Monthly Archives: April 2017

LAURIE BAKER, Buildings and Beyond

The master architect was convinced that designs are for people and had to suit the local climate.A tribute during his birth centenary year.

29bgp-laurie-baGRG1LL3803jpgjpgThis Green Sense weekly column started exactly 7 years ago, acknowledging Laurie Baker as one of the influences on this writer. It is an occasion today to remember this master architect on his birth centenary year, a person who instilled a sense of cost, culture and climate in the local architecture he advocated. Decades after he stopped designing, many architects continue to design the way he did; but many more vouch how he continues to inspire them to explore alternatives to the predictable and questionable mainstream approaches.

What matters today is not his mere biography, but his beliefs which he professed and practised with no compromise. Even for the rich, he advocated cost effectiveness; he was convinced that designs are for people and his designs had to above all suit the local climate.

During the post-independence era, especially the decades of 1970 to 1990, many modern masters of Indian architecture emerged. Most of them either studied abroad or were influenced by the profession of architecture as practised in the west. In total contrast, Baker stepped out of the mainstream to design for India and in India, though his own origins were from the west. With no desire to chase prestigious projects and awards, he designed for people – nearly 3,500 houses in a lifespan of 50 years which appears almost unbelievable.

The ‘Gandhi of Architecture’ was actually influenced by Gandhiji, and looked upon social causes as his professional achievements. Even his public buildings stand as a testimony to his philosophy of minimalism in materials; low on cost; eco-friendly in performance; judicious in structures; and efficient in functional spaces. If we look back in today’s times of sustainability talks, climate crisis and environmental degradation, Baker appears to have been far ahead of his times.

‘Uncommon Sense’

Incidentally, Vineet Radhakrishnan has looked back at Baker, making a biographical full-length film about his life and works titled “Uncommon Sense”. In the making for a few years, it got released for public viewing only some months ago, yet has received critical acclaim, including being listed in Archdaily’s list of must-see films. The fact that Vineet is Baker’s grandson adds a different dimension to the film, besides it being a documentary on Baker’s architecture.

The film looks at many of his projects, but more importantly captures the man in his thoughts and words, which gives it an academic flavour. Architects and many non-architects who knew him well speak about Baker, proving how he did not restrict himself to his buildings, but provoked thoughts in whoever he met.

Still relevant

Why does Laurie Baker continue to be relevant today? Architectural critics know that design elements die, styles change, new materials emerge, and technology evolves. So, the physical does not last long. The philosophies last longer, but they face the danger of dilution once the founder of the philosophy goes.

Laurie Baker continues to be relevant, beyond the physical and the philosophical. Once Shiv Vishwanathan termed U.R. Ananthamurthy as a phenomenon and if one were to borrow that term, Laurie Baker is a phenomenon.

Advertisements

The Flowering Roof

Grow a garden or a lawn on your terrace to beat the heat, but do not neglect maintenance issues.

22bgpgreensenseGJE1KCLVU3jpgjpgWith the summer temperatures soaring high, everyone dreams of cooler homes. Air conditioners could be a solution, but we now know that they are not a solution, but a villain.

For innumerable reasons like the way they transfer indoor heat to outside increasing city temperatures, dilute our biological capacity to live with seasons, health problems due to moving across high and low temperatures, artificiality of air, poor indoor air quality, power consumption, electricity bills and such others, AC has proven to be anti-environment and anti-health.

Given this, there has been increased search for simple and natural solutions. One among them is a green roof, not growing vegetables in trays, but having greenery all over. Imagine a roof where we see no concrete, but only grass! It increases thermal mass, delays surface run-off and works with minimal maintenance.

An intensive green roof needs to be structurally designed for load, or if we plan to grow on the existing roof, a qualified engineer can assess its feasibility. In case roots attempt to penetrate the concrete, a root barrier layer of High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) or any other suited sheet can be laid, though the best is to ensure that shallow rooted plant material are chosen. Additionally, HDPE also ensures water proofing.

Above the root barrier, a drainage layer is needed with half-inch of gravel and a layer of sand above it. To ensure the mud does not slip into this layer but only excess rain water does, we can use the costlier but more long lasting geothermal fabrics or simply save money by using shade nets. They let water down but not the soil. Finally, we need red soil, manure media or mud mixed with perlite, vermiculite or coco peat. While all these are suited for plant growth, the decision may depend upon possible roof load, maintenance issues or available water.

Typically, the soil layer can be 4 to 8 inches thick based on plants’ type. Parapet wall height may have to be adjusted to take the terrace garden and multiple drain holes will be needed compared to what we normally provide. Drip irrigation can be implemented in case of large roof areas.

While lawn would be the choice of most people, it demands much water and maintenance, besides many turf varieties not being suited on the terrace. In case of good sunlight, Bermuda, Doob or Korean grass may work, if not St. Augustine may have to be preferred. If the terrace has occasional use, hardy creepers like Rangoon creeper can enliven the surface with its seasonal flowers. With good drainage, ground hugging shrubbery and small water succulent plants can also be considered, which may be easier for de-weeding.

Tray-based roof garden is more popular considering the variety of vegetables one can grow and manage rain water harvesting as well. However, everyone cannot spare time to that end, but everyone can enjoy a lawn or a creeper bed on the terrace.

Crisis, and awareness

Nations worldwide have been trying to understand and contain environmental problems.

crisis_aheadMany of us have been hearing about environmental issues for over a decade now, yet are much behind the west in realising how bleak our future can be.

It is important to be aware of the deliberations that took place before this millennium, and about the crisis looming large on us, which may impart greater seriousness among us.

There is a curious decadal connection between the book Silent Spring published in 1962, the Stockholm Conference of 1972, forming the Brundtland Committee in 1983 and the pivotal event of the Earth Summit of 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

Pivotal

Though the preceding years had witnessed many initiatives, the Earth Summit with Climate Convention discussing reduction in carbon emissions; Rio Declaration with 27 principles to be implemented worldwide; Agenda 21 as a lengthy report containing framework of actions for 21st century; technology transfer from the affluent northern to poorer southern nations and such others proved to be a pivotal event.

Turning point

UNCED became a turning point with more than hundred heads of government converging at one place, though it was also felt to be ambitious, bureaucratic and had many jargons. Though it was very participatory with large NGO representations, the attitudinal division between North and South got amplified here.

Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, changing political scenarios and lack of commitments to assurances made, not much was achieved on field due to UNCED.

Incidentally, members of the 1972 book ‘Limits to growth’ had published a sequel ‘Beyond the Limits’ just before UNCED, where they realised consumption patterns were happening much earlier than they had predicted.

In the meanwhile the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade) became more powerful to the disillusionment of environmental activists, for both of them encouraged free trade capital, competitive industries, production and consumption based not on locality but on pricing comparison across the world.

Virtually, all this were to increase consumerist attitudes and business would override ecological concerns.

The birth of eco-awareness

It was in the 90s that the world at large realised the climate crisis, and mitigative measures are being taken since then.

08bgp-greensensG0I1I91P13jpgjpg

It is heartening to know that India is among the leading nations today where much discussion happens around the environmental crisis we are facing. However, we were not among the early thought leaders, at least not until the 90s. The two decades, viz., 60s and 70s, produced many books and scientific reports in the west, so much so that the phrase ‘sustainable development’ first appeared in a public document in 1980 by the World Conservation Strategy.

It was then defined as ‘the integration of conservation and development to ensure that modifications to the planet do indeed secure the survival and well-being of all people.’

Though highlighting environmental issues was not welcomed by all, it paved the way for setting up of World Commission on the Environment and Development (WCED), chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1983. Its epoch making report of 1987, popularly called as Brundtland Report, defined sustainability as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, a line most often quoted since then. Incidentally, one of the authors of the report, Nitin Desai, is an Indian.

Valid observations

Many observations of the report are true even today, like endemic poverty is prone to ecological catastrophes; equity is important, hence the poor should get their fair share of resources; the affluent need to adopt lifestyles within the planet’s ecological means; painful choices have to be made; sustainable development must rest on political will and such others.

During the 80s, environmental issues had a low profile, despite books like Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful or the 1972 Stockholm U.N. conference which preceded the decade.

Also, the cold war between U.S. and USSR nearly ended, proliferating a certain kind of western lifestyle worldwide, creating environmental concerns.

Rapid improvements in technology and connectivity across nations meant increased consumption and waste generation.

 Paradoxically, interest rates on international borrowings rose sharply, plummeting many nations into deeper debt, letting the west-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) step in with structural adjustments.

This encouraged privatisation, reduced budget for social causes, opening the markets to imports and many such others further leading to resource consumption.

Fortunately, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 made it mandatory on nations to reduce major ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons; the 1990 report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned against the rise of global average temperature 1.5 to 4.5 degree C above pre-industrial levels and the need for 60% reduction in carbon emissions from the then levels to stabilise the climate.

Obligation

However, many developing nations including India, felt environmental protection is an obligation for the rich, who have been undervaluing and overexploiting resources.

It was in the 90s that the world at large realised the climate crisis and the awareness is continuing since then. Today of course, nearly everyone accepts that human action is causing climate action, which should make us think.

In harmony with nature

In a corrective action against mindless material consumption, a group of individuals have formed a community where urban presures are resisted and eco-friendly materials are used. 

01bgp-greensensGRO1H2PVN3jpgjpgImagine we are caught up in a traffic jam, with time running out for a scheduled meeting. The first thing most of us would do is to criticise everything and everyone around us, with the choicest of words.

A little thinking would tell us that we too are the reason for the jam, for our vehicle is adding one more number to the vehicle count around. After all, lesser the vehicles lesser the jam and finally as stranded vehicles are reduced, the traffic hold up would also get dissolved. So, we are part of the problem, hence theoretically, we can also be part of the solution. But in reality, can we solve the traffic jam if we are caught up in it?

There are many such contexts where everyone of us makes up the problem, but no one of us alone can solve it. The climate crisis we are going through belongs to such a category of problem where no individual can resolve it however aware or powerful the person may be. This is not to negate the possibility of an eco-friendly lifestyle at individual level and the impact it may have on global level if everyone were to live so. The question is, will the peer pressures, societal compulsions and the imperatives of living today permit all of us the courage towards living such an eco-friendly lifestyle?

The corrective action towards our consumptive patterns will have to begin with the individual, but we equally well need to graduate from the individual to the collective and from the personal to public. To that end, we need to shed our subjective opinions, differences in ideas and selfish objectives to come together.

A success story

The Marudam community evolving in Kananthampoondi village on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai can be cited as a successful case in point. Comparatively it is a young group, started as recently as 8 years ago, with Govinda doing afforestation; Arun, Poornima, Lila and others with farm school; architect Ajay Nityananda designing the much acclaimed school building and few of the houses; Maitreyi starting Wild Ideas for chemical-free products and few others with more initiatives.

Such group efforts do not start claiming to reverse climate change, but simply aim at living harmoniously with nature, practise organic farming, minimise needs, resist the urban pressures and create a culture of being sensitive to our contexts.

Active engagement

The active engagement of about two dozens of people informs and impacts hundreds of people living in the vicinity, making a difference to them all. The Marudam Farm School, where education goes beyond the curriculum, would result in ripple effects for the visible outreach activities.

In any case, to be effective, such groups cannot be large where the group dynamics would create fissures between the participants. Many small communities can together achieve more than what a single large one can, but our modern age appears to worship the large, a paradox that we need to think about.