Monthly Archives: March 2013

Design differently

Given the magnitude of the construction sector in India, we should have explored much more and reduced the habit of blind repetitions and thoughtless manipulation of mainstream design ideas.

30marchResearch and development – R & D – is such a commonly used term today, it can be found in every form of media in some context or the other. From cookware to cars, from sewing to seeds, we attribute the improved condition to the R & D that would have backed up the related efforts. As such the issue of research on sustainable buildings is an expected question, but unfortunately without a convincing answer. It is not that we have had no research; many institutions in the past and even now are engaged in measuring and monitoring data on buildings, giving new insights. It is a feeling that for the magnitude of the construction sector in India, we should have explored much more and reduced the habit of blind repetitions and thoughtless manipulations of the mainstream ideas.

Demonstration units

Among the pioneers in this field in post-Independence India was the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) at Lucknow. With fairly good funding, CBRI actually built demonstration units, and explored varied hypotheses about light, air and costs. A group of visionary civil engineers at the Indian Institute of Engineers, Bangalore, initiated ASTRA, abbreviation for Application of Science and Technology for Rural Areas. This simple motto led to pioneering research on mud walls, arch roofs, vaults and domes, besides relooking at vernacular designs for modern applications with their work still continuing under the name Gram Vidya.

The unique settlement at Auroville, though started with the spiritual blessings of The Mother, turned out be a world laboratory on alternative designs and constructions. A heaven for students and learners, people keen on exploring cost-effective, eco-friendly and energy-efficient models even today flock to Auroville. The Energy and Resource Institute or TERI has commissioned, collated and contributed a wealth of information towards sustainable buildings. Among the recent entrants has been the Indian Green Building Council or IGBC which certifies buildings under varied LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Designs) ratings, based on the overall efficiency the building achieves. Internationally there are many centres that collate specific data and reach it out through the Internet. INBAR, which works for bamboo buildings, is a case in point.

Many government agencies have been spearheading the challenge of ensuring eco-friendly buildings, the leaders among them being Bureau of Energy Efficiency or BEE; Centre for Science and Environment or CSE; HUDCO; Building Centres or Nirmithi Kendras; Departments for Renewable Energy and such others. Also we find many private initiatives like COSTFORD, Laurie Baker Building Centre, and Hunnarshala Foundation taking up the cause of cost-effective ideas.

Apply them

Architecture and engineering being a consultancy-based profession, most of the expertise is acquired by actually doing a building. As such, we have a wealth of information spread over thousands of individual professionals, not fully documented and disseminated. Together with the institutionalised centres of knowledge, we have enough data to change the way we build. Most of this new knowledge is available to us for reference. Now, our new role is to apply them.

Fresh air matters most

A look at the basics of bathroom designing.

23marchThe statement “More the expensive, more the efficiency” is a myth. While it is true that research towards efficiency will cost time and energy, hence may push up the product cost, mere hiking up the cost with few cosmetic touch-ups will not enhance the efficiency. This false image is a creation of our times, where products have to be marketed and consumed; as such the prestige associated with cost comes handy. Needless to say, toilets are among the common grounds where expense gets associated with an image and often suffer from the lack of basics.

Fresh air is among the basics of all toilets, so the idea of an exhaust fan is advocated. The fan consumes only a small quantity of power but the fact that it creates forced ventilation only when switched on needs to be analysed.

We enter the bathroom, put on the fan and while returning put it off and close the door. All the required air change cannot happen with in the time we are inside; hence many toilets retain stale air despite fans.

Traditionally, small vents were provided below the seven ft. lintel level, ignoring the stale air stacked above that height with no escape at all. Ventilators with operable shutters are worse, for once closed, they rarely get opened.

Single solution

A single solution to all this is a large ventilator placed just below the roof. It is more than sufficient to keep the air fresh, since such an opening at the highest part of wall works day and night.

Providing short windows adds more benefits. Let there be windows with high sill that can be opened when required, for a quicker air change. Skylights help in faster drying up of the bath room after a shower, but this good idea can be applied mainly in top floor. Incidentally tall windows with ventilator tops and skylights make the toilets appear attractive, even if they are fitted with normal, white, inexpensive fittings. The magic lies with the sense of bright light within.

The bathroom floor having anti-skid surface is a major criteria, for safety during the normal course of the day and especially after an oil bath. Tiles available in the market work well, but the cheaper ones need regular cleaning, lest they appear spotted with dirt.

Good option

In many areas stone slabs could be purchased, which have excellent anti-skid properties if we avoid polishing them to the finest levels. Compared to the costlier anti-skid ceramic tiles with expensive price tags, the local stones with basic polish and simple looks can do better.

The real killer in finishing the bathrooms is the fixtures – wash basin, taps, shower and the commode, each one pricier than the other. In this race between the choices, picking up the product with value for money has become difficult even for the experts.

We may have to rely upon our instincts to stay judicious. Incidentally, despite all data on consumption, it is our instinct that can finally take us to sustainability.

Why jazz up the bathroom?

Good daylight and air flow, skid-free flooring, ease of maintenance, and proper lighting in a bathroom can be achieved without spending much money.

16marchIf we count the number of pages with advertisements in any design journal today, which product range hogs the limelight? For those who have not counted such pages, here is the answer – it is possibly for the products needed in bathrooms, toilets, and wash rooms.

We are discussing something private and personal — the bathrooms.

It feels strange to discuss it in a public forum, but the new trend of spending or to say it more bluntly, wasting resources on the bathroom and toilet has assumed such proportions that it needs to be relooked at.

There are many projects where cost-effective and ecologically sensitive ideas have saved money and resources, only to be drained out through luxurious bathrooms.

The manufacturers and the market together have created such a glorious image for the bathroom, which is also a room of course, that most of us are caught in this trap of spending on it without realising the implications.

Soaring prices

Once there was a time when the costliest western commode, also called as the water closet, could be bought at Rs. 5,000, but today we can easily shell out more than Rs. 50,000 for it. Water taps could be bought at Rs. 10,000, glazed tiles for wall dado can be picked up at Rs. 500 per sq. ft and this list can go on.

The tragedy is that most of these high-end products costing 10 times more than the low price range items are really not 10 times more superior or more comfortable or more durable.

If so, how did this trend of resource consumption evolve? Why do people proudly say that the bathroom is their space and would spare anything to get it their way? How did the habit of conspicuous consumption move from a publicly visible part of the house to a privately usable area?

The answer

The answers could lie in some sociological analysis, but from the construction industry perspective, part answer lies in consumerism and affordability.

It is believed that a fancy idea sells faster than a common sense one, thanks to the glorified image of the former.

The idea of luxury in bathroom can be achieved without taxing nature — by creating space and letting nature in. While the up- market fixtures may help in certain quality issues, the primary criteria of a bathroom lies in hygiene. To that end, good daylight and frequent air flow to ensure quick drying of the space are necessary.

While the market is selling costlier ideas to impact the looks of an attached toilet, let us realise that the experience of a toilet does not depend only on fixtures and tiles. Skid-free flooring, ease of maintenance, proper lighting even at night and all such issues are imminent for a comfortable bathroom.

Most of these can be achieved without much money and materials.

Walking the Eco-Talk

Let us not use drinking water for washing cars and plastic cups for drinking tea, and let us reduce our carbon footprint.

As we are reading this 150th essay in the Green Sense weekly column, let us look into ourselves as typical middle class urban residents: what is our first response to an ecological problem? Studying the problem looking for a solution or individually jump into an action trying to eliminate the problem itself?

09march

The answer is obvious. Majority of us observe the issues, study the concerned matters, write notes, prepare reports, read them out, discuss in seminars and do many more such things. There would be dozens of policies and programmes towards solving the problem.

So, we become subject experts much before the problem actually gets blown into larger proportion. It all sounds very good, with no dearth of ideas.

So, are we on the path to save ourselves and the Earth? Unfortunately, no way!

We need to realise that however much we may talk about sustainability, our habits and actions just refuse to budge and change for the better. Contradictions abound us everywhere. When energy efficiency gets discussed in centrally air conditioned star hotels which consume humongous energy, we need to introspect how often we could have lived with natural air.

When petrol consumption gets discussed in high-powered committees, we need to check how many of us have come by buses. While urban drinking water is in crisis, it will be interesting to see if we have switched over from water wash to dry mopping of our private vehicles to save water.

Contradictions continue. There is urban solid waste everywhere, but we do not carry water bottles to stop using packaged mineral water.

When the tea time comes, the cup does not matter – be it steel or plastic. If we carry the traditional hand kerchief, we can save on paper napkins, but we do not.

Month after month, can we switch on less light, use less bathing water, buy less of manufactured materials and naturally get used to the idea of less? Can we live happily without carrying home all the unwanted free things we get in shops, meetings, events, business dealings and festivals? Theoretically it is possible, but most of us do not bother to live with less but want more of everything. How many of us take a stand, refuse packaged water or tea from a plastic cup, hoping that when more people similarly refuse, the trend may change?

Between the shining car and wasted drinking water, if we prefer shining car and do not feel guilty about it, do we deserve to talk about water conservation? If we are aware of climate change and carbon footprints, what are we doing to reduce our own carbon consumption?

Ecological crisis is a global problem, but rooted in individual consumption. It is time we all walk the talk of green sense and those who are already living green, talk the walk to inspire the rest of us.

Sleek, sensible and eco-friendly

With a window between the kitchen platform and the overhead cabinets to bring in natural light and breeze, minimal wall tiling, and eye-catching interior design, you can cook in style and comfort.

02marchAs kids, we all have grown up with a sense of smell from the kitchen, ours or neighbours, then yearning for delicacies. More often than not, the coffee smell from the roadside café attracts customers, leading to brisk business. Master Chefs study every dish first by the smell, before tasting it. So, can we say that it is important to spread the smell of food? Unfortunately not in the case of a typical house where every effort goes to keep it free of smell and odours. And it is here that most kitchens fail in effective ventilation.

Electric chimneys do a great job, but only if they are on. However, most households do not keep it on during small tasks like making coffee, heating food, non-oily cooking or when there are no guests! Imagine if only we could provide a small opening at the roof level or combine this vent concept with a window and take them up to the roof, how fresh the kitchen air could be, always. Irrespective of the electric gadget being on, natural displacement ventilation is on, where the warm, smelly, light weight air moves up to the highest point and gets out, round the clock.

The roof-level natural vent as explained above may not bring in much light and having more windows means less storage cabinets. No family can live with less of overhead cabinets, so the windows get compromised with. After all, we have a good solution in switching on the electric bulb even during mid-day! Alternatively, can the window be made narrower, placed in between the kitchen platform and the overhead cabinets? It will retain cabinets above, throw natural light on the working platform, let in body-level breeze, enable looking out into the house garden or utility yard as the case may be and make the kitchen look sleek. The classic debate between cabinet or window gets solved with multiple benefits.

Waste of money

Most of us seek a big kitchen, not realising that what matters most is not the size of the kitchen, but the length of the working platform available, accessed with least walking. Large kitchens are often a waste of money and space, with the additional burden of maintaining them. Electric points far too many also add to the cost, while it is easily possible to share them since all electric gadgets will not be used at the same time. In a well planned kitchen, an additional store room can be avoided, saving on money. It is not a great idea to have a kitchen where we end up looking at a wall just two ft. away from us, with artificial light all the time and lack of fresh air. Let us imagine a kitchen opening into the house without too many walls and doors; looking outside viewing the front garden and the road; with minimal wall tiling and provoking interior design – a kitchen simple and effective. Such kitchens demonstrate the essentials of eco-friendly designs.