Monthly Archives: June 2011

The roof over the head…

The early wanderers rested under a tree, the most natural roof. 

“Millions of people live without a roof over the head. Roofing the families is a challenge in all poverty-stricken regions.”

“Natural disasters render thousands of families roofless. Sheltering such refugees continues to be a priority of the Government.”

“Shifting the houses is fine, but when does one get a permanent roof over the head?”

Before one wonders why there is such an incoherent beginning for the essay, let us realise all these are commonly read headlines in newspapers.

The idea of roof has, across our civilisation, gained multiple meanings in varied fields from politics to philosophy. However, basically it refers to an important aspect of structural engineering and architectural design.

Early roofs

It can be easily imagined how early wanderers would have rested under a tree, the most natural roof we all get over our heads. Big rock boulders provide a safer heaven, but large ones with space underneath are found far and few. Keeping a few twigs inclined, forming a cone, was discovered early, where the wall and roof merge, creating a pyramidal structure.

While easy to build, these conical houses could not be built beyond a certain size and also restricted movement inside due to the sloping edges. Caves with their roofed space might have provided clues to what we really need.

At some point, early humans must have realised the need to build one’s own roof.

The earliest recipe for a shelter measuring 10’x10’x10′ should have been very simple – four tree trunks as pillars, 40 ft. length of ropes, eight tree braches as roof beams, 50 nos. of palm tree leaves and six hours of time. A shelter, open at its sides, is ready!

It is only a roofed structure, but good enough to get protected and catch a sleep underneath. Incidentally, does it sound familiar?

Yes, because we still see them being made even today, especially on the fields of cultivation by farm labourers.

 Advanced science

So far it appears as if roof making is simple! Well, for low-end needs and temporary shelter, it surely is. When societal activities gradually advanced, new building types were required that could hold large gatherings. People wanted to see the shrines of gods stay strong for long; important structures like palaces had to appear attractive; the roof had to withstand the vagaries of nature in areas of critical weather and for all these the same set of local materials had to be used, be it mud, wood or stone.

Doing a roof with mud alone or wood alone is not easy, nor can we have large buildings roofed with small stone slabs. Over the millennium, much must have collapsed, while a few stayed. As such we realise roofing the shelter has been among the most critical aspects of any building.

People across regions and over the centuries have attempted varied ideas, some with very innovative technologies, which we need to focus on now.

Learning from the past

The archaeologically proven existence of early houses was in the Neolithic Age or New Stone Age, approximately between 8000 and 5000 BC. 

Charming: Building designs should be pragmatic and reflect local culture

An architect friend had a curious observation about this weekly column, pointing out how it looks at past practices, picks up ideas and re-discovers their benefits for today. The present essay, sixtieth in the series, could be a milestone to understand how important this re-look and rediscovery is to our times.

In the long history of human beings, most of the early part was spent in nomadic fashion. Anthropologists and scientists write that the idea was not to settle, but continue hunting and gathering food. There could be different theories about where and when the settled life started as a benchmark to claim the earliest villages and house constructions. However, researchers suggest that the idea of settling in one place might have happened more than 10,000 years ago, during the middle Stone Age or Mesolithic period. This could be temporary or a fairly long time camping of extended family groups, using local tree branches, mud and reeds for the shelter.

There could be historic inaccuracies in this theory and the shelters could be very primitive, but to imagine this stage as the beginning of our modern houses is exciting.

The archaeologically proven existence of early houses was in the Neolithic Age or New Stone Age, approximately between 8000 and 5000 BC, especially in Asia Minor and Africa regions. Shaped in cones and round forms, houses got formally built around this time. Our ancestors appear to have learnt how to cut trees as construction timber, shape leaves to roof the room or form mud into walls. Farming begins, animals get domesticated, pottery appears and societal systems slowly emerge during this period. The Neolithic Age, in many ways, was the beginning of human society and settlements, hence also the beginning of house building.

During the Chacolithic Age or copper age, approximately between 5000 and 3000 BC, besides houses, even non-residential buildings also got built to accommodate varying social needs. We may assume, during the Bronze Age, 3000 BC onwards, building construction was a well-established skill.

Idea of a house

We may list four basic needs which lead to house construction — shelter, security, space and storage. They still form the four corners of the idea of building. Buildings had to be simple enough for any user to get one built, while they had to be comfortable for all to live in. Subsequently, beauty, functionality and durability might have got added.

As settlements grew, houses got repeated, details got developed, skill levels got improved and architecture evolved. Buildings of a region got improvised by trial and error, with designs evolving by pragmatic considerations. Gradually, our shelters became the expressions of our culture, climate and context.

This column keeps re-looking at the past because the basic idea of building has not changed. The question ahead of us is — will our buildings continue to be so?

Back to open planning

A small house with large spaces is any day better than a large house with small spaces

Ask any architect about the modern trends in city homes and there are more chances of ‘open planning’ being mentioned. In a way it is not modern, it is how human shelters began. Climatically conforming, cost reducing and contextually adoptable, residential and public use spaces of the past were built without too many internal rooms or partitions. Subsequently, houses in cold regions developed the idea of having cells – small spaces that could be kept warm, while tropics continued with minimal enclosures. From palaces to peasant’s homes, the front of the house had only a roof, no front wall. The immediate inside would be a hall with or without a courtyard.

Then came electricity and following it the idea of separated rooms each with walls and doors. Entrance lobby, living, dining, kitchen and study, each became a room, from being part of a continuous whole.

We got kitchens with doors, where the doors were never closed. Introduction of electricity enabled family members to occupy different rooms as they wished. No wonder, sense of privacy and individuality increased, resulting in each bedroom getting a toilet too, shaping up today’s typical city house — a large house with small rooms!

In south India, if the house gets sub-divided into rooms, the separation not only affects light and air, it also makes the building interior appear small.

If we host even a small function, the house appears crowded. Electricity enables such houses, so no wonder, our electricity bills kept raising. If so, why were they built so?

There was a time when this type of house was considered better, with more privacy and a defined place for everything in the house. It might have suited some climatic zones, but not south India.

Feel the difference

Even today, people moving from villages into our metro cities can feel the difference in domestic spaces, a shift from their spread-out open halls to enclosed small rooms. Such people, invariably, get a new house designed with open planning.

We architects often get prospective owners, who grew up with middle class parents in crowded small houses, now aspiring for uncluttered, free-flowing spaces. Incidentally, this new trend is not restricted to large-budgeted big houses, but even to small ones.

In these days, when open pavilions are gaining ground, minimally enclosed buildings can be very easily used and justified. Even public structures can benefit from this approach. Technically, we can transfer much of the roof load to the outer walls, to leave the internal areas as large open spaces.

They could be left as multi-functional entities, for subdivision by each generation as they may feel. In this approach, not only the reduced internal walls lead to reduced costs, even small sites can have seemingly big buildings.

A small house with large spaces is any day better than a large house with small spaces.

Spread the coolness, and the space

Courtyards, open halls and verandahs of the past suited the climate of the region.

Have we observed how we feel stuffy and suffocating in small rooms in south India, while the larger spaces with many windows are relaxing and soothing? Contrastingly, up north in Kulu-Manali, a large space could be freezing and debilitating, where people would rather get locked up in small, warm rooms. Just a matter of how our activity spaces are located, either as an interconnected open plan or a plan with compact and enclosed rooms.

Last week, we discussed how narrow internal passages negate the movement of light and air. Interestingly, there has been a discussion/rejoinder soon after, stating how passages also mean compressed spaces restricting even the sense of space, opening up a whole new talk on buildings with open planning.


Most south Indian homes of the past were fairly open in the floor plan, irrespective of the size of the house. Only the kitchen and pooja were for sure proper rooms! Some houses would have had proper bedrooms in some cases, rest of the house being open halls with column support for the roof.

These open rooms could take on any activity — dining, sleeping, family function, receiving guests, occasional large worships or even storing farm produce.

Observing this, an European architect on cultural study here remarked that our vernacular houses do not have rooms; the whole house is like a room.

Incidentally, it is the Europeans who during the colonial era introduced the concept of house plan as a collection of individual rooms, each enclosed by walls and closed by a door. Passages and common spaces connect these rooms.

Local needs

European continent being a cold region, more the number of rooms with least external walls, greater the trapping of heat. The British transplanted their lifestyle into most parts of India, and the past practice of south India with open halls that suited this hot, humid region got a back seat. Simultaneously, the internal courtyard and external verandahs also made a gentle exit, being replaced by formal rooms.

Interestingly, the British realised their folly shortly thereafter. The now popular word, bungalow, was born around this time, merging the dreams of a colonial house with the harsh local climatic realities.

Typically found with large verandahs, the high-pitched roofs, deep roof projections as rain eaves, wall-top ventilators, light from roof or just below roof, oblong house plan rather than square ones and many such ideas attempted to localise the European house form.

Right plan

Even in the hot, humid region of south India, a small bit of heat may have to be retained to keep the short spell of winter warmer, especially in certain specific regions, including hill stations. However, at large, we need a plan form that spreads the coolness, with the least of obstacles like walls. If so, a house full of rooms each with hardly one window is bound to create a house of complaints, warm with temperatures and not the warmth of people!