Monthly Archives: September 2015

Managing water

CII has started the Karnataka State Water Network and has identified water sustainability zones in Bengaluru.

26bgp-water_GRG_26_2561367eWith a desultory monsoon drawing to a close, drought grips many parts of India including Maharashtra and Karnataka. The impact of the drought is primarily on agriculture in the rural areas but its impact is also on urban areas and on industry, as water as a resource becomes in short supply. While mitigation measures are many and relief reaches out to farmers, cities too need to think on how to manage drought in an era of climate change.

One way to manage large urban areas is to think about smaller watersheds within and manage them as water sustainability zones.

This is precisely the objective of the CII in Karnataka which has started the Karnataka State Water Network (www.kswn.in) to bring together industry, community and government to plan and manage water sustainability zones within Bengaluru.

The zones chosen by the industry champion include:

  • Electronics City
  • the International Airport area,
  • the area around Bharat Electronics
  • Limited,
  • the area around Sarjapur Road
  • Peenya Industrial Area
  • Bidadi

and finally a more generic area which includes the lakes of Bengaluru.

Major challenges

A platform is now created where communities can usually come around lakes and address the major water challenges occurring around managing waste-water, restoring groundwater, helping protect and preserve a lake, supplying drinking water and other such issues.

That the dialogue has begun between various stakeholders is a starting point. Implementation ideas are also being drawn up which will result in action on the ground which will make sure that the social and ecological aspects of water management are included as much as the economic aspect of water.

Broader understanding

Best practices of industries within their fence are being shared and broader understanding of challenges beyond the fence is also being understood.

This means that competitive use of water is giving way to understanding what it means to enter a domain of sharing water.

Critical technical issues such as the treatment of industrial effluents, the management of waste-water, the understanding of aquifers and groundwater, demand management and recycling and reuse of water are all being taken up by the various sustainability zones and their champions.

Industry in turn learns how societies and government perceive and deal with the commons and what the challenges involved are.

This partnership approach is one way of managing water as a resource in an era of climate change, and is water wisdom.

Cities too need to think on how to manage drought in an era of climate change

HOUSE WITHOUT STEEL AND CEMENT

It has taken us only a few decades to wipe out traditional methods of building houses, but the clock can be reversed.

19bgp-greensens_19_2552825gWhen we look around our homes today, can we imagine that less than a hundred years ago we used to build without steel and cement, but today that appears impossible? Does it surprise us to realise it has taken us only a few decades to wipe out thousands-of-years-old methods of building houses? Strange but true, the rate at which we are shifting is both astonishing and alarming too.

In the wake of such a transformation, we also see scattered attempts to counter the change. The house of architect Dhruv Bhasker at Auroville is an apt example to prove how we can successfully reverse the clock, living in our times. At Auroville, for many decades alternative ideas have been explored and experimented; as such Dhruv’s house draws lessons from past experiences.

The foundation is built not with stones with cement mortar but using lime-stabilized mud rammed into the trench in layers. It is simple, practical and very economical, but if not done properly may lead to settlement cracks; hence should follow prescribed technicalities. Termites could be an issue, which is mitigated by using lime in critical areas.

Walls are made of local burnt bricks, plastered with hand-finished lime and sand mortar. Likewise, joints too use the same lime mortar, replacing the conventional cement mortar. However, larger part of the wall is made of rammed earth, left exposed or partly mud plastered. There are not too many lintels as per the design; the few that appear are done with single piece stone slab. Modern paints based on chemical pigments are totally avoided.

Locally available old doors and windows from demolished houses were re-used as they were and if not, by resizing them. Old wood needs to be carefully handled to take away the decomposed top layer and re-polished with durable finishes. Athangudi tiles, also called as Chettinad tiles, adorn the floors in vivid colours and hues, adding a rich pattern at places.

The roof is made with reused wood rafters and purlins, topped with country clay tiles, and the ceiling covered by wood boards.

Electricity power comes from solar photovoltaic panels, adequate for lighting, water pump and refrigerator, with a good quality inverter. Most of the roof rain water is harvested, diverted into an underground sump, filtered and then taken to the overhead tank.

Septic tanks and soak pits take care of the sewage.

Incidentally, it is not only a house without steel and cement, but also without any dependency on outside the site for water, sewage, and power. Presently, it is not a house for a large family, hence succeeds immensely as an alternative idea. Of course, there have been millions of such independent houses in our traditional villages, but majority do not support modern lifestyle.

The importance of such fresh thinking as seen in Auroville in general and Dhruv’s house in specific lies in finding ways to adapt local approaches for sustainable futuristic architecture.

Cost-conscious architecture

12bgp-green-sen_12_2544645eBuilding budgets have been defined by many terms such as low cost building, cost-effective construction, and affordable housing. By adding a new term called “cost-conscious architecture,” we may not achieve anything substantial, but it may suggest the need for a deeper, studied approach required to tackle the subject.

A low cost material like cement may have high carbon footprint; the cost-effective flooring in vitrified tiles may mean high embodied energy; and the affordable technology of rammed earth walls may be impractical in an urban multi-storey building. These contradictions are challenging our very notion of costs and it’s time to rethink on costs and terms too.

A major source of ideas to enable cost-conscious architecture lies in the way economically deprived people built shelters for themselves. Over the centuries and across nations, we find people building their own homes and they are arguably among the lowest cost houses built in their respective regions.

Technically speaking, they may have many shortcomings, but if we can professionally re-work around such self-built houses, there could be lessons for replicable models.

A major factor that negates cost control in buildings today lies in the increasing number of stakeholders, each to be justifiably and financially compensated for their work.

With the construction field expanding to include architects, structural engineers, quantity surveyors, lead contractors, sub-contractors, vendors, masons and the team at site, the overheads towards getting the house constructed tends to be a burden. The idea of local material has now been replaced by locally available materials with every other material being available everywhere. The temptation of buying them, for whatever benefits, may not always be in the interests of project cost.

A mockery

Increasing cost of living in urban centres is making a mockery of the term “low cost,” thus excluding the majority of residents from owning an individual house. In addition, real estate prices can throw the whole idea of affordable shelter out of balance. The solution to this contradiction could be to return to self-build, but it is impractical today. More efficient systems in place, pre-casting, high-rise housing, shared resources, and mass production could resolve this problem, despite the cultural differences they may create.

Architects believe that imagination and creativity are key to successful projects, which is true for a large number of projects, especially those with big sites and budgets. However, the cost-conscious projects need to be resolved within innumerable constraints, demanding a pragmatic approach. While creative imagination can undoubtedly help the process, practical considerations can contribute more towards doable projects. Unfortunately, most players in the construction industry are not willing to take up such challenges.

Efforts to merely lower the costs may not aid the design context. Alternatively, context-specific designs help the cost factor, possibly achieving cost consciousness.

ALTERNATIVES AND AFFORDABILITY

Each housing project has to be site-specific, culturally appropriate and climatically conforming.

05bgp-greensens_05_2536185eThe word ‘cost’ has singular spelling in English, but multiple interpretations when applied to a construction site. To avoid confusion, it is safer to fix the affordability of the owner and accordingly decide upon the area, materials and technology. Even though alternative ideas towards low-cost buildings were liked by people, the term ‘low cost’ was not accepted; as such the term ‘affordable housing’ got introduced.

‘Affordable housing’ is not only a meaningful replacement but also suggests that project costs should be kept appropriate to the income levels of the owner. This ideology is accepted even today, though the term also got criticised on the criteria of affordability. While a millionaire can afford a house costing a crore, the slum dweller cannot go beyond few thousands.

Curiously, both the cases can be termed as affordable housing. Besides, the question about who decides what is affordable and by whom can never be resolved.

Criteria

Another equally popular term has been ‘cost-effective’ architecture. Simply stated, it means the money spent is effective. More deeply, it justifies the budget based on the materials, quality work, durability, and life cycle and other specific criteria to finally certify that considering all the value addition to the building, the money spent is worth it.

However, certain subjectivity about what is effective and what is not creeps in, deciding cost-effectiveness. By justifying certain high cost in the name of aesthetics or uniqueness, the whole idea of low cost may get defeated. Also price-wise cheap and quality-wise poor bricks may get into the building, saying the price and quality match. With this background, affordable housing also becomes an easy-to-accept term.

In low-cost projects, what critically matters, ironically enough, is not the cost but the context. Innumerable factors like culture, climate, technology, materiality, lifestyle, land value, aspirations and such others make up for the context that actually controls the projects. Unfortunately, majority of designers and builders are oblivious to such a long list, attending to the few criteria they are comfortable with, yet claiming that they are creating affordable buildings.

When some of the valid ideas developed by the architect or engineer fail to get implemented, they tend to blame the system or the project promoters, not realising that they have not considered all the criticalities of the project.

We need to focus more on context than on cost; it demands more of sensitivity than creativity; and the architect needs to be an inclusive participant than exclusive professional. While these theories may sound good, it actually places the cost factor of a project on a difficult pedestal. Each project has to be site specific, culturally appropriate and climatically conforming. Naturally, there can be no standard designs for building across the state, but there can be design themes for possible application in each context. To that end, of course, we need to understand the context first.