Category Archives: fundamentals
Local designs have advantages like quicker construction, ease of maintenance, and minimal resource consumption.
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.
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.
Why switch on lights even when there is adequate daylight in the room?
Let 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?
Recycling every construction material even after demolition would be a great idea, but are we ready for it?
Habitat 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.
It is time to change construction practices and be in tune with nature.
If we agree with the philosophy that we are what we think, then we realise that we are not eco-friendly because we do not think eco-friendly. Our attitudes are not tuned to live with nature.
However many seminars we attend, articles we read or data we collect, most of it will be futile unless we change. So, we console ourselves saying paradigm changes are impossible and continue with our resource consuming lifestyle!
If we intend to change, it will not be so difficult to bring about at least few nature friendly-homes, habits and construction practices. There are a few listed below.
Every design decision should be validated for its ecological sensitivity: In our modern urban living, we all use set of criteria to take individual and collective decisions. Today cost, comfort, image and ego appear to dictate most of our decisions. For Mahatma Gandhi, the litmus test was about truthfulness, which he would apply to most decisions he would take. If we have to create a sustainable future, we also need a litmus test. We should check if every one of our ideas and actions are eco-friendly or not. If not, it is certain that we are harming nature.
Repairable construct i on, replaceable materials and replicable designs: The famous RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) as a solution towards eco-friendly living has had reasonable publicity, with some success too. However, the construction sector has generally ignored this dictum, continuing with its practice of building big, producing more products, introducing new materials and rarely repeating an idea, however appropriate it is. Architecture being an expression of owner aspirations as well, it may be difficult to force RRRs, but we can attempt repairable construction, replaceable materials and replicable designs, which can go a long way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to the construction sector.
Lower the embodied energy, greater the sustainability: Many sets of criteria have been introduced to assess and measure green buildings with varied types of certifications. Surely, they have resulted in marginal reduction in the carbon footprint of buildings, but these rating systems cannot change the future. Given this, one overarching criteria could be to assess the sum total energy a construction project consumes, right from the raw material supply to disposal of debris when it gets demolished someday. This figure is termed as embodied energy and lowering it is the key to a sustainable future.
Culturally appropriate plan and climatically appropriate construction:Architecture is an expression of both aspirations and construction, and as such needs to balance between the two.
Let the design be suited to the lifestyle such that there is a personal acceptance; material to fit aesthetic choices such that it has a societal meaning; construction be eco-friendly such that resources are saved and the overall design be of architectural appropriateness. Such an approach may lead to a sustainable future.
Property owners must test every idea that consultants extend to check for functional and ecological aspects.
Elaborate description and brief checklist pointers have respective roles to play in knowledge transfer. Extensive data can be found in the media, but many of them are so descriptive, readers are unable to apply them. So, this essay lists a few simple facts towards achieving green sense.
Performance of the building is more important than the perceived design:Architecture of the early history evolved from pragmatic approaches and practical designs.
There would have been considerations of visual appeal, but to lesser degree than today where we are obsessed with how the design would be perceived by people, professionals and the media.
Architecture of attraction is the rule of the day, with performance relegated to the back burners. It is time the project owners test every idea that consultants extend to check for their functional perfection and ecological performance, instead of simply going by the advertised hype.
Eco-sensitive ideas do not get accepted only on eco-criteria: People passionate about sustainable architecture are increasing in numbers today, but contrastingly, so too are consultants frustrated by negligible implementation of such design ideas.
To understand this paradox, we need to realise that an idea however great it is ecologically, will not get built unless it is visually attractive, socially acceptable, financially affordable and professionally doable. So, the challenge lies in fusing multiple criteria into the ecological platform.
Not all these can be achieved by the consultants alone, so forming a team of likeminded people has to be the first step, followed by the feasibility of the ideas generated. Much can be achieved if we are willing.
Let the buildings breathe: Imperviousness is not a common phenomenon in nature, with all fruits, vegetables, trees, materials and animals living by breathing through nostrils, skin, bark or surface. Traditional architecture built with mud, wood, lime, tiles, stone and thatch breathed and lasted long.
The moment we apply cement mortar, chemical paints, aluminium cladding and such others, we are blocking the breathing, in terms of air, light and humidity. No wonder, they demand more energy for servicing them, reducing the lifespan of the building and increasing life cycle costs due to greater maintenance.
In the name of architecture, we are not enclosing spaces, but sealing spaces. We are creating boxes of artificial indoors, which need to be opened to nature.
Minimise manufactured materials: If we can classify building materials as natural, processed and manufactured ones, it is the last category of manufactured materials which consume most of Earth resources. As such, they have high embodied energy, effecting irreversible ecological damages during their production, besides producing high quantity of waste. Until a few decades ago, most construction happened with natural materials and very few processed ones like burnt brick.
It’s too late now to refuse manufactured materials, but we surely can minimise their usage. A few centuries ago, produced materials replaced the natural ones, and now the time has come to replace the produced ones with natural materials.
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.
What was the original material of Bangalore fort? Not all can respond to this quizzical question, but the answer is mud.
The 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.
The concrete jungles we are creating may endanger the future of our living itself. It is time to adhere to some sets of basic principles.
Words like green sense and eco-build are often mistaken. The converted naturalists tend to overemphasise air, light, heat, rain and humidity as the only or main criticalities in a good building. If these “pancha sutras” are followed, everything will go great.
The critiques would question how other essentials of architecture can be ignored and how mere adherence to few criteria can fulfil the larger role of design. Of course, every word of their critique is right. The real challenge lies not merely in conforming to nature but balancing nature-architecture equilibrium in their respective roles.
There are many other pancha sutras to be followed. We may list construction, maintenance, demolition, disposal and recycling as the second set. While the first two are somewhat discussed at least to consider the options, the rest is completely ignored as if our buildings will last forever. Everything we build today will have to be demolished one day, but we live as if such a day never comes. The concrete jungles we are creating may endanger the future of our urban living itself.
Considering buildings have evolved from the primary need of shelter making, the third list may have space, activity, storage, protection and privacy. These are being increasingly focused upon, at least in structures being put up by professionals like architects.
Possibly, these were not critically considered in the past, since the lifestyle of those days were not so demanding. Designs revolved around simple, multifunctional and large halls, which were open for many adjustments. Today, we indulge in micro-designing, locating every activity in a specific place.
Buildings need to provide a place for body and peace of mind. So comes the fourth list with security, strength, durability, functionality and flexibility. While the first three everyone talks about and also provide for, the last two only some people talk about and very few are able to provide for. It needs critical thinking, wide experience and an understanding of how people live. When we decide how to live, we can design the true architecture.
The last and fifth set of sutras derives from services, facilities and comforts we seek from buildings. They are water, sanitation, power, lift and air conditioning. Evidently, they refer more to modern and urban contexts, than the architecture of the past which would have had none of them. Incidentally, it is this list which ignores the role of nature most, trying to rule it instead. Considering they all have come to stay, we cannot negate them but can be sensitive to do the least harm to nature. Going a step further, we may attempt living with some discomfort and inconveniences, like all our previous generations have done, at least to let future generations have access to resources they too would need.
The five sets of pancha tantras each totalling 25 principles, is not an exhaustive list towards an ideal arch
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.