Monthly Archives: July 2016

Common sense architecture

A vast majority of what we build today can actually be done more appropriately and reversibly with natural materials.

30bgp-greensens_30_2951970gMuch before the carbon footprint calculations began, much before the sustainability talks began, and much before the importance of green sense was realised, people built shelters for themselves and for their storage needs.

Architects claiming creativity were absent, engineers capable of building anything were not yet born, and the seemingly permanent construction materials were not yet manufactured. Architecture of that past was local, reversible and of common sense.

Today, with our modes of construction becoming increasingly irreversible, our generation will leave the Earth with such a burden of built forms, river dams, national highways, irrigation canals, marine structures and what not.

The junk we leave behind will become the responsibility of our children’s children for reuse, recycling or safe disposal. Even at today’s rate of production, we are not able meet such challenges; if so, how can we expect the future generation to solve the problems when the production would have increased manifold?

This is not to suggest that everything we build should be simple, local and reversible. With our civilization having advanced far beyond what it was even a century ago, certain kind of buildings with advanced technology using manufactured materials of high embodied energy could be inevitable. However, even the monumental structure can have elements of common sense, which can keep the building appropriate and justifiable. As such, a vast majority of what we build today can actually be done more appropriately and reversibly with natural materials.

Eco-friendly feature

The architecture of common sense like a simple bamboo roofed shed can exhibit so many eco-friendly characteristics, which even a highly rated modern green building may not. Most of the common sense architecture happens without architects and engineers, who tend to overload the building with their professional experiences and expectations, where finally the architecture may never appear natural at all. This is not to demean architects or discount the role of engineers, but to suggest that non-professional people can also create highly creative works of constructions with the help of local skilled team.

After all, what should a building have? Foundation, floor, walls, doors, windows, pillars and roof. These basic few components can create millions of buildings, no two resembling each other.

There need be no dearth of ideas, aesthetical appeals, functional plans, constructional systems or building services. The criteria of eco is not a rule of restriction, but a guide to design, which can create modern buildings as natural and appealing as a bamboo roof in a village.

Design sensibility

To that end, what we need today is design sensibility and eco sensitivity, which anyone may exhibit. The fact that buildings need to have lower embodied energy and be contextual goes undebated. If the designs are sustainable and replicable, that goes a long way in saving future energy.

All possible stylistic variations, any iconic design or fantasy explorations should be acceptable, as long as they do not hurt nature today and can return to nature one day.

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If structures were biodegradable…

Whenever a building needs to be demolished, the debris should not pollute the earth. But the reality is different.

23bgp-greensens_23_2943183gThe human race appears to be very good in doling out data and statistics, including about impending disasters. If we wonder what we are doing with those doomsday forecasts, ironically, too often we do nothing about it. Among the best examples for this studied indifference is the research about the fate of modern products that we are recklessly manufacturing.

Try experimenting with banana peels in our household compost pit, where it will visually disappear in a week’s time, at fine particle level may rot the second week and finally at the molecular level, may completely decompose within the next fortnight. Slightly harder items like pumpkin skin or harder part of fruits may take a month to disappear and another month to decompose.

It will be curious to see how long a modern building would take to decompose and completely return to the earth. Of course, we do not have detailed research to answer this query, yet someday this may become an important issue in rating the sustainability of a design or construction approach.

Imagine a mall with elaborately designed shop interiors filled with Indian and foreign materials. We can appreciate them all as a great achievement of our generation and wish that such malls should thrive for generations serving our grandchildren.

What next?

Alternatively, we may also calculate the resources consumed, energy consumed, waste generated and the impact of the mall project on our times.

More seriously, we may wonder what will happen when the building and materials cease to serve any purpose and needs to be demolished.

Technically we can demolish everything; try recycling them to whatever quantity possible and the rest can be piled as debris somewhere on earth.

What will happen next? The materials need to decompose and return to nature. Is it easy for the un-natural products to return to nature?

If yes, how long will it take? For sure, we know that we cannot live that long to be on the day when a product of our time completely decomposes to join the earth. So, do we ignore the bio-degradability of what we are doing?

Respirometry test

Today, there are tests like respirometry, where solid waste is placed with micro-organisms and soil to check the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted due to digestive activity of the micro-organisms.

Though not exact, it gives fair idea of bio-degradation rate, so researchers predict that leather takes 50 years, aluminium can take 200 years, plastic beverage bottles take 450 years, plywood takes 3 years or glass bottle may take up to 1 million years.

The time taken also depends on specific material compositions and context of degradation.

Imagine a time when humans have gone extinct from the Universe. Will our mortal remains be the non-biodegradable manufactured materials? Can we be proud if the earth is full of leftovers of our times? Can our lasting contribution to nature be unnatural construction debris?

It is time to think of the footprints we are leaving behind.

Green is red

Among architects we need visionaries who dare to think fresh and walk the unconventional path to find what is truly green.

16bgp-greensens_16_2934344gThis shocking title is taken from a book authored by the outspoken architect Anil Laul. When he died about 10 days ago, he left behind a generation of architects who either regarded him highly for his visionary thoughts or criticised him for dis-agreeing with most things conventional. His demise is a reminder today about the need to rethink what we blindly believe in.

Not everyone agrees that the word ‘green’ can and should represent all that is sustainable. Large numbers of green-certified buildings are built with high-end materials made by multinational companies, use energy consuming construction technologies and have high embodied energy. Of course nowadays, the certifying agencies have stopped claiming green architecture as sustainable, but they only comply with certain guidelines set forth for such certification. If so, what is green architecture?

The alternative to such conventional and modernity driven green projects is go the context-specific traditional way; while the other option lies in materials and technology, researched to produce low energy consumption and reduced life cycle costs. Such uncertified green projects could be the actual saviours.

Mixed bag

It is the latter path which was taken by ASTRA in Bengaluru, COSTFORD in Kerala, Auroville in Pondicherry, Development Alternates in Delhi and also by Anangapur Building Centre (ABC) in Faridabad, founded by Anil Laul. Not all building research done, e.g. those done by Central Building Research Institute, Roorkee (CBRI), or NIRD in Hyderabad can be implemented; as such a mixed bag of success stories is inevitable. Equally inevitable is to research, without which no progress can be made. Accordingly, Anil Laul explored a bewildering range of ideas and activities – teaching, writing, geometrical structures, space frames, pre-tensioning, free flowing designs, cost-effective alternatives, sustainability, human settlements, grain silos, water filters and such others. ABC designed ecofriendly schools, resettlement colonies, rehousing slums and such unfancied projects, which very few architects would have loved to design.

The early projects for Bharatiyam Gram and Bhoomiheen Camp, during the eighties, were hailed as new avenues to think about, though then sustainability debates were not even heard of. His own house is an example for building with nature within the site context.

Practical solutions

Today, ABC is known for proving funicular domes and precast pre-finished interlocking blocks that are among the practical solutions to cost-effective and eco-friendly buildings.

Those who do not venture into new grounds criticised them as radical alternative ideas, not replicable by all, hence not worth the effort. The fact is every alternative idea is worth exploring which can be implemented anywhere with little training.

Today we need visionaries who dare to think fresh. Being among them, Anil Laul shocked many and surprised many, but this essay is not to endorse all that he said and did. This essay is to suggest that we all need to walk the unconventional path to find what is truly green.

For the sake of a house

Affordability is the crucial criterion, and one can look at cost-effective options to build a beautiful structure.

09bgp-greensens_09_2925662gHousing for all has been among the most common slogans of all political parties, especially during election times. Even if it is an election strategy, let us give them the due credit, by appreciating their efforts while being in power. While those efforts of sheltering people could have been much more transparent, participative and effective, the intention of providing houses is noteworthy.

However the challenge of housing in India is so enormous, some experts suggested going beyond low cost housing, as if we may need ‘no-cost housing’. Much has already been written about the various government schemes, their successes, shortcomings and how they can be improved.

A typical commoner living in an urban or suburban context may not be a beneficiary of government schemes, yet will have to work towards owning an affordable house for the family. Of course, people somehow find a shelter, but ideally every family should be able and can afford a decent home.

Every project faces capital expenses for site, built-up area, procedures, fixtures and gadgets. If site costs are high, reduction of built area becomes mandatory, with these two being the major components of a house cost.

Do not avoid them

Deposits, registrations, fees and charges for varied services normally do not pinch the middle class people, but people with low income tend to avoid such cost components, which is actually not advisable. If procedures and people are on our side, we not only can have peace of mind, but also get expert advice towards qualitative and financial benefits.

Areas where most owners tend to overspend are on final finishes (flooring, tiles, painting, advanced wood work), fixtures (electrical and toilet), interiors (cabinets, hardware, furniture, interior gadgets) and kitchens. Most suppliers and contractors do not suggest cost-effective options, hence personal explorations become an imperative. To that end, thinking what is needed and what is not would go a long way.

Cost escalation

The cost of power and water during construction along with disposing of the debris, in some localities, can be so high that the estimated budget may get escalated. Reusing materials from dismantled houses like at Kachhra Mane in Bengaluru or using antique items like at Heritage Village in Manipal are equally good ideas towards affordable houses. Contrary to popular belief, using second-hand materials need not make a house look like a slum dwelling. If well done, they may be an attraction. Besides the above, operational expenses like bills, repairs, replacements and alterations have to be planned for the long term.

Despite affordability as a criterion, it is important to think of a house beyond monetary criteria, to include invisible advantages. If the project assures neither financial returns nor intangible benefits, it may be wiser to rent one, than build for self. Of course, even such a decision would be opposed when one dreams of owning a house.

Dream home at low cost

An eco-friendly building uses less resources, local materials, and low power. So, it becomes a cost-conscious project.

02july-bgp-gree_02_2916835eFor a fresher, discussions on sustainable buildings can be a total confusion. We dine at exclusive restaurants housed in celebrated green-rated hotels; we stay at famed eco-friendly resorts paying many thousands per night and we pay many crores to buy luxury apartments marketed for their sustainable designs. None of these places exhibit any kind of low cost ideas and are so costly; only the rich can afford them. Possibly, there is no connection between cost and ecological concerns! Those who connect them could be wrong.

The reality is otherwise. An eco-friendly project would by default use less resources, local materials, earthy constructions, natural ambiences and low power. So, in principle, an eco-sensitive project also becomes a cost-conscious project.

Unfortunately, people with good incomes do not wish to quit their comforts and luxuries, yet our ecological crisis demands that we be more sensitive to nature. As such, we need ways of retaining our carbon footprint, even while claiming a lifestyle that demonstrates our love for nature and sustainability. This contradiction apart, for the true lovers of nature and earth resources, there are many ways to achieve a balance between cost and ecological concerns.

Mandatory

The small farm house built by Dinesh Shastry near Bengaluru demonstrates many paths to lowering the costs. Being an owner-designed and built house, charges of architects, engineers, contractors and builders were saved. Of course, the construction team had to learn about alternative eco ideas, to avoid mistakes and cost overruns.

Minimising high cost materials such as steel, cement, aluminium and glass became mandatory. This reduced transportation costs, besides time for coordinating their procurement. Hence, the structure got the foundation packed with local boulders, walls had farm soil rammed between simple shuttering and roof was built as a curved vault with local bricks. Construction techniques matter as much as materials, both of which have to be context specific.

Shared walls

The house plan with simple two-staggered rectangles, creates verandahs and backyards with maximum shared walls which are parallel, hence simplifies roof spans. All water and sanitary connections are along one line to save on chambers. Typical woodworks for doors and windows can cost up to three times the wall costs, so they are replaced by perforated clay jaalis, but care has to be taken to ensure adequate air and light. Avoiding plastering and painting saves much money both during construction and over its life time. Much can be saved by disciplined schedules, efficient sequencing of tasks, labour management and controlling wastage.

All these ideas are already known to experts and proven across time, besides which many more ideas are being explored. Every idea cannot be implemented everywhere. So, let us keep our eyes open, learn from each project and try to reduce cost for the next project.