The birth of eco-awareness

It was in the 90s that the world at large realised the climate crisis, and mitigative measures are being taken since then.

08bgp-greensensG0I1I91P13jpgjpg

It is heartening to know that India is among the leading nations today where much discussion happens around the environmental crisis we are facing. However, we were not among the early thought leaders, at least not until the 90s. The two decades, viz., 60s and 70s, produced many books and scientific reports in the west, so much so that the phrase ‘sustainable development’ first appeared in a public document in 1980 by the World Conservation Strategy.

It was then defined as ‘the integration of conservation and development to ensure that modifications to the planet do indeed secure the survival and well-being of all people.’

Though highlighting environmental issues was not welcomed by all, it paved the way for setting up of World Commission on the Environment and Development (WCED), chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1983. Its epoch making report of 1987, popularly called as Brundtland Report, defined sustainability as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, a line most often quoted since then. Incidentally, one of the authors of the report, Nitin Desai, is an Indian.

Valid observations

Many observations of the report are true even today, like endemic poverty is prone to ecological catastrophes; equity is important, hence the poor should get their fair share of resources; the affluent need to adopt lifestyles within the planet’s ecological means; painful choices have to be made; sustainable development must rest on political will and such others.

During the 80s, environmental issues had a low profile, despite books like Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful or the 1972 Stockholm U.N. conference which preceded the decade.

Also, the cold war between U.S. and USSR nearly ended, proliferating a certain kind of western lifestyle worldwide, creating environmental concerns.

Rapid improvements in technology and connectivity across nations meant increased consumption and waste generation.

 Paradoxically, interest rates on international borrowings rose sharply, plummeting many nations into deeper debt, letting the west-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) step in with structural adjustments.

This encouraged privatisation, reduced budget for social causes, opening the markets to imports and many such others further leading to resource consumption.

Fortunately, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 made it mandatory on nations to reduce major ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons; the 1990 report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned against the rise of global average temperature 1.5 to 4.5 degree C above pre-industrial levels and the need for 60% reduction in carbon emissions from the then levels to stabilise the climate.

Obligation

However, many developing nations including India, felt environmental protection is an obligation for the rich, who have been undervaluing and overexploiting resources.

It was in the 90s that the world at large realised the climate crisis and the awareness is continuing since then. Today of course, nearly everyone accepts that human action is causing climate action, which should make us think.

In harmony with nature

In a corrective action against mindless material consumption, a group of individuals have formed a community where urban presures are resisted and eco-friendly materials are used. 

01bgp-greensensGRO1H2PVN3jpgjpgImagine we are caught up in a traffic jam, with time running out for a scheduled meeting. The first thing most of us would do is to criticise everything and everyone around us, with the choicest of words.

A little thinking would tell us that we too are the reason for the jam, for our vehicle is adding one more number to the vehicle count around. After all, lesser the vehicles lesser the jam and finally as stranded vehicles are reduced, the traffic hold up would also get dissolved. So, we are part of the problem, hence theoretically, we can also be part of the solution. But in reality, can we solve the traffic jam if we are caught up in it?

There are many such contexts where everyone of us makes up the problem, but no one of us alone can solve it. The climate crisis we are going through belongs to such a category of problem where no individual can resolve it however aware or powerful the person may be. This is not to negate the possibility of an eco-friendly lifestyle at individual level and the impact it may have on global level if everyone were to live so. The question is, will the peer pressures, societal compulsions and the imperatives of living today permit all of us the courage towards living such an eco-friendly lifestyle?

The corrective action towards our consumptive patterns will have to begin with the individual, but we equally well need to graduate from the individual to the collective and from the personal to public. To that end, we need to shed our subjective opinions, differences in ideas and selfish objectives to come together.

A success story

The Marudam community evolving in Kananthampoondi village on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai can be cited as a successful case in point. Comparatively it is a young group, started as recently as 8 years ago, with Govinda doing afforestation; Arun, Poornima, Lila and others with farm school; architect Ajay Nityananda designing the much acclaimed school building and few of the houses; Maitreyi starting Wild Ideas for chemical-free products and few others with more initiatives.

Such group efforts do not start claiming to reverse climate change, but simply aim at living harmoniously with nature, practise organic farming, minimise needs, resist the urban pressures and create a culture of being sensitive to our contexts.

Active engagement

The active engagement of about two dozens of people informs and impacts hundreds of people living in the vicinity, making a difference to them all. The Marudam Farm School, where education goes beyond the curriculum, would result in ripple effects for the visible outreach activities.

In any case, to be effective, such groups cannot be large where the group dynamics would create fissures between the participants. Many small communities can together achieve more than what a single large one can, but our modern age appears to worship the large, a paradox that we need to think about.

Mix and match in designing

Natural materials can empower the designer to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception.

25bgp-greensensGJE1FSO083jpgjpg

It is not unusual to come across designers and architects who are not supportive of working with natural materials. Of course they vouch by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, are aware that natural materials have lower embodied energy, yet prefer manufactured materials.

This unsustainable approach comes not from an ignorance of the environmental crisis we are presently facing, but from a belief that natural materials do not offer adequate design variations. Quantitatively speaking, this position can be accepted since number of natural materials are less than produced ones. However, the opinion that design potentials reduce is a matter of debate, considering the diversity of traditional architecture we have across the world, which continue to be a greater source for ideas and larger tourist attraction than anything of modernity. Local architecture with natural materials continues to score over any modern idea in terms of perfection, performance and even permanence.

Once recent example is the architectural installation at Kochi Biennale, designed by architect Tony Joseph, from Calicut.

It is both an artistic expression as well as an auditorium for daily events. Built largely with natural materials such as mud, arecanut, jute and coloured fabric, it also juxtaposes with steel trusses with sheets as wall panel and roof.

The structure proves how well it engages with its general location within Fort Kochi and specifically with the briefing from the now famous Kochi Biennale 2016.

Natural materials can empower the designer to engage with regional contexts, thereby be able to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception. The auditorium employs the age-old technique of creating stepped seats using arecanut poles which is enclosed in the hall by textured and patterned rammed earth walls. Steel structure raises from within this enclosing wall to take the metal roof, the internal ceiling concealed by coloured fabrics hung with lighting from behind in varied hues.

As one among the more talked about built installations at the Biennale, this pavilion uses very few natural materials, yet creates a balanced hybridity not commonly seen around. The wall with mud, wood and sheet in a sequence has a more appealing narrative than a mere plastered wall. The steel and arecanut poles as supports for the roof and the gallery respectively, contrast curiously with each other. Internally, the fine texture of the roof fabric hangs just above the rough texture of the wall.

Given all this, why are the natural materials losing out against manufactured materials? It may not be only because modern materials have greater potential in some respects, but also because we are forgetting certain design fundamentals which would enable us to mix and match the local material to create excellence. Design has to do more with designing than a blind application of a technology or a material.

Culture-climate connect in designing

When we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default.

04bgpgreensensG381C4DCE3jpgjpgIt is surprising to realise how every one of us, in our own way, is directly or indirectly involved with getting buildings done during our lifetime. It is one activity that most of us cannot escape, which at macro scale may mean commissioning a project or at micro level, just advising a friend about a design option.

In the implementation team we have innumerable architects, engineers, builders, consultants, suppliers, site team and such others, involved in the building construction industry. Our annual output in terms of built-up areas, spread across villages and all towns, is beyond calculation.

It is equally surprising to realise how most of us do not think much before we act. Most of our design and construction are based on a routine practice, endlessly repeated with minor variations therein. Naturally, deep thinking on design parameters like culture and climate are a rarity, resulting in the same faceless buildings being erected across India. While we have large number of practising professionals, paradoxically we appear to have a small number of thinking professionals, which could be the reason behind many non-descript buildings.

Pan-India perspective

This is where thinking architects like A.G. Krishna Menon and K.T. Ravindran become important. Both have a pan-India perspective about how we are approaching designs today and the imminent need to be context specific in our design interventions.

These two senior architects may not be listed as eco-architects of today, possibly ignored by the younger generation.

However, through their selective designs, public talks, academic involvement, explorative seminars and freelance publications, they have inspired a large number of professionals, paving the way for thinking about architecture.

Ravindran’s emphasis on the vernacular and Menon’s observations of the traditional settlements highlight the importance of culture-specific designs. Incidentally, when we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default. These architects with their analytical mind will not summarily dismiss modern architecture, but would suggest ways to blend tradition with modernity. Modern designs can also have green sense, be local and be sustainable.

To that end, one needs to study the design options, their implications and finally choose the most appropriate.

Learning from history

History is too often brushed aside as a matter of past, but architects like Menon and Ravindran, show how we can learn from history. After all, historic buildings have been green buildings not only in India, but everywhere. What we can learn from them and apply in designs today can make our future generations safer.

This process of learning cannot be complete if we study buildings in isolation; we also need to look at how buildings come together creating urban design, heritage zones and religious cities. Such rich contexts have created a lifestyle which in turn has created the contexts. Thus by recreating each other, context and culture have stayed true to a region – its geology, geography, flora, fauna and climate. By their thought process, these architects have proved that to achieve a green future, we need to iteratively study all facets of house, neighbourhood, city, culture, climate and of course living itself.

Many of their designs are based on theories and in turn, they have evolved theories based on designs. Where theory and design inform each other without contradicting positions, there we can find the path to eco-friendly possibilities.

NATURAL, YET CREATIVE

Disciplined design expressions by Shankar Kanade complement non-formal sculpturesque forms and surfaces by K. Jaisim in their eco-friendly architecture.

11bgp-greensensgka18e4nr-4-jpgDesign challenges do not lie in walking an established path, but in charting it in the first place amidst opposition by mainstream ideas. The greatness of Shankar Kanade and Navanath Kanade of Shilpa Sindoor and K. Jaisim of Fountainhead, both with firms located in South Bengaluru, lies in charting such new paths.

By 1970s and early 80s many architects had proven the benefits of practical and aesthetic designs, hence the city had carved a niche for good buildings, be they houses, industries or institutions. Going beyond mere functionality, Shankar Kanade brought the spirit of architectonic thoughts from Ahmedabad, ably joined by his younger brother Navanath who returned from the U.S. Jaisim, being influenced by philosopher Ayn Rand, followed exploratory architecture from a perspective very different from the others.

They started building with bricks, stone, hollow clay blocks and such other natural materials left exposed, without plastering or painting them. Thus the walls too became expressive, within which the voids like windows, ventilators and perforated jaali openings were carefully located to get the desired air and light.

Hallmark

Introducing skylights to bring in daylight, in a variety of forms and locations, became a hallmark of their architecture. They both realised that we need indoor air and light without creating glare or heat.

Avoiding ostentatious and unwanted design elements is important not only to negate a false image, but also to ensure cost effectiveness and reduced resource consumption. The resultant minimalism led to its own attraction and different aesthetics. The building should relate to the human scale both inside and outside, only then we can feel that buildings are appropriate for our use.

These professionals were not blindly following western architecture, but were creating a new approach by rooting it in the elements and forces of nature.

For a commoner, works of Kanades and Jaisim may appear different, but theoretically they have many comparisons. Their personal innovation creates the variety and their deep respect for the context creates the commonalties between them. Disciplined design expressions and grammar by Shankar compliments non-formal sculpturesque forms and surfaces by Jaisim in their architecture being what is called as eco-friendly today.

Too often we have heard the rhetoric that traditional Indian architecture has always been green and sustainable. While it is true, even the works of many modern architects have been so too, which do not warrant air conditioners, mass concreting, glass facades or aluminium-coated panels as elevation cladding. Kanades and Jaisim are undebatable examples. What the two firms did in the 80s paved the way for 90s when scores of younger firms in Bengaluru focused on eco-friendly buildings.

The entrance should be attractive

Tenants reject many rental houses simply because they did not like it as they walked into the house.

04bgpgreensensegd817e1qu-3-jpgWho has not heard of love at first sight or may be, experienced it? Much has been written about the idea of the first look – from the first glimpse of sun rise at the edge of ocean to the psychology of impulsive buying soon after seeing a dress or a handicraft. Human mind is structured to form opinions at the very instant it perceives something, often at extremes like ‘for it or against it’. As such, it is important to design products for positive appreciation at the very first look.

Architecture is no different to the theory of initial impacts and immediate acceptance. Real estate agents can narrate cases of tenants rejecting rental houses simply because they did not like it as they walked into the house. Many architects have the gift of garb to convince a potential building owner, yet once built if the structure does not appeal right from the entrance, the clients feel let down.

There is a term called ‘sense of entry’ – though often used in architecture, it is a simple word that suggests how we perceive a building as we enter it. Walking into a 5-star hotel is not the same as entering an art gallery or going into a coffee house with friends. If we feel good as we enter, there are greater chances that we would like the interiors too, for the outside can suggest what could be in store inside.

The elevation of the building is an interface between outside and inside, hence virtually dictates how the building merges with nature. Some designers believe their creations should appear distinct from the outside. While theoretically we can accept it, practical problems creep when every building looks different, creating visual clutter.

Harmony

People believing in context, collective appeal, urban aesthetics, green sense and such others argue for the elevation to merge with nature around. Besides vegetation, rocks and soil are among the most common materials we see around us, which take the form of size stones and clay products to get applied to construction. Being a direct product of nature, they do not degrade much due to rain and sun, lowering the life cycle costs across decades. There is a certain harmony created with the outside view, irrespective of it being a single building or a group. With multitude of natural materials available today, this approach offers many permutations and combinations in elevation making.

Sense of entry and perception of the interior are becoming more important than ever, as increasing number of buildings are adorning a green façade. Not all of them are really green or eco-friendly buildings, but look like one. In these days of the fake and the real, theories can come in handy to choose the real.

RECHARGING THE BOREWELL

When we recklessly draw water from below the ground, which has limited catchment sources, how can it be compensated? A look into the crucial issue.

 28bgp-greensensg8m169ng9-3-jpgThis essay is a tribute to one man who early in 1980s foresaw the water crisis and took it upon himself to research the traditional water knowledge systems embedded in the dry State of Rajasthan. It had open wells, irrigation ponds and underground ‘tankas’ which survived on the scanty rains, and he felt if that traditional wisdom were to survive, the settlements too would survive.

 

Anupam Mishra is no more with us; a fact majority of Indians may not care about. When Ramachandra Guha wrote in his tribute to Anupam Mishra that he was among the top five environmental activists of India but was among the least known even among environmentalists, he was very right. The least we can do to remember him is to apply traditional wisdom, wisdoms of the kind Anupam Mishra documented. If we draw water from a source, we should help returning water to it. We cannot reverse all the harm we have done, but we can at least reduce the impact of our harmful acts.

A case in point could be about borewells. All water bodies depend upon catchments and being in the open, get water from direct rain, surface run-off and top soil water retention.

Even if we do not help the water body, the water we have drawn from it returns to it. However, when we recklessly draw water from the underground, which has limited catchment sources, how can it regain the water?

Borewells are drying up the aquifers deep down, resulting in hundreds of dried-up borewells around us. We can let water into them during the rainy season, by directing the surface flow and roof water collected, after appropriate filtering process.

In the direct recharge method, an open well of manageable size, say up to 10 feet deep and diameter, is dug around the casing pipe.

The pipe itself is perforated with a drill machine and the holes are covered by a net, to let water in but not the dirt. The well is now filled with filtering media like sand, gravel, crushed stone, jelly and such others.

When the water is diverted into this well, it gets filtered and seeps into the casing pipe, refilling the bore well.

Indirect method

In the indirect method of recharging, the well is not dug around the casing pipe, but away within 20 feet radius. This well too is filled with filters and has water flow directed in to it, while the casing pipe will have holes covered by netlon. In this case, water flows through the ground, reaches the pipe and seeps in.

It is not preferred to let unfiltered water into the ground, for the contamination found in the surface water will spread into the ground water.

While recharging is most advisable to dry and drying up well with reducing yield, even a running borewell can have recharging in case of surplus surface water which otherwise goes to drains.

With ground water level going down rapidly, there is an urgent need to revive them.

Some respite for environment?

Demonetisation has some positives too. 

Everyone is talking money – demonetisation, political agenda, cash crunch, hoarding new currency, impacts on daily life, IT raids, eradicating black money and hoping for a white future. Rich and poor people alike are finding the daily needs hard to come by with little money in hand, irrespective of how much they have in bank balance or in old currency.

We all know there is less money in market; hence business is not as usual.

While so much has been spoken and written about the impact of demonetisation on varied facets of life, hardly anyone has touched upon its impact on ecology and resources. It is strange but true that cash crunch is beneficial to nature.

On a few fronts, the present cash crunch is comparable to the economic recession of the recent past, faced mainly in the west, with some implications for India too.

 People faced reducing income, challenge of loan repayments, increased unsold inventories, money getting blocked and financial uncertainties looming large. Between all the social tension it created, one of the benefits was reduced consumption, hence earth resources saved, energy used efficiently and wastage reduced. On a similar note, the recent demonetisation in the country has impacted larger issues of ecology positively. With no ready cash to spend, people have been buying and spending less, of course impacting on everything from tourism to rituals. Incidentally, lesser business does not necessarily mean shops and restaurants are facing losses. They earn less, in turn spend less hoping to extend the new currency they got for as long as they can. Of course, many people living on daily wages are suffering, for they are already living on minimum daily income and cannot manage with further reduced cash inflow. Money and materialistic lifestyle are directly proportional, where our lifestyle demands that we earn more money. In turn, income meets the expenditure, increasing production. People earning well may appear to have larger sums with them compared to the rest with lower incomes, but their monthly savings in percentage figure could be often comparable. This suggests that higher income group spends more, while those with lower income spend less, each spending proportional to their income categories.

 

A paradox

As such, it is a paradox where money and market fuel each other, which together increase the consumption patterns. We know that increased consumption is good for economy, but ecologically it is disastrous, irrespective of whether the consumption is for our present needs, future savings or mere personal greed. The rich may have the financial affordability to spend, but our fragile Earth cannot afford to take anymore of our wasteful life. So, if the present crisis due to demonetisation has reduced our shopping, travelling, holidaying, partying, conferencing, manufacturing, in general spending, it has reduced the consumption of resources. It could be temporary, until the money flow restores again; yet it is beneficial to nature. Can we ensure this benefit lasts long enough to save the climate?

The comfort zone

The verandah is the only place in a building where all design factors blend.

verandah-pp_gsfgsa14b100-3-jpgLet us try imagining a magnificent monument. Among the obvious choices are buildings with lofty columns supporting a majestic high roof with a deep set-in space, may be with some dignitaries waving at us. If we are walking in a poor village, surprisingly, there too we find hutments with pillars supporting a thatch roof, with a shaded space beneath, may be with a child playing there.

From palaces to huts, verandahs have been omnipresent around the world.

The spaces between two major activity spaces are important in good architecture, verandah being one of them connecting the inside and the outside. They complement the two, automatically becoming multifunctional spaces serving varied purposes. However, their significance goes beyond architecture, in them being possibly the only place in a building where all design factors blend – social, cultural, spatial, functional, cost effective and of course, climatic considerations.

In our region, a south facing room with verandah is best suited to get wind and light, even while avoiding glare and direct rain. East facing verandah creates one of the best sense of entry with morning sunrays peeing through the columns. One can enjoy the setting sun in the west, doing any odd job there, with sun going low without unpleasant heat. Finally, with neither direct rain nor hot sun from the north, verandahs there are open for any idea from active to passive use.

If the interiors need to be inevitably air conditioned, verandahs can act like a buffer between inside and outside. While the human body is made to live both in open and enclosed spaces, ideally it cannot take sudden variations in temperatures, light intensities and humidity. A smoother transition from open to enclosed via a semi-open space is a comforting factor for us, which only a verandah can provide.

Disappearing

 Despite these accolades, why are verandahs vanishing? Architects feel they predetermine the elevation; owners say they may not use this space, mostly living indoors; developers find it difficult to fit them in multi-storey buildings; they are kept empty with no objects due to security worries; and those with low budget, of course, simply avoid it. Incidentally, most of these apprehensions can be resolved.

As we learnt how to control climate, using electrical and mechanical means, the passive ideas like verandahs got ignored. We could control climate, which is now revengefully hitting us back with climate change.

Unfortunately, instead of retreating from our high energy consuming lifestyle and regretfully accepting our mistakes in controlling climate, we continue to be defensive, trying to find ways of mitigating climate change.

We need not prove that humans are mightier than nature, even if such impossibility were to be true.

Alternatively, we can try proving how humans can live with nature. Returning to verandahs could be a minuscule example of such ideology, where the rays of hope for a safer future may begin.

BUILDING ON WELLS

Once well rings are filled to the top with concrete, plinth beams are laid connecting all of them which help in transferring loads.

07bgpgreensensegtt13ct5p-6-jpgPeople who have visited Varanasi would have wondered about the lofty palace-like structures on the banks of river Ganga. How were they built many centuries ago and how are they still standing tall? What is the secret behind their sturdy construction? Look at port cities like Fort Cochin or the early buildings of Kolkata harbour. How could they stand on watery ground without our modern mass concrete foundations?

What our elders did then is today called as pile foundation, where thick and long trunks of hardwood trees are driven into the loose ground until they hit the hard strata deep underground. The mechanism driving them down will stop at that level indicating that the tree trunk has reached a safe level, capable of taking building load. Simultaneously, as these straight trunks are driven close by, they tighten the ground, increasing the effective density of the soil. In turn, the load bearing capacity of the ground increases by the combined effects of wooden piles driven up to hard strata and overall compaction achieved by close placing of these piles.

Concrete piles have replaced wooden piles today, but this is done mainly for large buildings with advanced mechanism, professional designs and skilled supervision. Thousands of smaller buildings and residential structures cannot afford to go for concrete pile foundation, due to exorbitant costs.

There is a simplified system called well ring foundation, applicable to any building on loose, water logged sites, where the conventional stepped stone foundation is not possible. Concrete footing would be expensive due to the excavation depths or in general we wish to reduce the consumption of steel and concrete towards more eco friendly architecture.

Pre-cast round rings are generally available in most parts of India, which are inserted into the ground while the open pit is dug manually. Though this method is for open water well, same could become a foundation by pouring concrete into the well. Most rings come in 3 to 4 feet diameter, ideally for the foundation width. The depth of the well ring foundation, diameter and spacing distance needs to be calculated by structural engineers. Further, either load bearing or frame construction can be adopted as decided by the engineers. In case unequal settlement is suspected, the well rings may have to be tied together not only by the plinth beam, but each ring foundation will need to be fixed into the plinth beam.

In very loose soil, while digging, the side walls may cave in or in high water table areas we may have to continuously pump water out while concreting. Very few engineers have designed well ring foundations; as such, ensuing proper technical calculations are mandatory, followed by quality workmanship at site.

Such ideas which resemble wooden pile may sound difficult; however once done, we realise they are doable again.