There are simple ways to go about it, and air conditioners are not necessary.
In hot climatic zones like Rajasthan, people used to sleep on terraces. Even in places like Delhi, one can see many low income and middle class people sleeping outdoors, on pathways or verandahs. In slightly more humid regions like Kerala or Kolkata, traditional homes have perforated windows and doors with louvres which are kept open at night.
The principle behind these and more of such practices is simple – the night temperature is always much lower than the daytime in summer months. If we can ensure that the benefits of lower temperature are exploited, one can ensure a good night’s sleep. Our body works much on a comparative basis, where the reduced night temperature itself provides the relief we need, after exposure to a daylong heat. The emerging practice of sleeping at 22 degrees chilled air and then face the next day’s wrath at 40 degrees is neither healthy nor inevitable.
The accompanying picture is an apt example to show how we can manage indoor comforts through managing air. We need three kinds of air, first being cross ventilation, achieved through windows in differently oriented windward walls. Secondly, we need body-level breeze made possible by the ceiling fan. The third one, displacement ventilation, is the most important for indoor thermal comfort. It displaces the hot indoor air – air warmed up by solar heat gain on ceilings, heat conducted through the walls, heat dissipated by human bodies inside and any mechanical instruments – through roof-level openings and lets in cooler outside air.
Typically, most indoor spaces today do not have voids at ceiling level, hence the warmer indoor air gets stuck inside the room. In the picture too, the wall just below the roof has no ventilator, the idea cancelled due to provision of air conditioner, though elsewhere in the same building there are displacement ventilators. In the process, this particular room gets heated up during the summer months, so the AC steps in, while the whole year it stays nearly idle.
During the summer months, the real challenge is not to cool the indoor air, an idea which leads to installing an air conditioner, which is an energy guzzling, unsustainable and cost escalating practice. Simply throwing out hot air and letting in the cooler air from outside can make a notable difference in reducing indoor heat, though it may not be as effective as an air conditioner.
Among the temporary arrangements, turning the table fan towards the window is the simplest. After keeping a few windows open, turn on the fan with its face outside. It works like displacement ventilation cooling the indoors in a short time. Unlike the roof-level voids which work at a height, here the warmer air at body level gets thrown out. The ceiling fan can compliment the air circulation.
The case of the fan may be a makeshift solution for few
When we create a high carbon footprint and cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions, we are doing a disfavour to the environment.
It may sound absurd to ask anyone, at whose cost are you living. Of course they will say it’s at their own cost or the children may say they are living on their parent’s earnings. The very thought that one has to live at other’s costs is not taken as an honourable position.
It is not the cost of living we need to observe, which is commonly discussed everywhere from the family dining table to annual city surveys by agencies. What we need to look into deeply is at whose cost are we living, which many of us may assume to be a simple question. The car buyer is doing so at the cost of her bank balance, the alcoholic is drinking at the cost of his health and short-tempered people continue to get angry at the cost of their public relations. Many more examples can follow, all suggesting the personal costs.
Beyond living at the cost of ourselves, we also live at the cost of the society. The sleeper class train ticket recovers only half the expenditure from the traveller. The actual investment on power and water is not charged to users. Subsidies have dominated farming sector, to help the poor farmers who cannot pay actual costs.
The savings achieved by the salaried and many self-employed people happens at the cost of the informal sector, who are made to take home meagre money for the same number of working hours as everyone else, a social disease we are perpetuating.
Beyond these two, living at the cost of ourselves and cost of society, there is one more happening increasingly nowadays. We are living at the cost of ecology, hence at the cost of human civilisation itself.
A high carbon footprint flight across the continent, stay in an energy guzzling luxury hotel and day-long conference in lavishly furnished air-conditioned banquets directly boosts greenhouse gas emissions, even if the theme could be on sustainability.
One family weekend spent in a hill resort eating in the fine-dine restaurant with cuisine from across the continents happens at the cost of earth resources, even if we have the money to pay the bills. Such cases are aplenty.
Are we not aware of all this, our direct contribution to climate change? Of course we are, yet we find it difficult not to do what we should not be doing. The challenge ahead of us is not living the way we do because we can pay the costs, but living without costing the Earth.
Try to shade the surface with wooden pallets, which is a frame of wood planks with gaps in between.
For reasons more than one, the summer season in India is a popular topic of discussion. It is possibly comparable to the British often talking about their rains.
Imagine the book titled ‘Indian Summer- Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi’ which has little to do with climatic data on India, being the story of how New Delhi was planned and made, written by Robert Grant Irving. Another book by the same title ‘Indian Summer’ is on ‘The Secret History of the End of an Empire’ written by Alex von Tunzelmann, even more remotely connected to the idea of a season. Even the film ‘Heat and Dust’ directed by James Ivory attempts to refer to our summer, even if it is metaphorical. Summer is the talk of town.
Nowadays, Indian summer is in the headlines for the more direct climatic reasons – every year new records are being set for the highest temperature of the decade or so. How we the people and our consumptive patterns are among the creators of this record is rarely discussed, but the soaring temperatures are always debated intensely. As a fall out, sale of air conditioners is also soaring, paradoxically pushing the outdoor temperatures further up.
It appears like temperatures have crossed the limits of passive cooling and we have given up hopes on simple measures. Partly yes, but in many cities like Bengaluru which witness the extremes only for few weeks in an year, there is no real need to switch over to air conditioners. Shading the roof during the high summer can reduce indoor temperature to bearable levels, if not as low as AC can achieve.
Terrace gets direct solar incidence, hence has high solar heat gain, which is transferred to inside surface by conduction. Imagine we try to shade the surface with wooden pallets, which is a frame of wood planks with gaps in between, used in packaging especially across ships and such others. Google search can show up many images. Once unpacked, these are discarded for sale in the seconds market.
No heat transfer
Placed on the terrace, they let in direct light between the gaps for a short time span, which does not let the surface gain much heat. Of course, the air under pellet gets heated up but hot air moves out letting in cooler air from outside the pellet, so very little heat would transfer through convection.
These pellets, often made abroad with pine and such types of timber, can withstand sun and rain for a long period, if treated well. The gaps between them can be maintained fairly narrow; as such anyone can walk over them without any discomfort. In case of any unexpected summer showers, the rain water drains out without any hindrance. Once the scorching summer is over, the pellets can be safely stored for reuse the next season.
The theory behind this idea is rooted in a big sounding term ‘ventilated cavity roof’, but can be achieved in a small budget.
The master architect was convinced that designs are for people and had to suit the local climate.A tribute during his birth centenary year.
This Green Sense weekly column started exactly 7 years ago, acknowledging Laurie Baker as one of the influences on this writer. It is an occasion today to remember this master architect on his birth centenary year, a person who instilled a sense of cost, culture and climate in the local architecture he advocated. Decades after he stopped designing, many architects continue to design the way he did; but many more vouch how he continues to inspire them to explore alternatives to the predictable and questionable mainstream approaches.
What matters today is not his mere biography, but his beliefs which he professed and practised with no compromise. Even for the rich, he advocated cost effectiveness; he was convinced that designs are for people and his designs had to above all suit the local climate.
During the post-independence era, especially the decades of 1970 to 1990, many modern masters of Indian architecture emerged. Most of them either studied abroad or were influenced by the profession of architecture as practised in the west. In total contrast, Baker stepped out of the mainstream to design for India and in India, though his own origins were from the west. With no desire to chase prestigious projects and awards, he designed for people – nearly 3,500 houses in a lifespan of 50 years which appears almost unbelievable.
The ‘Gandhi of Architecture’ was actually influenced by Gandhiji, and looked upon social causes as his professional achievements. Even his public buildings stand as a testimony to his philosophy of minimalism in materials; low on cost; eco-friendly in performance; judicious in structures; and efficient in functional spaces. If we look back in today’s times of sustainability talks, climate crisis and environmental degradation, Baker appears to have been far ahead of his times.
Incidentally, Vineet Radhakrishnan has looked back at Baker, making a biographical full-length film about his life and works titled “Uncommon Sense”. In the making for a few years, it got released for public viewing only some months ago, yet has received critical acclaim, including being listed in Archdaily’s list of must-see films. The fact that Vineet is Baker’s grandson adds a different dimension to the film, besides it being a documentary on Baker’s architecture.
The film looks at many of his projects, but more importantly captures the man in his thoughts and words, which gives it an academic flavour. Architects and many non-architects who knew him well speak about Baker, proving how he did not restrict himself to his buildings, but provoked thoughts in whoever he met.
Why does Laurie Baker continue to be relevant today? Architectural critics know that design elements die, styles change, new materials emerge, and technology evolves. So, the physical does not last long. The philosophies last longer, but they face the danger of dilution once the founder of the philosophy goes.
Laurie Baker continues to be relevant, beyond the physical and the philosophical. Once Shiv Vishwanathan termed U.R. Ananthamurthy as a phenomenon and if one were to borrow that term, Laurie Baker is a phenomenon.
Grow a garden or a lawn on your terrace to beat the heat, but do not neglect maintenance issues.
With the summer temperatures soaring high, everyone dreams of cooler homes. Air conditioners could be a solution, but we now know that they are not a solution, but a villain.
For innumerable reasons like the way they transfer indoor heat to outside increasing city temperatures, dilute our biological capacity to live with seasons, health problems due to moving across high and low temperatures, artificiality of air, poor indoor air quality, power consumption, electricity bills and such others, AC has proven to be anti-environment and anti-health.
Given this, there has been increased search for simple and natural solutions. One among them is a green roof, not growing vegetables in trays, but having greenery all over. Imagine a roof where we see no concrete, but only grass! It increases thermal mass, delays surface run-off and works with minimal maintenance.
An intensive green roof needs to be structurally designed for load, or if we plan to grow on the existing roof, a qualified engineer can assess its feasibility. In case roots attempt to penetrate the concrete, a root barrier layer of High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) or any other suited sheet can be laid, though the best is to ensure that shallow rooted plant material are chosen. Additionally, HDPE also ensures water proofing.
Above the root barrier, a drainage layer is needed with half-inch of gravel and a layer of sand above it. To ensure the mud does not slip into this layer but only excess rain water does, we can use the costlier but more long lasting geothermal fabrics or simply save money by using shade nets. They let water down but not the soil. Finally, we need red soil, manure media or mud mixed with perlite, vermiculite or coco peat. While all these are suited for plant growth, the decision may depend upon possible roof load, maintenance issues or available water.
Typically, the soil layer can be 4 to 8 inches thick based on plants’ type. Parapet wall height may have to be adjusted to take the terrace garden and multiple drain holes will be needed compared to what we normally provide. Drip irrigation can be implemented in case of large roof areas.
While lawn would be the choice of most people, it demands much water and maintenance, besides many turf varieties not being suited on the terrace. In case of good sunlight, Bermuda, Doob or Korean grass may work, if not St. Augustine may have to be preferred. If the terrace has occasional use, hardy creepers like Rangoon creeper can enliven the surface with its seasonal flowers. With good drainage, ground hugging shrubbery and small water succulent plants can also be considered, which may be easier for de-weeding.
Tray-based roof garden is more popular considering the variety of vegetables one can grow and manage rain water harvesting as well. However, everyone cannot spare time to that end, but everyone can enjoy a lawn or a creeper bed on the terrace.
Nations worldwide have been trying to understand and contain environmental problems.
Many of us have been hearing about environmental issues for over a decade now, yet are much behind the west in realising how bleak our future can be.
It is important to be aware of the deliberations that took place before this millennium, and about the crisis looming large on us, which may impart greater seriousness among us.
There is a curious decadal connection between the book Silent Spring published in 1962, the Stockholm Conference of 1972, forming the Brundtland Committee in 1983 and the pivotal event of the Earth Summit of 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).
Though the preceding years had witnessed many initiatives, the Earth Summit with Climate Convention discussing reduction in carbon emissions; Rio Declaration with 27 principles to be implemented worldwide; Agenda 21 as a lengthy report containing framework of actions for 21st century; technology transfer from the affluent northern to poorer southern nations and such others proved to be a pivotal event.
UNCED became a turning point with more than hundred heads of government converging at one place, though it was also felt to be ambitious, bureaucratic and had many jargons. Though it was very participatory with large NGO representations, the attitudinal division between North and South got amplified here.
Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, changing political scenarios and lack of commitments to assurances made, not much was achieved on field due to UNCED.
Incidentally, members of the 1972 book ‘Limits to growth’ had published a sequel ‘Beyond the Limits’ just before UNCED, where they realised consumption patterns were happening much earlier than they had predicted.
In the meanwhile the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade) became more powerful to the disillusionment of environmental activists, for both of them encouraged free trade capital, competitive industries, production and consumption based not on locality but on pricing comparison across the world.
Virtually, all this were to increase consumerist attitudes and business would override ecological concerns.
It was in the 90s that the world at large realised the climate crisis, and mitigative measures are being taken since then.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Imagine 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.
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.
Natural materials can empower the designer to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception.
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.
When we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default.
It 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.
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.