Monthly Archives: February 2013

Going Green in the Kitchen

A chimney with bricks, consuming no power, making no sound and requiring no cleaning, can still be built.

Mysore_1_Back_P_23_1374485eWhat has a house kitchen got to do with sustainability? For most of us the idea of going green with kitchens may appear irrelevant, or even suggest envying the neighbour’s kitchen. After all, the kitchen is a place to cook and clean, a functional space that serves the household. It cannot do much towards an eco-friendly home.

Before we fully subscribe to the above thought, let us pause for a while and think. Which part of the house is most used during a typical day? Which room demands a large part of our electricity consumption? Which space costs the most during interior designing?

Where do we end up with maximum gadgets, buying or upgrading them? Which area of the house requires good space planning and design efficiency? Surprisingly, all of us would suggest a single word answer for all these questions – kitchen.

For most of us grown in traditional houses, with kitchens normally thrown to the back with less light and air, often filled with smoke in case of firewood cooking, kitchens have been among the neglected part of the house. They were never the focus of the house.

Nowadays, thanks to both technological and social changes in Indian urban society, most kitchens have moved from the back to the front, both physically and metaphorically. On many matters ranging from comfort to consumption, they demand our attention more than ever. As such, the idea of kitchen as a central issue in an eco-friendly house design is a new thought, though it may sound strange.

A struggle

The need for fresh air and light in a healthy kitchen has already been much talked about, but most architects and owners continue to struggle to achieve it.

While a range of modern kitchen chimneys — the ducted exhaust systems to pump out the hot air above the stove — are available today, they need electricity, make a fan sound, require periodic filter cleaning and cost much money. Even when installed, most families do not put it on all the time, keeping it off during simple tasks like making tea, when there is no exhaust at all.

In many traditional homes, there used to be a chimney built with bricks, a narrow shaft going from up above the stove all the way to the roof. It is still possible to have it, fabricated in metal, fixed between kitchen space and final roof such that it sucks the heated-up air and kitchen smells. For the general looks, it can be made to look like an electric chimney, but would actually be a natural one, consuming no power, making no sound and requiring no cleaning.

The better option?

Being eco-friendly is doing the least possible harm to nature. It is from this perspective that we need to relook at chemical-based anti-termite treatments available today.

Those who have got buildings done know one thing for sure: it is nearly impossible to walk around the building soon after the anti-termite treatment is over. The strong odour of the chemical can put off anyone. Being poisonous in nature, it is even advised to apply them wearing a face mask. If we imagine the impact of these chemical treatments, we may wonder are they only anti- termite or partly anti-humans too!

Possibly, no building today can claim to be totally eco-friendly, yet there could be many that can claim to be better than others. There are rather too many terms such as Green Buildings, Energy Efficient Structures, Sustainable Designs, and Earth Architecture, each with their specific focus like save power and water; minimise wastage; reduce carbon footprints; or emphasise on local natural materials. The simple term eco-friendly suggests we go beyond mere saving of resources, equally well working towards saving nature. Being eco-friendly is doing the least possible harm to nature. It is from this perspective that we need to relook at chemical-based anti-termite treatments available today.

Foundation level

Anti-termite treatments are done at the foundation level, internal floor level and along the external ground surface. Once the foundation trenches or the column footings are dug out, the liquid is applied to the bottom and sides of the excavated parts. During the floor level, with the earth compacted and before the base concrete for the floor is laid, holes with one inch diameter and up to one ft. depth are created at one ft. spacing. The anti-termite liquid is poured into them, until the hole is completely filled with the liquid.

Before the advent of chemical-based treatments, traditionally, lime water was being poured into the dug out soil to enhance its anti-termite properties. The annual lime wash done in villages even today is believed to discourage termites from climbing up the wall and destroy the wooden members. However, lime has comparatively shorter effective life.

Nowadays, organic compounds like Osolin are available. They are safe for humans, but restrict termite movement. Being herbal in nature with extracts from natural products, using Osolin can reduce the extent of chemical toxicity under our foot.

Majority of chemical anti-termite product manufacturers offer 5 to 10 years of performance assurance, but in case of termite attack routinely escape with some site-specific pretexts. The more damaging is the way they discourage non-chemical based liquids, misleading people, stating that only chemical-based treatments are effective, while the fact could be that both have their limitations in heavily termite-infested soils. The challenge is to reduce both — the termites and also the chemicals.

Tackling termites

While we are aware that food grown with chemical fertilizers is harmful to humans, we do not realise that buildings built with chemicals could be equally harmful.

09bgpHow many of us living in a professionally built urban home realise that we are living in an enclosure enveloped by construction chemicals? Not many, primarily because most people are not aware of what goes into construction, but equally because chemicals are being increasingly accepted as inevitable solutions. In the process we are increasing the toxic contents in the building — in soil, mortars, concrete, admixtures, paints, polish etc.

While we are aware that food grown with chemical fertilizers is harmful to humans, we do not realise that buildings built with chemicals could be equally harmful to us. Unfortunately there have been no major research to conclusively prove the above hypothesis; however, the advantages of natural construction cannot be negated.

Anti-termite treatment

Among all the chemicals used in buildings, a few could be needed in specific conditions, but the most common one applied in all small or big buildings is the compound for anti-termite treatment. Also known as white ants, termites live underground in some amazingly dug-out earth colonies, often having an anthill above ground.

While architecture has much to learn from anthills, the presence of termites is disastrous for buildings. They can devour any construction timber, leafy matter or top soil and make home within. In buildings their presence is difficult to diagnose in advance, for termites eat from within, and show up only after the damage is done.

The visible signs of termites have been a winding mud tunnel or tube like formation in mud, commonly found on walls and timber sections, in extreme cases covering the whole object. There could be powdering, surface falling apart, decreased weight, hollow sound when tapped and such other indications also.

Toxic urban soil

While anthills are common phenomena, there are fewer found in built areas of cities than in open natural ground. While shortage of space is one reason, the high percentage of toxic chemicals in urban soil is also a cause. They either kill or restrict the movement of white ants.

Incidentally, the possible healthy growth of trees is also curtailed by the urban soil, rich in chemicals. Hence clean manure earth is always laid before making a garden or planting trees. Even in a construction site, the soil immediately below the house is cleared of all organic matter, yet the dry, cool, often humid soil condition makes it an ideal place for a termite colony. With some green plants around the building, sites for humans become ideal for termites also.

Though modern construction techniques insists on anti-termite treatment, a vast majority of buildings still happen with no advance precaution. Sustainability invariably depends upon durability; as such, ensuring long life for what we build is an imperative today. Claiming that life is changing fast and hence we need not build to last can no more be valid. To that end, anti-termite treatment becomes a must, but achieving it with least harm to nature is the challenge ahead of us.

Build cutcha, live pucca

It is a paradox that all the supposedly negative qualities of cutcha constructions are positive qualities towards green buildings and sustainability.

02bgpThe word ‘cutcha’ probably did not exist before the advent of colonial rules in India. While it is difficult to define it considering the wide range of ideas, the easier mode could be to define the pucca constructions and then simply say, the rest all are cutcha. However in principle, cutcha is supposed to be using more of natural materials than manufactured materials; believed to be less durable compared to the pucca; more often than not built by the local building craftsmen without a formally trained skilled team and is tagged to require periodic maintenance, as if the pucca buildings need no maintenance at all.

Are all the above definitions really true? Red oxide floor is not yet counted as pucca and gets less property tax in Bangalore though such floors have been commonplace for centuries. Roof- top and garden pavilions in Mangalore tiles are hardly promoted by formal systems, though they may last longer the main pucca building. The completely local idea of thatched roof or even a room over the regular concrete roof in many parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, add a cutcha touch at a very low cost, besides keeping the building cool during the scorching summers. The mud, wood and slate-roofed buildings of the lower Himalayan region have existed for thousands of years, yet the PWD will not build similar structures anymore. Bamboo and rattan make up for most parts of houses in the North-East and they are in regular use even today.

The terrace-level food court found in many office buildings in Bangalore have a trussed tiled roof, basically a simple shelter for staff facilities – a cutcha concept skillfully adopted for urban conditions. Semi-open verandahs with brick or wooden pillars around a house cost less than half the regular construction cost, but become part of the enclosed house during larger gatherings. Of course, they make the house appear local and cutcha. Boulder pack foundations save material, cost and time, and are valid in a city or a village.

Rare combination

Perforated jaali walls are a rare combination of unique aesthetics, low cost, good ventilation, even lighting and ease of construction. Building a wall with good materials and then leaving it without plastering and painting can be modern and traditional at the same time. All these and more examples can show how the idea of cutcha can be applied for modern-day buildings without any compromise.

It is a paradox that all that goes with the supposedly negative qualities of cutcha constructions are positive qualities towards green buildings and sustainability. Mud and terracotta-based constructions best exemplify this contrast. Unfortunately our current codes for green buildings, public buildings and PWD norms do not yet accept such principles. Maybe, the private sector needs to lead the way by backing the cutcha sector, paving the path for an eco-friendly future.