Author Archives: rajeshkav

Arch as a foundation

With earth below, the arch would be even more stable and hence can take greater load, supporting the building walls. 

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It is interesting to note how we tend to forget what we learn. Just leaf through an old book of medicine, construction, cooking or stitching, documenting certain ideas. Only after proving itself, that idea would have been codified, written about and became part of the book. As such we may assume the written idea is a proven idea.

Let us check how many of the ideas explained in the texts are followed now. Maybe a handful or little more, not because the rest of the ideas have failed, they have been either replaced by newer ideas or have simply been forgotten.

The art of constructing a building foundation using arches is one among such ideas – simply forgotten. We continue making arches above ground but why not below ground? With earth below, the arch would be even more stable hence can take the greater load, supporting the building walls.

There are two methods to do an arch foundation – if the full foundation would be underground, the foundation trench is dug directly with arch profiles with adequate spacing between them to build foundation piers to spring the arches. This space where arches start would need a normal footing with enough width to take on two arches. The unexcavated earth stays underneath the arch as if that’s the centring support.

If the site is lower than the road, we dig only to erect the foundation piers, taking them deep enough to reach hard soil. From the top of piers which is at the site level, we can start the arches, which should be within 5 to 8 feet span for general safety. In case of uneven sites, the rise of arches can also be varied to suit the context. Arch centring is generated by filling in mud in the required profile, where using an M.S. template ensures the curved profile is perfectly suited to take the arch action.

The curved mud profile is topped with water mud mix and manually consolidated. If the top mud layer appears very brittle, a thin cement or cement-stabilised mud mortar can be applied, ensure there is a level base layer below the arch.

Now, stone or brick arches are built just like we do in any wall and cured well. Plinth beam is placed above the arches and backfilling the earth up to plinth level completes the foundation work of the building.

Architect Rajesh Jain from R-LEEF has been reviving this forgotten technology for many years now, improving it from its textbook days. Of course, it needs an engineer’s supervision, masons with arch construction skills and contractors with inclinations to explore. If the team is not interested in exploring, the idea may fail due to a badly done job.

Imagine a small plot with a dozen RCC columns and next to it a dozen arches – both take the load. To live a green future, we need to revive older ideas

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Raw, rustic, artistic

When MES School of Architecture at Kuttipuram instituted an Award for Sustainable Living, its natural choice was Mohan Chevara, Rukmini and family.

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As this essay is being written and read this week, the media is full of news on the ever increasing climate crisis. A recently published IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change) report states that the world is warmer by 1.2 degree Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era. At this rate, we could be warmer by 1.5 degrees by 2030, much earlier than what was predicted in the last report.

The 24th CoP (Conference of Parties) is now being held at Poland with leaders from 197 nations converging at one place, hoping to converge on one decision – to resolve implementing the declarations of various past climate conventions. The former is sure, but the latter is doubtful.

This is not to connect the heads of state with climate change, but to remind all of us that we all are responsible for the crisis and the solution are within us. One such family that resolved to live with nature and practice eco-friendly living is the Chevara family near Palakkad.

When MES School of Architecture at Kuttipuram instituted an Award for Sustainable Living recently, the choice of its first recipient was Mohan Chevara, Rukmini and family.

The couple left their comfortable urban occupations in art and pharmacy education respectively and moved into a farming community which they started with a group of like-minded friends. Not believing in the commercialised school systems of today, they home-schooled their two daughters with many skill-sets, but no college degrees. Growing their own food with groundwater, their dependency on externalities was meager.

The family built a small 500 sq. ft. the house there all by themselves, except for electrician and roof carpenter, which naturally took time, but it came close to being with nature. Interwoven spliced bamboo applied over with mud mortar (wattle and daub) walls were adorned with has reliefs; frameless shutters made of split bamboo hung from top, covering the small windows with bamboo grills; bookshelves and ledges were made of bamboo; bamboo steps led to a compact mezzanine; cooking was in a tiny corner with firewood and gas as may be needed – it’s a lesson to learn from to check how less we need to live a basic life!

The house was raw, rustic but artistic. The rooms and spaces were tiny but were just about what we really need. A few material compromises and dependency on state electricity supply continues, for the project is still incomplete and health imperatives have made some demands on the final product.

Chevaras choose this lifestyle not out of compulsion of poverty, illiteracy or unemployment, but out of own choice to live with nature. They critique the modern urban living and wanted to take an alternative path to live sustainably.

Yet it was curious to note that they did not talk big and claimed to be saviors of ecology; it’s a simple way of life for them. We need more such people.

For a bright bathroom

It has to be designed carefully, with proper ventilation too.

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In the Indian context, ‘bright bathroom’ sounds like a contradiction! Majority of bathrooms in urban houses, with attached toilet, are ill-lit and badly ventilated.

Of course, we have quick fix solutions, without studying the root causes for the above experience. Fit a high wattage electric bulb and have an exhaust fan. Despite these two devices which consume electricity, many toilets and bathrooms are still dark during the daytime.

Actually the bathroom needs a large opening to brighten it up. There is a belief that larger the opening, lesser the privacy, which has no basis at all – a large window with translucent glass can ensure total privacy while a thin gap between the ventilator frame and the shutter can be a clear peephole. Ventilators in most buildings being rather low, most users keep them shut for the fear of privacy, incidentally blocking both air and light.

The generation before us knew the principle of ventilation that the warmer stale air moves upwards, being light in weight; hence the early toilets were provided with voids just below the roof level. During those days, with no steel and glass, these wall top openings were left with no shutters, which facilitated total movement of stale air.

The idea of continuous lintel band at 7 feet level coupled with the trouble of clearing cobwebs from this high opening made people stop the toilet ventilators at 7 feet height. With no escape, the stale air above this level comes to stay inside itself.

Most exhaust fans are operated when we are using the toilet with the doors shut, so no fresh air passes through the whole depth of the toilet. All that the exhaust fans throw out is the air immediately around them which often is fresh, so the stink continues.

Besides the general reasons, light is a prerequisite in a bathroom while fresh air is needed both for health and dry interiors. Bathrooms and toilets have been subjects of so many hilarious essays, that we may never realise how much they have in them for a serious ecological analysis too!

How to let the wind in, and out

Among the major hurdles for air movement is the larger indoor spaces we are creating in our buildings.

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Let us try this quiz – ask a hundred people if they appreciate traditional homes, and possibly the majority would say ‘yes’. Now ask if these houses get fresh air inside, and possibly the majority would say ‘no’.

Traditional homes would have few windows in the external walls and often a central court, together ensuring air circulation. Most owners cancelled courtyards, the poor built smaller houses and in some regions courts were anyway uncommon – so the stale air stayed in.

The best means of ensuring air circulation continues to be having an opening to the sky – a skylight if covered with glass, with or without a sunken courtyard. Enclosed rooms like bedrooms that cannot get a skylight, can have tall windows going up to roof level with vent at top.

In earlier times, most houses were rectangular in plan, with rooms distributed all around in geometrical shapes. Thus, one external wall of one room would get only one window. Now, let us try staggering them – push one room inside and pull one room outside. Thus, the external wall of the house would not be a rectangle with the wall line going in and out. We realise there can be many more windows in all orientations, many more corners for the room and generally much better air circulation inside.

Wind does not move in all orientations equally. Every region has its dominant directions, e.g. Kerala gets largely south-west wind, while Chennai has it from south-east. These larger trends further change directions due to trees, buildings, ground levels, seasons and such others, causing microclimatic modifications. As such, every site will have certain windward directions where pressure is high and leeward directions, where pressure is low. Wind blows from the higher to the lower pressure areas, hence windows can be located in such directions to get better indoor air movement.

Among the major hurdles for air movement is the larger indoor spaces we are creating thanks to technology. Smaller the room width, better the air circulation, but we are building large spaces necessitating ceiling fans. Even worse condition can be experienced in closely built crowded areas. The compactness nullifies all possible green cover and wind around the building, finally demanding an air conditioner. As such, both the house planning and city planning play major roles in indoor air.

Diagrams

Scientifically drawn-up data called wind rose diagrams are freely available today, though they may not be accurate for every site in a compact layout, but the general ideas can improve the situation largely. Roof-top fans called turbo ventilators are today popular, which need no electricity.

Past societies learnt how to live with wind, with sailors in the sea and farmers on land being the best examples. It was an animal instinct displayed by all, be it birds when they migrate or humans when they build vernacular structures. Somewhere down our modernising process, we seem to have lost this knowledge. It’s time to regain it.

For natural air flow

We could learn from the past, since human settlements lived well without ceiling fans and air conditioners.

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Open the windows – let the air come in. This line is routinely heard, meaning windows let in air. But do we really get that elusive air every time? If it were, there would not have been ceiling fans and air conditioners.

Does that mean windows do not let in air? No, it means the way we are designing the windows may not be effective. There could be something wrong in the way buildings are located or even the town planning could be flawed. If for thousands of years, human settlements lived well without ceiling fans and air conditioners, there must have been some way of living with air.

Designing for natural air is among the very basics of an eco-friendly building, so the more we capture it, the greater the efficiency. Primarily, it means ensuring cross ventilation, displacement ventilation and body-level breeze.

Cross ventilation is a very common term, suggesting air blowing through the inside of a room. Traditionally, it was achieved by windows positioned in the centre of two opposite walls, with the room itself being narrow enough for wind movement. Nowadays, two opposite walls being external is rare, hence need to shift openings to the wall corners. If diagonally placed, even larger rooms will get more indoor air than otherwise. The corner windows create an eddy, a kind of air movement, pulling in possible stale air from all over the room. Even if we get only two side walls as external walls, there can be up to four corner windows. Typically, the openings stop at lintel level, with no way for the air above 7 feet level to go out. As such, even the fan would keep throwing this warmer air down for a while! As a solution, most homes were having a small void on top of the wall to let out this stale air, now rare to see.

The void atop the wall provided displacement ventilation, an essential approach in passive cooling, now out of practice due to maintenance issues. Imagine, the top void becoming a part of the extended window which could be tall, up to the roof bottom. It could facilitate cross ventilation at lower levels and displacement ventilation at the topmost part.

The space between the lower and upper part can be fixed glass to let in light even if the curtain is pulled, with added benefits like saving on time and money by avoiding the lintel beam. Corner tall windows going up to the roof bottom allow eddy currents by bouncing air to side walls and top ceiling; light up the corners which leads to a perception of a larger room while the verticality creates an impression of spacious room.

Will the window design and location alone solve all our needs for air? No, designing for air needs many more deliberations. It’s time to explore.

WHO CAUSED KODAGU CRISIS

Every individual needs to introspect on the indirect, implicit or invisible role one would have played against the interests of nature.

15bgp-greensensGA94NDD2J3jpgjpgMost of us have been caught up in a traffic jam at least once. Never would we blame ourselves for causing the jam, instead we curse other drivers or maybe our choice of the road. Of course, we too have caused the jam, at the least by joining the hold-up, increasing the number of vehicles by one more. Traffic jam is a collective phenomenon with every individual driver contributing to it and it cannot be resolved without every person cooperating to clear it.

On a similar note, if asked what caused the Kerala and Kodagu floods, most of us would not wink our eyelids before blaming climate change at large and human action at the local level. Outsiders like us who do not suffer are only devouring the news as if we have no role in it. Locals are not willing to own the crisis, pointing a finger at the government or greedy investors. The vast majority of people of Madikeri might have never cut the trees, levelled the land and made the roads. So, they do not feel directly responsible, even though they are hard hit by the crisis.

As sensible citizens, we may not like to engage in a blame game, but if we do not locate the causes behind the crisis, we would be inviting the crisis again in future. Curiously, statistics available on precipitation says it rained heavy last year also, disapproving the theory that excess rains are the main culprit.

While many of us sympathised with the owners who built at the river level or cliff edge, equal many would have criticised it as thoughtless actions by the owners. If we were to be in the shoes of those owners, we too would have built so. Our context directs most of our actions, which appear thoughtless to someone outside those punishing contexts.

Huge demands

Let us think why are so many people involved in actions apparently against nature – is it just to earn a living or could it be also to meet the demands of people like us? We demand lifestyle products, construction materials, goods transportation and manufacturing of a million items. By supporting a market economy and creating a supply chain, can we absolve ourselves of the responsibility? Definitely, no.

We all are responsible for the crisis just unfurled. Every individual needs to introspect the indirect, implicit or invisible role one would have played against the interests of nature. It may be easier to realise the harm we are doing, but it will be very difficult to change our course and live differently and eco-friendly. Yet we can attempt a beginning.

We need to realise that the Kerala and Kodau crisis has been caused collectively by every one of us, by the seemingly insignificant individual action of us. That could be an impulse to live differently from now on.

Thinking eco in the wake of floods

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For how long can we continue this way without thinking about ecology.

Floods in Kerala and Madikeri have receded, but the media continues to pour in news and analysis, suggesting the lessons we need to learn from these partly manmade disasters.

Many writers have used phrases like “we should have thought about it” and few “let us think about it now.” Despite the

fact that warning message was as clear as the writing on the wall, why did we not read it? What has the word ‘thinking’ got to do with it all?

Thinking is mostly assumed to be an academic activity connected with learning to get a degree certificate. Later few people continue with it to become scholars, social thinkers, political analysts, writers or public speakers.

Towards self-discovery

Often, thinking is connected to problem solving at a basic level or deep down, it is also central in philosophy suggesting meditation and introspection towards self-discovery. The idea and act of thinking itself deserves a long essay, but on a day to day basis, what do we think of thinking? To confess, most of us think nothing of it. As some subject experts may argue, we do not consciously think at all. We assume we are thinking, but much of it is a routine brain and biological act, happening without us deliberately focusing on any chosen theme.

Even in these days full of choices, options and alternatives, most of us live by few default beliefs, products and lifestyles, suggested by the invisible market forces, peer pressures, urban systems, governance or what could be called as the mainstream general practises. In a so called free society, we are conditioned by our own creations and imperatives set in motion by the larger global, corporate, consumerist and modern agendas, ably and of course justifiably supported by the internet of things.

Given this apparently choice less life, do we adequately think about the implications of our actions? The seemingly convenient car aggregators have increased the energy consuming urban car traffic; affordable fares have multiplied air travellers many folds fuming out greenhouse gas emissions more than ever; the homely comforts of e-marketing with online bank payments are enjoying a quantum jump in sales and high carbon footprint actions like national conferences, star hotels, fine dine restaurants, skyscrapers, driving holiday, weekend resorts and such others are multiplying.

Buyers, builders and investors

Given the comfort and necessity of all that is listed, how can we question them? Our days of struggling to earn has flipped into finding ways of spending, with surplus money coupled with technology prompting us to become buyers, builders, investors, owners, tourists, adventurers, explorers and every other human endeavour that our forefathers could never imagine. What a great achievement of our generation!

How can we ever think that these and many more such human potentials have led to floods in Kerala or Madikeri?

No way, so we analyse the catastrophe from all visible angles, refusing to connect the comfort of our everyday life as the possible cause behind our own sufferings.

For how long can we continue this way, without thinking about ecology?

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?

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