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Build sensibly or perish

If we ignore valuable advice given by architects of yore and construct buildings against the laws of nature, we are doomed.

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Victor Olgyay is the name few hundreds would have heard of in India and few thousands in the whole world today. Nearly 60 years ago, he started working on his book ‘Design with Climate” which got published in 1963. If he could advise us how do design sensitively and comfortably so long ago, why do we continue to ignore his wisdom? Some of the research topics he wrote about were arrived at much before him too.

Many forewarning kinds of books appeared shortly thereafter. ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson published in 1969 was path-breaking research on how chemicals are negatively impacting nature, mainly focusing on those which were used in agriculture, pest control and related issues. The organic movement now spreading wide has made people aware of all these.

Another early text, ‘Man Climate and Architecture’ by Baruch Givoni, got published in 1969, making the 1960s a decade of awareness building. However, after 50 years, the use of construction chemicals both in numbers and quantity is growing at an alarming upward curve.

India should be proud of the fact that it is among the first in the world to have had its own book on designing eco-friendly architecture, albeit written by a German. ‘Manual of Tropical Housing’ by Koenigsberger and others was published in 1973, and for more than 45 years we have an early manual for reference.

We have our own manual on climatology, but how much of it do we follow except as a textbook in colleges? How many students who study it for examinations forget it soon after and design architecture against climate? Why and who influences our construction industry decisions?

‘Design with Climate’ by Victor refers not only to all the basics of climate in general but applies that knowledge to design and construction. It contains topics such as an adaptation of shelter to climate; effects of climate on man; solar controls; bioclimatic charts; regional characters; microclimatic effects; basic forms of houses; morphology of town structures; thermal effects of materials; designs for different climatic zones and such others. Even though the book focuses on the U.S., the theory is applicable universally.

As such, more commonly needed data on wind, airflow patterns, heat, solar glare, sky factors, Sun path diagrams, shading devices, light intensities, passive cooling methods, lessons from traditional architecture, implications of massing and such others are all there. It is amazing to see how Victor attempted to cover a wide variety of topics with actual calculations using the early instrumentation available, which is so close to the more realistic ones available today with all software.

In many ways, its subtitle, ‘Bioclimatic approach to regionalism’ was the original contribution of Olgyay. This thought process, directly or indirectly, later led to many terminologies such as Bio-mimicry, Biomorphism, Biophilia, critical regionalism, eco-friendly ideas, local architecture, sustainable designs, green buildings and so on, and we can read shades of bioclimatic approaches in many other related theories like New Urbanism or even in Zero Carbon Cities.

It is easy to say Victor was ahead of his times to thank him, but it is a pity that we pay no attention to his research and advice even now, continuing to design against climate. It is time to realise climate change has already gone beyond our control and merely trying to design with climate will not stop the juggernaut. We have hurt, angered and irritated climate so much that now she is retaliating by warming up and speeding up in the form of cyclones, hurricanes and tsunamis.

Listening to Victor Olgyay and many others could have saved the east coast of India, mainly Bhubaneshwar and Puri, from being devastated by cyclone ‘Fani’. Are we able to see the connection between designing with climate and cyclones like ‘Fani’? If we are not, we as the human race are doomed.

Tackling loose soil

A look at a simple, traditional practice which is not adopted nowadays.

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When the British ruled India, among the many local practices they despised was that of the construction sector. To them, ideas of our past generations appeared unprofessional, hence introduced the European systems from their land. No doubt India benefitted in numerous ways by these new systems, but unfortunately, time-tested wisdom got lost in this process. Among these casualties, systems of foundation are notable.

Different regions of India followed different methods to solve the problem of transferring the building load to the ground. There were earth consolidations, wooden piles, boulders, stone slabs, deeper external wall foundations, sand packing and many more, which appeared flimsy to the British.

They introduced the method where dressed stone or masonry blocks are laid in layers, each upper layer narrower compared to the lower one, creating the stepped appearance, popularly believed to be stronger. It requires dressing the block into neat looking sizes, lime or cement mortar, back-filling the trench and needs to start from the hard strata of earth, hence could be many feet deep into the earth. In loose soil, such foundations demand much money and effort.

A simpler and traditional practice in this direction has been to drive down small poles 4 to 6 inch diameter into the soil at every one foot distance in both the directions. A normal 3 ft. wide and 3 ft. deep foundation trench is first dug out, with the top soil still loose.

Any locally available bamboo, casuarina, forest wood or such other poles which tend to grow narrow, straight and long are chosen with the desired length with the bottom tip left blunt or slightly tapered. The whole pole is given anti-termite treatment for durability and the top part wrapped with cloths or tied with ropes to avoid it splitting due to hammering.

Each one is steadily and slowly hammered down into the loose soil till it stops moving down. Technically, this method is nothing but a pile foundation, where modern concrete piles had their predecessor in wooden piles. This ensures the bottom strata of soil is made denser and tightly packed, hence is empowered to take greater load. Upon this layer of piles, masonry foundation was laid to the full width of trench, by packing stone boulders, quarried laterite, local bricks or any other local material.

The negatives

The flip side of this system is difficulty in gauging the increased load bearing capacity, which if needed can be found out by conducting on-site pile capacity testing. If the soil is excessively dry, intermittently water logged or termite infested, additional precautions need to be taken.

The driving down of the poles, mostly done manually, should be done honestly till they reach the layer of hard soil.

Soil types vary due to percentage contents of clay, sand, black cotton, gravel, laterite and such others, hence have varied expansion, water retention and shrinkage characteristics, which need to considered.

As modern science of construction is advancing, an occasional looking back may unearth forgotten knowledge systems that are resource saving and eco-friendly.

Design differently

Given the magnitude of the construction sector in India, we should have explored much more and reduced the habit of blind repetitions and thoughtless manipulation of mainstream design ideas.

30marchResearch and development – R & D – is such a commonly used term today, it can be found in every form of media in some context or the other. From cookware to cars, from sewing to seeds, we attribute the improved condition to the R & D that would have backed up the related efforts. As such the issue of research on sustainable buildings is an expected question, but unfortunately without a convincing answer. It is not that we have had no research; many institutions in the past and even now are engaged in measuring and monitoring data on buildings, giving new insights. It is a feeling that for the magnitude of the construction sector in India, we should have explored much more and reduced the habit of blind repetitions and thoughtless manipulations of the mainstream ideas.

Demonstration units

Among the pioneers in this field in post-Independence India was the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) at Lucknow. With fairly good funding, CBRI actually built demonstration units, and explored varied hypotheses about light, air and costs. A group of visionary civil engineers at the Indian Institute of Engineers, Bangalore, initiated ASTRA, abbreviation for Application of Science and Technology for Rural Areas. This simple motto led to pioneering research on mud walls, arch roofs, vaults and domes, besides relooking at vernacular designs for modern applications with their work still continuing under the name Gram Vidya.

The unique settlement at Auroville, though started with the spiritual blessings of The Mother, turned out be a world laboratory on alternative designs and constructions. A heaven for students and learners, people keen on exploring cost-effective, eco-friendly and energy-efficient models even today flock to Auroville. The Energy and Resource Institute or TERI has commissioned, collated and contributed a wealth of information towards sustainable buildings. Among the recent entrants has been the Indian Green Building Council or IGBC which certifies buildings under varied LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Designs) ratings, based on the overall efficiency the building achieves. Internationally there are many centres that collate specific data and reach it out through the Internet. INBAR, which works for bamboo buildings, is a case in point.

Many government agencies have been spearheading the challenge of ensuring eco-friendly buildings, the leaders among them being Bureau of Energy Efficiency or BEE; Centre for Science and Environment or CSE; HUDCO; Building Centres or Nirmithi Kendras; Departments for Renewable Energy and such others. Also we find many private initiatives like COSTFORD, Laurie Baker Building Centre, and Hunnarshala Foundation taking up the cause of cost-effective ideas.

Apply them

Architecture and engineering being a consultancy-based profession, most of the expertise is acquired by actually doing a building. As such, we have a wealth of information spread over thousands of individual professionals, not fully documented and disseminated. Together with the institutionalised centres of knowledge, we have enough data to change the way we build. Most of this new knowledge is available to us for reference. Now, our new role is to apply them.