Category Archives: concepts

Perils of modern living

Air conditioning and refrigeration have direct link to climate crisis and are considered as enemies.

Polders-Grootschermer-Netherlands.jpg.990x0_q80_crop-smartFor millions of years, humans have survived the extremities of nature without conditioning the air. If so, can’t we survive the present climate change without air conditioners? Theoretically yes, but attitudinally difficult, for it’s no more air conditioning that is the challenge, it is the human conditioning.

Air conditioning and refrigeration have direct link to climate crisis and are considered among the enemies of nature. A few decades ago, AC was installed where it was inevitable, but today it is projected as a necessity, which is a myth driven by the consumerist market.

Human settlements across the globe have shown that we can manage with 4 or 40 degree Celsius temperature with minor adjustments in food and clothing, two major means of adapting ourselves to the changing weather. Different civilisations have discovered many other means, including shifting working hours; summer and winter indoor spaces; orientation-based wall thickness; and varied window detailing.

In many ways, human adaptation to weather was akin to those of slumbering animals or leave shedding plants, learning from the animal and survival instincts we all possess. Given this natural phenomenon, it is more important that we adapt to room temperatures and not install air conditioners to force the room to adapt to us.

If millions of Indians are living without AC, it should be possible for the minority few of us also to live so. If we deny this possibility, we get into a trap where the combination of physiological and mental states will ensure we justify the AC. Even if an ecologically aware mind denies it, the body will demand it. The reverse where the mind demanding it even if body could adjust is also true.

The real challenge of summer is not to cool our body with cold rooms and even colder drinks, which only increase the variation between body and atmospheric temperatures. We need to reduce this variation by consuming warmer drinks and keeping the indoor air humid. After all, we cannot air condition the whole city, but can condition the body to adapt.

In case AC is already a habit, we can try modulating indoor humidity, air velocity and room temperatures to minimise damage to environment. Instead of 22 degree of dry cold, 28 degree with increased humidity may be better. If outside temperature is around 40 degrees, indoors at 28-35 could still be fine. Individually, we cannot switch off hotel or office AC, but can avoid the coldest parts, totally avoiding AC elsewhere.

The perils of modern lifestyle are yet to dawn on us. The few who talk about climate in kitty parties are yet to walk the talk. One simple way of doing the walk is to minimise or live without air conditioners.

Air Conditioning is harming nature

It is used everywhere injudiciously, in the name of comfort, increasing resource consumption and waste production.

10bgp-greensensGIF1SLLLO3jpgjpgHuman society has strange habits. When a great idea comes along, we may resist it until the idea wins us over or the idea itself dies. Strangely, when a disastrous product is introduced, even while knowing the harm it is causing, we blindly fall in love with it and promote it.

Look at the mineral water sold in plastic bottles, condemned by subject experts on all fronts like debatable water purity, challenges of waste disposal, and avoidable resource consumption, besides the use-and-throw culture. Yet, these bottles rule us today.

Another equally questionable part of modern civilisation is air conditioned spaces in homes, cars, offices, shops and virtually everywhere. Hyped as one among the greatest innovations of our times, the harm it has done and continuing to do is buried deep, so hardly anyone speaks against it, so everyone seeks it.

This is not to question the very technology of air conditioning, very beneficial at many places from operation theatres in hospitals to large public halls, which cannot be naturally lit and ventilated.

Technology of refrigeration has enabled newer avenues, be it in preservation or in food for space travel. The problem starts when air conditioning is employed not only where necessity beckons, but everywhere injudiciously, in the name of comfort.

No solution

All that air conditioning does is to throwing the indoor heat out, warming up the outdoors. Long hours of working under A.C. in offices reduces our body capacity to withstand heat, as such when we come out, we seek cool air in the car and home too, cumulatively leading to the proliferation of air conditioned indoors. The more we do it, the more will be urban heat islands which has no solution today.

Global warming is directly blamed on greenhouse gas emissions, which increase with increased use of any refrigeration system because of their dependency on CFC, HFC and such others. Though improved coolants have been introduced, harming of the ozone layer continues. Heating and cooling have been listed among the major consumers of electricity in developed nations and India is catching up. Electricity seldom comes from clean sources like solar or hydropower. As such, A.C. is an indirect cause for the depletion of non-renewable resources burnt to produce power.

Not all air conditioners are maintained well periodically. In case of any leakage, there will be the release of chemicals which harm the ozone layer, besides reducing the cooling power of the unit. Technological advances are creating rapid obsoleteness causing large wastages to the manufactured units with high embodied energy. Thus, air conditioning directly impacts resource consumption and waste production. Listing how air conditioning makes no green sense can go on, but it is time we introspect our habits and change them.

Living in an artificial environment

Air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

People with low economic status tend to think that the wealthy are healthier; and they see that the rich people stay in air conditioned spaces in homes, offices, cars and shops, while they are toiling in uncomfortable ambiences.

As such, the myth spreads hat living in artificial environments is better than living with natural conditions.

Modern construction technology can provide air conditioning to any kind of space.

With the AC costs coming down every season and claims about green buildings adopting more efficient systems like radiant cooling, evaporative cooling and such others besides the conventional HVAC systems, building owners do not feel guilty for installing air conditioning.

However, are all the people living inside such artificial environments happy and healthy? Contrary to what the economically poor may dream, reports suggest otherwise. Living without fresh air, day light and nature is today proven to be very unhealthy.

Many indoor spaces do not have adequate fresh air inlet and air change as required, leading to what is called Sick Building Syndrome. Lack of ventilation can also lead to a feel of suffocation, partly due to increased ambient indoor heat, creating a sense of dryness.

The AC can take away internal humidity at such fast rate, too many people feel dehydrated inside, with dried lips and skin.

In places with short summer spells of a few weeks, like in Bengaluru, it is not worth fixing air conditioners for the short duration, letting it lie idle rest of the year.

When we get out of an AC space, the temperature difference between inside and outside causes what is called thermal shock. It can affect the body immune system.

Despite all these, we continue to live with conditioned air, rather than the natural. However, the indoor cool comes at a cost, further increasing the heat island effect and directly promoting greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

Reducing indoor heat

There are simple ways to go about it, and air conditioners are not necessary. 

20bgp-greensensGM81OS5VP3jpgjpgIn hot climatic zones like Rajasthan, people used to sleep on terraces. Even in places like Delhi, one can see many low income and middle class people sleeping outdoors, on pathways or verandahs. In slightly more humid regions like Kerala or Kolkata, traditional homes have perforated windows and doors with louvres which are kept open at night.

The principle behind these and more of such practices is simple – the night temperature is always much lower than the daytime in summer months. If we can ensure that the benefits of lower temperature are exploited, one can ensure a good night’s sleep. Our body works much on a comparative basis, where the reduced night temperature itself provides the relief we need, after exposure to a daylong heat. The emerging practice of sleeping at 22 degrees chilled air and then face the next day’s wrath at 40 degrees is neither healthy nor inevitable.

Crucial factors

The accompanying picture is an apt example to show how we can manage indoor comforts through managing air. We need three kinds of air, first being cross ventilation, achieved through windows in differently oriented windward walls. Secondly, we need body-level breeze made possible by the ceiling fan. The third one, displacement ventilation, is the most important for indoor thermal comfort. It displaces the hot indoor air – air warmed up by solar heat gain on ceilings, heat conducted through the walls, heat dissipated by human bodies inside and any mechanical instruments – through roof-level openings and lets in cooler outside air.

Typically, most indoor spaces today do not have voids at ceiling level, hence the warmer indoor air gets stuck inside the room. In the picture too, the wall just below the roof has no ventilator, the idea cancelled due to provision of air conditioner, though elsewhere in the same building there are displacement ventilators. In the process, this particular room gets heated up during the summer months, so the AC steps in, while the whole year it stays nearly idle.

During the summer months, the real challenge is not to cool the indoor air, an idea which leads to installing an air conditioner, which is an energy guzzling, unsustainable and cost escalating practice. Simply throwing out hot air and letting in the cooler air from outside can make a notable difference in reducing indoor heat, though it may not be as effective as an air conditioner.

Among the temporary arrangements, turning the table fan towards the window is the simplest. After keeping a few windows open, turn on the fan with its face outside. It works like displacement ventilation cooling the indoors in a short time. Unlike the roof-level voids which work at a height, here the warmer air at body level gets thrown out. The ceiling fan can compliment the air circulation.

The case of the fan may be a makeshift solution for few

Culture-climate connect in designing

When we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default.

04bgpgreensensG381C4DCE3jpgjpgIt is surprising to realise how every one of us, in our own way, is directly or indirectly involved with getting buildings done during our lifetime. It is one activity that most of us cannot escape, which at macro scale may mean commissioning a project or at micro level, just advising a friend about a design option.

In the implementation team we have innumerable architects, engineers, builders, consultants, suppliers, site team and such others, involved in the building construction industry. Our annual output in terms of built-up areas, spread across villages and all towns, is beyond calculation.

It is equally surprising to realise how most of us do not think much before we act. Most of our design and construction are based on a routine practice, endlessly repeated with minor variations therein. Naturally, deep thinking on design parameters like culture and climate are a rarity, resulting in the same faceless buildings being erected across India. While we have large number of practising professionals, paradoxically we appear to have a small number of thinking professionals, which could be the reason behind many non-descript buildings.

Pan-India perspective

This is where thinking architects like A.G. Krishna Menon and K.T. Ravindran become important. Both have a pan-India perspective about how we are approaching designs today and the imminent need to be context specific in our design interventions.

These two senior architects may not be listed as eco-architects of today, possibly ignored by the younger generation.

However, through their selective designs, public talks, academic involvement, explorative seminars and freelance publications, they have inspired a large number of professionals, paving the way for thinking about architecture.

Ravindran’s emphasis on the vernacular and Menon’s observations of the traditional settlements highlight the importance of culture-specific designs. Incidentally, when we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default. These architects with their analytical mind will not summarily dismiss modern architecture, but would suggest ways to blend tradition with modernity. Modern designs can also have green sense, be local and be sustainable.

To that end, one needs to study the design options, their implications and finally choose the most appropriate.

Learning from history

History is too often brushed aside as a matter of past, but architects like Menon and Ravindran, show how we can learn from history. After all, historic buildings have been green buildings not only in India, but everywhere. What we can learn from them and apply in designs today can make our future generations safer.

This process of learning cannot be complete if we study buildings in isolation; we also need to look at how buildings come together creating urban design, heritage zones and religious cities. Such rich contexts have created a lifestyle which in turn has created the contexts. Thus by recreating each other, context and culture have stayed true to a region – its geology, geography, flora, fauna and climate. By their thought process, these architects have proved that to achieve a green future, we need to iteratively study all facets of house, neighbourhood, city, culture, climate and of course living itself.

Many of their designs are based on theories and in turn, they have evolved theories based on designs. Where theory and design inform each other without contradicting positions, there we can find the path to eco-friendly possibilities.

NATURAL, YET CREATIVE

Disciplined design expressions by Shankar Kanade complement non-formal sculpturesque forms and surfaces by K. Jaisim in their eco-friendly architecture.

11bgp-greensensgka18e4nr-4-jpgDesign challenges do not lie in walking an established path, but in charting it in the first place amidst opposition by mainstream ideas. The greatness of Shankar Kanade and Navanath Kanade of Shilpa Sindoor and K. Jaisim of Fountainhead, both with firms located in South Bengaluru, lies in charting such new paths.

By 1970s and early 80s many architects had proven the benefits of practical and aesthetic designs, hence the city had carved a niche for good buildings, be they houses, industries or institutions. Going beyond mere functionality, Shankar Kanade brought the spirit of architectonic thoughts from Ahmedabad, ably joined by his younger brother Navanath who returned from the U.S. Jaisim, being influenced by philosopher Ayn Rand, followed exploratory architecture from a perspective very different from the others.

They started building with bricks, stone, hollow clay blocks and such other natural materials left exposed, without plastering or painting them. Thus the walls too became expressive, within which the voids like windows, ventilators and perforated jaali openings were carefully located to get the desired air and light.

Hallmark

Introducing skylights to bring in daylight, in a variety of forms and locations, became a hallmark of their architecture. They both realised that we need indoor air and light without creating glare or heat.

Avoiding ostentatious and unwanted design elements is important not only to negate a false image, but also to ensure cost effectiveness and reduced resource consumption. The resultant minimalism led to its own attraction and different aesthetics. The building should relate to the human scale both inside and outside, only then we can feel that buildings are appropriate for our use.

These professionals were not blindly following western architecture, but were creating a new approach by rooting it in the elements and forces of nature.

For a commoner, works of Kanades and Jaisim may appear different, but theoretically they have many comparisons. Their personal innovation creates the variety and their deep respect for the context creates the commonalties between them. Disciplined design expressions and grammar by Shankar compliments non-formal sculpturesque forms and surfaces by Jaisim in their architecture being what is called as eco-friendly today.

Too often we have heard the rhetoric that traditional Indian architecture has always been green and sustainable. While it is true, even the works of many modern architects have been so too, which do not warrant air conditioners, mass concreting, glass facades or aluminium-coated panels as elevation cladding. Kanades and Jaisim are undebatable examples. What the two firms did in the 80s paved the way for 90s when scores of younger firms in Bengaluru focused on eco-friendly buildings.

The entrance should be attractive

Tenants reject many rental houses simply because they did not like it as they walked into the house.

04bgpgreensensegd817e1qu-3-jpgWho has not heard of love at first sight or may be, experienced it? Much has been written about the idea of the first look – from the first glimpse of sun rise at the edge of ocean to the psychology of impulsive buying soon after seeing a dress or a handicraft. Human mind is structured to form opinions at the very instant it perceives something, often at extremes like ‘for it or against it’. As such, it is important to design products for positive appreciation at the very first look.

Architecture is no different to the theory of initial impacts and immediate acceptance. Real estate agents can narrate cases of tenants rejecting rental houses simply because they did not like it as they walked into the house. Many architects have the gift of garb to convince a potential building owner, yet once built if the structure does not appeal right from the entrance, the clients feel let down.

There is a term called ‘sense of entry’ – though often used in architecture, it is a simple word that suggests how we perceive a building as we enter it. Walking into a 5-star hotel is not the same as entering an art gallery or going into a coffee house with friends. If we feel good as we enter, there are greater chances that we would like the interiors too, for the outside can suggest what could be in store inside.

The elevation of the building is an interface between outside and inside, hence virtually dictates how the building merges with nature. Some designers believe their creations should appear distinct from the outside. While theoretically we can accept it, practical problems creep when every building looks different, creating visual clutter.

Harmony

People believing in context, collective appeal, urban aesthetics, green sense and such others argue for the elevation to merge with nature around. Besides vegetation, rocks and soil are among the most common materials we see around us, which take the form of size stones and clay products to get applied to construction. Being a direct product of nature, they do not degrade much due to rain and sun, lowering the life cycle costs across decades. There is a certain harmony created with the outside view, irrespective of it being a single building or a group. With multitude of natural materials available today, this approach offers many permutations and combinations in elevation making.

Sense of entry and perception of the interior are becoming more important than ever, as increasing number of buildings are adorning a green façade. Not all of them are really green or eco-friendly buildings, but look like one. In these days of the fake and the real, theories can come in handy to choose the real.

The comfort zone

The verandah is the only place in a building where all design factors blend.

verandah-pp_gsfgsa14b100-3-jpgLet us try imagining a magnificent monument. Among the obvious choices are buildings with lofty columns supporting a majestic high roof with a deep set-in space, may be with some dignitaries waving at us. If we are walking in a poor village, surprisingly, there too we find hutments with pillars supporting a thatch roof, with a shaded space beneath, may be with a child playing there.

From palaces to huts, verandahs have been omnipresent around the world.

The spaces between two major activity spaces are important in good architecture, verandah being one of them connecting the inside and the outside. They complement the two, automatically becoming multifunctional spaces serving varied purposes. However, their significance goes beyond architecture, in them being possibly the only place in a building where all design factors blend – social, cultural, spatial, functional, cost effective and of course, climatic considerations.

In our region, a south facing room with verandah is best suited to get wind and light, even while avoiding glare and direct rain. East facing verandah creates one of the best sense of entry with morning sunrays peeing through the columns. One can enjoy the setting sun in the west, doing any odd job there, with sun going low without unpleasant heat. Finally, with neither direct rain nor hot sun from the north, verandahs there are open for any idea from active to passive use.

If the interiors need to be inevitably air conditioned, verandahs can act like a buffer between inside and outside. While the human body is made to live both in open and enclosed spaces, ideally it cannot take sudden variations in temperatures, light intensities and humidity. A smoother transition from open to enclosed via a semi-open space is a comforting factor for us, which only a verandah can provide.

Disappearing

 Despite these accolades, why are verandahs vanishing? Architects feel they predetermine the elevation; owners say they may not use this space, mostly living indoors; developers find it difficult to fit them in multi-storey buildings; they are kept empty with no objects due to security worries; and those with low budget, of course, simply avoid it. Incidentally, most of these apprehensions can be resolved.

As we learnt how to control climate, using electrical and mechanical means, the passive ideas like verandahs got ignored. We could control climate, which is now revengefully hitting us back with climate change.

Unfortunately, instead of retreating from our high energy consuming lifestyle and regretfully accepting our mistakes in controlling climate, we continue to be defensive, trying to find ways of mitigating climate change.

We need not prove that humans are mightier than nature, even if such impossibility were to be true.

Alternatively, we can try proving how humans can live with nature. Returning to verandahs could be a minuscule example of such ideology, where the rays of hope for a safer future may begin.

BUILDING ON WELLS

Once well rings are filled to the top with concrete, plinth beams are laid connecting all of them which help in transferring loads.

07bgpgreensensegtt13ct5p-6-jpgPeople who have visited Varanasi would have wondered about the lofty palace-like structures on the banks of river Ganga. How were they built many centuries ago and how are they still standing tall? What is the secret behind their sturdy construction? Look at port cities like Fort Cochin or the early buildings of Kolkata harbour. How could they stand on watery ground without our modern mass concrete foundations?

What our elders did then is today called as pile foundation, where thick and long trunks of hardwood trees are driven into the loose ground until they hit the hard strata deep underground. The mechanism driving them down will stop at that level indicating that the tree trunk has reached a safe level, capable of taking building load. Simultaneously, as these straight trunks are driven close by, they tighten the ground, increasing the effective density of the soil. In turn, the load bearing capacity of the ground increases by the combined effects of wooden piles driven up to hard strata and overall compaction achieved by close placing of these piles.

Concrete piles have replaced wooden piles today, but this is done mainly for large buildings with advanced mechanism, professional designs and skilled supervision. Thousands of smaller buildings and residential structures cannot afford to go for concrete pile foundation, due to exorbitant costs.

There is a simplified system called well ring foundation, applicable to any building on loose, water logged sites, where the conventional stepped stone foundation is not possible. Concrete footing would be expensive due to the excavation depths or in general we wish to reduce the consumption of steel and concrete towards more eco friendly architecture.

Pre-cast round rings are generally available in most parts of India, which are inserted into the ground while the open pit is dug manually. Though this method is for open water well, same could become a foundation by pouring concrete into the well. Most rings come in 3 to 4 feet diameter, ideally for the foundation width. The depth of the well ring foundation, diameter and spacing distance needs to be calculated by structural engineers. Further, either load bearing or frame construction can be adopted as decided by the engineers. In case unequal settlement is suspected, the well rings may have to be tied together not only by the plinth beam, but each ring foundation will need to be fixed into the plinth beam.

In very loose soil, while digging, the side walls may cave in or in high water table areas we may have to continuously pump water out while concreting. Very few engineers have designed well ring foundations; as such, ensuing proper technical calculations are mandatory, followed by quality workmanship at site.

Such ideas which resemble wooden pile may sound difficult; however once done, we realise they are doable again.

Nature-sensitive designs

We need to revisit history to discover many construction details, unfortunately forgotten now.

12bgp-greensens_gn_3077738eThe history of architecture is the single largest repository of concepts, ideas and elements, which no printed source book on buildings can provide. The fact that this history is also a major part of our civilisational history makes it a worthy reading for everyone concerned.

However, we need to revisit history today to discover many small construction details and design nuances, unfortunately forgotten with the advent of modern times. The idea of revisiting is not to faithfully repeat the ideas from the past. There could be replicable ideas, but we need to seek applicable ideas which can be appropriately developed for our needs today.

A good case in example can be the usage of curves, where there is a major difference between the past and present. During the early civilisation, it was not easy to create curved features except in marking a round hut. All the natural materials like stone or tree branches came in straight lines. After attempting larger span for openings, people discovered arches and for interior spaces, vaults and domes.

 Even though the early curved features were derivatives of structural phenomena, they soon became one amongst the principal criteria for aesthetic attraction.

The variety of arches and vaults evolved across the world is bewildering, with no exchange of knowledge as it happens today, which proves that these ideas originated in the minds of people.

Nearly all of these were region specific, dependent on local materials and were made ‘buildable’ by the users. As such, replicating such ideas makes great degree of green sense.

Following natural topography

Curved walls were not unknown to people, as it is found in many fortifications, where the wall follows natural topography. In regions with undulating terrain where the buildings were to edge features like rock boulders, we notice vernacular house forms also having curved profiles. However, large scale conceptualisation of curved walls is of recent origin, as an outcome of professional design developments and technical possibilities. Buildings with curves tend to appear more organic and blending with nature better, hence have been in vogue for over a century or two now. Certain building types like resorts, art galleries, exhibition spaces, roadside cafés and such others, by default, employed curved forms in plan, walls and roofs to make them more appropriate for the intended purpose. But their usage need not be restricted to such cases only.

Arched sunshade

Arched opening is historical, but an arched door top was introduced later. Atop this, an arched sunshade or chajja is a modern idea.

Thought one starts with a curved element from the past, it ends up with an innovative contemporary element, hence becomes meaningful.

Together, they appear attractive, besides representing an eco-friendly approach to design.

Yet, it is a fact that the varied advantages of flowing, dynamic or simple curved forms are not yet fully exploited by us. If we start giving them a due consideration like our past generations did, we would rediscover their potential to be nature sensitive.