Monthly Archives: October 2012

Natural living gone forever?

Though many material and construction options are highly energy consuming, hence damaging to the environment, why do we all continue to use them extensively?

It is very heartening to meet people who say they read these Green Sense essays, appreciating the effort in outreach of ideas, and equally disheartening to meet people who say that many options discussed here are already well known. Naturally one wonders, if these alternative eco-friendly ideas are among the known options, why are they not very popular? Though many material and construction options are highly energy consuming, hence damaging to the environment, why do we all continue to use them extensively?

More than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions from the earth are caused by the construction industry where steel, cement, glass, aluminium and such others have high embodied energy, hence damage more than other natural materials. Yet, today we have reached a stage where we cannot build without them. Is the age of natural living finished with the new age of artificiality in air, light, materials and buildings emerging now? Exploring this question may lead to many answers, but the more relevant to discuss here is the awareness that a mere awareness does not lead to action.

It is apparent that we are living a life of paradoxes today. Though the first signals of ecological doom started in the 1970s itself, it was the Earth Summit 1992 at Rio de Janeiro which highlighted the impending danger and gave it worldwide publicity. The Rio 20 summit held in 2012 marked 20 years of ecological awareness.


Curiously, in these 20 years, dozens of films, hundreds of books and thousands of articles appeared in many countries around the world related to resource consumption, carbon footprint, climate change and such others. While the research, data, seminars and general knowledge increased, paradoxically the materialistic production, conspicuous consumption and ecological degradation have also increased.

Increasingly, the affluent and even the middle class population are living a default life controlled by the market and conditioned by unquestioned trends. Today it is difficult to have a clean meal at the roadside dhaba; ; buy a car without AC; stay in a simple hotel with natural air; or own a necessary gadget without technological overkill.

Energy-intense lifestyle is fast replacing simple low energy living, not because the earlier mode of living was erroneous or dangerous, but partly because the emerging mode of living is profiting, consuming and attracting. Gradually, this lifestyle is becoming compulsive by peer pressure.

What we call as technological advancement, increased efficiency, general progress and economic development have all resulted in increased comfort for the human beings, but possibly at the cost of increased discomfort to the earth. In many ways the last three decades have been epochal, suggesting the enormous unlimited potential of human beings where nothing appears any more impossible.

Equally well, these years have suggested the very limited potentials of the Earth, which we have only one. The coming decades may seal the future of Earth for ever, either for good or bad.

This is to particularly remind you that this column is exploring ways and means to bring in green techniques for having an eco-friendly build. It’s an earnest effort to help you with some green sense for your home.

It feels good, but…

Laminated wooden flooring is a paradox that combines benefits and ill-effects.

How nature is being destroyed by human beings is among the major concerns of Green Sense essays. However, this concern is not expressed highlighting negativity, but by suggesting meaningful energy efficient methods, hoping that earthy eco-friendly approaches would partially replace our present harmful modes. In this direction, there are many humanly invented ideas, which appear like a perfect solution to the problem, yet appear like a paradox too.

Laminated wooden flooring is one such paradox, which strangely combines benefits and ill-effects. Wooden particles are pressed under high density using adhesives like melamine, formaldehyde and such others, topped with a photographic image of wooden appearance and topped finally with protective layers of aluminium oxide and such synthetic resins. While we get the unblemished near-perfect wood look, actually there is no hard wood or even a layer of wood in it, yet gets termed as laminated wooden floor, making people believe that it is made of many layers of wood! Also, the chemical and plastic components used in the process of making laminated floor defeats the very purpose of producing a building material naturally. The base material being wooden particles is the only saving grace.

Volatile organic compounds

Laminate floors supposedly emit volatile organic compounds (VOC) today much more in discussion reference paints. Of course, the VOC emission in floor tiles will be in minuscule quantities and slow across the time line, which will get ventilated in an airy room, though completely enclosed air conditioned rooms may suffer by indoor air quality. Despite the apparent artificiality and the environmental concerns, laminate floors have emerged among the materials becoming increasingly popular today, simply because they come with many advantages.

Laminate floors look like wood with an affordable price tag and are easy to install on a layer of foam upon any level surface, where the foam acts like moisture and sound barrier. The top surface appears even, joints neat with clean looking edges and junctions. For light usage as in the case of residences and executive cabins with minimal visitors, this floor type would easily appear new up to five years and generally last for about 10 years. Thereafter there would be telltale signs of age with wear and tear marks, when the protective layer and the photographic image thin down. However, people are known to continue using them.

The laminate boards are scratch resistant, but in case of any damage, cannot be re-polished, partially replaced or repaired at site.

While the high resolution photo image gives better appearance and does not fade in theory, it does get dull if placed against direct Indian summer sunlight.

These floor tiles are strong, termite proof, come in varied interlocking sizes and maintain the room temperature on the surface.

Though moisture resistant, laminated floor is not suited for areas of potential water usage. Vacuum cleaning or mopping with semi-dry cloth is suggested to ensure durability.

Laminate floors are an example of technology-enabled nature look-alike substitute, mimicking nature by an industrialised process and deriving a feel good factor.

Bring outdoor to inside

All human beings, innately and instinctively, desire to live connected to nature. This statement may sound strange today where artificiality is ruling our products and controlled environment is conditioning most of our urban shelters. However luxurious a pent house apartment may be, the residents there wish to see few green plants, even if they are planted in pots. Balconies are found more in large air conditioned houses than in small naturally ventilated homes. After day long work in an office with glittering steel and chrome, back at home or restaurant, we wish to see wooden furniture and open wardrobes with wooden veneers.

The growing popularity of wooden flooring could be linked to the above phenomena, attempting to bring the outside world to inside the building, if not totally, at least in parts.  While the traditional thick wooden planks were appreciated, but came with logistical problems, there came factory processes to improve the system. The planks available today are with equal size, even thickness and have tongue and groove joints to get tight fit.  Over the time, these floor boards get a beautiful sheen and appear visually richer.

All of them are made from treated mature timber, besides having surface treatment to resist water, humidity, fire and stains.  Increased numbers of options are being added to the existing list of popular wood floors like teak, maple, cherry, walnut, mahogany and such others, as more manufacturers are entering the market.  The prices are also gradually falling, enticing more customers.  The base cement floor should be kept perfectly level, dry and dust free for laying the wood tiles, with anti termite treatment in areas of termite danger.   Mostly wooden floor is being used with other materials as well; hence a transition profile of small curved wooden strip is used to cover the joints. Also, there will be a small gap between the floor and the wall, conveniently covered by the skirting piece. After laying there should be few days gap before the floor is used regularly.

Despite the natural goodness of wooden floors, they also have their set of problems. In areas of heavy rain fall, where it is impossible to keep the floor dry, natural wood flooring demands much of maintenance. Only dry mopping or dust sweep is advised on daily basis, occasional vacuum cleaning and very rare wet cloth mopping. Susceptible to minor wear, tear and shrinkages, they may get noisier over the years. There have been many complaints not because of the materials but the laying, for laying the floor tiles demands expertise. While most natural floor boards are made from hard wood, they are not fully scratch resistant, so rough handling may lead to surface disfiguration.  Dust and moisture can easily get into the joints reducing the life of the floor. Above all, the eco-friendly 100% wooden boards cost much above the purchasing power of most people!

Nature’s best friend

Technology has enabled resource preservation, and wooden flooring is a fine example.

Sustainable architecture is being driven today by many streams where local wisdom complements global ideas; where technology contributes to tradition; and where modern touch elevates past practices. As such, modern technology by definition is not disastrous or an undebated enemy of nature. If so, why do we hear technology as an anti-thesis to sustainability? Is it wrong to crucify modernity and should we uphold technology as a solution to the problems we are facing today? Occasional comments about this Green Sense column have been suggesting that the subjects discussed have a visible leaning towards the latter.

While this reaction could be partly true, and climate responsive architecture rooted in the local being more energy efficient by default, there are innumerable cases where technology has enabled more efficient use of materials, energy and resources. Technology bashing happens with many corporate demands, lifestyle needs, comfort matters and consumerist attitudes.

Air conditioning, automobiles, air travel, obsoleteness caused by progress, increasing manufacturing, global cross-border transportation and many such cause resource consumption and waste production. However, on the positive side, technology has also enabled resource preservation, wherein wooden flooring is among the more appropriate examples.

A list of positives…

Wooden flooring is not new to India. Be it in Kulu Valley or Kerala, timber has been among the common construction materials. Its beautiful grains, slow wear and tear, comfort feel for the feet and enviable durability is known to all. Despite a few routine problems, wooden floors have continued to be popular. They do not absorb heat, chilling cold, excessive water or staining dirt. A single sweep of dry or slightly moist cloth cleans the surface. Most wooden surfaces are anti-skid, hence safe for children and the aged. Incidentally, people who have lived on wooden floors for long, find it difficult to adjust to other options.

Traditionally, all structures in many regions of India had solid wood planks as floor boards, which today come at humongous cost. The modes of cutting trees and the planks were based on simple blades, leading to much material wastage. The surfaces were left raw after the cutting, which often failed in good performance.

A difficult job

Plank thickness was varying, making even laying a difficult job. Mostly, the junctions could not be fully sealed and the planks were not held tight, hence the floor was not always finished accurately.

Thanks to modern technology, wooden flooring has evolved as a better choice among the options with natural materials.

On a comparative note, while marble and such options deplete the earth’s resources, timber is a renewable resource, if only we care to leave the majority of the forests alone and have plantation timber grown instead. While the modern wood working and transportation consumes energy, the embodied energy of wooden floors is still lower than any of the completely manufactured materials. They are easily removable and recyclable, hence make a good case for eco-friendly architecture.