Category Archives: fundamentals

When Nature warns building sector

Cyclone Fani devastated infrastructure because we ignored sustainable designing and healthy construction practices. 

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How many of us have consumed less food after seeing images of starving children? How many of us have used less water after seeing images of famine-stricken Karnataka villagers? Hardly any, or may be a minuscule few.

Given that, how many of us will live consuming less of Earth’s resources so there will be lesser greenhouse gas emissions, after reading about the cyclone in Odisha? Possibly a handful. The drought conditions in one State and cyclone with windy rain in another State – yesterday it was in Kerala, Coorg, Chennai or Odisha and tomorrow it could be in Bengaluru.

These are not freak accidental weather behaviours, but a manifestation of major climate changes emerging across the globe due to increased fossil fuel burning demanded by the millions of products that we are producing. Both the shop sales and e-commerce boast of lakhs of products to be brought, yet the human demand for more products is going unsatisfied. Are these connected to cyclone Fani? Yes. Bhubaneswar was ravaged in 1999, and remarkably recovered. But global warming has relentlessly increased, causing more cyclones worldwide, this time targeting the Odisha coast again. The fact that we lost very less lives is laudable, but how often can we keep preparing for cyclones? What about the livestock, green foliage, power lines, roadways and infrastructure lost forever?

Videos showing buses overturning, small structures coming apart, trees being uprooted prove that nature is more powerful than us. If we wish to claim control over her, please no way. The alarming matter is cyclones are becoming less predictable, as the recent issue of ‘Down to Earth’ reports about the catastrophe at length. It is a paradox that Bhubaneswar is hard hit, the city designed by Otto Koenigsberger who wrote the book ‘Manual of Tropical Housing for India’ – an early text book on climatology not only in India, but also in the world. Unfortunately, we cannot blame either of them.

What is the connection between sustainable designs and cyclones? Across the world, nature is unleashing revengeful punishments against humans in multiple forms and locations. Cyclone is not an event of today but an accumulated implication of our last few centuries of agriculture and urbanisation, hence a warning signal for the future.

Could we have designed and built such that our buildings will have less of manufactured materials, hence lower embodied energy, which means less carbon emissions with reduced greenhouse gases that do not lead to ozone layer depletion, hence cause less global warming?

Resilience to risks and adoption to climate change are the mantras today, instead of eliminating the risks and stopping the change. At this rate, it will be too late.

Can stakeholders of the construction industry – promoters, owners, builders, material manufacturers, designers, managers, marketers, offer such solutions that may minimise damage from possible future cyclones?

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Build sensibly or perish

If we ignore valuable advice given by architects of yore and construct buildings against the laws of nature, we are doomed.

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Victor Olgyay is the name few hundreds would have heard of in India and few thousands in the whole world today. Nearly 60 years ago, he started working on his book ‘Design with Climate” which got published in 1963. If he could advise us how do design sensitively and comfortably so long ago, why do we continue to ignore his wisdom? Some of the research topics he wrote about were arrived at much before him too.

Many forewarning kinds of books appeared shortly thereafter. ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson published in 1969 was path-breaking research on how chemicals are negatively impacting nature, mainly focusing on those which were used in agriculture, pest control and related issues. The organic movement now spreading wide has made people aware of all these.

Another early text, ‘Man Climate and Architecture’ by Baruch Givoni, got published in 1969, making the 1960s a decade of awareness building. However, after 50 years, the use of construction chemicals both in numbers and quantity is growing at an alarming upward curve.

India should be proud of the fact that it is among the first in the world to have had its own book on designing eco-friendly architecture, albeit written by a German. ‘Manual of Tropical Housing’ by Koenigsberger and others was published in 1973, and for more than 45 years we have an early manual for reference.

We have our own manual on climatology, but how much of it do we follow except as a textbook in colleges? How many students who study it for examinations forget it soon after and design architecture against climate? Why and who influences our construction industry decisions?

‘Design with Climate’ by Victor refers not only to all the basics of climate in general but applies that knowledge to design and construction. It contains topics such as an adaptation of shelter to climate; effects of climate on man; solar controls; bioclimatic charts; regional characters; microclimatic effects; basic forms of houses; morphology of town structures; thermal effects of materials; designs for different climatic zones and such others. Even though the book focuses on the U.S., the theory is applicable universally.

As such, more commonly needed data on wind, airflow patterns, heat, solar glare, sky factors, Sun path diagrams, shading devices, light intensities, passive cooling methods, lessons from traditional architecture, implications of massing and such others are all there. It is amazing to see how Victor attempted to cover a wide variety of topics with actual calculations using the early instrumentation available, which is so close to the more realistic ones available today with all software.

In many ways, its subtitle, ‘Bioclimatic approach to regionalism’ was the original contribution of Olgyay. This thought process, directly or indirectly, later led to many terminologies such as Bio-mimicry, Biomorphism, Biophilia, critical regionalism, eco-friendly ideas, local architecture, sustainable designs, green buildings and so on, and we can read shades of bioclimatic approaches in many other related theories like New Urbanism or even in Zero Carbon Cities.

It is easy to say Victor was ahead of his times to thank him, but it is a pity that we pay no attention to his research and advice even now, continuing to design against climate. It is time to realise climate change has already gone beyond our control and merely trying to design with climate will not stop the juggernaut. We have hurt, angered and irritated climate so much that now she is retaliating by warming up and speeding up in the form of cyclones, hurricanes and tsunamis.

Listening to Victor Olgyay and many others could have saved the east coast of India, mainly Bhubaneshwar and Puri, from being devastated by cyclone ‘Fani’. Are we able to see the connection between designing with climate and cyclones like ‘Fani’? If we are not, we as the human race are doomed.

Climate crisis, and the culprits

Degeneration of the atmosphere is mainly because of modern mechanical devices which have become part of our daily living. 

09bgp-greenPPGMD5D2QLK3jpgjpg.jpegAs schoolchildren, we started reading alphabets not as mere graphical forms, but as the starting letter of a larger word. So A for Apple, B for Ball, C for Cat, D for Dog and so on it goes. Imagine, if we were to start the same again to check what impacts ecology the most, it could be a bad start.

A can be for Atmosphere, but soon we may follow it with A for Agriculture, Accommodation and Administration, all of which in the ancient times effected ecology where human actions altered the landscape to cultivate; consumed resources to construct; and created systems to govern society with capital and operational expenditures.

In modern times, A can stand for Advanced Lifestyle, but equally well for Automobile, Air travel and Air conditioners. Incidentally, these three are strongly advocated by modernity to become the aspirations of every low and middle-income family, who constitute approximately 75 to 80% of the Indian population.

These three are also among the major human actions adversely affecting nature and leading to the climate crisis. For common people, they may not appear to do so directly, but are the indirect causes due to their production, operation, energy consumption and finally waste generation upon discarding. Even the climate subject experts do not go to the depths of varied components of lifestyle, their attributes and implications on atmosphere, but gloss over them broadly saying human actions are causing the climate crisis. Then, of course, there are many people who do not fully agree with this position too.

Take automobiles, for example. Though the first car was patented in 1886, the next 20 years would not have seen more than 200 cars on the road. There was increased production, but between the World Wars, more car companies were closed than founded. The handful few from Europe, U.S. and Japan survived into the 1940s when the real mass production of cars flourished.

As such, it is less than 75 years now that people are driving cars and less than 50 years with the worldwide spread. Most poor regions have very few cars, while more than 90% of Indians still own no vehicle at all. Yet, the havoc the automobile industry has caused to millions of years of fragile nature is frightening. Hundreds of pages of data pour in today, yet none of which has reduced either car production or car sales.

Immeasurable damage

In the U.S. alone, 75% of carbon monoxide and 25% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by cars, besides many other toxic gases including ground-level ozone. Nearly three-fourths of all of U.S. gas consumption goes for cars. The resources consumed and waste generated in their production, sales, operation and finally scrapping or dumping is virtually immeasurable.

Given this, how do we analyse the impacts of our everyday living? How do we take ownership of our actions to realise we are digging our own graves? Do we need more advanced research on global issues or simple search into our personal matters?

A rammed wall with coloured earth

Faster construction, perks of low maintenance and aesthetics are the positives.

19bgp-greenppgnIs building with mud an outdated technology? Is it no more practical to do so, considering that a large number of manufactured and marketed materials have flooded our times, claiming better performance and perfection, besides variety?

This is a myth of sorts, which can be felt if we study the properties of mud, its durability and the range of aesthetic expression mud architecture achieves between different regions. With cob, adobe, soil cement block, interlocking mud blocks, rammed earth walls, pigmented walls and such others, the soil of the same place too can have multiple appearances.

Strangely, there are people who believe that natural materials like mud will have a supply problem, while factory produces like cement can be supplied forever. All manufactured materials require raw materials from some sources, mostly taken from nature itself, so they too have their limitations.

Architects, engineers and builders have built a wide range of elements using mud. To list a few, rammed earth foundation, stabilised soil cement block walls, different kinds of arches, corbelled projections, walls with inter locking mud blocks, vaults without shuttering, flat arch lintels, patterned and differently moulded blocks for parapets or compound walls, perforated walls in jaali, masonry domes without shuttering, mud block filler slab roofs, load-bearing pillars, rammed earth floor finishes, solid cob benches and fixed furniture, facia finishes, surface washes and such others have already proven themselves as doable and durable.

Should we believe that continuous innovation and constant change are the only paths towards a better future? Not really, with the carbon footprint of construction industry ever increasing. Fortunately many people today talk about the need to revive the past wisdom and blend it with modern times. But how many are willing to change the course towards natural materials is the million dollar question, especially if there are business risks associated with real estate and construction investments.

One mode of achieving it can be by value addition to the traditional mud construction. Patterned rammed earth walls have proven to be a pointer here, with increasing popularity. The mud composition needs to be the same as for other mud walls with around 15% of clay and silt each, the rest being sandy soil, but mud of different colours needs to be procured to achieve the layering of the earth. Such ideas not only let the skill-sets of the mason continue but also make them feel proud of their accomplishments.

The challenge is facing each one of us. 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.

In promoting mud architecture, each one associated with the construction sector, from the mason to the media, can play a role.

Building walls with earth

With scientifically improvised technology, mud buildings can be made to last for centuries, contrary to common belief.

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It is a curious phenomenon – we all live in a planet called Earth, walk upon it, build shelters with it, and eat from it, yet we are on our way to destroy it As such, re-connecting with the Earth appears to be among the major solutions to the climate crisis. Given this, in the construction sector, we need to return to Earth, in all its terms and versions like soil, mud, terracotta, clay, silt, gravel, sand or stone.

Let us ask ourselves a simple multiple-choice question. Among all existing structures in the world, what could be the most commonly found wall material? Choice of answers – stone, mud, burnt bricks, wood. Anyone with common sense may answer it as ‘it could be mud’. Besides being the most common and most historic, mud walls have much to tell about how we lived in the past, for they sheltered the history of human civilisations. Incidentally, mud walls have a future too, in these days of climate change and ecological challenges.

The construction industry today is being blamed for one-third of GHG (Green House Gas) emissions, hence is at a crossroads. To mitigate this crisis, there is an urgent need to minimise manufactured materials and promote natural materials. The least we can do is to attempt a synthesis of traditional construction systems and modern creativity.

This is where mud architecture comes in handy. The methods of improvising traditional systems have re-validated the use of mud, to claim a pole position towards sustainable architecture.

No modern material replacing mud is yet to equal all the qualities of mud walls. It has the lowest cost in most regions; lowest embodied energy; highest insulation from heat gain; option of using mud plastering; a possibility of coating wide range of natural colours; option for bamboo or steel reinforcement; and can be used for all parts of the buildings right from foundation to roof. With scientifically improvised technology today, mud buildings can be made to last for centuries. Unfortunately, too many myths have been spread about mud, including it cracks, taking time to build, difficult to repair, monotonous and such others, as if modern construction methods are devoid of all these. This myth has come to stay, despite the fact that the way traditional mud houses lasted for centuries modern ones may not, which everyone is aware of.

So, the hesitation to build an earthy building appears to come more from fear and apprehension, than from knowledge and experience. Fortunately, mud walls are making a big return in modern architecture, though it is limited to certain regions only.

The technology of rammed earth walls has now been researched into fairly deeply and proven by various institutions such as Mrinmayee, Auroville Earth Institute, and Hunnarshala Foundation, besides many individual consultants. It is time to consider building walls with earth seriously, to save ourselves.

Raw, rustic, artistic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a bright bathroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to let the wind in, and out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diagrams

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

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

For natural air flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO CAUSED KODAGU CRISIS

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

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

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

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

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

Huge demands

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

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

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