Category Archives: fundamentals
Five basic principles must guide all construction activities but we are violating them.
Air, light, rain, heat and humidity are the simple pancha sutras which can ensure that our architecture is in alignment with nature. It sounds so simple that everyone can follow them. However, what is easier to say is often difficult to do.
This truth is more apparent in the construction sector. During historic times, people did not consciously follow these principles, but designs evolved with these five sutras as the pre-condition. In many ways, architecture evolved around these five conditions. Following the technological advances we achieved, we could alter the state of nature in our building interiors, both mechanically and artificially. Architecture lost its alignment with nature.
Air moves everywhere maintaining oxygen for breathing by animals, except in the interiors of luxury hotels built by us. Nature has daylight everywhere supporting bio-diversity, except inside iconic auditoriums designed by architects. Rain ensured the Earth gets washed every year, except in our structures that bar rain. Heat and cold go cyclical balancing themselves, except in building indoors where we switch on energy-guzzling air conditioners. All plant produces depend upon right humidity, except humans who ignore it to let their skins dry up.
It is saddening to see how natural principles continue to be neglected in the majority of buildings. We are trying to ape the west, trying to prove we are as good as they are. We have proven that we are good at copying, not realising what we are copying is not good, but very bad.
Of course, increasingly people are discussing and even trying to apply these principles nowadays. Ecological designs are surely on the rise, though limited to groups of converted people today. Over the decades, there would be more people and projects joining the new movement of designing ecologically sensitive habitats, now dubbed as an elitist action by some conventional practitioners.
An early pioneer, Ken Yeang, popularised eco architecture; a thought leader, Janine Benyus, wrote about biomimicry; building biology is catching up now; bio-philia groups are getting enlarged; parametric looks into forms in nature and learning from nature is getting more attention. These all are recent western trends, but India has its achievements too.
Even a simple spatial sequencing from open to semi-open to semi-enclosed to fully enclosed with indoor courts can connect architecture to nature. Little shift from manufactured materialist style to natural minimalist can have major impacts on architecture. Keeping the windows open for air, learning to live with the available light, designing to let rain into corridors or courts, letting the body adjust to bearable temperatures and enduring humidity at least for health reasons can go a long way in aligning architecture with nature.
Let the natural air flow through our spaces; design for daylight lit up our activities; rain be an enjoyable interior asset; heat contrasting with cold boost our body health and comfort conditions get created by humidity. Let air, light, rain, heat and humidity rule our architecture again.
We can learn a lot from nature which displays a design sense in every object it creates.
A new-born baby is a joyous welcome to any family, eagerly looked forward not only by the parents but by all. However for the baby it must be a strange new world to arrive into, initially with light, sounds and smells. Gradually, the baby observes objects all around her, a world filled with forms created by natural and human actions.
Most of tangible human productions can be seen as objects in 3 dimensions. As such, the making of every building and every city is also an act of making of forms. During the primitive days, humans would have learnt to do so by imitating nature, a stage long forgotten now thanks to the relentless march of our civilization.
However, nature continues with design sense in every object she creates by imbibing principles of ecological life, economical life and performance life. Unfortunately, our life has taken a different path from that of nature. It goes undebated that every object we see in nature has an ecological life, being part of a life cycle. Even though it sounds cruel to read Paul Rosolie who says every animal eats another animal in the jungle, except few like elephants and in turn is eaten up by another animal, we need to realise the fact that all are part of an ecological life. Objects begin and end with nature.
We humans take pride in using the term economy as if nature never knew it, but the economical life invented by nature is nowhere matched by people. There is nothing unwanted or extra in anything we see around us – be in the animated or the unanimated world. The judicious consumption of resources, minimalism of materials and the absence of wastes are much to learn from. We tend to place over-emphasis on the performance life of our products, but even here nature wins over us. Be it fruits and vegetables, foliage and forests, lakes and rocks or the world under sea, everything seems to be performing impeccably.
When nomadic humans settled down, every shelter they built was rooted in the nature around. As they advanced technologically, this connect got diluted. Is it possible to revive this nature-architecture connect? Yes, if only we attempt to apply the design principles of nature in our own creations.
If we realise that the performance of a building is more important than the perceived appearance, we may move closer to nature in building designs.
Let us ask any elderly citizen a simple query about what we learn from nature. With their lifelong wisdom, they may possibly list harmonious living, sense of continuity, resilience to changes, contextual adoption and such others. They may refer to the ecological equilibrium maintained by nature as a unique phenomenon, something we should emulate.
Now let us look at how we humans have been living. Without going into rhetoric, upon simple observations, we know how we live is antithesis to nature. In other words, by observing what we learn from nature we realise, we do not learn from nature.
Architecture today is among the few human activities which is in direct contrast to everything natural. Construction of buildings and destruction of nature are directly connected, with increased construction worldwide contributing to up to one-third of greenhouse emissions, which further on cause ozone hole, global warming and climate change. We have not only moved away from nature, but also have made natural equilibrium lose its balance. Even the word ‘balance’ has lost its meaning in the process.
Most children continue to draw, just like the elders did once, a round circle showing the lifecycle of a butterfly. The line ends where it began, suggesting how everything is connected. In the global sense, we humans are an integral part of such cycles of natural balance, yet we stand apart. We do not claim a life cycle, but a lifestyle.
The problem for nature starts with our lifestyle, which we preserve and enhance as if it’s a precious little gem of human civilization.
In urban India, we have moved from floor-based living to furniture based, from outdoor space uses to indoor enclosures and instead of doing tasks ourselves, we are outsourcing a whole lot of them.
Out of context
Our buildings do not emerge from the context, but from image, imagination, technology and trends. It’s time we realise the image of architecture is less important than the impact it has on nature. The performance of the building is more important than the perceived appearance. Given such theoretical premises, we need to learn how to locate a building in a given locality.
Despite such design approaches much needed today, design has become an anytime- anywhere-anyhow application on architecture and construction. The design by nature, which invariably is contextual and connected, is missing in our human constructions.
The dilemmas of the above kind cannot be resolved fully. The related questions cannot be fully answered, but can only be pondered over.
May be, a sincere pondering over, may lead us to live little closer to nature than what we are now. May be that act of introspection will lead to improve the nature-architecture connect.
There are economical and ecological advantages, besides the aesthetic appeal.
Everyone talks about the need to revive the past wisdom and blend it with modern times. But who is going to bell the cat is the million dollar question, especially if there are business risks involved with it.
Among the time-tested construction materials, building with mud tops the list world over. Increased research has shown greater variety of possibilities with this wonderful material, as the French institute CRATerre has published or the well-documented book titled “Building with Mud” by Gernot Minke suggests. Within India, Indian Institute of Science, Auroville Earth Institute, Mrinmayee, Hunnarshala Foundation and such others have worked on it for many decades, besides scores of architects promoting this material.
Among the new trends catching up is the machine-pressed interlocking stabilised mud block, which became popular in Kerala.
Some of the early pioneers there and in Mysuru imported the machines, but now quality machines are made in Coimbatore. Started as a city-centred initiative, now it is catching up in rural areas, which is worth noting.
The family making Suraksha interlocking mud blocks in a village near Mangaluru actually lived in a mud house for generations.
They happen to demolish it, to get a new house with modern materials. Now, following a curious turn of events, the present younger generation returned to the village after studying in Bengaluru, to make mud blocks and despatch them widely, from Kerala in the south to Gulbarga in the north. Presently, they use mud from the uncultivable parts of their property, which has good clay and sand proportion.
After the first round of cleaning, sizing and sieving, it goes into a batch mixer where about 5% cement and stipulated quantity of plasticiser are added, maintaining the correct moisture level. The thoroughly mixed stabilized mud is poured into the moulds, compressed to half the poured volume to get the final block.
Every block has projected and recessed faces on four sides, which fit into each other, so the wall can be built without any mortar. Depending upon the mould, differently sized blocks are made, to suit specific construction demands.
What is interesting is not that another production unit has started.
The fact that a rural family is making them in an area where traditional buildings used mud is interesting.
Today, even villagers have lost faith in un-stabilised mud walls because they crack and disintegrate in rain, so the challenge also lies in re-educating them about the vastly improved versions.
The ecological advantages of minimising on cement, the financial advantages of faster construction, the life cycle advantages of low maintenance and the visual advantages of aesthetics of earthy construction need to be reached out to the masses.
We need not discard designs with nondescript urban appearance, but only believe that ideas from the past may have validity today.
It’s typical in any metropolitan city, especially Bengaluru, where people meet each other and ask ‘Where are you from?’. Of course both live in the same city, yet majority answer saying they are from some other city or village. Everyone is proud of the place where their life journey began.
Likewise, every design journey too has begun somewhere. With no hesitation, we can place them in some rural context, villages being the early human settlements. Following many centuries of experiments, trial and error, a few construction practices would have survived the test of time, to get passed on to the younger family members. We may call them as rural, local, cultural, vernacular, traditional, routine, folk, desi, indigenous or by any other word; this body of knowledge has been an invaluable design source for generations.
Today vernacular values are either glorified or neglected, with the advent of modernity which claims to be the harbinger of a great future. The last few decades have shown us how humans have changed and climate too, with a bleak future ahead of us. We cannot summarily blame the new age, which has benefited us in many ways, but need to advance with a caution. The traditional systems may be of assistance here, to balance the critical ecological damage we are causing.
Vernacular architecture is a product of its time and context, in a given locality, evolved by the users themselves. There may not be elaborate drawings, design discussions and calculations. The accumulated wisdom of the land ensures there will be familiarity if not novelty and perfection if not innovation. As such, the buildings will be the most appropriate to the climatic conditions, functional demands and aesthetic expectations.
Being rooted in one locality in thought and action, despite exposure of the global, may even be learning from that global is the kind of vernacular approach we need today. To that end, we need to distinguish between local and locally available global materials. After all, without the local, there is no global. Millions of locals have aggregated to create the idea of the global, but what we can see and perceive are around us, in the immediate context.
Gradually, though slowly, people are waking up to the necessity to re-discover our design roots. The cottages at Janapada Loka on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway are a good case in point. Recently completed, the Trust decided to adopt folk aesthetics, natural materials and traditional plan types for their guest cottages. This is not to say we should discard designs with nondescript urban appearance, but only to suggest that ideas from the past may have validity today.
Not many people have deliberated upon the virtues and advantages of local traditions, hence the general negligence of the approach itself.
Vernacular is not necessarily rural, but can be urban too. Jaipur and Madurai are very much urban, yet are vernacular, being products of their place and time.
It is time to re-think the vernacular.
The management of a rural school decided to introduce the ideas of Laurie Baker, both to save on costs and get a new architectural vision.
Let us deeply observe the kind of talk we are engaged with nowadays. Too often it could be revolved around changing values, shifting aspirations and a new age. Of course, they appear to be the need of the hour, the harbinger of a greater future. May be they are, yet it would be wise to check what we are leaving behind and were they worth discontinuing.
The case of Janatha Higher Primary School, Adyanadka, located in the village Kepu in coastal Karnataka can be a case in point. Started by the visionaries of the village in 1922, the school will hit a century soon, one among the few for any rural schools in Karnataka. The time ahead is ideally the time to celebrate, but sadly it appeared different, with the challenge of survival.
Reducing public donations, unviable rural fee structure, lack of government support, rejection of Kannada medium schools and dwindling admissions created a bleak future for the school, none of them of its own doing but caused by our changing times. Gandhiji if alive today, would have lamented the way our villages are being deserted, yet the lure of cities cannot be arrested by merely quoting Gandhiji.
Given this, the management run by local people took a bold step – not to let the school face a slow death, but to revive it by making it on par with urban schools by introducing the English medium, while continuing the Kannada medium to compliment the new. This meant a new building is needed, an opportunity to create a new image.
Visions are fine, if supported by finances. Attempts to seek donations and funds did not go far, with priorities of people with money also having changed. Undeterred, the management decided to introduce the ideas of Laurie Baker, both to save on costs and get a new architectural vision.
The site edging a vertical drop in the levels demanded RCC column frame structure, but it helped in creating large obstruction-free classrooms. Nominal laterite foundations support the non-load bearing walls. The same laterite stone is used for the walls too, which are left un-plastered. A few interior walls were painted with natural brick colour to create the classroom ambience, the rest were finished with simple groove pointing.
The RCC roof was designed using the filler block concept popularised by Baker. To make them free of intermediate beams, thick flat slab design was adopted with 3 layers of cheap, zero quality Mangalore tiles as the filler material. Round clay blocks made up for the verandah pillars with simple cement concrete for the flooring. Interlocking stabilised mud blocks create the few partitions, traditional Mangalore tiles on steel truss covers the first floor, displacement ventilation is ensured by voids below ceiling and windows go up to roof providing ample daylight.
No fancy stuff
No fancy elevation, no false modernism and no pretensions of copying the new urban images.
It is a simple building built the way schools were built in the region for decades, minimalistic in construction with nothing unwanted about it. Yet, a team of educated professionals came together to make it, keeping their career expectations and ego aside, not contributing to an architectural image, but ensuring that an appropriate, practical and contextual school happens.
While fund raising is still being attempted, classes have started in the new school wing with first floor construction on going. The village school is defying dis-continuation as the village is shaping as a small town, hoping to cross a century of service and survival, staying green, cost effective, eco-friendly and retaining its vernacular roots.
It is mostly dumped along the roadside and in empty plots, though large-scale builders are attempting to manage the waste within the site itself.
Every visitor loves to see the neat orderly looks of the house site on the day of grihapravesha , with only the house owner knowing the tension that gripped him or her a few days ago, with construction waste half covering the place. After a few thousands of rupees was spent and a few tractor loads of debris was sent out, the house is clean and shining.
Every construction site in the city, from homes to hospitals, sends out debris, commonly called as construction waste. Does anyone think about where is this ‘outside’ – the magical land where the debris gets hidden? Sadly, the outside is often in the city itself, too often along the road sides and empty plots, showcasing the dirtier part of construction.
Even green buildings are not an exception to this phenomenon, though waste generation is one of the criteria in scoring the green points. Many large-scale builders are aware of the problem and are attempting to manage the waste within the site itself.
The Bangalore city corporation estimates that a typical construction site would generate anywhere between 40 to 60 kg. of waste and has made regulations identifying few landfill sites, mostly in neighbouring erstwhile villages. Legally, proper debris clearance is binding on the owners and occupants. The Karnataka Pollution Control Board has formulated guidelines for waste segregation and management, for mandatory follow-up. All cities across India have enacted similar
legal documents, though smaller towns have no policy at all for waste management.
Yet the problem continues with C & D (Construction and Demolition) waste with increasing magnitude, as our cities are building at a rate never seen before. The landfills identified by the authorities are far and few, which increase the cost of carting away. So, the tractor drivers dump the debris on some vacant area at midnight, which is known but goes unabated. Though these debris clearance contractors are small-time players, today their contacts can be collected from web sites.
Reusing is the key
The first step to greener sense is definitely to minimise waste by salvaging and reusing. Much of bricks, stone, cement blocks, broken concrete, aggregates and earthy materials can be reused within the project itself. Many others like glass, plastics, steel, and wood, can be additives in manufacturing. Broken glazed and flooring tiles can be laid in mosaic pattern.
Electrical and plumbing items can be bought to exact needs. Most containers and packaging can be used by people as storage options. As such, very few materials may have to reach landfills. Of course, all this is easier said than done, because very few people wish to segregate waste and reach each item to its logical end.
Green sense lies not only in building sensibly, but also in building responsibly. We will have to ensure that debris is never dumped on the roadside.
The overall design of a bamboo structure is not complex, we only need to shed ourpre-conceived notion.
When we see a great work of architecture, it is worthwhile to wonder how such unique construction, style and the building method itself evolved. Typically, we attribute it all to the new generation of qualified engineers, builders and architects. In contrast to these, we also see how the traditional knowledge transmits from generation to generation, possibly improvising the idea each time.
The new visitor facility along the sea beach of Puri town in Orissa is a case in point. A Nagaland-style structure is being built there by Naga craftsmen, with Naga bamboo. The super-structure recently got completed, showcasing how it is built, an ideal time to understand building with bamboo.
Critical thought has been given to the foundation, made in concrete to withstand beach conditions with the bamboo culms embedded into the well ring mass concrete. This also gives the necessary rigidity at the foundation level to reduce the swaying of the structure in wind.
Bamboo is used for all columns, beams, floor joints, diagonal ties, bracket supports and lintels. If single units suffice for a support or beam its fine, but the hall being large single bamboos lack the required strength and load carrying capacity. So, all structural elements are in composites, i.e. multiple bamboos tied together without touching each other, but with one bamboo space in between. Small bamboo pieces are used as spacers.
Cross members are inserted into the gap between bamboos such that column and beam start to act like a single load bearing entity. Diagonal ties are very important in bamboo buildings, which help in creating equilibrium between the horizontal and vertical members, also avoiding sideward swing. Wooden members can be joined at the same alignment, but bamboos cannot. They need to overlap each other and tied together.
Multiple bamboos in one joint is a visual delight, but care should be taken to maintain the alignments, besides proper load carrying junction between any two. Since the location of members shift, so too can the centre lines of plan grid itself. To avoid it, columns are maintained in the same position, with beam members slightly to the left or right of the column bamboos.
Traditionally, thinly split bamboo peels, reeds, jute and such others were used to tie the members, but nowadays long nuts and bolts are becoming common. These bolts need to be cut and threaded to the required length, with rust proof coatings. While drilling the hole for the bolt, bamboo should not get split. It is observed that nut and bolt system may go loose in case of vibration due to heavy footfall, widened hole size or bamboo with more sap content than prescribed. Incidentally, Naga bamboo with thicker outer shell is less vulnerable to this problem.
The overall design of a bamboo structure is not as difficult as people talk about, but are very basic in nature. We only need to shed our pre-conceived notions about bamboo.
In efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, the common man too plays a huge role.
What is the major shift in the market produces that we can buy today compared to a decade ago?
When we buy LED bulbs, energy star-marked electrical fittings, packaging that suggests it be recycled or pick up paints with low VOC (volatile organic compounds), we may not bother to think what made them available today. The story behind them is the growing awareness and global action about environment.
In the new millennium, there have been a plethora of research, reports and meetings across the world, both at global and local levels. Even small towns and colleges in India today host discussions on the environmental crisis, with the participants releasing press statements. All these have been made possible, indirectly, by the deluge of information and the annual gathering of world leaders happening since then.
It all started in 1995 at Berlin when the first UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCC) was held, being held annually since then. Popularly named as COP (Conference of Parties, nations who are a party to the protocols), the last one held in 2016 at Marrakesh was the 22nd in line.
These meetings are attended by heads of nations or the seniormost officials dealing with climate change issues to discuss progress in reduction in greenhouse gases by the rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol. This protocol was among the major international resolutions until then, adopted in 1997 by 192 nations as the signatory parties placing common but differentiated responsibilities on each nation to fight global warming – mainly placing obligations on developed nations since they are more responsible than others in causing higher levels of greenhouse gases.
COP 17 held at Durban, South Africa, marked another milestone in binding all nations to limit carbon emissions by 2015 and create a Green Climate Fund of $100 billion per year to distribute to poor nations. Accordingly, each nation committed to specific reductions in emissions, which were ratified by the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 by 195 UNFCCC members, which sets 2020 as the year to start major contributions towards adaptation, mitigation and financing. Each signatory develops programmes, action plans, funds and executes to control global warming.
COP has become an annual ritual at exotic places, sometimes failing like at The Hague (2000) or often producing no major results like at Nairobi (2006) or Warsaw (2013). We can take pride in the COP New Delhi (2002), though it too was not a big success. In between, some of them like those held at Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) or Doha (2012) arrive at far reaching conclusions, keeping the hopes alive.
However recently, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that his country is quitting the Paris Agreement, to shock the world which has been struggling to arrive at consensus towards climate action. It reminded one of the days when the then U.S. President George Bush had rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.
We need to realise that leaders and Presidents matter in mitigating climate change, but people like us matter even more.
Interactions among nations for preserving the environment have been going on for quite some time. Concrete action is awaited.
Many of us reading this essay might have stayed past the midnight of December 31, 1999, to sing, dance and welcome the new millennium, waking up to January 1, 2000. We all considered us to be among the lucky few witnesses to the march of civilisation, occurring once in a thousand years.
Now what if we ask, will there be humans to dance on December 31, 2999, and welcome January 1, 3000? It is not a complex question, but a frightening question considering the devastating march of humans on the Earth. May be this rapidly increasing fear is what is catapulting us to greater ideas and actions since 1999.
In the year 2000, 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were set out by the United Nations to be accomplished by 2015, ratified by the largest ever congregation of world leaders in human history.
Though it focused more on societal than environmental issues, it suggested that the humankind could come together, as was later proved by the World Summit of 2005.
A little before it, in 2002, the Earth Summit at Johannesburg placed sustainable development as an overarching concern, further emphasised upon at the Earth Summit of 2012, also called as Rio+20. Here, 192 nation heads, chief executives of private sector companies and innumerable NGOs converged for 10 days to work out the modalities of sustainable development. The major issue that emerged was about reconciling economic and environmental issues, which most often are at loggerheads.
Among the results of these initiatives, an important one is Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with 169 targets. These extended the MDGs beyond 2015 and expanded the inter-governmental agreements.
With the word ‘sustainability’ appearing 13 times in this list, besides climate change, equitable quality, inclusiveness, consumption, production patterns, energy, inequality among nations, global partnership, economic growth and such others, the SDGs must be the most ambitious set of visions ever envisioned by humankind.
The multiple meetings being held from 1972 onwards have reduced as decades advanced and the UN summits paved the path for global leaders to be on the same platform.
The new millennium also saw scores of research, books and seminars, converting the sceptics into believers of climate change.
Today we do not have frequent global events, but the interactions after 2000 have led to agreements by all to restore ecological balance, mainly during the Conference of Parties (CoP), which started in 1997 and has been held every year without fail. Together with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reports, our environmental awareness has advanced far and deep.
How many of these goals have been achieved or are they really achievable at all, should not be the debate today, for the very coming together of nations on a single stage, nations that have been warring a few decades ago, itself is a human achievement.
Now the challenge is to convert this achievement into action and let awareness lead to execution of ideas.