Monthly Archives: April 2015

It is all about materials

Some exceptional buildings are around, but what about the majority of structures? Why are they becoming predictable and ordinary?

18PP-greensense_18_2377914gThere was a time when building materials were limited and design options few, within which our elders created houses and offices. These apparent limitations did not stop them from creating amazing buildings, monuments and historic cities, which even today continue to be the backbone of the world tourism industry.

In contrast, today we have thousands of options, yet do not seem to create buildings of equal worth, for the future generations to cherish. Few exceptional buildings are around, but what about the majority of structures? Why are they becoming predictable and ordinary?

One of the major causes appears to be the role played by design vs. materials. The handful of materials available then meant all buildings would look alike; as such the challenge was to evolve attractive designs wherein design gained pre-eminence over the materials. Not that those materials were neglected, but materials did not have domination over the design.

Market and materials

Today, it is the reign of market and materials. Every other construction related event gets sponsored by some product manufacturer, material company or supplier; building material exhibitions are among the most crowded ones around; and material manufacture is racing with other industries to get financial highlight.

What is the relevance of all this talk in the context of green sense? Most materials are getting sold thanks to buzz words like advanced technology, improved performance, assured longevity, ease of maintenance, style of the day, attractive aesthetics, amazing surface finish, sold in 50 countries and such others. They never mention equally valid words like high embodied energy, industrial waste, depleting natural resources, challenge of disposal, increased indoor heat, sterile looks, volatile organic compounds and such others. How can materials that consumed high energy for production and execution create an energy efficient building?

Eco challenge

Yet, in these days when the material seems to dominate the design, most buildings fail to face the eco-challenge. It is a fact that much research and development activity has shaped these manufactured materials, but do we stop by to think at what cost to nature and when will that cost be reimbursed to nature again? In many nations, we can access material catalogue, choose the item and order – no hassle of going to consultants.

If this trend comes to our context, what about architectural creativity, house customization or design development? Thanks to technology, new product launches happen every week and imagine, every product needs to earn to make profits. Where would all that resource come from?

Influencing design

The idea is not to portray materials in the negative, for they have always influenced design even during historic times, but in those days the power of material was limited. However the shift from natural to manufactured, need-based to market-driven and subordination to domination are greatly impacting architecture. We design ordinary boxes, yet make them catch the eye by finishing them with high-end materials. The role of materials has changed, hence the need for caution.

Earth as shelter

Traditionally, people built walls by placing mud mixed with jaggery, grass and such local additives, but today we have scientifically evolved mix with cement and quarry dust.


If asked in a quiz competition, any high school kid would say their immediate shelter is their house. After all, the urge to build a house comes from the need for shelter making and hence these two terms are nearly synonymous. Mostly our exploration of the word ‘shelter’ stops there, but what if we continue for curiosity sake?

What shelters us beyond the house – may be the street in front? Of course yes. As we expand our human zones, the urban neighbourhood or our village nests us, making us feel safe there. Everyone returning after an assignment out of city knows about that ‘feel at home’ happiness when we enter the city of our residence, hence even a big entity like a city is also a shelter, though at a different scale compared to the home.

Come to think of local language, network of relatives, opportunities of earning and such others – it is the state that supports us.

Beyond the state, we can name the nation as a shelter and finally the great truth that the final shelter we have is this Earth. We are born into, live upon and finally buried into this Earth.

As Chief Seattle said, ‘What befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of the Earth’. If this awareness gets deep rooted, hopefully we may change the way we treat nature. Sensitivity towards Earth can begin with building with earth itself, with minimally processed mud.

Rammed earth walls

Traditionally, people built walls by placing mud mixed with jaggery, grass and such local additives, but today we have scientifically evolved mix with cement and quarry dust. This mix is placed and hammered into the wall space created by two side wooden planks or steel plates, to get the rammed earth walls.

Window locations get another side plate to leave them as an opening. Appropriate size of earthen block, say 1’x1’x9” or slightly longer block, can be rammed at one go and one course can be prepared in one day.

Rammed earth walls are extremely cost effective due to natural materials, good for passive cooling due to thermal mass and have lowest possible embodied energy for a wall construction.

Though it is mixed with cement, in case of house demolition in future, the material can be recycled or left to merge with nature.


The surface does not need any plastering, being water proof thanks to the high density surface. Ideally to be left with looks of mud, if need be, it can be painted to get other colours.

Imagine Earth as a part of both the cosmic universe as well as a cozy home. Imagine living in a shelter made of earth with in this Mother Earth – can there be anything more eco-friendly than that?


It makes sense to integrate storage space with the overall design itself

04bgp-greensens_04_2363000eWhen we hear the term ‘energy efficiency,’ most people link it to green architecture; so too with expressions such as ‘water efficiency,’ ‘day light factor’ or ‘indoor air quality.’ However, we forget to connect green sense to varied kinds of other efficiencies be it in space planning, multi-functionality or in visual privacies. The typical example of providing for household storage can be a case in point. People who lived in large traditional homes would immediately recall their childhood memories of stealthily walking up to the top-level attic of the house, to wonder at the assembly of innumerable objects there.

Keeping every object for a possible future use has been among the characteristics of Indian culture; as such, there is a huge demand for stores and shelves even in the smallest of houses. With house design being reduced to mere floor, walls and a roof in modern compact apartments, the residents are forced to go in for large plywood shelves at high costs, specially marketed in the guise of fashionable floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall wardrobes. These well-marketed ideas come at a huge cost and substantial space consumption, while the most prudent approach could be to integrate storage with the overall design itself.

So, the practice of casting a small slab atop the wardrobe area, puja room, toilet and such other places started. These of course were associated with the difficulty in accessing them, unnecessary depths, sheltering of cockroaches and lizards, besides the difficulty in cleaning them. There have been umpteen cases where people fell down while keeping items at such heights.

Alternatively, building an exclusive room called box room gets the consideration by many, if budget permits. Even though this room demands space, there could be efficient use of the room lined up with shelves at accessible heights. Another popular method is to store under the staircase, which comes with the drawback of spoiling the looks of the room and the stairs.

Staircase room

One of the direct applications of traditional attics can be found in staircase rooms. Proving for storage above the last stair in the highest space of stairs room is easy, where the last slab is cast with the usual ten ft. room height. As we climb up to this level, with no more staircases, there would be substantial heights achieved above the steps, where even the landing area would get minimum 15 ft. or more height. We can cast a slab here, running it exactly above the flights, such that we get 8 ft. clearance above the staircase even where the slab is closest to the stairs.

There could be families who believe in the much appreciable practice of discarding items periodically without hoarding any and at the other end, there could be those who keep them all. While the specificity of storage needs may vary, it still is a major demand and needs to be resolved, to create resource-efficient architecture.