Monthly Archives: August 2018

Are we ‘developing’ at the cost of Nature?

In the wake of the deluge in Kerala and Madikeri, we need to study the impact of constructions and other human interventions on the environment.

25bgp-greensensGGN4ISAF33jpgjpg (1)Every school-going child reads about natural disasters, but how often she gets to read about man-made disasters? Not until now, but it’s time to recognise this term as more critical, with the recent floods in Kerala and Madikeri further proving a point about human actions.

The very predictable post-flood analyses is pouring in for Kerala. How global winds were diverted to India, pouring in more water from skies than normal and how torrential rains are bound to lead to deluge. Regional vulnerability of Kerala due to shallow river basins with limited water carrying capacity, being at the receiving end of Western Ghats, and the low mean sea levels (MSL) are being highlighted.

The government is not spared, blamed for sudden opening of gates of reservoirs, releasing more water than what the land can drain. Storm water drainage systems are blocked by uncontrolled construction, while lack of regional and local development plans gets a fitting response from nature. The forgotten Gadgil Committee Report of 2011 is now being quoted again, with climate change being blamed at large.

The Madikeri context is not exactly the same as Kerala. Here major causes listed are unabated levelling of slopes for roads, grounds and buildings which prompt landslips; estates replacing forests; drastic reduction in native trees in favour of beneficial trees; massive deforestation leading to erosion of sponge-like top soil that absorbs water and many such others.

Most analyses present a third party observation, with a general observation that local interventions aiming at commercial gains have resulted in the calamity, which could have been averted. If we were to say so, we better be sensitive to our fellow citizens and realise we too would have done exactly the same things that Keralites or Coorgis did, if we were to be there. What is this trait in us that prompts us to ‘develop’ at the cost of nature?

Cumulative effect

Disasters happen at the regional level, but happen due to a cumulative effect of millions of local actions. The collective cause cannot evolve without the individual contributions. These local and collective determinants are not restricted geographically to Kerala or Madikeri, for we know how everything is connected.

The rapid urbanisation of Bengaluru might have caused deforestation, demanding the much needed construction timber. The surplus money Bengaluru has might have prompted investments in access, estates, tourism or infrastructure. May be, Bengalureans need to realise their contribution to the sufferings of Keralites.

It is a juncture when we cannot be sure if these disasters are due to natural reasons or man-made. We could be confused about what is critical now – analysis, diagnosis or prescription. Even if we know of the solutions, with our kind of electoral governance, we could claim helplessness.

To begin with, we can at least realise that destruction of resources precedes every construction; infrastructure actually fractures the land and development can lead to disasters. To stop climate change, we need to change. Are we willing?

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Experimenting with the alternative

Local designs have advantages like quicker construction, ease of maintenance, and minimal resource consumption.

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What is termed as mainstream architecture today largely defines the prevailing norms about how to build. It often rules out ecological possibilities in the construction field, hence needs to be questioned, at least partially if not fully. However, it is easier said than done, for the built volume that the alternatives produce is negligible.

Incidentally, there was a time when the local designs were the mainstream, which the British termed as kutchha, demeaning it. It had numerous advantages like quicker construction, ease of maintenance, locally procured materials, low skill operation, and minimal resource consumption. One way of countering the current practice could be to rework with the local, kutchha and avoid using what the mainstream uses.

This is what Thannal, a centre exploring the alternative at Tiruvannamalai, is set out to do. A vision of architect Biju Bhaskar, inspired by Ramana Maharshi, the centre has a couple of structures without cement or steel. Unlike the common practice of stabilising mud with cement, here mud stabilisation has been achieved by lime, chopped grass and pebbles.

Across the last 10 years, a variety of natural building materials like bamboo, mud, wood planks, coconut leaf roof, Mangalore tiles and such others have been used.

Grey water treatment has been improvised using root zone treatment with Canna plant, then a series of alum, lime aggregates, broken bricks and gravel chambers to finally flow into the collection point for watering the plants.

Many traditional construction methods like sun-dried mud bricks called adobe are practical even today. Woven mat finished with mud, called wattle and daub make up a couple of walls.

Cob walls

The centre has been known for popularising cob walls, a method that uses handmade balls of mud. Sandy soil which is not fertile, mixed with anti-termite neem water, has been filled into jute bags to produce what is called earthbags. Earthbag walls are not traditional, suggesting an experiment to extend the idea of mud.

The idea of evolving the centre as one goes along, instead of planning everything with formal drawings, a traditional method, has led the centre to be naturally hybrid. Of course, the cluster of structures appears like a group of small village huts, which one may feel are not applicable in an urban set-up. But, that scale suits the idea of the experiment, explore and apply.

Architects and engineers who can afford to experiment are few, considering the demands of clients, imperatives of regulations and managing the consulting or construction firms. So, the few who can explore the eco-friendly alternatives need to reach out to people, not merely with their designed built products, but also as a process to enable the replication of these ideas. Thannal does it in its own way by conducting hands-on workshops.

Only when eco ideas get widespread application can they question the mainstream.

 

Natural architecture, natural living

Rammed earth foundation, stabilised mud pillar blocks, vortex system for sewage water treatment, RWH… an ashram in Tiruvannamalai shows the way. 

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We have read many explanations for the Earth’s environment, collated thousands of data for climatic issues and heard a lot about ecology. We are aware that climate change is caused by us, it is an anthropogenic matter.

But, how often do we look at our inner ecology, why are we made and how do we think and act? Is it important to connect a possible spiritual exploration with a sustainable physical environment – both with an ecology of its own? Will such a synthesis lead to a position where we can explain the failures of physical solutions to the ecological crisis through spirituality and in turn, the meditative spirituality will benefit from an ecological context outside?

The Buddhist Vipassana Centre at Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu is quietly attempting such a synthesis. It is an ashram for introspection, yet a place for exploration of nature. Right from the earthy architecture to the kitchen management, every step the teachers at the centre take has to do with nature.

Rammed earth walls, tiled roofs, stone slab floors, extensively exposed surfaces, ample light and fresh air in all indoors mark a studied approach to how to design in a water-scarce land. RO water treatment was replaced by the eco-friendly approach, shredders make all waste bio-degradable, biogas consumes all the kitchen waste and the outlet from biogas waters the plants. Nothing goes waste here.

Minimalist

Participants live a simple life here not out of compulsion, but out of choice. While the architecture is minimalist, so is the idea of comfort, which nowadays has been so hyped to create all of the consumerism. Organic vegetarian food mostly grown within the campus using traditional recipes which retain nutrients is the staple diet.

It is not that there were no experiments. Thirty-feet-long Ferro-cement roof channels, rammed earth foundations, circular hollow stabilised mud pillar blocks, vortex system for sewage water treatment and such others developed by Auroville find a place here.

Alongside, all the known solutions like skylights, perforated walls, steam cooking and solar power are found.

Of course, timber was ruled out for construction due to budgeting, but steel fabrication has been kept to the minimum. Semi-dry mud with low water content has led to intense termite attacks, in a way to justify the minimal use of timber, including indoors and windows.

Water supply

Planting done when the centre started 4 years ago adds greenery, though only closer to land at this nascent stage. Rainwater collection happens right from the high point of the sloping land, goes through gravel filters to flow into lower fields. Once a water-scarce area, today it is enjoying near sufficiency in annual water needs.

Just like a spiritually inclined person is bound to attempt Vipassana meditation, someone inclined to eco-living also needs such a meditation.

Ecological sensitivity and awareness cannot come by merely reading books, seeing news and watching documentaries about climate change. It demands an inner exploration and transformation to the way we are living

Myths of modern buildings

Majority of new ideas in construction have been bad for sustainability and cause long-term harm to nature.

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In social gatherings, we meet people who speak highly of the need to be eco-friendly but continue to believe in many myths which are against the principles of sustainability.

Modern construction technology with columns and concrete is superior to the traditional: The youngsters and the aged alike appear to claim that modern materials and construction technology are far superior to those followed earlier. The major protagonists of modernity are cement and steel, which can be found in every part of a typical house today. Houses with ‘wall over the wall’ system, termed as load bearing wall system, has been nearly wiped out by RCC frame constructions with columns and beams, though it’s a waste of money in most small projects.

The emerging construction practices also demand more machinery, equipment, training, software, and chemicals, besides leaving behind unusable debris upon possible demolition.

Buildings with increased technological services are more efficient and sustainable: From the days of simple ceiling fans, electric lights or lifts, today we are moving into sensor-based lighting, advanced elevators, occupancy-based air conditioning, access controls, burglar alarms, CCTV, remote controllers, ICT-based information, rotatable skylight louvers and such others in the name of perfection and efficiency. On a contrasting note, such houses become less sustainable, not only because of vulnerability to dysfunctions but also due to technological obsoleteness.

Adopting the new and discarding the old is necessary: The journey of so-called development in construction has seen mud, stone, red oxide, mosaic, marble, glazed tiles, ceramics, vinyl and vitrified tiles – all in floorings. Wooden windows led to steel and aluminium and UPVC is ruling. Masonry walls gave way to glass walls, reflective glasses, aluminium and newer façade treatments. All these and such other shifts have led to increased manufacturing and embodied energy, in the name of better quality and performance. Even if we were to keep such questionable claims aside, the majority of new ideas have been bad for sustainability. Maybe, they ensure short-term gains for people, but cause long-term harm to nature.

Comfortable living and working spaces are non-negotiable and do not affect sustainability. Every architect can predict what a typical house owner would expect – spacious house, furnished rooms, unique elevation, modern style, air conditioning, kitchen gadgets, large windows, false ceiling, fancy light fixtures, branded fitting, luxurious toilets, Italian marble, modern interiors, home theatre – the list can go on.

Typically, we do not think what impact all these would have on nature, for they define our image of a good house. Designing as providing for the essential is forgotten, for the designer look has to be pervasive.

Compromising on the above image has to be the first step in solving the climate crisis.