Monthly Archives: April 2011

Nature offers no straight lines

We can attempt to merge the curved lines gifted by nature and straight lines discovered by human beings in our building plans

Try them out: Curved walls receive less heat from the sun’s rays and hence offer a great advantage for home designers

The first time one hears that nature has no straight lines, the very statement appears unbelievable. However, the fact is, it is impossible to get even one case of straight line in a natural setting, including the sun rays, which actually are curved across a path in the universe. Contrastingly, most of what we humans do today is in straight lines!

Traditional wisdom

The earliest shelters discovered by humans were curvilinear, normally round in plan, as seen in igloos, Buddhist stupas or African huts. Earliest mud pots, with no exception, were always round in form.

Even our traditional village homes are never in perfect wall planes, mostly being hand plastered.

With the advantageous principles of round shapes discovered, they found application not only in large water tanks and grain storages, but also in tea cups and kitchen utensils.

Have we noticed how the shape of radios, stereos and cars have changed over the decades, from rectilinear boxes to curvilinear forms?

Curved walls stronger

In architecture, straight walls are susceptible to side bulging and buckling, hence require stiffening as per case. Whereas, curved walls cannot easily bulge in one direction, hence are stronger.

If we need to enclose a specific floor area inside either a circle or a rectangle, it’s the circle which does it with least circumference of wall length, hence works out more judicious on the budget front.

A typical linear wall, lit by direct sunlight, receives the full impact of sun rays on the complete area of the wall, gaining heat in the process. Comparatively curved walls receive direct sunlight only for a part of the wall, rest of the wall receiving rays from an oblique angle.

Cooling benefit

Since heat gain is directly proportional to the direct solar radiation, curved walls receive lesser solar heat. Incidentally, even the roof too can be curved to get the passive cooling benefits.

The theory sounds nice, but can we really curve all the walls, given the lifestyle and home products of today? Of course not.

Architects across continents, from Buckminster Fuller to Laurie Baker, have tried building with non-linear ideas. As a follow-up, we can attempt to merge the curved lines gifted by nature and straight lines discovered by human beings.

Designing with curves

Besides the eco-advantages, there also are visual benefits of curved walls. From no two points the curved wall will appear same, while the straight wall is all visible as a flat surface; as such the curved wall creates greater visual appeal. Routinely, in every room we see two adjacent straight walls with a sharp corner.

Now, let us imagine the sharp corner made into a curved profile. The two walls appear like one long wall making the room appear longer and larger, though the measured dimensions are same.

Alternately, instead of a full-fledged curve, only the sharp corner could be gently curved by your home designer to get a soft corner. Imagine a soft-cornered building, just like a soft cornered person!

Stagger the walls, get shade

This style is appealing, and the building elevation improves

When we discuss eco-friendly architecture, the main public discourse appears to focus on alternative materials and construction, with some attention paid to ecological factors. Equally important considerations like cultural dimensions, lifestyle fit and owner aspirations have taken the backseat. It’s possible that these parameters are more abstract, which require deeper professional applications not possible in every building project especially in smaller places. However, in most cases, simple changes in our design methods are also not attempted.

Many mail enquiries in recent times have referred to an existing building performing rather badly, where the major reason could be the design itself, creating a rectangular box with heat sink instead of a breathing home. We may introduce a few options for day light or displacement ventilation, but the larger ecological problems with the building would continue. As such, there is a need to re-look at design approach, before we go on to roof or sunshade details.

Traditional village homes should surely be among the first teachers to take lessons about ecologically comfortable house designs.

Look how compactly lined up they are, ensuring most walls being under shadow, often cast by the neighbouring building. Our cities promote completely detached buildings where walls tend to receive direct solar light, hence radiation and heat.

To ensure our walls are shaded, either we grow large trees around or work within our own walls.

Laurie Baker had experimented with folded walls, primarily to give thinner walls better strength, wherein the wall goes little inside, then outside and again inside. The final form is not a straight line, but a staggered one. The outside projected part shades the wall part moved inside!

Avoiding box

If we extend this concept into the plan of the whole building, we can imagine an otherwise rectangular box having rooms either jutting out or pushed in. So, the box-like form of the building disappears!

Of course, setting the building out and constructing the foundation will not be along one line, which a traditionalist may oppose. However, see how each room gets windows at two external walls, essentially needed to create indoor air movement.

The building elevation improves without spending more, for the staggered form is generally more appealing. The small pockets created by varied setbacks take beautiful house plants.

Side setbacks

This would mean the side setbacks would have varied widths compared to what the local byelaws stipulate as a standard minimum width. By having this depth of setback around or more than 6 feet, we can locate a small private home garden within.

Now the rooms around this garden could face it, have all the windows open towards this “our own little space” instead of looking at the neighbour’s direction.

Even if the neighbour builds close to our building with very little gap between the two structures, we are still ensured with light and air, for this garden works like a light well and wind catcher.

Striking a balance with nature

While constructing buildings, we convert the available natural resources from their original condition into another form of energy.

Heavy price: Construction contributes to more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions

Imagine a quiz competition. Who produces cars? Well, we may say Tata or Toyota. Who produces cameras? The answer could be Nikon or Kodak. Who makes home electric switches? We all know it – Anchor or Lisha. Now let us go little deeper. Who is actually behind the making of these objects? Are we humans or these companies really producing them afresh or are they only modifying the raw materials found around? The answer is so obvious that we need not even state it.

Nature is behind every object, including those produced by humans. Fundamentally, it is mother earth that ensures Tata car or Kodak camera or Anchor switch is produced. All that we do is to convert available natural resources from their original condition into another form of energy. This process costs nature its resources and humans, monetary costs.

Great message

The 3D film ‘Avatar,’ which stands for nature, spread a great message, while raking in billions of dollars. But is it ever possible to calculate the sum total carbon footprint it must have created? How much of the world’s resources a mega event like Olympics would consume? How much energy goes into maintaining the servers of global systems like Yahoo or Google? What does introducing a new system like Metro rail into a fully built city like Delhi or Bangalore mean? Or closer home, what happens when a family goes on a month-long trip abroad, staying in plush hotels and hopping into flights every three days?

Eco-concern is not prescribing inaction

The first reaction to the above thoughts would be the line “So, what do we do – do nothing?” Doing nothing is not a solution, but a thoughtless reaction. The inevitable act of living on earth would demand equally inevitable consumption of earth’s resources. Let’s remember, all these centuries, the earth did not appear threatened! If we can introspect intelligently, we can again establish our balance with nature.

Construction contributes to more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. As we all know now, the emissions play a major role in climate change.

Urbanisation is happening faster than ever today, as proved by the recent census as well, and accommodating the urban needs of houses, schools, offices and shops is demanding round-the-clock construction.

Yes, individually we need all these buildings and some of us can afford them, but collectively are they sustainable?

With our only model being constructing huge, irreversible steel & RCC buildings, are we solving our present needs or creating future problems?

Once the natural raw materials transform into new building forms, they cannot go to their original condition any more.

Greater the processing and manufacturing, larger will be the consumption and costs.

Transportation, production time wastage, marketing network, exclusivity of the product and many such seen and unseen factors contribute to the final cost we pay in rupees.

With these deeper thoughts about cost, not only in human terms, but equally well for nature, let us get into the details about costs in the coming weeks.

Who pays for the building?

The construction industry has no MRP and the rates stipulated by the government do not appear practical in many public projects, leave alone the private sector

Money matters: Choose the right building materials and save on cost

When we walk into a house warming function, we dare not ask the owner, ‘who has paid for the house construction?’ It will be an invitation for a slap on the face with the obvious answer being the owner’s family has paid for it all! Sounds fine, but is it a true and total fact?

To check out we may continue asking ‘who has paid the owner?’ Let us imagine the owner is employed with good salaries; so, indirectly, the employer has paid the costs. Where does the company make its profits from, to pay the owner? Obviously, the revenue and profits of the company comes from millions of customers who buy the company’s products. Imagine the products are agricultural seeds or cement or clothes. Where do these products come from? We may differ in answers, but possibly would concur on natural resources. Now the more obvious answer – mother nature has paid for it all.

Unfortunately, we never consider nature as the paymaster. If we have the money and affordability, we claim our powers and build a palace for ourselves. With lesser money, we build a modest home. All our acts of buying an apartment, furnishing the interior of an office, getting a farm house designed or developing seaside villas is solely dependent upon how much money we can spend or invest with no realisation on how nature too spends on our projects, complementing our efforts at all levels.

The day either our money or resources of nature deplete, construction has to slow down.

Cost to owner vs. cost to nature

All buildings are estimated and costs calculated as per systems of civil engineering. While these costs are important to budget the project from an owner’s point of view, from the perspective of nature, the costs to be calculated are rooted in quantum of consumption, embodied energy, greenhouse gas emissions, recyclability, percentage of wastage, contribution to climate change and such others. Of course, with neither easy formulae nor non-debatable figures, the cost to nature can never be estimated accurately. The cost to owner being a direct and verifiable figure, it gets overarching importance.

Construction industry has no MRP (Maximum Retail Price). The scheduled rates stipulated by the government do not appear practical in many public projects, leave alone private sector. While products such as cement or switches have a printed price, they too are prone to frequent discounts or variations.

Most consultants hesitate to give general figures, fearing contextual variations and the danger of misleading prospective owners. However, specific to any project with all details worked out, it is possible to estimate the costs. Even if this budgetary figure is calculated, let us remember it is only the cost to owner, and not the cost to nature.

Do eco-designs cost more?

Let us begin this cost-factor series with the public perception of the expenditure involved in eco-friendly architecture.

Ideal mix: Keep in mind both cost and ecology while choosing building materials

We can have a ceramic tile floor for Rs. 40 per sq. ft, material, labour and contractor’s profit inclusive; while even in the deccan belt of Bangalore, an equally decent natural granite floor would cost around Rs. 80 per sq. ft.

Want to try out quality red-oxide floor, you need to shell out a minimum Rs. 50 per sq. ft. to an expert team. So, what’s the public conclusion? Mass manufactured products like ceramic tiles are cheaper, hence more eco-friendly.

Traditional brick and plastered overhead water tanks costs Rs. 10 per litre while the PVC tanks come at Rs. 8 a litre. For argument’s sake, the product consuming fewer resources must be financially cheaper. If the buyer’s cost is the criteria, which is more eco-friendly? Obviously the PVC tank!

Steel wins over wood

Wooden door frames today, especially teak wood, cost a lot of money. In comparison, we can buy steel door frames at half the price. So, steel wins over wood in being more affordable and may be ecologically too.

Then there are UPVC and aluminium windows, virtually waging a price war against wooden windows, and winning over them everywhere.

One hollow clay block of 6”x8”x16” size is roughly equal to six ordinary bricks. In Bangalore, while the hollow clay block costs Rs. 45, the bricks together will cost Rs. 30 only. It is normal for people to ask, ‘How can a costly material like clay block be more sustainable than bricks’?

Cost as a partial indicator

Ecological architecture could be less costly or in some cases, more costly. However cost alone cannot decide if the approach is sensitive to nature.

Mass produced ceramic tiles may be an irreversible process where the material will never return to earth; brick tanks may prove costly due to labour costs; wood, though a renewable material, could be at short supply and brick cost may be deceptive without the expenses for plastering or painting. We need to discuss these points in greater detail.

Individual comfort vs. collective benefit

Let us conclude with a common analogy.

If a family of four needs to go to Mangalore from Bangalore, what’s the most sustainable option? Travelling up and down by a good bus will cost around Rs. 3,000, whereas, day journey by a self-owned diesel car may need fuel worth Rs. 2,000 only.

Simple logic – driving down by own car is cheaper, hence consumes less resources, hence more eco-friendly. Appears quite like the philosophy of the U.S., the country of cars, with minimal public transport.

However, if eight families have to travel, there would be eight cars on the road against one bus; all the cars have to be owned with purchase investment; maintenance and service costs are payable extra; annual depreciation in value ideally should be added to cost per driven kilometre and when the car is less occupied, resource cost per person accordingly goes higher.

In the above two paragraphs, we have two sets of arguments to endorse.

The choice is ours now, but the implication is for the next generations.