Romancing the ‘ladder’
The present generation may not relate well to the word ‘ladder,’ which has been replaced by ‘staircase,’ yet the idea of moving up has parallel connotations both in buildings and life.
Among the many paraphrases on living that have evolved from design and architecture, the most popular one appears to be about ‘moving up the ladder.’ Needless to elaborate, this line is directly taken from a house with upper floors. Our present generation may not relate well to the word ‘ ladder,’ which today has been replaced by the word ‘staircase,’ yet the idea of moving up has parallel connotations both in buildings and life.
A walk in the antique markets will showcase ladders lying next to old doors and windows, as part of salvaged wooden elements from the past, for modern re-use. Normally with a steep angle, these old timers were having thick wood planks for the steps, also called as treads; thinner ones for the vertical face called as risers; sectional beams as underside support; and sides covered by planks again. They were produced by the carpenters easily and locally, using hard wood for permanent structures and alternatives like soft wood or bamboo for temporary uses. Either way, they were ecologically sustainable, economically cheap and easy to erect, remove, shift and re-use.
RCC to the fore
When steel was discovered, long M.S. sections replaced the wooden beams under the stairs while retaining all other timber members therein. Subsequently, with reinforced concrete gaining popularity, RCC replaced both steel and wood, leading to the now popular ‘all concrete’ staircases. The changing preference for stairs while being in tune with evolving technology has also evolved towards visual grandeur, social image and resource consumption.
It is not wrong to claim, from an eco-friendly, appropriate and judicious criteria, that staircases are among the least of critically analysed building solutions to negotiate heights. Unlike the RCC roof where protection from rain and sun is important, besides the confidence of security, the internal stairs does not face sun, rain or security issues. Hence, it does not always warrant reinforced concrete as the primary material or technology.
Yet, we are building today as if there are no substitutes. The argument is not against RCC as an option, which also has its bag of advantages, but to state that in many cases, non-RCC solutions would have sufficed, with savings on monetary and material resources.
From stone steps
Bamboo, both as a single pole with the thorns left short for steps or built up with two poles with a horizontal member in between, possibly provided the early solutions for the ladders.
Besides the wooden staircases discussed above, we also come across stone slabs used as steps, virtually all over India. The farmer’s house may have a thin granite slab compared to the thick carved stone stairs of a palace.
However, both seem to have been inspired by the stone steps of traditional village open wells, where people had to find a way to reach the bottom of the well.
The stone slabs projected from the wall of the well, going round in an orchestrated manner casting dancing shadows, is a sight to be remembered, and may be applied to houses too!