Monthly Archives: June 2018

Habits and habitats

Recycling every construction material even after demolition would be a great idea, but are we ready for it?

1.jpgHabitat is a deep word that means how every form lives in a given locality and environment, where human habitation in a typical settlement. During the formative years, we would have observed nature, connected with the context and lived in simple structures which by default are eco-friendly.

With passage of time, patterns of living would have evolved by varied factors. Though nature friendly buildings are mostly simple buildings, we would have relegated nature and discarded simplicity. Our efforts towards sustainable lifestyle will be futile unless we realise how we live.

Our habit of habit forming dilutes living with nature: How often do we observe our daily life – the objects, comforts, services and relations we live with? For most of us, it’s rare, with pressures and pleasures of managing life taking precedence over thinking about life. Despite spirituality having proven the need to think about living, very few indulge in it; so people thinking about ecology could be minuscule. Humans are habit forming animals, so habits shape our lifestyle, which need to be replaced by thinking about nature and ecology.

Materials that waste the least are among the best materials: One of the simplest eco-sutras could be to look for construction materials that waste the least. Many appear efficient, but they ravage nature during their production; furniture making leads to wasted plywood, upholstery and foams; leftover paints, glass or tiles are common in construction sites. The leftovers are not merely wasted materials, but also wasted money and wasted resources. As an extended idea, if every construction material can be recycled even after demolitions, that is a great idea.

Do not buy something because it is available and affordable: Most project costs shoot up and material selection becomes non-judicious because we can afford to buy a product even if it is not necessary. Increasing options in the market has not necessarily made us more happy or effective; but equally led to confusions and complexities.

B alance between capital and operational costs: A closer look at projects shows overemphasising the initial construction costs, ignoring the maintenance cost and sometimes even operation costs. Somehow gather the funds required to start the project – we are on with it, which is incorrect. More energy and resources get consumed across the life span of the building than upfront; hence sustainable strategies have to focus at the complete life cycle.

I ndividually we are building more than collectively what we need: Assessing the actual constructed area needs of a city may be difficult, and even if we do that, the fact could be that some have more than the average need, while majority have less in this unequal society. Many built-up areas are used for part of the day, month or the year, left unused during other times. On any given night, the total number of unoccupied bedrooms in all the houses together may equal half the hotel rooms. We may have no solution to this predicament, but it’s time to think, are we building too much.

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Eco-friendly should be the mantra

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It is time to change construction practices and be in tune with nature.

If we agree with the philosophy that we are what we think, then we realise that we are not eco-friendly because we do not think eco-friendly. Our attitudes are not tuned to live with nature.

However many seminars we attend, articles we read or data we collect, most of it will be futile unless we change. So, we console ourselves saying paradigm changes are impossible and continue with our resource consuming lifestyle!

If we intend to change, it will not be so difficult to bring about at least few nature friendly-homes, habits and construction practices. There are a few listed below.

Every design decision should be validated for its ecological sensitivity: In our modern urban living, we all use set of criteria to take individual and collective decisions. Today cost, comfort, image and ego appear to dictate most of our decisions. For Mahatma Gandhi, the litmus test was about truthfulness, which he would apply to most decisions he would take. If we have to create a sustainable future, we also need a litmus test. We should check if every one of our ideas and actions are eco-friendly or not. If not, it is certain that we are harming nature.

Repairable construct i on, replaceable materials and replicable designs: The famous RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) as a solution towards eco-friendly living has had reasonable publicity, with some success too. However, the construction sector has generally ignored this dictum, continuing with its practice of building big, producing more products, introducing new materials and rarely repeating an idea, however appropriate it is. Architecture being an expression of owner aspirations as well, it may be difficult to force RRRs, but we can attempt repairable construction, replaceable materials and replicable designs, which can go a long way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to the construction sector.

Lower the embodied energy, greater the sustainability: Many sets of criteria have been introduced to assess and measure green buildings with varied types of certifications. Surely, they have resulted in marginal reduction in the carbon footprint of buildings, but these rating systems cannot change the future. Given this, one overarching criteria could be to assess the sum total energy a construction project consumes, right from the raw material supply to disposal of debris when it gets demolished someday. This figure is termed as embodied energy and lowering it is the key to a sustainable future.

Culturally appropriate plan and climatically appropriate construction:Architecture is an expression of both aspirations and construction, and as such needs to balance between the two.

Let the design be suited to the lifestyle such that there is a personal acceptance; material to fit aesthetic choices such that it has a societal meaning; construction be eco-friendly such that resources are saved and the overall design be of architectural appropriateness. Such an approach may lead to a sustainable future.

Practical designs

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Property owners must test every idea that consultants extend to check for functional and ecological aspects.

Elaborate description and brief checklist pointers have respective roles to play in knowledge transfer. Extensive data can be found in the media, but many of them are so descriptive, readers are unable to apply them. So, this essay lists a few simple facts towards achieving green sense.

Performance of the building is more important than the perceived design:Architecture of the early history evolved from pragmatic approaches and practical designs.

There would have been considerations of visual appeal, but to lesser degree than today where we are obsessed with how the design would be perceived by people, professionals and the media.

Architecture of attraction is the rule of the day, with performance relegated to the back burners. It is time the project owners test every idea that consultants extend to check for their functional perfection and ecological performance, instead of simply going by the advertised hype.

Eco-sensitive ideas do not get accepted only on eco-criteria: People passionate about sustainable architecture are increasing in numbers today, but contrastingly, so too are consultants frustrated by negligible implementation of such design ideas.

To understand this paradox, we need to realise that an idea however great it is ecologically, will not get built unless it is visually attractive, socially acceptable, financially affordable and professionally doable. So, the challenge lies in fusing multiple criteria into the ecological platform.

Not all these can be achieved by the consultants alone, so forming a team of likeminded people has to be the first step, followed by the feasibility of the ideas generated. Much can be achieved if we are willing.

Let the buildings breathe: Imperviousness is not a common phenomenon in nature, with all fruits, vegetables, trees, materials and animals living by breathing through nostrils, skin, bark or surface. Traditional architecture built with mud, wood, lime, tiles, stone and thatch breathed and lasted long.

The moment we apply cement mortar, chemical paints, aluminium cladding and such others, we are blocking the breathing, in terms of air, light and humidity. No wonder, they demand more energy for servicing them, reducing the lifespan of the building and increasing life cycle costs due to greater maintenance.

In the name of architecture, we are not enclosing spaces, but sealing spaces. We are creating boxes of artificial indoors, which need to be opened to nature.

Minimise manufactured materials: If we can classify building materials as natural, processed and manufactured ones, it is the last category of manufactured materials which consume most of Earth resources. As such, they have high embodied energy, effecting irreversible ecological damages during their production, besides producing high quantity of waste. Until a few decades ago, most construction happened with natural materials and very few processed ones like burnt brick.

It’s too late now to refuse manufactured materials, but we surely can minimise their usage. A few centuries ago, produced materials replaced the natural ones, and now the time has come to replace the produced ones with natural materials.

Basics of eco construction

Measures that any builder can follow.

02bgpCourtrooftoletraininjpg (1)We see larger number of people today opting to live with organic food, less waste, zero preservatives, low carbon footprint and in architecture, with designs closer to nature. Unfortunately, there is no single source at present where one can learn about the basic applicable eco principles applicable to a project. This essay continues from the last, listing some simple applicable measures that anyone can follow.

Common sense can solve what creativity cannot: If we look for the common thought among sustainable buildings of the past, we notice they all had some common sense. Simple observations of what works and what does not, how to put diverse materials together and how to build easy contributed to design decisions. This is not to ridicule contemporary designs emerging from computer software, but to stress on the need to be sensible to a context.

The major impediment towards applying common sense is embedded in increasing professionalism. Young aspirants get academically trained to be part of the industry, with no accumulated knowledge. The construction field itself is being controlled by systems, standards, procedures and formalities, keeping common sense out. If we can bring it in, many more buildings can become eco-friendly.

Build with local materials, not locally available materials: Among the major principles of sustainable buildings, emphasis on local materials is universally agreed upon. Every region inhabited by humans has the required construction materials to provide shelter and security, without which settling down would have been impossible. Invariably, they are economical, suited to the local climate and easy to work with no long distance transport.

In a large metropolitan city, the original local material might have disappeared, yet the regional options would be around. However, today the local materials are being replaced by locally available materials, thanks to the global marketing networks, which does more harm to ecology.

Minimise manufactured materials: With no major exception, most locally available materials are produced somewhere, transported to anywhere and belong to nowhere. They are rooted only to their factory, not to any climate, culture or history, unlike the local materials which have a context. Once built with, the character they give to the buildings also are not rooted in the context, but only in the perceived creativity, publicity and anonymity.

The greater reason to minimize manufactured materials lies in their very high embodied energy, a direct quantitative measure of the consumed Earth resources. Unfortunately, we are increasingly manufacturing and constructing with artificial factory made materials today than ever in our construction history.

Heritage buildings are by default eco-friendly buildings: The past did not permit us to build anyway we wished, but created constraints of wall stability, limited roof options, indoor comfort, maintenance matters, local appropriateness and such others. Most of these resulted in historic structures being climate and construction specific, hence by default energy efficient and sustainable.

We tend to mainly observe beauty and monumentality in traditional buildings, sometimes the vernacular values, not realising how much is there to learn towards an eco-friendly future.