Monthly Archives: August 2016

Building on old ideas with new methods

If the validity of architectural ideas has not changed, we should not discontinue them, but do them in a new way.

27bgp-lead_PP_G_G3_2988120gThere is a common behavioural pattern among all of us: we get excited by anything new. It could be cooking a new recipe or buying a new gadget; travelling to a new place or seeing a new film.

The idea of new has been among the greatest attractions for us, especially in these modern times, when every other thing around us is changing.

It is difficult to prove that this idea of new is innate to all biological beings, considering how all other animals live by. Their needs do not change nor do they seek the new. If so, where does our appetite for the novelty originate? Could it be due to cultural practices, commercialised attitudes or market economy? This larger sociological question becomes important to understand how to place an alternative architectural idea.

Accordingly, new products are being manufactured at a maddening pace, to satisfy our desires. Design ideas are not an exception either, where everyone tries to do what others have not done, as if we need to outwit the fellow humans. If everything about a thing is new – idea, purpose, material, making and technology – we appear to rejoice, but soon realise how short lived it is. So the race goes on.

New materials

One way to see newer thoughts take shape is by doing things that our elders did, but using new materials or technology.

Doing a dome is an apt example where the famed Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy rediscovered and popularised a new way of constructing a masonry dome, based on traditional ideas and methods.

Normally, dome construction demands much work in centering and formwork, as such does not become viable.

In this technology, there is no formwork support which gets replaced by a pivot rod to guide the location of each course work.

Each brick course is laid normal to the pivot which represents the radius of the hemispherical, so all courses are aligned to the centre point of the dome.

Novel idea

In the lower courses, bricks stay put firmly, but as we go up to the higher courses, there is the danger of them falling inwards. Hence brick counter-weights tied to a thread are wrapped around the top course to hold them in position till they get set. Ideally, only one course is laid everyday with cement or preferably mud mortar, with appropriate composition. The topmost opening can be left as a skylight or be filled with bricks closely packed to provide the arch action for load transfer.

The point here is not that we all should build domes, but that we can re-do what has been done in the past in newer ways.

Hundreds of eco-friendly and green ideas already proven have been discarded on the pretext of changed times.

If the validity of these proven ideas has not changed, we should not discontinue them, but do them in a new way.

Terrace treat

Use the terrace to turn a typical building into a green building.

20bgp-terrace-g_GM_2979433eThe potentials of a home terrace is surely among the major new discoveries today in urban areas. While the traditional sloping roofs, especially in tiles or stone slabs, continues to be sustainable, it is not available for anything more than shelter.

The later version of sloping roof in reinforced cement concrete is not only high on embodied energy, but is also prone to increased life cycle costs.

The via media solution of flat RCC roofs has been very popular during the recent decades, but they were left largely vacant but for the overhead water tank.

The major problem with flat RCC roofs has been the solar heat gain – both on surface and inside the room – due to the direct solar incidence. RCC being a dense material with high temperature conductivity, creating thermal comfort in the indoors is a great challenge.

Given this context, let us imagine growing an organic vegetable garden atop. While there have been many groups and initiatives that have promoted terrace gardening, their primary purpose has not been from architectural intentions.

Even if it for growing own food, terrace vegetable farming keeps the indoors cool thanks to micro shading of terrace slab and reducing solar radiation on the surface.

As solar power technology was discovered, the first additional use loaded on to the terraces was heating the water for bathing purposes.

In most cities across India today, solar water heaters on the skyline is a common sight, with Bengaluru possibly with maximum installations.

Turbo-ventilator

Turbo-ventilator is among the new great inventions, which when fixed at terrace level, sucks out the warmer and stale air from indoors, without using any electric power. Priced at an affordable range, it has virtually no life cycle cost, yet ensures the building gets fresh air from outside the whole day.

Solar panels

With electric power getting increasingly erratic and solar technology becoming cheaper, lighting up the building with solar power has gained popularity. Considering the size of the panels and the specific south-facing angle they need, these panels may take up a sizeable area of the terrace. Raising them up as a pavilion roof is now happening, to get the twin advantage of a covered area and perfect fit for the panels.

Skylights

Nowadays, we also have roof-top skylights, the modern version of traditional courtyard opening. Though every modern building does not have one, a large number of structures today have a skylight. Also commonly found are varied methods of rainwater harvesting from the terrace.

Simply totalling all these, we realise there can be half-a-dozen or more interventions on the terrace which will turn a typical building into a green building.

Of course, the sceptic would ask – are all these really possible on a terrace? Dr. Uma and architect Vijayakumar living in Tiruchi say ‘yes’ and their small house terrace is a learning ground for eco-enthusiasts.

INDIGENOUS ARCHITECTURE

When we travel into villages and small towns, we notice thousands of buildings designed and built by local residents, all done by themselves as per their needs.

06BGP-greensens_G4_2976823gThere are many technical and linguistic jargons which professional people tend to use to create hype about what they do. While some of them are valid, many are a complicated way of saying something simple. Indigenous architecture often gets clubbed under that heading, which is unfortunate because it is a common name suggesting a design ethos belonging to a specific place. If simplification is deemed, it can also be called as architecture of the local.

When we travel to villages and small towns, we notice thousands of buildings designed and built by the local residents, all done by themselves as per their needs. Technically, they may not be perfect; aesthetically there could be better attractions and durability-wise there could be shortcomings. Of course, they had no access to architects and engineers, so they did everything locally.

Alternatively, we may say that they were lucky not to have architects and engineers around. Modern professionals often ignore the time-tested wisdom of the generations, try innovative ideas which may not perform well or simply force some standardised applications irrespective of their fit to the context.

Left to the owner-designer who would have repeated what everyone in the village does, the architect engineer would have designed something out of place.

Improvisation

All local architecture evolves from generations of improvisations, repeating an idea multiple times, finally perfecting it. Even if people blindly copy the same house form, its performance is totally assured.

 Today, the traditional idea of perfecting a design element has been challenged by the modern craze for innovation. Even with no guarantee for a new design to function well, people prefer it over the familiar.
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Accordingly, the consultants too suggest the new, all at the cost of long-term ecological and economic apprehensions. No one might have conducted a survey, but the number of people unhappy with modern buildings may not be a small figure. On the contrary, very few are unhappy with old buildings, but for dark interiors or inadequate ventilation.

The idea of local materials has been replaced by locally available materials, a trend wherein a ready-to-buy cement bag becomes more local than the construction mud from the fields. No wonder exposed mud wall houses get replaced by cement plastered and painted ones, which are not only warmer but also require periodic repainting. The manufacturers ensure that every material they make is made available everywhere by a marketing network, resulting in high resource and energy consumption.

In these days when material and technology dominates architecture, people refuse to learn from the indigenous and apply them. Many claim that past approaches belonged to culture and continuity, which today are wielding lesser command. Anything of nativity, we seem to be wrongly discarding as primitive.

Should we really believe that indigenous architecture belongs to the past with no relevance today? No – it is possible to blend the best of the past and present.