Category Archives: fundamentals

Eco-friendly should be the mantra

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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.

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Practical designs

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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.

The approach is crucial in construction

GREENBUILDING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ANYWHERE COB WALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Pancha sutras’ of architecture

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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

Aligning with Nature

Five basic principles must guide all construction activities but we are violating them.

24bgpgreensenseGID3LTDG93jpgjpgAir, 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.

Nature-architect connect

We can learn a lot from nature which displays a design sense in every object it creates.

17bgp-greensensG4N3EKC373jpgjpgA 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.

Nature-Architecture Connect

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.

20bgp-nature-arGBS38R1K13jpgLet 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.

Contrast

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.

Missing element

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.

Making of modern mud walls

There are economical and ecological advantages, besides the aesthetic appeal.

11bgp-greensensGU12QV7C93jpgjpgEveryone 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.

Family

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.

First round

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.

Rediscover design roots

We need not discard designs with nondescript urban appearance, but only believe that ideas from the past may have validity today.

23bgpgreensenseG5T2H6VK73jpgjpgIt’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.