the same platform.
The new millennium also saw scores of research, books and seminars, converting the sceptics into believers of climate change.
Today we do not have frequent global events, but the interactions after 2000 have led to agreements by all to restore ecological balance, mainly during the Conference of Parties (CoP), which started in 1997 and has been held every year without fail. Together with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reports, our environmental awareness has advanced far and deep.
How many of these goals have been achieved or are they really achievable at all, should not be the debate today, for the very coming together of nations on a single stage, nations that have been warring a few decades ago, itself is a human achievement.
Now the challenge is to convert this achievement into action and let awareness lead to execution of ideas.
We demolish old buildings even when they are in good condition for the sake of bigger and better structures. But is this justified?
What’s the talk of the town in the lighting sector now? It is replacing old bulbs with LED fixtures in existing buildings. Thanks to government schemes, millions of tube lights, CFLs and incandescent bulbs have been replaced, to save electricity, which is a laudable project.
So too, we have been replacing millions of cell phones, laptops, television sets, washing machines, air conditioners and other gadgets to keep pace with technological upgradation. What about buying a new vehicle every five years? Not a bad idea because maintenance costs go up after few years of driving and anyway there are buyers for used cars. Exchange offers are very attractive, and we feel good about the increased speed, storage and comforts.
Contrastingly, if we think of the past, how often the tube light got changed; house landline phone replaced; new wall clock bought; ceiling fan disposed or any such other household item was exchanged, we realise a major shift in our lifestyle – a lifestyle which embraces products in the name of advantages. Do we compare electricity saved with embodied energy to nature and monetary cost to individual to check if the replacement was judicious?
Thoughtless replacement is not ecologically advantageous on all occasions. We rarely bother about where the disposed item goes and whether it gets responsibly recycled without leftover waste.
Even if we care, what about the additional production we are supporting by buying a new product? What about the resources it is consuming, waste it generates, fossil fuel for transportation and marketing energy?
The tragedy is that we are replacing products while they are still functional with many more years of working life left; unlike in the past when the new entered only when the old became dysfunctional and exited.
Majority of us use fairly recent mobile phones today, which could be the third or sixth one since we purchased our first mobile, say a decade ago. It is a financial burden, but we justify it saying we can afford the cost. The old ones could perform, but we justify claiming the need for updating.
Old buildings are still good, but we demolish them seeking a bigger and better building. But can we justify the ecological cost of replacing, a burden not directly on us, but on the Earth? Can the money we have that buys a new phone solve the problem of the disposed old one? With our own body, do we try to extend our working life as we age or simply stop functioning, letting the new and young take over?
Replacing is required, but not unless the utility of the old product is over. Green living does not revolve around switching over to the latest, every time a new product introduction happens. It revolves around utilising what we have fully, until the end of its functional life.