Category Archives: fundamentals

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.

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For a bright bathroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to let the wind in, and out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diagrams

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

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

For natural air flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO CAUSED KODAGU CRISIS

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

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

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

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

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

Huge demands

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

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

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

Thinking eco in the wake of floods

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

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

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

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

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

Towards self-discovery

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

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

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

Buyers, builders and investors

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

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

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

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

Are we ‘developing’ at the cost of Nature?

In the wake of the deluge in Kerala and Madikeri, we need to study the impact of constructions and other human interventions on the environment.

25bgp-greensensGGN4ISAF33jpgjpg (1)Every school-going child reads about natural disasters, but how often she gets to read about man-made disasters? Not until now, but it’s time to recognise this term as more critical, with the recent floods in Kerala and Madikeri further proving a point about human actions.

The very predictable post-flood analyses is pouring in for Kerala. How global winds were diverted to India, pouring in more water from skies than normal and how torrential rains are bound to lead to deluge. Regional vulnerability of Kerala due to shallow river basins with limited water carrying capacity, being at the receiving end of Western Ghats, and the low mean sea levels (MSL) are being highlighted.

The government is not spared, blamed for sudden opening of gates of reservoirs, releasing more water than what the land can drain. Storm water drainage systems are blocked by uncontrolled construction, while lack of regional and local development plans gets a fitting response from nature. The forgotten Gadgil Committee Report of 2011 is now being quoted again, with climate change being blamed at large.

The Madikeri context is not exactly the same as Kerala. Here major causes listed are unabated levelling of slopes for roads, grounds and buildings which prompt landslips; estates replacing forests; drastic reduction in native trees in favour of beneficial trees; massive deforestation leading to erosion of sponge-like top soil that absorbs water and many such others.

Most analyses present a third party observation, with a general observation that local interventions aiming at commercial gains have resulted in the calamity, which could have been averted. If we were to say so, we better be sensitive to our fellow citizens and realise we too would have done exactly the same things that Keralites or Coorgis did, if we were to be there. What is this trait in us that prompts us to ‘develop’ at the cost of nature?

Cumulative effect

Disasters happen at the regional level, but happen due to a cumulative effect of millions of local actions. The collective cause cannot evolve without the individual contributions. These local and collective determinants are not restricted geographically to Kerala or Madikeri, for we know how everything is connected.

The rapid urbanisation of Bengaluru might have caused deforestation, demanding the much needed construction timber. The surplus money Bengaluru has might have prompted investments in access, estates, tourism or infrastructure. May be, Bengalureans need to realise their contribution to the sufferings of Keralites.

It is a juncture when we cannot be sure if these disasters are due to natural reasons or man-made. We could be confused about what is critical now – analysis, diagnosis or prescription. Even if we know of the solutions, with our kind of electoral governance, we could claim helplessness.

To begin with, we can at least realise that destruction of resources precedes every construction; infrastructure actually fractures the land and development can lead to disasters. To stop climate change, we need to change. Are we willing?

Experimenting with the alternative

Local designs have advantages like quicker construction, ease of maintenance, and minimal resource consumption.

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What is termed as mainstream architecture today largely defines the prevailing norms about how to build. It often rules out ecological possibilities in the construction field, hence needs to be questioned, at least partially if not fully. However, it is easier said than done, for the built volume that the alternatives produce is negligible.

Incidentally, there was a time when the local designs were the mainstream, which the British termed as kutchha, demeaning it. It had numerous advantages like quicker construction, ease of maintenance, locally procured materials, low skill operation, and minimal resource consumption. One way of countering the current practice could be to rework with the local, kutchha and avoid using what the mainstream uses.

This is what Thannal, a centre exploring the alternative at Tiruvannamalai, is set out to do. A vision of architect Biju Bhaskar, inspired by Ramana Maharshi, the centre has a couple of structures without cement or steel. Unlike the common practice of stabilising mud with cement, here mud stabilisation has been achieved by lime, chopped grass and pebbles.

Across the last 10 years, a variety of natural building materials like bamboo, mud, wood planks, coconut leaf roof, Mangalore tiles and such others have been used.

Grey water treatment has been improvised using root zone treatment with Canna plant, then a series of alum, lime aggregates, broken bricks and gravel chambers to finally flow into the collection point for watering the plants.

Many traditional construction methods like sun-dried mud bricks called adobe are practical even today. Woven mat finished with mud, called wattle and daub make up a couple of walls.

Cob walls

The centre has been known for popularising cob walls, a method that uses handmade balls of mud. Sandy soil which is not fertile, mixed with anti-termite neem water, has been filled into jute bags to produce what is called earthbags. Earthbag walls are not traditional, suggesting an experiment to extend the idea of mud.

The idea of evolving the centre as one goes along, instead of planning everything with formal drawings, a traditional method, has led the centre to be naturally hybrid. Of course, the cluster of structures appears like a group of small village huts, which one may feel are not applicable in an urban set-up. But, that scale suits the idea of the experiment, explore and apply.

Architects and engineers who can afford to experiment are few, considering the demands of clients, imperatives of regulations and managing the consulting or construction firms. So, the few who can explore the eco-friendly alternatives need to reach out to people, not merely with their designed built products, but also as a process to enable the replication of these ideas. Thannal does it in its own way by conducting hands-on workshops.

Only when eco ideas get widespread application can they question the mainstream.

 

Ideal homes

Why switch on lights even when there is adequate daylight in the room? 

14bgppjulyIMG20180707152041671HDRjpgLet us go back in time when only animals lived on earth. They took protection within the elements of nature. Not so long back, during the pre-industrial era a few centuries ago, humans created shelters with materials found in nature. Today, we create shelters with materials made by us.

The distinction between using materials found and made is among the major causes for the ecological imbalance in the construction sector. Humans are habit forming, and we see how easily we have been trapped into switching on electric lights even when there is adequate daylight in the room.

We switch on the fan without fail, irrespective of the natural air inside. Even today, millions of people in villages live with low light and few windows without any complaint. Their senses are accustomed to the available light and air. Most of us have got technologically corrupted senses.

The best example can be how air conditioning has conditioned us, within a few years for the majority and few decades for the rest of us. With our offices, cars, homes and most public spaces air conditioned, we have lost our body tolerance to stay out of it. We have forgotten that human bodies are biologically designed to live with the available temperatures and there are many means of living with heat.

The generations that lived until recently managed to have 6 to 7 people of a middle-class family in a less than 2,000 sq. ft house, managing with available space and building materials. Of course, even now thousands of families across India live with the available light, air, space and materials, but the number of people who aspire for more is increasing drastically. Finally, everything boils down to available resources. Once processed, much is wasted and depleted, while resource unprocessed can replenish itself, like light, air, space and materials.

The very idea of making is an action to counter the nature – if she cannot supply it, we humans will make it. Increasingly, we are even rejecting what is found, in favour of what is made.

Making of good architecture does not need all the marketed manufactured materials; most often they take away the possibility of deeper aesthetic beauty of the building, replacing it with a lavish and superficial surface. Of course, we need to make products for a range of life challenges, be it medication or transportation, but not always for construction.

Generations have lived without electricity, even in crowded areas, using ideas like indoor courts, perforated voids, thick walls, high ceilings, bay windows, mukhamantapas and others.

This is not to say we should live without electricity today, but we need to learn to minimise our dependency on it.

The majority of the poor people on this Earth still live with their five senses aligned with the available light, air, water, space and temperature. If the majority can live so, why not the minority of affluent people?

Habits and habitats

Recycling every construction material even after demolition would be a great idea, but are we ready for it?

1.jpgHabitat is a deep word that means how every form lives in a given locality and environment, where human habitation in a typical settlement. During the formative years, we would have observed nature, connected with the context and lived in simple structures which by default are eco-friendly.

With passage of time, patterns of living would have evolved by varied factors. Though nature friendly buildings are mostly simple buildings, we would have relegated nature and discarded simplicity. Our efforts towards sustainable lifestyle will be futile unless we realise how we live.

Our habit of habit forming dilutes living with nature: How often do we observe our daily life – the objects, comforts, services and relations we live with? For most of us, it’s rare, with pressures and pleasures of managing life taking precedence over thinking about life. Despite spirituality having proven the need to think about living, very few indulge in it; so people thinking about ecology could be minuscule. Humans are habit forming animals, so habits shape our lifestyle, which need to be replaced by thinking about nature and ecology.

Materials that waste the least are among the best materials: One of the simplest eco-sutras could be to look for construction materials that waste the least. Many appear efficient, but they ravage nature during their production; furniture making leads to wasted plywood, upholstery and foams; leftover paints, glass or tiles are common in construction sites. The leftovers are not merely wasted materials, but also wasted money and wasted resources. As an extended idea, if every construction material can be recycled even after demolitions, that is a great idea.

Do not buy something because it is available and affordable: Most project costs shoot up and material selection becomes non-judicious because we can afford to buy a product even if it is not necessary. Increasing options in the market has not necessarily made us more happy or effective; but equally led to confusions and complexities.

B alance between capital and operational costs: A closer look at projects shows overemphasising the initial construction costs, ignoring the maintenance cost and sometimes even operation costs. Somehow gather the funds required to start the project – we are on with it, which is incorrect. More energy and resources get consumed across the life span of the building than upfront; hence sustainable strategies have to focus at the complete life cycle.

I ndividually we are building more than collectively what we need: Assessing the actual constructed area needs of a city may be difficult, and even if we do that, the fact could be that some have more than the average need, while majority have less in this unequal society. Many built-up areas are used for part of the day, month or the year, left unused during other times. On any given night, the total number of unoccupied bedrooms in all the houses together may equal half the hotel rooms. We may have no solution to this predicament, but it’s time to think, are we building too much.