Category Archives: designs

The approach is crucial in construction

GREENBUILDING

Every region in India can evolve a local, contextual and hence ecological architecture, while being contemporary as well.

In aspiring for ecological architecture, too often, we are lost attempting a paradigm shift in our actions, which cannot be achieved unless we adopt the right methods. Methods themselves are determined by the approach, which needless to say, have not changed much during the last 40 years of ecological awareness. It will be worthwhile to re-focus on a few approaches, without which we cannot make headway in green sense.

Image of the building is less important than its impact on the environment:Visual images have occupied centre stage nowadays, be it in websites, fashion shows, TV news channels or in shopping malls. Architecture cannot singularly escape the trend of the time, so most designs are sold with perspective views, rendered images and unbelievably ‘true to life’ computer-generated walk-throughs. Apartments are launched and institutions are inaugurated with media attention. Amidst all this, how often do we hear about the overall environmental impact of the new construction? Very rarely, may be. Stakeholders of every project need to think of ecology before the elevation.

Contextual designs can also be contemporary expressions: The buzz word sweeping across urban India today is ‘contemporary architecture’, a design approach that originated abroad, especially Europe.

Theoretically, ‘contemporary’ should have meant a design belonging to the present time and place, though majority of these structures in India are disconnected from both, primarily following a pre-established western style.

This is not to demean the imagination and creativity behind the contemporary architecture, but to suggest that a contextual design can also belong to our time and place. If designers can take up such a challenge, every region in India can evolve a local, contextual and hence an ecological architecture, while being contemporary as well.

Difficulty of execution should not be the reason to reject an eco-idea: In a fast-paced lifestyle where time has come to mean money, owners and promoters tend to choose designs which are easy to build.

Accordingly, technology-based approaches using manufactured materials get a priority over labour-intensive methods with natural materials. The fine finish with clean lines and shining surfaces appear more enticing than the rustic and handmade. In this process, we not only neglect the carbon footprint of the building, but also the possible construction variety and design range. The ease and speed of doing is becoming both uniform and universal, diluting climate as a determinant of design.

Designing by intuition is as important as designing by calculations:Construction right from early civilisation up to medieval times was deeply rooted in common sense and contextual possibilities. Industrial revolution followed by varied technological and manufacturing capabilities opened up new avenues, formalising the activity into a profession. Naturally procedures, codes of practice, rules, regulations and all the rest followed. The ecological concerns which led to the new direction of sustainable architecture and the green building movement have gone a step ahead with innumerable standards, ratings and calculations. It is ironic that mind is no more the maker of buildings, but systems are. Ecological architecture demands passion as much as profession, intuition as much as calculation

This essay is the 350th in the Green Sense and Eco-Build series, a weekly column that began in May, 2010. With 8 years completed, stepping onto the 9th year, the present and next few essays would try capturing some simple theories that could convert any building into an essentially ecological project.

Advertisements

THE ANYWHERE COB WALL

What was the original material of Bangalore fort? Not all can respond to this quizzical question, but the answer is mud.

Cob Walls by Thannal, ThiruvannamalaiThe local chieftain Kempegowda moved his capital from Yelahanka to Bangalore in 1537, with a fort surrounding the market area called Pete. As was normal in those days, it was built with mud, possibly a thick solid wall. Increased threats by enemies made Chikkadeva Raya Wodeyar enlarge and strength it around 1700, still power moved to the hands of Maratha ruler Shahaji. When Hyder Ali claimed the territories around Bangalore, he got the mud fort replaced by stones in 1761, considering the changing technology of warfare.

This fascinating piece of history is also a part of history of mud. Mud walls have much to tell about how we lived in the past, for they sheltered the history of human civilizations. Incidentally, mud walls have a future too, in these days of climate change and ecological challenges.

Most of traditional mud walls were not built with sized bricks, but lumps of clay mixed with straw and lime, what we have today termed as cob construction – simply piling up lumps of local clay. Thick walls were the first human impulses towards shelter making to gain strength by thickness, stability by wider base, durability by multiple surface layers and passive cooling by thermal mass.

Though the walls are thick, they breathe being porous, hence can control indoor environment. The thickness also helps as moisture barrier, hence average indoor humidity can be maintained. Of course, we need to protect the base of the wall where rain water can splash back and protect the top of the wall with good overhangs, otherwise they tend to erode as can be seen in many village homes built carelessly. Lack of proper cleaning of clay may also lead to plant growth on wall from the roots left in the mud mix or if raw fertile soil is used, it may result sprouting of seeds settled on the wall during rains. Either of them is not a technology problem, but an operational one.

The wider and more compact the wall is, the greater load it can take. This system is called load bearing by compression, a cheaper and long lasting method.  Contrastingly, the RCC framed construction transfers load by tension members, which is costlier and has lesser life span.

The roof weight normally go vertically down, called axial loads, which can be well handled by cob. In case of sloping roofs and other lateral loads, proper wall plate beams are required. Many rural structures were not aware of this, where we can notice cracking of wall tops due to lateral loads. Of course, many of them were made thicker at the lower levels, to partially counter the lateral forces and also be able to transfer larger loads. People have also tried stone wall at the base, which actually works very well, often finished with mud plastering to blend with the wall.

In many ways, a cob house is like an anthill. Termites dig out small balls of earth and build atop, with porosity. It may appear primitive, but the way it is being done now scientifically with studied inputs makes it the most green.

COOLING THE TERRACE

Try to shade the surface with wooden pallets, which is a frame of wood planks with gaps in between.

06bgp-greensensGN01MOLE03jpgjpg.jpegFor reasons more than one, the summer season in India is a popular topic of discussion. It is possibly comparable to the British often talking about their rains.

Imagine the book titled ‘Indian Summer- Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi’ which has little to do with climatic data on India, being the story of how New Delhi was planned and made, written by Robert Grant Irving. Another book by the same title ‘Indian Summer’ is on ‘The Secret History of the End of an Empire’ written by Alex von Tunzelmann, even more remotely connected to the idea of a season. Even the film ‘Heat and Dust’ directed by James Ivory attempts to refer to our summer, even if it is metaphorical. Summer is the talk of town.

Nowadays, Indian summer is in the headlines for the more direct climatic reasons – every year new records are being set for the highest temperature of the decade or so. How we the people and our consumptive patterns are among the creators of this record is rarely discussed, but the soaring temperatures are always debated intensely. As a fall out, sale of air conditioners is also soaring, paradoxically pushing the outdoor temperatures further up.

It appears like temperatures have crossed the limits of passive cooling and we have given up hopes on simple measures. Partly yes, but in many cities like Bengaluru which witness the extremes only for few weeks in an year, there is no real need to switch over to air conditioners. Shading the roof during the high summer can reduce indoor temperature to bearable levels, if not as low as AC can achieve.

Terrace gets direct solar incidence, hence has high solar heat gain, which is transferred to inside surface by conduction. Imagine we try to shade the surface with wooden pallets, which is a frame of wood planks with gaps in between, used in packaging especially across ships and such others. Google search can show up many images. Once unpacked, these are discarded for sale in the seconds market.

No heat transfer

Placed on the terrace, they let in direct light between the gaps for a short time span, which does not let the surface gain much heat. Of course, the air under pellet gets heated up but hot air moves out letting in cooler air from outside the pellet, so very little heat would transfer through convection.

These pellets, often made abroad with pine and such types of timber, can withstand sun and rain for a long period, if treated well. The gaps between them can be maintained fairly narrow; as such anyone can walk over them without any discomfort. In case of any unexpected summer showers, the rain water drains out without any hindrance. Once the scorching summer is over, the pellets can be safely stored for reuse the next season.

The theory behind this idea is rooted in a big sounding term ‘ventilated cavity roof’, but can be achieved in a small budget.

LAURIE BAKER, Buildings and Beyond

The master architect was convinced that designs are for people and had to suit the local climate.A tribute during his birth centenary year.

29bgp-laurie-baGRG1LL3803jpgjpgThis Green Sense weekly column started exactly 7 years ago, acknowledging Laurie Baker as one of the influences on this writer. It is an occasion today to remember this master architect on his birth centenary year, a person who instilled a sense of cost, culture and climate in the local architecture he advocated. Decades after he stopped designing, many architects continue to design the way he did; but many more vouch how he continues to inspire them to explore alternatives to the predictable and questionable mainstream approaches.

What matters today is not his mere biography, but his beliefs which he professed and practised with no compromise. Even for the rich, he advocated cost effectiveness; he was convinced that designs are for people and his designs had to above all suit the local climate.

During the post-independence era, especially the decades of 1970 to 1990, many modern masters of Indian architecture emerged. Most of them either studied abroad or were influenced by the profession of architecture as practised in the west. In total contrast, Baker stepped out of the mainstream to design for India and in India, though his own origins were from the west. With no desire to chase prestigious projects and awards, he designed for people – nearly 3,500 houses in a lifespan of 50 years which appears almost unbelievable.

The ‘Gandhi of Architecture’ was actually influenced by Gandhiji, and looked upon social causes as his professional achievements. Even his public buildings stand as a testimony to his philosophy of minimalism in materials; low on cost; eco-friendly in performance; judicious in structures; and efficient in functional spaces. If we look back in today’s times of sustainability talks, climate crisis and environmental degradation, Baker appears to have been far ahead of his times.

‘Uncommon Sense’

Incidentally, Vineet Radhakrishnan has looked back at Baker, making a biographical full-length film about his life and works titled “Uncommon Sense”. In the making for a few years, it got released for public viewing only some months ago, yet has received critical acclaim, including being listed in Archdaily’s list of must-see films. The fact that Vineet is Baker’s grandson adds a different dimension to the film, besides it being a documentary on Baker’s architecture.

The film looks at many of his projects, but more importantly captures the man in his thoughts and words, which gives it an academic flavour. Architects and many non-architects who knew him well speak about Baker, proving how he did not restrict himself to his buildings, but provoked thoughts in whoever he met.

Still relevant

Why does Laurie Baker continue to be relevant today? Architectural critics know that design elements die, styles change, new materials emerge, and technology evolves. So, the physical does not last long. The philosophies last longer, but they face the danger of dilution once the founder of the philosophy goes.

Laurie Baker continues to be relevant, beyond the physical and the philosophical. Once Shiv Vishwanathan termed U.R. Ananthamurthy as a phenomenon and if one were to borrow that term, Laurie Baker is a phenomenon.

In harmony with nature

In a corrective action against mindless material consumption, a group of individuals have formed a community where urban presures are resisted and eco-friendly materials are used. 

01bgp-greensensGRO1H2PVN3jpgjpgImagine we are caught up in a traffic jam, with time running out for a scheduled meeting. The first thing most of us would do is to criticise everything and everyone around us, with the choicest of words.

A little thinking would tell us that we too are the reason for the jam, for our vehicle is adding one more number to the vehicle count around. After all, lesser the vehicles lesser the jam and finally as stranded vehicles are reduced, the traffic hold up would also get dissolved. So, we are part of the problem, hence theoretically, we can also be part of the solution. But in reality, can we solve the traffic jam if we are caught up in it?

There are many such contexts where everyone of us makes up the problem, but no one of us alone can solve it. The climate crisis we are going through belongs to such a category of problem where no individual can resolve it however aware or powerful the person may be. This is not to negate the possibility of an eco-friendly lifestyle at individual level and the impact it may have on global level if everyone were to live so. The question is, will the peer pressures, societal compulsions and the imperatives of living today permit all of us the courage towards living such an eco-friendly lifestyle?

The corrective action towards our consumptive patterns will have to begin with the individual, but we equally well need to graduate from the individual to the collective and from the personal to public. To that end, we need to shed our subjective opinions, differences in ideas and selfish objectives to come together.

A success story

The Marudam community evolving in Kananthampoondi village on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai can be cited as a successful case in point. Comparatively it is a young group, started as recently as 8 years ago, with Govinda doing afforestation; Arun, Poornima, Lila and others with farm school; architect Ajay Nityananda designing the much acclaimed school building and few of the houses; Maitreyi starting Wild Ideas for chemical-free products and few others with more initiatives.

Such group efforts do not start claiming to reverse climate change, but simply aim at living harmoniously with nature, practise organic farming, minimise needs, resist the urban pressures and create a culture of being sensitive to our contexts.

Active engagement

The active engagement of about two dozens of people informs and impacts hundreds of people living in the vicinity, making a difference to them all. The Marudam Farm School, where education goes beyond the curriculum, would result in ripple effects for the visible outreach activities.

In any case, to be effective, such groups cannot be large where the group dynamics would create fissures between the participants. Many small communities can together achieve more than what a single large one can, but our modern age appears to worship the large, a paradox that we need to think about.

Mix and match in designing

Natural materials can empower the designer to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception.

25bgp-greensensGJE1FSO083jpgjpg

It is not unusual to come across designers and architects who are not supportive of working with natural materials. Of course they vouch by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, are aware that natural materials have lower embodied energy, yet prefer manufactured materials.

This unsustainable approach comes not from an ignorance of the environmental crisis we are presently facing, but from a belief that natural materials do not offer adequate design variations. Quantitatively speaking, this position can be accepted since number of natural materials are less than produced ones. However, the opinion that design potentials reduce is a matter of debate, considering the diversity of traditional architecture we have across the world, which continue to be a greater source for ideas and larger tourist attraction than anything of modernity. Local architecture with natural materials continues to score over any modern idea in terms of perfection, performance and even permanence.

Once recent example is the architectural installation at Kochi Biennale, designed by architect Tony Joseph, from Calicut.

It is both an artistic expression as well as an auditorium for daily events. Built largely with natural materials such as mud, arecanut, jute and coloured fabric, it also juxtaposes with steel trusses with sheets as wall panel and roof.

The structure proves how well it engages with its general location within Fort Kochi and specifically with the briefing from the now famous Kochi Biennale 2016.

Natural materials can empower the designer to engage with regional contexts, thereby be able to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception. The auditorium employs the age-old technique of creating stepped seats using arecanut poles which is enclosed in the hall by textured and patterned rammed earth walls. Steel structure raises from within this enclosing wall to take the metal roof, the internal ceiling concealed by coloured fabrics hung with lighting from behind in varied hues.

As one among the more talked about built installations at the Biennale, this pavilion uses very few natural materials, yet creates a balanced hybridity not commonly seen around. The wall with mud, wood and sheet in a sequence has a more appealing narrative than a mere plastered wall. The steel and arecanut poles as supports for the roof and the gallery respectively, contrast curiously with each other. Internally, the fine texture of the roof fabric hangs just above the rough texture of the wall.

Given all this, why are the natural materials losing out against manufactured materials? It may not be only because modern materials have greater potential in some respects, but also because we are forgetting certain design fundamentals which would enable us to mix and match the local material to create excellence. Design has to do more with designing than a blind application of a technology or a material.

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 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.

Some respite for the environment?

Demonetisation has hit many sectors hard, including construction, but there are some positives too.

31bgpgreensenseg9u12731p-3-jpgEveryone is talking money – demonetisation, political agenda, cash crunch, hoarding new currency, impacts on daily life, IT raids, eradicating black money and hoping for a white future. Rich and poor people alike are finding the daily needs hard to come by with little money in hand, irrespective of how much they have in bank balance or in old currency. We all know there is less money in market; hence business is not as usual.

While so much has been spoken and written about the impact of demonetisation on varied facets of life, hardly anyone has touched upon its impact on ecology and resources. It is strange but true that cash crunch is beneficial to nature.

On a few fronts, the present cash crunch is comparable to the economic recession of the recent past, faced mainly in the west, with some implications for India too. People faced reducing income, challenge of loan repayments, increased unsold inventories, money getting blocked and financial uncertainties looming large. Between all the social tension it created, one of the benefits was reduced consumption, hence earth resources saved, energy used efficiently and wastage reduced.

On a similar note, the recent demonetisation in the country has impacted larger issues of ecology positively. With no ready cash to spend, people have been buying and spending less, of course impacting on everything from tourism to rituals. Incidentally, lesser business does not necessarily mean shops and restaurants are facing losses. They earn less, in turn spend less hoping to extend the new currency they got for as long as they can.

Of course, many people living on daily wages are suffering, for they are already living on minimum daily income and cannot manage with further reduced cash inflow.

Money and materialistic lifestyle are directly proportional, where our lifestyle demands that we earn more money. In turn, income meets the expenditure, increasing production. People earning well may appear to have larger sums with them compared to the rest with lower incomes, but their monthly savings in percentage figure could be often comparable.

This suggests that higher income group spends more, while those with lower income spend less, each spending proportional to their income categories.

A paradox

As such, it is a paradox where money and market fuel each other, which together increase the consumption patterns.

We know that increased consumption is good for economy, but ecologically it is disastrous, irrespective of whether the consumption is for our present needs, future savings or mere personal greed. The rich may have the financial affordability to spend, but our fragile Earth cannot afford to take anymore of our wasteful life.

So, if the present crisis due to demonetisation has reduced our shopping, travelling, holidaying, partying, conferencing, manufacturing, in general spending, it has reduced the consumption of resources.

It could be temporary, until the money flow restores again; yet it is beneficial to nature. Can we ensure this benefit lasts long enough to save the climate?