Monthly Archives: January 2013

The war between cutcha and pucca

These age-old definitions in India are still valid, but with sustainability discussions taking centre-stage, they can also represent low- and high-embodied energy approaches.

26bgTwo words not originally part of English vocabulary, but now well understood in India, which distinguish between the local informal and proper formal buildings are ‘cutcha’ and ‘pucca.’ In Hindi, cutcha buildings are supposed to be temporary makeshift arrangements, while the pucca ones are durable professional constructions.

These age-old definitions are still valid, but with sustainability discussions having taken centre-stage, they can also represent low-embodied energy and high-embodied energy approaches.

Everything that we can name, like building bye-laws, design codes, college education, contractual systems, bank loan procedures and such others, have continuously discarded the cutcha approach in urban areas citing many reasons, but at a huge environmental cost and a lost opportunity for possible personal savings.

The standard

When the British introduced professional and formal modes of construction, backed by elaborate procedures documented in writing, no one would have then realised that the eco-friendly and cost-effective architecture of pre-colonial India was to change forever.

Over those decades, many instruction handbooks had to be produced to change the local practices and finally when the PWD manuals got published about a century ago, with clearly stated specifications for materials, sketches for details and procedures for construction as an all-India standard, the formalisation of Indian construction had come to stay.

The PWD influence

Today the PWD may represent only government projects, but the PWD approach altered the way even the private buildings were designed and built. The societal desire for such pucca buildings has never stopped since then, moving from mud walls to brick walls to cement blocks to concrete construction to aluminium-coated panels and tinted glass boxes. Alongside the above shift in materials, the parallel journey of cost, wastage and energy has also been one of upwardly consuming.

Paradoxically, more than half of the Indian population still lives in cutcha houses, in rural structures, urban slums and low income homes, with many such houses being centuries old. It is common to see high-end resorts build in cutcha style, charging us astronomical tariffs. Private roadside facilities work 24×7 in simple local materials, seemingly permanently. If we take a long train or bus journey, every settlement along the trip appears to be cutcha. Driving through our State capitals, even today we see old schools, tiled roofs, thatch huts, open verandahs, lime constructions, surface decorations, urban villages and such others, performing on average like any other formal city building.

The advantages

We not only see the cutcha everywhere, we hear that such simple buildings are cooler in summer, have no cracks and are cheap to maintain. If this is true, there must be something wrong in the propaganda about the cutcha as temporary and makeshift. Equally, there must be some lessons on ecology and economy to learn from them, for modern-day application, if not for blind repetition.

We need de-growth

De-growth advocates reduced production, laying stress on more equitable consumption of products across various segments of society.

19bgIn the past when we were “less developed” and had only two models, the part of the car that malfunctioned was repaired and re-fixed. Now “developed” with hundreds of car models, we have started throwing that part away to get a new one. Imagine the future – forget repairing or replacing, we may simply throw the car itself away and get a new one! Such things are already happening in watches, fountain pens, cell phones and such others where we are forced to throw them for the sake of a small spare part. Getting anything repaired is becoming cumbersome and will never give us the best product, while replacing is seemingly the easiest.

Of course what we forget in all this is that replacement will consume more carbon resources than repairing; there are thousands of manufacturers to design the new, but hardly anyone to take care of the discarded and the idea of growth gets misunderstood as acquiring by those who can afford.

Reduced production

The theory of de-growth attempts to counter this position. It advocates reduced production, emphasising on more equitable consumption of these products across the various segments of society. Where we need to grow is in the direction of ecological stability, human well-being and resource equity. Society should live within its limits of carbon footprint and not its income or affordability.

Accumulating material objects and comforts is needed up to certain limits, but definitely should not be the focus of our routine jobs and hard work. Sufficient products for all should get priority over efficient products for a few, which can be achieved by innovation and technology re-directed accordingly.

Dream living

The construction industry has been the opium for dream living, complimenting people for arriving at luxury, cajoling them to live what they financially deserve and supply the best from around the world. The lesser privileged are urged to reach the top, where the trickle-down effect continues to tease us, making us buy more and buy costly. The ever increasing cost of construction is linked to this phenomena, not directly but indirectly, where the prospective house owners are forced to shell out more money as every month passes by.

Design and building were among the human activities focused on comfortable shelter and not luxurious living. De-growth questions the latter, the recently emerging attitude in Indian homes and hotels. However as a theory, de-growth cannot be a common theory across time and place for all people.

While the supermarkets have to de-grow, the traditional neighbourhood small shops need to re-grow. The widely travelled generation can go slow, but the younger generation eager to explore the world should continue and seek exposure. The rich may say it’s enough and stop earning, while the poor need to grow and catch up with basics of life.

In this era where India is constructing large numbers of buildings everywhere, virtually in all big cities and small towns, it is time to question our attitudes. Theories of sustainability, like de-growth, are tools to that end.

Lifestyle theories

De-growth is among the many theories that evolved in the spirit of the above, as a counter position to the prevalent carbon consuming economy, and has many relevant pointers.

12janCritiques of eco-friendly buildings often argue that by replacing a few walls and windows, in professionally designed urban buildings, the positive impact on Earth will be minuscule and minimal. Of course, this point is valid, hence the need to widen the application of green and sustainable ideas. However, seeking the solutions, exploring new ideas and applying the alternative will demand such humongous time and attention, we will never be able to ensure that all buildings will be built energy efficient.

Can eco-sensitivity improve the performance of not only our buildings, but also our lives? How can lifestyle theories apply to design and architecture to enhance efficiency and aesthetics? Can these theories lead to a large-scale application of viable solutions that may dilute the impending doom? Without asking anymore of such questions, we know the answer to all of them will be ‘yes’.

Monitoring growth

De-growth is among the many theories that evolved in the spirit of the above, as a counter position to the prevalent carbon consuming economy, and has many relevant pointers for a better future. As a philosophy, it goes beyond construction technologies, design research and urban development, focusing at the very roots of societal desires of buying, possessing, accumulating and consuming, hence can result in a better future. There have been comparable theories in religion and philosophy, suggesting judicious and frugal living, within one means and needs, in the footsteps of Gandhiji.  The power of saying “no” beyond a certain point, when we individually feel that we have adequate resources to live by, is an important factor in monitoring growth.

De-growth is just about a decade old in its development, hence not yet as deep rooted as Small is Beautiful, Critical Regionalism, Ecological Living or Voluntary Simplicity. Western civilization is a land of theories and texts while the Oriental including India, is a land of philosophies and practices. Strangely, most theories on sustainability have come from the West. Why? Is it because they feel they created consumerism, hence are causing an unsustainable future, hence needed to resolve it? We can also note that de-growth has been very European in its origins, spread and popularity, while overdeveloped U.S. or underdeveloped Africa are uncomfortable at the thought. Europe intends to balance tradition and modernity, where the modernity has begun to dominate, so de-growth could be seen as an antidote to modernity as well.

Feasibility factors

The Indian construction industry is growing by leaps, due to valid market reasons; hence we cannot simply apply any theory here without properly assessing its feasibility. De-growth does not refer to stopping production or lowering the GDP, but to a judicious distribution and consumption of resources. It is physical in its emphasis on finding the limits and philosophical in its stress on individual introspection. Together, there is a way to apply de-growth in architecture and construction.

For thermal comfort

Knowing daylight and shadow patterns round the year is helpful, and common sense observation can be the starting point for understanding light and shade balance in buildings.

Often we see design ideas going through a paradigm shift, nearly to the opposite ends. To realise this phenomena, look at this — from the past practice of building for shade inside the jan5house and outside on the walls, today we are seeing buildings washed with light everywhere. Accordingly, windows on the walls have become larger, external walls are exposed to direct sunlight and skylights have been introduced.

While the theory of light is desirable, the resultant heat built-up is a nuisance no one can live with, hence the need for ideas to shade the building. From an eco-friendly perspective, the more shaded the building, the more cool would be the inside space. In case of air-conditioned structures, this would reduce energy needs; and if not, we achieve more effective passive cooling.

Emergence of chajjas

During the early years of modern architecture in India, simple projected chajjas were introduced. Most people think they are mainly for rain, which is not true. As shading devices, though without specific considerations of direction, depth of projection and materiality, they continue to be popular in India.

Thinking architects like Le Corbusier experimented with alternative forms, and came out with specially inclined concrete walls outside the window, often called as Brise Soleil. Much before him, the Golconda building at Pondicherry had a series of horizontal concrete fins. Such external skins placed closely to the walls allow wind movement and let in diffused light from the bright tropical sun but prevent direct solar radiation into indoor spaces.

Indian traditional designs did not use an external skin, but provided deep overhangs like at Fatehpur Sikri or built external walls as perforated jaalis to reduce heat built-up as found in Jaisalmer. Or positioned wooden louver-based features as walls as seen in the Padmanabhapuram Palace. Of course these are among the best examples we get, with thousands of variations with lesser effect commonly found all over our country.

Solar charts

While all the above measures are valid and much needed, our data base for ensuring shade has drastically improved over the years. For every region now there are solar charts – specifically locating the sun in technical terms like altitude and azimuth for any given minute of the year.

It is possible today to calculate the exact pattern of shade for any given time using manual formulae or computer simulated software driven programmes. These measures assist in designing the shading device to derive increased shade in summer and increased sunlight penetration in winter. India being in the southern hemisphere with high summer sun and low winter sun is a difficult place to design for, considering our vast geographical extent and regional diversities.

No single solution can serve year-round needs; hence we need to think judiciously to derive maximum benefits across the seasons. While computer software can help, common sense observation and following the right kind of precedence can be the starting point towards a building where light and shade are balanced.