Monthly Archives: August 2019

Pristine architecture

We can actually live all our life in a forest, with food, fabric and shelter taken care of, avoiding the urban claptrap. Tamandua Rain Forest Research Station in Peru tells us how. 

24bgpTamanduastation1-RIOTjpgLet us imagine we were to be living deep inside a tropical primary rain forest. There is no real local vernacular style yet, so how do we proceed to design? We need to freshly create a local architecture from the materials offered by the context. That’s what we get to see at the Tamandua Rain Forest Research Station inside the Amazon forest, next to Las Pedras River in Peru.

It could be a large raised floor with wooden planks open all around to let light and air filter in from everywhere. The height of platform and railing would discourage crawling reptiles, rodents and such others from entering. Dealing with hot humid air is simplified by high roof with total void below roof, to allow hot air to move across the roof bottom, rather than let it move downwards from the roof. Room divisions are done with low partitions, just to provide visual privacy.

How to build

There is no electricity, telephone or internet connectivity. How do we build? We need to discover ways of constructing with human skills and basic tools that are traditionally available. The jungle is replete with construction timber for structural members, veins to get rope from them and tall grass ideal for weaving for roofing purposes.

Make the roof steep to ensure faster flow of rain water and greater structural stability.

Everything from the toilet gets soaked into the soil below. If we run out of cooking gas, firewood is around aplenty, which can also provide hot water for bathing, if needed. Food without the fancy looks and urban ingredients is essential and healthy.

Essential supplies to run the Tamandua Research Station need to come from a shanty settlement an hour away by boat. The typical daily wastes too have to be taken back, not to litter the pristine nature.

The station is not for recreation, but for research and exploring nature, as such it is austere and frugal. Yet, it connotes the possibility that we can actually live so all our life, with food, fabric and shelter taken care of. If so, why have we forgotten the pleasures of simple living and the simple pleasures of living, caught up on the trap of unsustainable lifestyle?

Until a few years ago, there was no supplied electricity, but now there are a few solar photovoltaic panels that give a little quantity of power before it gets totally dark, when one relies on candles. Until a few years ago, there was no Trans Amazonian Highway connectivity, so travel took day and night across boats, road and walking.

It appears, as we move into the present and the future, we miss out on experiencing the past. Soon, we forget it and so too about designing with nature.

The architecture at Tamandua station is the real sustainable architecture. It is born out of Mother Earth and when it reaches its end, it will return to Mother Earth. If we can keep the jungle, the jungle will keep us. Architecture without carbon footprint.

ROOFING WITH VOIDS

The mundane mud pot placed strategically by a skilled mason can cool your house.

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If people advise us to build only the way our forefathers built, to completely return to the vernacular ways and shun modernity, better not trust them fully. Returning to the past is, of course, a way of building eco-sensitively, but many not be either the sole way or the best way.

This is not to disapprove the benefits that we can learn from the past, but to forewarn ourselves about the possible traps in simply glorifying the past. Roofing practices provide good demonstrations for this theory. It’s well known how advanced were our seniors in providing long-lasting water-proof roofs with passive cooling and minimal annual maintenance. Comparatively, today we often complain about cracking and leaking concrete roofs which turn our houses into ovens in summer.

A thick layer of mud was among the simplest of solutions; it’s effective but not practical today in urban contexts, however much we may like to return to those age-old practices.

However, we may try to have a thick layer, but reduce the mass and weight by having voids inside. Roof heat transfers through conduction in solid materials and convection in empty space. Convective transfer of heat is very slow and much lesser than through solid mass. So, any hollowness embedded within the roof thickness reduces heat transfer, keeping the indoors slightly cooler.

Common practice

In many regions of northern India, it was a common practice to place small mud pots, either tea cups or 6 to 7 inch diameter clay trays, 3 to 4 inch deep on the terrace, with the bottom up. So, there is a cavity now above the roof top.

This layer of pots is filled to level using screed, either plain cement concrete 1:2:4 if water-proof terrace is needed or one may use stabilised soil-cement mix. Some lime may be added to provide water-proof qualities. The final top surface may be finished with white heat reflective cool roof coat, for additional thermal comfort inside.

In a recent project in Vikarabad near Hyderabad, this technique was revisited. Of course the availability of the clay pots led to using lesser number of pots than what’s ideal, but as an experiment to check its feasibility today, it was a success. In this case, this layer was laid over tandoor stone roofing, reviving another vernacular practice. It’s sad that though clay pots have multiple uses and benefits, their production has reduced due to the onslaught of produced products.

The void should be completely inside the slab to trap the heat there itself. Of course, once the air in the cavity gets heated up, some heat transfer would happen due to convection, but that would be much lesser than otherwise with no void at all.

The best is to have a ventilated cavity roof, which cannot be achieved by this simple using of clay pots. Only for very hot regions we may try such more advanced modes of passive cooling.

Pots inside thick mud phuska roof is not a new idea, but among those which are being forgotten. Before they are fully lost, we need to check the possibility of their modern applications.