Monthly Archives: March 2012

Wooden posts, antique columns

Pillars are the foremost element seen in elevation, and hence contribute much to the external looks of a building.

Recyclability of material components is among the primary principles of green architecture and building rating systems. Antique wooden pillars, as they are today called in the market, are amongst the most popular of all recycled materials from demolished buildings. No wonder, wood has always been an attraction, carved beautifully or not, for sheltering human civilisation, with most early buildings virtually starting from wood for construction.

Traditional huts were supported upon simple tree posts, which led to tree trunks being cut and shaped as desired. When building with stone was felt possible or concrete technology was developed, the basics learnt by timber architecture continued as first principles. Wooden pillars also expressed the social status of the building owners. In the past, most village houses had the same method of construction with verandahs, wooden pillars and sloping tiled roofs. The first distinction between houses of farmers and landlords would be in their front looks, in the degree of carvings in the pillars – while the poor settled with simple posts, the rich had ornate pillars.

Ornate

This desire for such ornate carved columns continues in our culture. From five star hotels to lavish bungalows, we see grand visual statements being made by decorative columns, mostly in concrete, plaster of paris, synthetic materials like fiber glass or mortar, all done to look alike traditional wooden pillars, softly suggesting carved wood as a time-tested attraction.

Modern architecture shuns carved ornate appearances, but if the building owners like tradition, it is possible to blend the pillars of the past with the design ideology of the present. Besides recycling a material, they create a sense of continuity, juxtapose tradition with modernity and connect the building to local design roots.

The solace in reuse

In many parts of south India, like Kochi, Karaikudi and Pondicherry, there are informal markets thriving on antique sales. Besides, most towns have demolition contractors or dealers in old building materials who can supply carved pillars and doors. While it feels sad to see the demolitions, the possibilities of a carved pillar not being used as firewood brings solace to the mind, in case we can reuse them. There are numerous cases where people gave away their antique belongings to genuine takers, while refusing to sell them to commercial middlemen.

Unfortunately, there is an argument that the market demand for anything antique leads to demolition of old buildings, which is not all true. Monetary gain by reselling the salvaged materials could be among the consolations, but hardly anyone pulls down century-old houses just to sell and earn, for the earnings are no match for getting another house built.

Pillars are the foremost element seen in elevation, and hence contribute much to the external looks of the building. However, more importantly, in a tropical country like ours, it is a pleasure to sit in an open verandah or internal court, flanked by traditional wooden pillars, either to work or to relax.

Does nature love us?

If we are the starting point towards unabated energy consumption, we can also be the starting point towards balanced energy conservation.

24bgpgreensense_AR_1024470eDo we all love nature? Of course, we all do and such a question is seemingly unwarranted. Now if we ask, does nature love us – the answers could vary. There could be few people who may affirmatively claim that nature loves us all, but the majority would get sceptical and wonder why nature should love us, considering all the havoc we have been creating.

During our developmental processes, we have continuously taken from nature. Brick-making takes from top soil; eco-tourism depends upon ecological attractions; vegetable farming sucks soil nutrients; heavy industries take away mineral ores; and golf courses consume large quantity of water.

In return, what are we giving back to nature? Polluted environment, depleted resources, degraded land, amassed waste – the list can go on endlessly.

Yet, we proudly claim how we make things. It’s time we realise that it is not we the humans who make cars, but nature which makes them. Without all the supplies of nature, the laptops would not have been possible. Later, when the performance life of cars and laptops end, we do not keep them with us, but throw them which is an act of returning them to earth.

Construction & destruction

We are trying to solve the puzzle of energy consumption in buildings, but the major problem lies with the act of building itself – every construction follows some destruction, some processing and some materialistic modification such that no building can ever be completely eco-friendly.

If so, how would one view this Green Sense column, running in its 100th edition today? It intends to create hope amidst loss, share ideas to reduce the harm, minimise energy consumption by taking architecture beyond the mainstream and finally, to invoke respect to past practices and present contexts so that we can be sensuous, sensitive and sensible to nature.

If we are the starting point towards unabated energy consumption, we can also be the starting point towards balanced energy conservation.

We are the solution…

While this column has attempted to explore alternative building methods, we need to realise that it is not the building that consumes energy but people. 

A century down the line, historians my write how the decades around the turn of the millennium have been epochal — realising the impact of our lifestyles; introspecting our patterns of consuming; researching about climate change; talking about carbon footprints and writing the ongoing history of societal shift into sustainable futures. The fact that we all are part of this moment of time is a matter of both pride and concern. Pride because it is our generation that is mapping the critical future and concern because our much thought out solutions are increasingly failing to stop the tide.

While this Green Sense weekly column has attempted to explore alternative building methods, we need to realise that at the end, it is not the building that consumes energy but people. A mere technical count of eco-friendly ideas used in a green building may not be a good enough solution, despite being a welcome step.

Care about wastage

A building, however eco-friendly it is, will fall flat if its users consume more energy than what the design has saved. This could be simply illustrated by the possible contradiction between the house and people. Imagine a home with mud blocks, stone pillar and filler roof, hence eco-friendly. However, if the family that lives there leads a lavish life buying, using and throwing, the whole idea gets defeated.

If people do not care about reducing wastage, the society and market at large will not care about reducing production or consumption. The energy discussion needs to start from the end consumers — people.

Much has already been said about how the local wisdom is always more eco-friendly and how place-based solutions are better than global practices from abroad. Yet, the global is prevailing over the local, thanks to increased comforts, attractive aesthetics, innovative production, ease of operation, proven durability and such others.

Energy cost

The flip side of this argument could be seen in one example — the corporate game of production at cheap prices at one place followed by marketing at high prices elsewhere has led to enormous quantities of energy in every item we are buying.

While discussing the emerging new ideas, supposedly more efficient, we may not realise the cost at which the new ideas are made to reach every corner of the world and how it would exclude many people in the process.

However, being a part of our times, none of us can negate the trends around us. Instead, what we can do is to observe the trends, realise their negative impacts and attempt corrective measures.

Accordingly, Green Sense has been looking at a few architectural design ideas, material options and construction techniques that could reduce the harm we are causing to nature due to construction activities.

Though some of the design ideas may appear useful and appropriate, this column also intends to state that the real solution to energy crisis lies within us, the people.

Playing with pillars

Pillars can be built in any shape as long as the core verticality is maintained for load transfer.

The history of architecture is full of creative forms and shapes, with buildings built possibly in every other way across the continents and centuries. This variety is caused as much by the conditions of location as by the intentions of people involved with the project.

Despite the urge to be different, strangely, pillars seem to have been treated to a greater similarity. Even today, there could be 10 varied elevations along a street, but all built with the same rectangular RCC columns.

The fear factor

The reason for standardising the pillars, even while personalising the building, could be the fear of structures. Being among the critical elements that transfer the loads, we dread the possibility of their failure. Hence, the least degree of experimentation with pillars, negating the possibility of exploring more ecological or economical options. There are numerous cases where designers tried to be eco-friendly with the walls and windows, but within over-designed columns and beams.

Consider the methods

Among the easiest methods to simplify columns has been using the stone slabs in their raw form, with minimal dressing. Being thin, they may buckle sideways in case of heavy loads, which can be resolved by double slabs bound together by mortar in between. Capping the slabs at top with metal flats and in turn welding the flat to the wall plate beam provides a fairly stable structure.

Twisting the column by gradually shifting each member and course creates the illusion of rotating pillars. Instead of brick over brick vertically, every upper brick would be built deliberately out of the plumb by half or one inch as desired. While the surface verticality is maintained, the corners alone appear curvilinear.

This construction needs good masonry skills and perfection within the act of twisting. Though attractive in form, twisted columns may appear out of context unless they are made to blend with the building as a whole.

Human forms

Examples of human forms within the pillars are abundant in our traditional temples, while as a rare gesture, there is Charlie Chaplin in the stone pillar sculpted by John Devraj in the house of theatre personality C.R. Simha.

Disneyland and Ramoji film studios fantasize buildings and exhibit curious-looking elements of construction, though some of them may not be load bearing.

Villagers with lesser access to steel shuttering material often erect temporary supports with gaps between the bricks. This method can be used for permanent pillars also. Place two bricks on their edge, parallel at opposite faces of one course and the next course having two bricks on the other two faces.

So, each course has only two bricks, kept vertical, on opposite sides. We get a 9”x 9” structural pillar with holes that we can see through!

There is a simple lesson we learn by observing seemingly ordinary buildings – pillars can be built in any shape as long as the core verticality is maintained for load transfer.

Pillars from stone slabs

The simple method of piling one stone upon another can be seen in many contexts

There is a trap that most practitioners fall into — the trap of complacency after years of practice. That feeling of knowing all and settled in life creating an overconfidence, blocking the possibility of in-flow of new ideas. The design and construction field, though humongous in its variation, exhibits a curious phenomenon where most consultants and contractors suggest the same few ideas and very few consultants attempt out-of-the-box ideas. An alternative idea need not always be a newly researched one never tried in history, but can equally be a variation or an adoption of an out-station practice.

Localised

Stone pillars could be a case in point. While we all know about single-stone or size-stone pillars, both officially endorsed by structural engineers, a short tour down the countryside abundant with local stones may showcase many other ways of doing pillars. Mostly attempted by individuals with no professional background in construction and seemingly localised, not all such ideas can be replicated in other buildings. Also, the contrast between rural approaches and urban contexts eliminates utilising majority of the options, otherwise tried and built. Anyway, the simple method of piling one stone upon another can be seen in many contexts – from the massive pillars of historic Egypt, to quarryside structures and remote villages of Karnataka perched on sheet rock. This method can be easily adopted today.

Vertical line

The rock available in slabs are cut into the column size required, say 9 inch x 9 inch, placed one over another with 1:4 mortar joint ensuring the slabs are properly dressed and get the clean corner vertical line. Such built-up pillars are good for vertical or axial loads, but by chance non-axial angular loads of sloping roofs are expected, they can be strengthened. The top stone slabs can be drilled to get a hole, filled with iron rod and grouted. Metal capping can also be tried to hold the ends of pillar. Such pillars tend to buckle to a side in case of heavy loads, but are very judicious for smaller constructions. Slabs could also be made from a larger boulder.

Each course being 3 to 5 inches thick, the pillars appear thinner compared to size-stone pillars of the same dimension. Wider base and projected capital, traditionally part of any pillar, can be easily introduced here, with stone slabs cut to the specific sizes. Unlike the size-stone pillars which require minimum 12 inch x 12 inch size, the pillars made out of cut slab can be of any size, even 7 inch x 7 inch. Of course, smaller the pillar size, lesser the load-bearing capacity. During construction, they appear weak and swaying upon pushing, but once the top load is in place, the pillar sits strong. Such pillars appear sleek, decorative and attractive, and consume less resources and cost.