Monthly Archives: May 2011

Avoid narrow passages

Why stick to staid approaches? If we fail to connect two rooms efficiently, why do we simply introduce a passage in between?

Simple concept: Open planning liberates spaces

It’s strange but true: functional efficiency, cost-effectiveness and eco-friendliness are connected. Most ideas and systems we have been discussing, like passive cooling, local materials, tall windows, verandahs or skylights, together exhibit all of the above qualities.

These could be contrasted with other ideas singularly effective, like a sound-proof window or RCC chajja, which may cost more or have average climatic performance. Most often, consultants are aware of the limitations of these ideas, yet end up executing them mostly with no other choice in sight.

However, there are approaches simply taken for granted, only to be repeated without critical thinking. Narrow internal passages are a case in point. These are among the neglected parts of the plan making process, where if we fail to connect two rooms efficiently, we simply introduce a passage in between.

This is a trap

Movement is an activity that happens all over the building, since we need to reach up to every inch of the plan. While all areas accommodate one or the other activity, the 3 to 4 ft. wide passages serve only movement, walking across into some room or door. Where every inch of built area is increasingly costly today, why are we into this trap called passages?

In cold countries, passages served a climatic function – they acted as buffer zones, helping so much in retaining the warmer room temperatures. Most rooms were fully enclosed with thick walls and doors, to be shut off from the vagaries of harsh nature.
Thumb rule: Ideally all spaces in a house should merge seamlessly

With the arrival of the British, the concept of passage and room entered India too. However, in tropical contexts like ours, we need not cut off air from a room, rather let the air move freely, either as gentle breeze in hot humid zones and displacement ventilation in hot dry zones.

Passages also retain the foul air, with no escape route. Besides tending to be darker, with no direct light from external windows, passages disturb perceiving the built area as a large entity. How narrow spaces hinder carrying furniture around need not be further highlighted. Despite all this, passages are taken for granted in most house plans even today, and felt as inevitable in public buildings such as hotels and hospitals.

Eliminating passages

By now we realise that we cannot avoid movement areas, and people need to move through even an entrance lounge. What could be eliminated are the exclusive narrow passages.

One option is make them wider, so a storage shelf or a mural art wall can be a part of the passages, turning them into multi-functional spaces.

Most areas can be designed such, one space merging into another like living room leading into dining space.

Classrooms in a school or bedrooms of a house may be accessed directly from a common space, without a connecting neck called passage.

How the space liberated from the bounds of passage contributes to enlarged internal area can be felt in all open planning buildings!

Romancing the verandah

Beautiful frontage, protection from heat, rain and pollution… the benefits are many

TRADITIONAL VERANDAHS: They appear to have the right answers to modern-day problems too

Most of us react to the building we own in two ways — either we try observing it or we just live in it. In the former, there could be an understanding of its drawbacks, with feedback and ideas for improvising. The latter, of course, takes the architecture for granted, often not even realising how good the building has been. Needless to say, most of us belong to the latter category, not bothered about how we live. Despite having a large stock of buildings that are both functionally efficient and aesthetically pleasant, we tend to criticise them, seeking a change, sometimes for the worse. May be, the trend confirms the old-world adage ‘familiarity breeds contempt’!

This critical introduction follows a reader’s comment about how verandahs today are a waste of space in the precious urban land and possibly have no great merit.

Elements of house entrance

Even in the crowded lanes of Varanasi along the Ganga or Bijapur in Karnataka, where no prominent verandahs are found, the elements of entrance are anyway highlighted.

The entrance is well protected, niches for oil lamps flank the main door, the house is slightly raised up, door frame has a threshold and there would be some informal stone bench seating attached to the front wall. Incidentally, we notice similar features in public buildings too, with some minor modifications like niche for oil lamp missing.

What a verandah does is to enclose all these elements, adding of course, options for seating and storing footwear.

The fact that in the process it adds pillars and roof, adding a beautiful frontage, needs to be counted as a bonus!

However, what matters to professionals like us professing green architecture are the ecological benefits of a having a verandah, especially in a house.

Climate factor

The early designers might have realised that roofing the area in front of the main door is the best mode of safeguarding the door itself. Naturally, the opening is now distanced from direct sun light, reducing tropical glare. In a rain-fed country like ours, protection from rain comes by as well, if we add a verandah. This would also mean keeping the monsoon slush away and keeping the summer dust at a distance.

In a crowded street, the house with verandah appears to be slightly less noisy, thanks to the sound getting partly trapped at the entrance itself. If the verandah is large, the deep set shadows ensure reduction in direct solar heat gain, in case the house faces south or west. This phenomenon becomes clear when we look at some agrahara streets, with every house having a verandah in front.

If we return to the query, whether a verandah is a waste of space, our answer from climatic considerations could be in the negative – verandahs are worth as eco-designs. They appear to have the right answers for all the problems of heat, dust, glare, noise and rain.

The welcome verandahs

Imagine how multi-functional they have been, managing every activity, starting with being an entrance to a home. 

If we were to name one element of Indian architecture which could be listed as being good in every sense – eco feature; cultural expression; climate friendly; cost effective; zero life cycle cost and functional – it could be the ubiquitous and age-old verandah. Call it jagali, thinnai, chaavadi, balcao, katte or by any other name, verandahs have been part of our traditional architecture like no other element has been. And imagine how multi-functional they have been, managing every activity from being an entrance to a home to a place for serving tea, home office or sleeping area! It’s surprising, how we tend to forget our near past, when the wave of modernity takes over. Till recently, most of our buildings exhibited an open space, only roofed, at the entrance of the building, and would often go round the building too.

Found all over our country, the idea was celebrated by the British, who developed the bungalow-type of houses, with the verandahs virtually wrapping the building. Graduating from the house level, verandahs appeared in all public buildings, schools, courts, commissioner’s office, inspection bungalows and all other public structures.

Cost-effective

Being open all around, it’s but natural that verandahs cost less to build and maintain. During the days of no fan or A/C., this shaded area could have been among the most comfortable areas built with the least cost. No wonder, the verandahs either became the living rooms accommodating guests or were used as family spaces on quieter occasions.

During family events, food was served here and children played around. Guests from distant towns who could not travel back due to the paucity of travel options, simply slept off at these naturally air conditioned areas. All these varied functional possibilities were feasible only in the verandahs.

Not disliked by anyone

In these days where buildings are looking more like boxes, creating an inviting and attractive elevation has been a critical issue. With its beautiful carved pillars and homely artefacts lying around, no extra money was spent in the past for elevation, once people placed a front verandah.

It also created a distinct sense of entrance, where the front roof would contrast with the rest of building. It’s common to find the verandah with sloping tiled roof, with the house wall rising from behind. New-age owners may not take a verandah in the new construction, but by and large, the aesthetics of verandahs may not be disliked by anyone!

Treated as outdated?

Can one forget the visit to Chettinad houses in Tamil Nadu or the Malnad homes of Karnataka? Yet we see less of verandahs in modern buildings. Has the effectiveness of this idea, time tested for thousands of years, suddenly vanished? Are we bored with the routine, thinking that verandahs are now outdated?

It’s time to re-discover verandahs, specially when the greatest validation for verandahs has come from the famed Sri Lankan architect Anjalendran, who till recently managed his consultancy office from the verandah of his mother’s house!

The rough look is cool!

When you get rid of the straight lines, you have to use your imagination to deal with all the curvatures.

Know the basics: Rough-textured walls receive less heat

Have we ever tried to go close up to a tree trunk or a hill-side cliff? We notice the seemingly plain surface has a thousand minute folds. How is the surface of a seemingly smooth rock boulder? Close up, it is rugged and not in one smooth plane. What about fruits, vegetables, timber logs or tender coconut shells? It is the same story everywhere — all non-planar, rough textured, micro-folded and gently curving.

If nature never had a smooth, straight and fine finish, where did we humans get all these ideas for our constructions from? Why are we not trying to learn from and emulate nature?

Village scene

Incidentally, we have followed nature, but mostly during the bygone days. Let us look at any typical Indian village home. This vernacular-style approach used to be rustic and not in perfect plane, being hand- or simple trowel-plastered.

Often there would be natural materials such as stone, timber or bricks left exposed, hence solar passive, also creating a sense of local material and character.

Smooth-plastered walls receive more heat compared to rough-textured ones, since the latter cast micro shades within the wall, thanks to their roughness. If used in the natural state without plastering, brick and stone exhibit such a textured surface that they absorb much lesser heat.

Beauty of curved walls

Gentle curves are part of most objects found in nature, which could be blended with our regular walls to get multiple benefits. We rarely make full use of all the four corners of the room, as such converting one corner into a curved edge does not reduce functionality. Critical areas where storage, furniture, shelves, platforms and such others happen could be left straight, while the movement areas and passages can flow along a curve.

There could be issues like fixing windows, casting curved lintel beams, workmanship, perfect plaster levels and difficulty in using tools. However, if we are able to retain the sense of curve, the job is well done.

In our context, building materials such as stone or brick are rectilinear, hence making the curve using such geometrical blocks needs an expert mason.

Folded walls

Among the much less used variety is the folded wall typology. It was Laurie Baker who discovered that thinner walls with half-brick thickness save money, but need to be folded to gain strength. Incidentally, from an ecological perspective, these folded walls have add-on values!

They create so many external deep-set alcoves that most wall surface is under shade. Not all rooms of a house could be comfortable with folded walls.

In non-residential building types like those at Hosa Jeevan Daari at Melukote, such a wall plan internally creates storage niches, with an overall elevation that looks different and attractive.

Windows now set within the alcoves are well sheltered from rain, with no additional chajja protection needed. One approach can reap many benefits.