Monthly Archives: July 2013

A good idea is not enough

If construction problems override good ideas, it’s but natural that our buildings will fall short of expectations. Green sense ideas are no exception.

27HABgreensense_27_1531624eHowever good our ideas may be, if construction problems are overriding them, it’s but natural that our buildings will fall short of expectations and the blame game begins. However, in cases where there are genuine construction impediments, it will still remain unfair to target the eco-friendly approach itself as the root cause.

Delayed work, unpredictable costs and poor quality are among the top offenders in the construction industry. Initially identified with buildings built by informal sector works, these problems justified the need for professional designers and builders with transparent contractual systems in place. However, this malice has now spread to projects being handled by professionals also, especially in fast growing urban centres, partly due to shortage of skilled labour and quality material. The attitude of making a quick buck compliments the set of problems, further reducing excellence in construction. May be, we all need to simply refuse handing over a project to a team without adequate proof for quality and punctuality.

Consultants make the difference

If eco-friendly buildings are the focus, proper idea advisors, experienced consultants and willing contractors are a must. With majority of people playing it safe with conventional ideas, building green buildings becomes a double effort. Not because they are more complex, but because the conventional approach attracts lesser queries and complaints. Roof leakage or wall shrinkage cracks can happen in any building, yet they are pointed out in a filler slab or an exposed masonry wall just to pull down the whole approach.

Certain kinds of mud walls or vaulted roofs require specialists only for follow-up service after construction, which are not found everywhere. Though the green approach emphasises local materials, many natural materials cannot be found everywhere. Also, experienced professionals charge a high rate, making the owners tilt towards self-taught masons and such others.


Given such road blocks for eco-friendly architecture, which of course are a part of the conventional buildings also, seeking solutions becomes an immediate imperative. We need to begin once again with mutual trust and living up to it, a key social factor in quality work. Lack of trust between owners, designers and builders, hence having test measures to check others, can never lead to good buildings.

There are many institutions offering short-term training programmes for both young professionals and construction teams such as INSTRUCT, COSTFORD, NICMAR, Gramvidya, TERI, IGBC, Auroville, BHOOMI and CGBMT, who need to be supported. If such training programmes become financially viable, we can hope for more of them in future.

Some of them have also published small information booklets and handbooks, hoping to raise construction standards. Organising building workers’ visit to sites can assist in increased exposure to all.

Society appears to believe that all architects make buildings costly, all contractors are cheats and no supplier sells at the right price. As such, everyone tries to dominate the designer, suspect the builder and bargain on the costs. Such attitudes and actions neither build up synergy nor honesty – both required for a good building.

Shortage of skilled workers

Important among the reactions Green Sense has elicited and heard more often than the rest is “all of this is easier said than done.”

20HABgreensense_20_1523985eNo one can refute this statement: when all is said and done, more is said than done. However, if the starting point of eco-friendly buildings is trying out an idea by doing, the theory following from behind, then we can confidently state that we are saying what we have been doing.

Despite such practical experiences, everyone cannot replicate what has been done in one place at one time.

Not only the new ideas, even conventional construction is suffering today from the challenges of implementing the ideas.

Skilled labour for either type is in short supply, with majority of younger population shifting to sales, driving, office jobs, restaurants and such others. With much lesser hard work and toiling outdoor, they are able to earn equal or greater salary than on building sites.


Working with natural materials, proper carpentry, un-plastered walls, filler slabs, hollow core walls and such others demand both expertise and interest, which in turn demand passion with a discerning eye and attitude. Also, with a new work culture coming to stay in cities, clients and architects are increasingly demanding quality construction from the full team at site, be it the mason or the carpenter.

Many labourers try to avoid such passions and responsibilities, quitting the field all together.

Unlike the formal sector, the construction industry is mainly dependant on daily wages, often calculated for a week and settled. As such the labourers tend to work for as many days as they wish to earn the basic income and take leave rather frequently.

With wages rising sharply, complimented by certain types of government schemes like own house, rice, health insurance or NREGA job guarantee, many labourers do not bother to work the full month, without which also they can manage the family expenses.

Discontinuity in work schedules becomes a negation of perfection and performance to the project.

No training

The rate of urbanisation has led to prolific construction activity with no real time to train the construction labour, advice better practices or supervise the quality.

After few years of defective workmanship, the worker cannot change his style, so much so that mid-career training is impossible in this field.

Most construction workers in big cities are migrant labourers, with neither exposure nor awareness about perfection or best practice, with hardly any training programme in place. As such, building quality suffers for ever.

We need to identify and elaborate labour problems of the above kind, not to take the escapist route, but to seek solutions to this emerging context.

Treating the terrace

Defective workmanship may not be visible until the ingress of water corrodes the steel rods inside the concrete roof.

13HABgreensense_13_1516560eThe idea of a flat terrace plays a critical role in the architecture of buildings, a fact already well known.

The possible heat gain, finish for cool roof, opportunities for rainwater harvesting, temporary tents for family events, joy of terrace gardening, space for meditation, party zone, dehydrating food items, roof-top pavilion – this list can go on as per the family lifestyle.

It is curious that most of us fail to realise the full potential of the terrace and even if we intend to utilise it in some ways, neglect the other potential issues. More so when we design specifically with eco-friendly intentions, there are dangers of some common sense issues being ignored.

In a majority of the cases, roof slopes for rainwater drainage is planned after constructing the terrace, which ideally needs to be planned earlier.

In the absence of this, we often find outside terrace levels going higher than the threshold of door to terrace, because of the required water-proof layer outside. Of course, we can raise the threshold levels to stop water from getting into the house.

However, slopes have to be best aligned to get the minimum number of roof drain pipes which should converge into the rain filters at ground level at the shortest distance.

These pipes cannot cut across openings in the wall, preferably not in the front elevation, and be conveniently accessible for future inspections, if ever required.

Light fixtures

Parapet walls can take metal rings to support future temporary roofs, shamianas and tents for small events. These, if felt needed, have to be well secured into the wall in advance. Also, it is possible to have light fixtures fitted into the wall to enable greater use of terrace at nights, but if the lifestyle does not demand them, it is better to avoid them. Many parapet walls have cracked due to the rusting of cheap quality ring and light fixture supports.

Among the common areas of concern has been the placing of solar heater, metal stairs and such others, where water proofing the point of fixing is very important. Defective workmanship may not be visible until the ingress of water corrodes the steel rods inside the concrete roof.

Water proofing

Today a range of methods are available for water proofing the terrace, but that would need a separate discussion. That aside, it is easy to list half-a-dozen functional possibilities with the terrace, all of which cannot be managed simultaneously.

Selecting the specific activities is the first step towards designing the terrace and finishing it appropriately. Though both rainwater harvesting and terrace vegetable gardening are possibilities towards eco-friendly living, managing both together is not easy.

Likewise, a small house terrace filled with skylights keeps the house bright, but reduces terrace area for activities. Getting a building done is increasingly becoming a matter of choice than merely having options.

Do not neglect the Parapet

The front parapet can be designed to look good, while the rest can use ordinary half-brick walls with short pillar support at every 10 ft.

06bgp-green-sen_06_1509422eHistoric architecture made a clear distinction between the normal load-bearing wall up to the roof and the non-load bearing parapet wall upon the terrace. In village homes if it was the simple mud wall itself going upwards, in palaces it would be ornate, sometimes with royal graphic symbols in the centre. Public buildings exhibit varied brick and jaali patterns to highlight the topmost part of the building. Beside such attention to aesthetics, the costs and the volume of the wall are also considerable. A typical parapet wall is more than one-third in volume compared to the walls of a room, and as such can not be simply left to the choice of the mason.

Often we see parapet done with steel sections, complete with designs and welded junctions. Being a high embodied energy material, with paint susceptible to fade, steel is not an ideal material. Replacing it with masonry material makes green sense, besides avoiding the possibility of steel rods rusting because of penetrated dampness thorough welding gaps. If desired, a few rods without any weld can be used. The open-ended wall top should be sealed with mortar band to make it water proof. Long lengths of wall tend to crack due to temperature expansions, which can be avoided by placing two steel rods inside the top coping mortar, turning it into a RCC beam.

Everyone prefers good looks, but it is not worth wasting money on a costly wall all around, invisible from the roadside. As such, the front parapet can be designed to look good, while the rest can use ordinary half-brick walls with short pillar support at every 10 ft. The wall design will have to be adjusted for varied lengths as the parapet folds and turns along the terrace. Planter boxes with flowers and creepers add to the green elevation; hence should be considered seriously. After all, they only need daily watering. These planters can be made on the terrace itself, with double-layered mesh wall and drain pipe into the terrace.

Theoretically, a height of 2’ 6” is secure enough, but can be increased to 3 ft., but this height calculation should deduct for the thickness of roof water proofing. Even at this height, a child sitting on it is dangerous, so more than the height, it is the design that matters in making it child safe. The roof slab and parapet base has a critical junction, demanding proper water-proof finish. Also, embedding the supports of water tank, clothes line and roof pavilion with the parapet wall or its short pillars should be done simultaneously, not as a later addition.

In hot dry regions parapets support shading, terrace breeze and climatic lifestyle, while in heavy rainfall regions there may be no flat roof or parapet walls. The roles could be substantial or minimal, yet it is important to realise that parapet walls also have a role in cost and climate.