It’s all in the materials
How to build stylish, yet eco-friendly homes in the wake of radical shift in construction systems.
If we invite friends home for dinner, the choice of vegetables is among the starting points to decide upon the menu. The same curry listed in the culinary books becomes a different tasting dish with a different vegetable. Not the best example to quote, but so too in buildings where the same building type, say a school, could become different with varied materials.
All construction materials are sourced from nature, such as stone, bamboo, mud, clay, thatch, lime and timber. Of course, water too comes from there, but is rarely acknowledged! It may surprise many to know that every industrially processed and manufactured material also comes from nature.
Lime as the raw material for cement; iron ore to make steel; bauxite as the ore for aluminium; sand as the basis of glass; clay for ceramics; finally crude oil and coal for plastics. So the equation is simple – as we increasingly use cement, steel, aluminium, glass, ceramics and plastics in construction, we are increasing the resource consumption, process wastes, transportation costs, demolition discards and as such, the embodied energy of the building, which directly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change.
There have been radical shifts in construction systems today, especially in the multi-storey sector, yet standard foundations, walls, lintels, beams and roofs dominate the majority of projects.
Here, materials contribute more than building technology in making the building eco-friendly. This is not to demean construction options – more than half-a-dozen foundation types exist; roofs could be done in a dozen ways; walls can be built in more than 15 ways, and floors have multiple choices – but only to mention the sad state of affairs where very few easy-to-do constructions practises are now popular. Most houses are being built with just one type of foundation, wall and one type of roof!
In the past, every region had limited access to materials, hence the local vernacular style evolved which today may be wrongly felt by many as simple and monotonous. But that alone need not drive us to design strange combinations of modern materials which by default have lesser choices. Computer software applications with virtual or augmented reality generated images and animated walk-through complete the act of selling design easy ideas.
So, we end up with varied elements, forms, colours and combinations of surfaces to create what is today felt as attractive and unique elevations. Majority of them rely upon RCC frame construction, cement block or cheaper brick masonry, walls plastered and finished with putty, primer and paint.
Public buildings get finished with façade treatments, cladding panels and glass. How many of these are truly attractive, have a sense of collective aesthetics and follow the time-tested theories of beauty are questionable. Hence, the cacophony of architecture in every street, neither aesthetical nor ecological.
Plastered cement block wall coming in varied colours consumes much more of resources, uses chemicals and has more embodied energy than natural mud, stone or exposed clay blocks. As such, minimising cement blocks and painting are among the first step towards eco-friendly architecture. Zero maintenance by avoiding the need to re-paint, hence reduction in life cycle costs comes as a bonus point!
Ecological natural materials provide unlimited options towards wall elevations unlike what many people think. The variety possible by different material mix, pattern making, proportions, stylistic approaches and daylight throw far exceeds what the standard plastered walls offer. It’s the market at large looking for less work and more profits which undermines the aesthetic quality and environmental values of building with ecological materials.
As climate change is threatening every aspect of our lives, let us walk ecological sensitivity in every aspect of our constructions.