Monthly Archives: December 2010

Remember the outdoor life?

We have simply forgotten verandahs

Great feeling: If only we had retained such open spaces…

How many of us have seen the ‘mukhamantapa’ of Kerala, ‘balcao’ of Goa, ‘thinnai’ of Tamil Nadu or the ‘jagali katte’ in Karnataka? Undoubtedly, many of us have not only seen them, but also possibly lived in them. They are the traditional living rooms without physical walls, drawing rooms without visual boundaries and simple roofed areas providing adequate shelter. In south India, no built-up room can come closest to ecological living as does semi-open space.

Can sustainable living learn something from these spaces? Of course, there is plenty to follow up. In Auroville, many residents have returned to houses without glass windows and grills. Resorts and cottages are experimenting with large verandahs and perforated walls. Restaurants boast of outdoor dining as their speciality. Air-conditioned software offices are accepting terrace-tiled pavilions as food courts. However, for some unknown reason, urban homes are yet to catch up on this phenomenon.

Mind blocked by modernity

The idea of enclosed spaces evolved as modern architecture advanced. So did all our problems of heat, light, air and cost, in our dusty tropical country with limited construction budgets. Somewhere in this process, the idea of roofs without walls got a negative image as an ordinary village idea, to be neglected. Increased urban living necessitated enclosed security, and no wonder we all have slowly moved indoors.

Incidentally, the British had discovered how well we can live outdoors and took the idea of verandahs to a great order in their bungalow form of houses. We are forgetting living out of verandahs which both our elders and the British did!

In defence, we the architects may quote sit-outs and balconies as common elements in our modern-day designs. Let us take a walk along any typical Bangalore street, and watch the hundreds of balconies, mostly empty, without people.

Right design: Utility areas can be stylish too

Balconies are designed more for elevation than for activity. Sit-outs are more private; invisible from the street, but anyone can guess how often they are used. Even when we try to open up a room to the outside, we ensure they are fairly enclosed, citing privacy as the reason. The closely knit city sites are a good excuse to cover up all our failures.

What does all this mean? We may appreciate the way our elders lived outdoors, but we cannot simply replicate that lifestyle in the cities of today. However, the sequence of outdoor to semi-open to enclosed and then finally to the private indoors as an ideal sequence of spaces cannot be denied.

This has cultural meanings, ecological bearings and of course cost implications. Hence, the challenge is to re-invent the idea of living in the semi-open and save on the fully enclosed spaces. The challenge is to manage light, air and cost.

Bringing the outside partly inside

Traditional India lived outdoors more than indoors in most regions, which made ecological sense

Just perfect: A door leading to an indoor green space

Recently we discussed floor-to-roof windows that let earth and sky enter the building. Following it, there were two comments from readers who liked the philosophical side of the statement – one appreciating the need to fuse indoors to outdoors to enable natural living and the other seeking more information on good ideas that may not necessarily be economical. Following the comments is this essay on a wonder solution called sliding and folding door with window and security grill.

Most of us know about French doors, though we might never have wondered why they are called so! French doors are glass doors opening into a sit-out or a garden, fairly popular in urban homes.

While they let us see and walk into outside, they demand a separate grill door, consume more space and need vertical frames at every 3′, blocking total vision of the garden. We also have sliding doors, normally in aluminium, pretty common in apartments and in a few offices.

Here, a security grill cannot be attached to the sliding frame, hence a grilled enclosure is created, which often looks like a cage! In both the options, we need to open them to get air, making us worry about security.

Combined benefits

In warm humid and composite climatic zones without extreme hot and dry temperatures, much of living can be done outdoors. We need not spend money building large spaces, but open the modest interior space to outside through sliding folding doors, getting the combined benefits of cost saving in reduced built area, extended activity space when needed and the luxury of natural environs even in sites as small as 1200 sq. ft.

During normal times, the system is shut like any other door to securely enclose the interiors.

The folding doors have an openable window with grill, fitted within the door frames, so routinely work as French windows with light and air!

The only disadvantage is the cost factor – the steel channels, guide rails, drop hinge, top wheel and such components add to the cost of a normal door. It is a nominal addition, yet can be argued as an antithesis of cost-effective architecture.

Careful orientation

While this idea may not work in hot regions due to increased heat gain, adaptations are possible by careful orientations and shading devices like trees, overhangings or projections. After all, traditional India lived outdoors more than indoors in most regions, which made ecological sense.

Most carpenters doing it for the first time needed to study the detailing, and having done one, are excited about its application and versatility.

Most owners, living in houses with sliding folding doors, feel the cost is worth it, enjoying the combined advantages of French door with window, increased sense of space, unhindered view of outside, and of course, the eco-friendly experience of merging inside and outside.

Getting in natural air fresheners

What do you do to freshen up indoor air naturally and forget about chemical room fresheners?

Check it out: Where’s the ventilation in this kitchen?

Ask any high school student how to keep the toilet fresh. The next second he will say: “We need a ventilator.” Request a builder to ensure an airy kitchen; he will simply say “Don’t worry, madam.” Yet, in most houses, when we walk from the natural environs of outside to the enclosed inside, we can feel the indoor air being stuffy and full of odours. Why?

Getting trapped

Let us observe these homes. Most toilet ventilators are placed below 7′ level, leaving the air at upper parts unventilated. Additionally, the ventilator itself may have a shutter left either open or shut, for no one bothers to keep operating windows in toilets. Of course, we feel the foul air, so we install an electric exhaust fan, at extra cost. The kids do not switch it on, so we fix an automatic switch linked to the opening of the door. Series of problems observed and solutions provided. Convincing?

The kitchen, in the modern times, poses other challenges. If we choose more of overhead cabinets, the window is compromised with. By now, we have realised that exhaust fans get dirty fast, so let us make way for the fancy-looking electric chimneys. But it makes a noise, there is power cut or we just don’t switch it on every time we light the stove. With neither the old world ventilator nor the exhausts of last century, many a kitchen appears modern, but retains cooked air.

It gets tricky

These are tricky issues, with no single solution applicable for all cases. The toilet problem is comparatively simple. All we need to do is provide a minimum 3’x3′ sized ventilator above 7′ level or up to roof bottom as per the case. Let us ensure it has no operable shutter, for at that height we may need a chair to reach it! Leave it with externally inclined pin-headed glass louvers so that air goes out, vision is blocked and soft light comes in – all throughout the year without any further need to touch it ever. Guard bars at 3”, mosquito mesh and steep inclination with overlapping glass completes the picture. If you want to be more adventurous, design a regular window in the bathroom, with shutters that could be used whenever necessary.

Kitchens too can get similar ventilators above the cabinet level, though we may have an electric chimney. We often advise the kitchen doorway going up to roof, without a door shutter, and the window too being tall going up to roof, so that there is air movement at the uppermost level, ensuring effective ventilation.

The worst solution could be keeping air fresheners. In reality, they do not freshen up anything, but release chemically composed pleasant odours into the stuffed-up air and make us feel fresh. Anyway, now we know how to freshen up the indoor air naturally.

In praise of tall windows

Windows should be designed to provide more light, but less of tropical heat

Rightly placed: Windows should look elegant and suit the room’s ambience

Between a wall and a window, which one claims greater importance in a green building? The answer would depend on the person questioned, but for us as eco-friendly designers, while the wall becomes a concern for its materiality, window matters for its design. Multiple factors like air, view, privacy, light, scale and composition are factored by the window, hence play a pivotal role. Incidentally, these factors are often contradictory.

Windows should be designed to provide more light, but less of tropical heat. Even the light should be just right without glare. They need to bring in air, simultaneously taking it out as well. Of course they are three times costlier than wall, hence should not be overdone. Whatever we may do for eco benefit, should not trouble the furniture placements. Oh yes, the outside elevation as an attraction cannot be compromised with for being green!

In essence, providing for one need should not create one problem. So, what should we do? In such confusion, just repeating the standard window pattern is the safest, simply because no one would question us! However, seeking the alternative, over the years, we have found a simple solution, applicable in most cases.

Corner tall windows

Windows are designed tall to touch the slab or beam bottom. There is no RCC lintel beam at 7 feet level, instead the roof beam or simply supported slab takes care of structural issues. As such, both cost and time due to lintels are reduced. Bigger the window, the better wood we need to ensure they do not warp. With preferably 3′ wide windows which demand short length sections, mid-cost range options like saal, matthi, honne, nandi, jack, padouk or such others as locally available can be used. With a few tall features, we tend to perceive the room also as tall, just like someone wearing a dress with vertical stripes appears taller.

Locate them in the corners, so more wall area is available for wall hangings or floor furniture. Light and air fall upon the corner wall and roof, bouncing them for greater interior effects.

From outside, two narrow and tall windows at two ends mostly provide good proportion for an attractive elevation. The opening being at the edge of the room, the glare factor reduces considerably, since mostly we are not sitting in front of the opening.

These windows have three separate parts: lower shutter that can be opened for view and body level air, the upper fixed glass for un-curtained light, and the top foul air vent slit with mosquito mesh. Light, view, air and vent — the four essential roles of openings — are simply ensured. For privacy, provide translucent glass in toilets and upper parts of bedroom windows.

Place the window frame level with inside wall, with beading or plaster groove, such that the frame gets better protection from rain and sun.

A window is a practical challenge of design, though for philosophers, it is a metaphor. However, if we want to become philosophers, try placing a tall window starting at floor and ending at roof. We get to see both the earth and the sky, to start contemplating.