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Designing in tune with nature

Buildings and other infrastructure in hill stations should not mar the beauty and ambience of the locale.

18bgp-greensensGGS2SCRCI3jpgjpgIf we ask people “Do you like hill stations like Ooty or Wayanad?” everyone will say yes. Then if we follow it up asking “Do you think hill stations like to have people coming over there?”, not everyone will be equally affirmative. After all, we have spoiled the terrain with roads, exploited the views with buildings, littered the landscape with garbage and contaminated the sources of water.

Could these be the only reasons why hill stations dislike humans? After all, aesthetics goes beyond facilities and services, getting expressed in every one of our individual and collective actions. Here lies the tragedy – we go outdoors to relax in the lap of nature and we spoil that very natural settings with our constructions. Most of the buildings in hill stations make neither green sense nor hill sense.

The reference to hills is only anecdotal, for the issue is with our design approaches which negates anything natural. After all, before humans became designers and builders, nature has been designing, building and creating forms. None of them appear to be out of context; there are no ugly rivers; no terrible looking trees; no stones which appear nonsense or no unattractive animals. What are the principles of beauty found in these elements of nature and have we studied them to adapt in any way in our modern human constructs?

Of course, there is a major difference – natural forms grow in their context, while human needs are built up out of context. Buildings do not grow that way to become big from a miniature model kept at the centre of the site. Act of one-time construction differentiates us from nature, which follows slow evolution.

Nature’s prudency

However, can we find ideas towards sustainable architecture in nature? If so, can they be universal or do we need to search them out in every region? How does nature ensures minimalism in its objects where nothing appears unnecessary in any and every part of the object? Can there be design parameters to be learnt from all such phenomena?

There surely are specific criteria behind everything around us, but we have lost the impulse to read them. During the early civilizations, people lived with nature, hence understood and adapted them. Human constructions blended with natural creations, hence there was harmony of different kinds. Architecture of the locality evolved from the landscape of that locality, both complementing each other. Now, times have changed. Even if we were to discover how nature designs, we may find it difficult to follow them in our designs.

The fact that designing with nature is sustainable goes undebated, but are people and designers willing to seek that path in these days where modern architecture is ruling the world? We need to seek answers to such difficult questions

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Simple design, right ambience

The management of a rural school decided to introduce the ideas of Laurie Baker, both to save on costs and get a new architectural vision. 

16bgp-greensensGPK2FVP6F3jpgjpg.jpgLet us deeply observe the kind of talk we are engaged with nowadays. Too often it could be revolved around changing values, shifting aspirations and a new age. Of course, they appear to be the need of the hour, the harbinger of a greater future. May be they are, yet it would be wise to check what we are leaving behind and were they worth discontinuing.

The case of Janatha Higher Primary School, Adyanadka, located in the village Kepu in coastal Karnataka can be a case in point. Started by the visionaries of the village in 1922, the school will hit a century soon, one among the few for any rural schools in Karnataka. The time ahead is ideally the time to celebrate, but sadly it appeared different, with the challenge of survival.

Reducing public donations, unviable rural fee structure, lack of government support, rejection of Kannada medium schools and dwindling admissions created a bleak future for the school, none of them of its own doing but caused by our changing times. Gandhiji if alive today, would have lamented the way our villages are being deserted, yet the lure of cities cannot be arrested by merely quoting Gandhiji.

Given this, the management run by local people took a bold step – not to let the school face a slow death, but to revive it by making it on par with urban schools by introducing the English medium, while continuing the Kannada medium to compliment the new. This meant a new building is needed, an opportunity to create a new image.

New vision

Visions are fine, if supported by finances. Attempts to seek donations and funds did not go far, with priorities of people with money also having changed. Undeterred, the management decided to introduce the ideas of Laurie Baker, both to save on costs and get a new architectural vision.

The site edging a vertical drop in the levels demanded RCC column frame structure, but it helped in creating large obstruction-free classrooms. Nominal laterite foundations support the non-load bearing walls. The same laterite stone is used for the walls too, which are left un-plastered. A few interior walls were painted with natural brick colour to create the classroom ambience, the rest were finished with simple groove pointing.

The RCC roof was designed using the filler block concept popularised by Baker. To make them free of intermediate beams, thick flat slab design was adopted with 3 layers of cheap, zero quality Mangalore tiles as the filler material. Round clay blocks made up for the verandah pillars with simple cement concrete for the flooring. Interlocking stabilised mud blocks create the few partitions, traditional Mangalore tiles on steel truss covers the first floor, displacement ventilation is ensured by voids below ceiling and windows go up to roof providing ample daylight.

No fancy stuff

No fancy elevation, no false modernism and no pretensions of copying the new urban images.

It is a simple building built the way schools were built in the region for decades, minimalistic in construction with nothing unwanted about it. Yet, a team of educated professionals came together to make it, keeping their career expectations and ego aside, not contributing to an architectural image, but ensuring that an appropriate, practical and contextual school happens.

While fund raising is still being attempted, classes have started in the new school wing with first floor construction on going. The village school is defying dis-continuation as the village is shaping as a small town, hoping to cross a century of service and survival, staying green, cost effective, eco-friendly and retaining its vernacular roots.

Your local material in construction

Reluctance to use bamboo is rooted in the absence of design standards and unpredictable performances.

19bgp-greensensGVG2AC0VV2jpgjpgWhere do we source design ideas from? Today it is common to check the internet, books and may be a few buildings around us, generally creating buildings with a modern appearance.

Countering these trends, though occasionally, we get to see newly built traditional structures. They are contemporary, yet are traditional as a cultural expression. In many ways they perform better, functionally and climatically. The Nagaland style tourist facility under construction at Puri beach is a proof for both.

Naga bamboo is straighter than the local, besides being stronger thanks to its thicker outer shell and smaller central hole. It has nodes at shorter intervals with strong diaphragms. These average 5-inch diameter culms are being used for all structural purposes, while the rest of non-load bearing members are from Orissa itself.

Selection

Selection of bamboo is the most important, with every culm treated to reduce sap content. Lengths with signs of cracks are used for slicing and splitting, Split bamboo is commonly used as walling material, weaving it between the vertical bamboo frame to gain strength and reduce porosity.

Subsequently, mud mixed with hay or grass, stabilised soil cement mix or regular mortar can be applied on the surface. This kind of walling is also called as wattle and daub method.

The floor base has to take live and dead loads, so it is made of thin bamboos laid in close proximity with floor joist members, at 2 feet spacing. The final floor finish could be with mud grass mix topped with cow dung, wooden planks, cement oxides or even layer of local thin stones. The ceiling too may have the interwoven split bamboo appearance, but factory finished bamboo matts are now available as a ceiling finish.

Roofing

Roofing is among the more critical decisions in bamboo architecture. While the support system could be same as for floor, the final roof has to be appropriate.

Due to the possible unevenness of bamboo, direct placement of interlocking Mangalore tile is difficult.

So, thatch, metal sheets, ferro-cement and such others can be tried. It’s better to keep the roof angle steep, for both structural stability and faster rain runoff. In Puri, they are using local paddy straw which has shorter life, but it’s economical and easily replaceable.

Being wider at the base and thin at the top, round bamboo can be tricky in achieving uniform sizes and well secured joints. It is vulnerable to cracking and splitting, which of course, can be managed by experts. They would also know how to avoid getting harmed by split edges, sharp tips, peeling of skin and such others.

However, professional reluctance in using bamboo does not come from issues like the above. It is rooted in the absence of design standards and unpredictable performances, dependent upon species and location. But if we see how bamboo has lived with us for generations, it’s our duty to give it due regard.

LAURIE BAKER, Buildings and Beyond

The master architect was convinced that designs are for people and had to suit the local climate.A tribute during his birth centenary year.

29bgp-laurie-baGRG1LL3803jpgjpgThis 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.

‘Uncommon Sense’

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.

Still relevant

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.

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.

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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.

Stay connected with Nature

If you shun eco-friendly architecture and opt for artificial lighting, mechanical ventilation and air conditioning, and work in box-like buildings, you will pay dearly.

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It is many decades now since urban dwellers have adapted to a new lifestyle catered to and controlled by technological advances where we create light, supply air, condition the indoors and replace wall windows by wall papers. If we are proud of our achievements in creating such artificial contexts to live with, now it is time to be worried about. Air and light are not mere physical supplies, but means of sustaining life.

Principles of ecology has for too long been looked upon as data-based science, with eco-friendly architecture of the past dubbed as a by-product of technological limitations of those days. As such, we sought to replace natural phenomena by artificial light, mechanical ventilation and air conditioning, enclosing people in box-like buildings. However, thousands of staff working in completely artificial indoors may vouch how uncomfortable it is to work in such ambiences. Complaints like drowsiness, hair fall, dry eyes, skin vulnerable to allergies, headache, diluted attention and many more are commonly heard, with big theories now doing rounds around the ‘sick building syndrome.’

We know that extremely crowded areas with no trees, no green or no open spaces are more prone for aggressive human behaviour. Considering such slum-like conditions, we tend to equate them to poverty, high density living, family frustrations and such others, while the fact that dearth of day light and fresh air also contribute to this behaviour.

Human life flourishes in certain conditions of natural light, either in cold or in tropical regions; and such light is the energy, never the artificial light. For all living organisms, sun directly provides the energy needed to live, especially the plants.

Let us take the case of daylight to connect ecology to human health. When the right kind of sunlight falls on our body, the bone marrow gets stimulated, producing more red blood cells, enabling denser blood. If RBC count increases and lives longer, more oxygen supply happens, ensuring better health. From skin to calcium, everywhere daylight plays a major role. As many sunlight experts like Shrihari from Mysuru and others can endorse, it is the sun energy that ensures the biological cycle from the baby days to old age and can assist in anti-aging, and provide stronger bones, long lasting teeth or wrinkle-free skin. For all age-related problems, sunlight has a solution.

We have heard how people moving from India to the USA or Canada need to face extreme cold conditions with no visible sun for days, have to stay indoors, resulting in symptoms of depression and anxiety. On the contrary, people doing physical tasks outdoors expose their body to sunlight and surprisingly appear to have more robust health, despite minimal nutrition, unhygienic houses and irregular food habits.

It is time we realise we need to live with nature simply because we are a product of nature and avoiding it is like fish trying to avoid water.

Design matters

Buildings need advanced construction ideas, but without much energy consumption to keep themeco-friendly.

Designing the ideal shelter for varying climate conditions in India is an impossible task, with so many annual seasons, locale-specific micro-climatic modifications and increasingly unpredictable shifts in rains, heat and humidity.

The summer is over and the monsoon rains are lashing us. In many regions, it will be both hot and humid, leading to an uncomfortable sweating even while it is raining outside. It is a challenge now to keep the water and heat out, yet have air circulation through the building.

Indoor comfort conditions cannot be achieved through a singular design idea, but demand multiple interventions.

Monsoon times pose such a critical problem, most known solutions can rarely satisfy all our needs for mid-range temperature, glare-free light, big windows, protection from rain, moderate humidity and appropriate indoor to outdoor connectivity. However we may attempt as many solutions as possible to arrive at the best possible option. Traditional architecture did not face this problem as much as we face it today since they had fewer functional needs from buildings.

For the largely residential, few civic and some market related buildings all with shorter spans, they could manage with the local materials and construction systems.

Places of worship were never supposed to be the comfortable kind, with devotees willing to sweat it out.