Monthly Archives: January 2011

Building with ‘jaali’ walls

Indoor air movement can be controlled by careful positioning of openings in opposite directions

Right design: A jaaIi wall looks stylish from the outside and provides light and privacy too

Somewhere down the history, thanks to the invention of operable windows with shutters, we have forgotten all about walls with openings in them. These perforated walls, also called as jaalis in our region, can be seen in all Indian temples, Middle Eastern mosques, African huts or Cambodian monasteries. During these days of solid walls, this global use of jaali walls is only a reminder of a forgotten heritage and neglected green sense.

During the days when glass windows were yet undiscovered, masonry wall concept prevailed and the only option for providing openings was within these solid walls. Based upon the local material and climate, varied modes of creating the voids within the walls were explored, them playing an overarching role in the buildings. With modern ideas and glass shutters changing the design profession, jaalis were forced to the back seat.

Indoor comfort

Researchers have already proved that the indoor air movement can be scientifically controlled by careful positioning of openings in opposite directions following the principles of Venturi effect. The inlet and outlet sides are provided with varying sizes of voids to ensure air in the windward direction moves across the room out into the leeward direction.

Jaalis create climatic comfort also by reducing the solar glare inside. A typically large window gets so bright in our tropical sun that the rest of the room looks dark. The group of small openings in a jaali soften the light.

Cost saving is effected by reduced number of bricks required, reduction in mortar consumed, increased speed of construction and eliminating the need for much more costlier glass shutter windows.

Though perforated, jaalis could be either load bearing walls or partitions. Few manufacturers have been producing the inclined jaali blocks that provide complete privacy to the interiors, while many architects have also experimented building the wall block itself in an angle, such that no rain penetrates and direct view is avoided. The mason may have to take extra care not to unnecessarily spill mortar or pack the joints beyond the need. Alternately, it is possible to buy the jaali block made with clay or cement. Subsequently, the task of jaali building is like any other wall construction — only the regular brick is replaced by the jaali block.

Jaali walls are still found in all village settlements, for all core and ancillary facilities like house, school or the production shed. The city contexts may limit the use of jaalis due to proximity of houses or apprehension about security when all the residents work, leaving the place locked the whole day. However, jaalis are yet an eminent possibility even in a city, especially in public buildings like schools, institutions or government offices. Also, residential walls enclosing ancillary areas like wash, utility, taller wall tops, family spaces, and such others can have jaalis, beautifully contrasting with the rest of solid walls.

Perforate the wall to let in light and air

The modest jaali wall can bring in so many amazing features

Old is gold: These walls let in light and air but provide privacy

Where do we find a sunlight breaker, natural air conditioner, money saver, privacy provider and pattern-based wall decorator all rolled into one? In all probability, the search may end up in a jaali wall, as the only answer to the above query. If so, is it a wonder solution? Have we all seen it? Of course yes, yet most of us have forgotten about this amazingly versatile method of construction.

Jaali walls are built with the normal bricks or any other masonry material by placing them with gaps in between either horizontally or vertically. Often these bricks can be placed at an angle also to avoid the direct view into the space inside. Remember the old films where a film heroine would peep through the ornate wall with small holes within, socially not allowed to come into public. Gone are the days of depicting heroines in such manner, but the wall with holes still continues to be around. Wood-carved screens, wooden windows assembled with small timber sections, stone jharokhas, pre-molded clay or cement block with voids, open brick wall and all such others are like first cousins, related to each other, in the jaali options.

The way jaali wall lets in soft light in subdued rays, the way a gentle stream of air flows through the room, and the way outside is visible without letting any inside view are unparalleled in construction options. Accordingly, in the traditional architecture, perforated walls as room enclosures are found all over the Indian sub-continent in diverse places such as Kerala in south or Nepal amidst the northern Himalayas. Incidentally, both the quoted places are legendary for their timber architecture. Padmanabhapuram Palace, with its innumerable wooden jaali windows, appears more porous than solid. Nepalese Mewar architecture style, located in a totally contrasting context, has intricately carved windows set within thick mud walls.

Why has the use of perforated walls declined? There was a time during the last century when civil engineering dominated building design in India, specially modelled after the British systems, which ignored numerous traditional construction practices. Being a predominantly architectural element, jaali appears to be one among the victims; giving way for the PWD-approved normal solid walls punctured only with formal windows. Also, the compact residential neighbourhoods demanded greater privacy and security when the house needed to be locked up during the day time.

The credit for popularising jaali walls generally as an integral part of modern architecture, specifically in Kerala, goes to architect Laurie Baker. Of course, these semi-open walls perfectly fitted the context, besides being cost-effective just as Baker desired. His buildings exhibit different jaali patterns evolved for the specific function, thereby creating a new aesthetics in the design of the structure. Inter alia, he proved how jaali walls are appropriate even in the architecture for today.

Don’t just think, feel the green

Man’s ego makes or breaks eco-dreams, feels architect 

Once earlier we discussed how preaching the eco-friendly idea could be quite different from practising it. Today, we continue on another similar track, just trying to retrospect. Has ‘going green and living with nature’ become another slogan like ‘love thy neighbour’, which mostly gets stated because it is rarely done? After all, what happens by default need not be advised and what is advised does not happen otherwise. If so, is all the media buzz about the alternate, sustainable living rooted in our unsustainable attitudes which harm the nature?

Run-of-the-mill

We know what appears perfectly normal in Bangalore: rectangular box-like plans, completely plastered and painted walls, lintel at 7′ height, standard windows in the centre of the wall, increased use of RCC for increased number of columns and beams, plans full of passages, front-sloping RCC roof covered by Mangalore tiles, rear part with flat RCC roof and finally, few elements of beautification thrown in for front looks.

Different take at Auroville

Try this at Auroville, near Pondicherry, where what we call as the green design is the only design approach. The standard building of Bangalore is bound to look strange there, but then Auroville is an exception than the rule. The rule is, what we call as the eco-friendly house, will look out of place in any typical city in India today.

Why such a state of minimal or even negligible acceptance for ideas that may reduce the harm on earth, if not fully save the earth? It is a paradox that not building at all could be the only way to protect nature, but building is the only way to protect human beings. As such, our challenge lies in balancing both.

Reality: Balancing eco and human needs is a challenge for architects

Or, is the conflict within all of us, which reflects a hypocrisy between what we know and what we desire? This reflection is necessary even for the consultants of green architecture, to hopefully understand why most of our knowledge do not get translated as built structures.

Even most of us architects and engineers make a difference only in the plan form evolved as per client needs or in elevation ensuring the building looks prominent on the street front. Even after decades of research and proven track record in many alternative ideas, why are we apprehensive about employing them? How many of us care to reduce resource consumption or study about embodied energy?

The word ‘ego’, it appears, plays a greater role in the making or breaking of our eco dreams. During the early days of experimentation, after Laurie Baker, architect Bindumadhava would ask – are you an eco-friendly architect or an ego-friendly architect? Most of us desire to project our ideas as unique, our house as different and our building as iconic. Ideals of creativity tell us to form our own rules and live without compromising. Alternately, to be eco-friendly, we need to go humble, following the proven paths of sustainability and designing the simple truths.

Bring in a pavilion wherever you can

Much before the word ‘gazebo’ became popular, ‘mantaps’ were tried out in our subcontinent in a bewildering variety in different regions

We are all aware of one unique phenomenon in Indian architecture, not so commonly found in the West perhaps. Normally referred to as ‘mantap’, it is basically a roofed space, supported by a minimum of four pillars. While the nearest English translation could be ‘pavilion,’ the word does not conjure up all the expressions of the Indian ‘mantap.’ Much before the word ‘gazebo’ became popular in a rather limited sense, mantaps were tried out in our sub-continent in a bewildering variety at different regions.

Conforming to climate

Down south in Kerala, the pavilions ensure air and cool breeze, while providing shelter against rain. Kootambalams, the traditional performance theatres, are nothing but large open mantaps. Even in the hot deserts of Rajasthan, the flat roof on four pillars is an adequate shelter during day and pleasant to sleep under at night. Garden pavilions are seen in all palace gardens across India, they are a delight to watch and a comfort to use. Nearly in all river-side towns like Ujjain and sacred water tanks like Pushkar, the structures edging the water are pavilions.

Hampi is a city of mantaps; then used for everything from living to rituals; homes to temples; shops to storage. At the elaborate end, we have examples like the Bhuvaneshwari Mantap at Melkote Kalyani, an exquisite pillared structure in thee levels, octagon plan and two layers of carved pillars.

The fact that India permitted outdoor living is a well known fact now, which resulted in innumerable pavilions. Initially an open thatch hut with tree branch support to guard the grazing cattle, mantaps might have evolved formally later on. An easy to built and economical useable space, pavilions respond best to our natural and climatic demands. With load-bearing pillars around, the walls were treated as non-load bearing, as such could be built as screens or simply left open.

For modern use

Today, we cannot fully live under a pavilion, but can use these eco-friendly solutions as cost effective add-on spaces, for specific purposes. Just imagine a car porch, designed slightly differently, that can double up as a garden pavilion if the car is kept outside.

The daughter’s birthday party can be in the house garden! With urban life getting stressful, a quick daily session of yoga and meditation can be a panacea. Can we think of a better place for this than a roof-top pavilion? Incidentally, it can also be a party space. In many homes, we can see a Mangalore tiled structure, being used to wash and dry, where clothes neither fade nor get wet due to rains. The ordinary verandah can be re-designed as an entrance pavilion.

Just imagine a house where the essential needs are in a small enclosed area, rest being in protected pavilions around, used as and when needed! And visualise yourself reading a book and sipping tea while listening to soft music in your own natural pavilion!

Less we build, more we save

Garden sit-outs, verandahs and roofed terraces can be of utility value, apart from their aesthetic appeal.

Knowing exactly how much built area we need in an urban home is a challenge and it cannot be equated as a fixed quantity like south Indian plate meals! On a quite weekday, there could be only the owner couple, while during the weekend, it could swell to half-a-dozen with kids and cousins.

If parents are visiting, more relatives may drop in for lunch, with a dozen people in the same space occupied by just two. Every corner would get filled up, with the house appearing too small during the time of a party.

Cost factor

While the number of residents and visitors would keep varying, the house area has to stay fixed. Fearing this limitation, mostly we try to build as large as we can afford, sinking in money in steel and cement, only for very occasional use. With getting household help becoming difficult in city homes, the larger the house, the greater the cost of managing such a place, besides demands on the owner’s time.

Semi-open space, a saviour

The wisdom that the totally eco-friendly house is the one not yet built is already among the most quoted lines. On the same lines we may add, the least built-up building is among the notable green buildings. However, such a house may appear congested too often and may not accommodate a growing family. Here comes a solution in the form of semi-open spaces, which are roofed and floored areas attached to the main house.

The main house should serve the routine needs of the family with required number of bedrooms, and decent-sized living room and dining space. A 2,200 to 2,500 sq.ft. house of three bedrooms, spread over ground and first floor in a typical 2,400 sq.ft. plot with one car porch, serves most family needs.

During occasions as may be needed, we may open up into the attached semi-open spaces to extend the effective area available for multi-functional purposes. Families with larger site or budget or members may build large, yet rethinking on how much we build is always a must.

These semi-open spaces with informal roof forms projecting out of the main house need no regular maintenance, while adding to better elevations. If there could be at least two side house walls, the overall additional cost reduces drastically. Garden sit-outs, wrap-around verandahs and roofed terraces can do much to compliment house area needs, while effectively reducing the completely enclosed areas.

People may consider semi-open spaces as a design or lifestyle issue. True, but they are an equally ecological approach, practised for centuries in different parts of India, now reduced to an optional attachment.

While they are a possibility generally everywhere, during some seasons the use may get restricted. However, it is time we open up the potentials of semi-open spaces.