Using materials from old buildings re-connects us to our past, and saves them for posterity.
All those who are aware of sustainability discourses are familiar with the 3 R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – a slogan developed for the economically richer nations. The fact that it is more said than done is a sad turn out of things, but in nations like India where they are practised as a lifestyle for ages, we know the value of the three words like a mantra.
However, when it comes to buildings, we appear to profess otherwise, at least during the recent decades. We would rather build new temples at huge costs, but not restore the historic ones at part of that cost. If restored, thanks to our insensitivity, we spoil the old character of the place. Ancestral homes are demolished, making way for new designs, where debris is discarded instead of reusing them.
The exception lies with carved doors, windows, columns and such elements of the historic structure which get sold in some urban context, where transportation, trading and networking facilitate. The rest of buildings from the past bite the dust.
Using materials from old buildings not only re-connects us to our past, it saves them for posterity, extending the life of a product and making it a sustainable material. Normally, reusing the old component is economical, where high costs of skilled craftsmanship are not involved. Even if the task involves skilled labour, it is worthful to reuse salvaged materials, as a lifeline for our dying skill-sets of crafting a building.
Architects tend to argue for modern architecture always, often not realising that many people out there in the society do not appreciate them. Generations may come who advocate modernity, but people who vouch by the old charm would always be there. It is unfortunate that artistic excellence in building products is waning today with craftsmen’s families shifting away due to low remuneration or lack of jobs.
Given this context, projects such as Hotel Ganges View on the Varanasi riverfront or ghat as they are locally called, are successful examples for sensitive handling of lived in, ancestral haveli turning into a heritage hotel. Not all traditional structures can be preserved forever and many of them do not deserve authentic restoration either, unless they are rare specimens of their times. As such, adaptive reuse is a viable alternative today, where the available building stock can be saved from demolition, reused intelligently, saved for posterity and of course, supported traditional crafts people. Complimenting these thoughts, heritage hotel projects also make commercial sense.
Project constraints are not a deterrent to creativity, but a reason to think fresh. Creativity lies not only in designing the new, but equally in working with the existing, which is more challenging. More importantly, re-creating by restoring, adding and altering the existing building makes tremendous green sense today, considering the costs and energy that goes to making the new.
Correa’s buildings evolved from the local climate and context, the way any sustainable architecture should evolve.
For a passer-by driving down the roads of our expanding cities, modern architecture in India today is replete with international styles, never seen forms, complicated structures, imported materials, glass boxes and such others. Those who have travelled abroad would feel proud how India is catching up with the west, not realising what we are doing is mostly a poor imitation of the western ideas, some already discarded there. The fact that many such ideas are inappropriate in our cultural and climatic context gets largely ignored.
However, modern architecture did not start this way, aping the developed nations, in post-independence India; instead it explored many paths to find what should be the essential ‘Indian Architecture’. Among those who led this from the front was the well-known architect Charles Correa.
Just as the un-ecological, energy guzzling mall culture started sweeping across, Charles showed the sustainable way in his designs for the City Center at Kolkata, which is an exemplary case of synthesising Bengali habits, city patterns, local climate, life cycle costs, day lighting and low resource building technologies. We have many architects who create wonderful forms which then demand power and resources to keep them going, but he could design world famous buildings like Bharath Bhavan, Bhopal, which lives largely within its open spaces providing natural light and ventilation. Cultural appropriateness and climatic conformity go hand in hand. Correa expresses it best with his modern interpretation for our design culture, in his Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur.
Today, it is the age of iconic buildings and advanced construction systems. They come with great slogans, compulsive attraction and many claimed advantages, but are disastrous for sustainability.
It is curious to see even during his peak fame, Correa did not experiment with innovative structures or international styles, which possibly helped him perfect his ideas across varied building locations and types.
This meant his buildings evolved from the local climate and contexts, the way any sustainable architecture should evolve.
Climate and context friendly architecture can never appear the same across sites and projects. Most architects fail to realise this and design “same signature” architecture everywhere.
With Correa, variety was the essence. To someone who does know of Correa, Bay Island resort in Andaman, Cidade De Goa, Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, Ahmedabad, Kanchanganga Apartments in Mumbai and LIC Tower, Bangalore, would surely appear as designed by different architects, but they all are the creations of Correa – functionally, aesthetically and contextually.
Correa was not dogmatic either about tradition or modernity, attempting a fusion of both. Hence his buildings have vernacular elements like courts and verandahs; yet exhibit clean lines and materiality of modern architecture.
It is needless to emphasize that his projects added a new dimension to the history of modern architecture in India. Instead, what we need to emphasize is that we need the Correa approach, to balance the diverse demands of modern development and traditional sustainability.
If regions such as Assam can live on bamboo staircases, Bengaluru too can live on them. They combine beauty with functionality.
Would we believe in the statement ‘Some of the newest ideas are based on the oldest practices’? On the face of it we may not, but if we look at the way bamboo is making a grand return, most of us may agree.
As we are searching for new ideas of design and solutions for eco-friendly living, we realise the past holds as many inspirations as the future can tempt us with. The long lengths, jointed body, light weight, easy workability and such others made it an excellent material for high walls and roofs. With a surface skin that can be easily peeled, bamboo provided varied products like woven baskets and floor mats. With a tensile strength beyond that of steel, it found popularity as supports for buildings and pavilions. At the other extreme end, bamboo shoots provided unparalleled options in food too!
People have climbed on a bamboo ladder ever since they lived in settled societies, especially in areas where bamboo grows. In the basic form, one would cut off the small branches leaving only a small part of it, such that they work as steps at staggered levels. This way, people could climb on a single bamboo pole, if it stays stable against a support and carry it around with ease. Then came the design with two poles interconnected with the steps, so one could get better hand grips and stability for the ladder itself.
Didn’t go further
However, bamboo did not go beyond this stage in a big way, where wooden and later concrete staircases dominated. But let us imagine a bamboo stairs just the way steel framed stair works – we get two inclined members on both the sides, they support the horizontal base, bamboo board is fitted to the base and the sides secured. There could be a riser member or we may drop it to get an open riser design. If a sturdier tread is desirable, the bamboo board can be placed on a thicker ply base. The railing can rise from the inclined side supports.
The major disadvantage of doing a bamboo staircase lies in handling the material, demanding both practice and skill. While nails can be used, they tend to go loose after some time; hence nuts and bolts perform better.
To that end, proper holes have to be drilled and nuts properly tightened. However, traditionally no metals were used; instead poles were secured into each other through cuts and ropes made from bamboo itself. Considering that bamboo comes in varying sizes, this method appears to be more effective.
If regions like Assam can live on bamboo staircases, Bangalore too can live on them. They combine beauty with functionality; cost efficiency with longevity; and provide visual tactile feel of a very different kind.
Doing a complete building in bamboo may be difficult in non-bamboo regions, but integrating it within the parts and elements of the structure is definitely doable.
Possibly no animal on this planet can change its habitats and habits of shelter making as humans do, a fact that can be corroborated by hundreds of examples including the famous nests of weaver birds, which have been weaved for many millennia, unchanged.
A small case in point is the wall niches. Found in all buildings all over India, the small depression within the thickness of the wall served as a handy place to temporarily keep household items. When placed outside flanking the main door, they lit up the entrance, both functionally and religiously.
In drawing rooms they facilitated craft displays, in the bedrooms knick-knacks were kept there, in bathrooms they became soap trays and in kitchens, all kinds of things could be found there. Of course, sometimes they could appear ugly, but equally well, they were adorned with art objects to the delight of the guests.
Not ideal in two places
Today, we hardly find these little cute niches and not many logical reasons can be extended to their gradual disappearance. Of course, there are some basics to follow if one intends to have niches.
They are not ideal in two places – on the external wall where the wall is not thick enough to take the depth and in toilet walls which are difficult to tile and maintain dry.
In internal walls, simply leave an opening in the wall, finish one side with chicken mesh plaster or the masonry that goes with the composite wall. A niche may restrict space usage in its front by negating the possibilities of shelves and furniture, but there are many walls which do not take an activity right in front.
Also, along passages, movement areas, walls edging a staircase and passive corners, niches are eminently possible to create a visual appeal and brighten up an otherwise dull corner.
A niche need not be a functional hole in the wall, but can be a piece of beauty by itself. Imagine it with a small arch on top or highlighted by different materials like coloured stone.
Most people prefer it to be around 6 inch deep and up to 2 feet tall, though some house owners like it to be bigger to house larger items for display.
Alternatively, a larger niche can also get subdivisions in between. Considering these are narrow openings, the top need not get a concrete lintel, but keeping a stone across, normal brick course on temporary support or two rods atop suffices. In case of a niche wider than two feet, concrete lintel may be considered.
Today, externally mounted, costlier and convincingly marketed option of plastic or wooden cabinets seem to be everywhere.
It’s time to revive the cheaper and easier solution called niche, built integrally into the wall.
Designing every area of the house correctly is a challenge.
How does a good sense towards design evolve? What method facilitates the selection of most appropriate choice? This question should be baffling all of us, the designers, owners and the builders. The fact that we can change the design on the drawing sheet and cannot once it is built instill greater responsibility in us to decide what kind of buildings should get built on Earth. Both the question and the critical responsibility together should make us think over this overarching issue.
There could be varied approaches to achieve a saner end, but avoiding blind repetition of what our elders did could be the starting point. It does not mean we do whatever comes in a mindless way, but be in a position to look at the design challenge deeply, understand the context, analyse the options and then evolve an idea most suited. The issue of internal steps of a house reaching up to the terrace and having a staircase room there could be a case in point.
If we live in a tall building or own a house high up in the city, it is pretty sure that we take our guests up for a “view from the terrace”. But if there are no guests, let us count how often we walk up to the terrace.
For the majority, there is no regular use of the terrace with going there being an occasional activity, may be for checking the overhead tank or clean the rain water pipes. Yet we need to spend much money on the room; finish the walls and floors; provide a door and electrical connections. The invisible terrace door could also mean insecurity, where a thief can work on forcing open the door with no resident being aware of it. What if we could reach the terrace by other means?
External steel staircase
Let us imagine having a properly fabricated external steel staircase from any balcony or common family space of the last floor. It may cost one-fifth of the internal stairs and room; avoids the need for a security door; saves more space for internal activities; leaves the terrace open for gardening, partying or water harvesting and may enable having a skylight over the stairs, lighting up the whole house.
Of course, there are flip sides – need an umbrella to use the stairs when it rains; need alterations to add another floor with internal access etc., which upon little thinking do not appear to be major hurdles at all.
What about those who dry clothes on terrace or use it for some other regular purposes? The external stairs could be walked up by anyone at anytime, hence makes no difference.
Alternatively, following the analysis of the above kind, one may stay put with the conventional internal stairs and the room on the terrace!
Green Sense is not only about building materials and construction technology, but equally about common sense design.
Unlike single-stone pillars that demand time and money for making them, size-stone pillars are very easy to build and comparatively inexpensive.
Sturdy: Stone pillars are ideal for short spans that do not require RCC
Ask any architectural historian about the single-stone pillar and he/she will endorse its impressive image and instant attraction. The way antique markets get flooded by pillars from demolished buildings and regularly get sold proves their time-tested popularity.
Of course, stone pillars cannot be set in every building and are not affordable by all. Also, such pillars today are exclusive, expensive and require advanced procurement. For those who cannot afford them, but would still love to have them, pillars made of individual stones, called size stones, are a blessing. Unlike the single-stone pillars that demand time and money in making them, size-stone pillars are very easy to build and comparatively inexpensive. Any experienced stone mason can build them at site, along with the person who would dress them to size.
Merges or contrasts
Stone pillars are ideal for short spans that do not require RCC, and where the walls are already being built with natural materials such as stone, mud or brick. As a material, stone either merges or contrasts with the other natural materials, as such compliments any building. Depending upon the region of India, stones come in varied colours, textures and chemical compositions, wherein some varieties are best suited for pillars. The specific details of stone pillars may vary accordingly, but the basic approach is the same everywhere.
Dressing & bonding
All the visible surfaces of stone need to be dressed, by chipping off the unevenness. The degree of dressing, i.e. how smooth or rustic the surface should be, could be a decision left to the discretion of the owners. Comparatively richer mortar mixes, like in the range of 1:2 to 1:4, are required to ensure good bonding.
The size of stones varies between regions and quarries, where the pillar stones can be 6”x6”x6” cubes or 6” x 4”x 8” rectangular blocks. In the former, there would be four stones in each course, measuring up to a pillar 12”x12” size. The latter size will also have four pieces per course in a 12”x12” sized pillar, leaving a small void in the centre. This void could be filled with concrete and a reinforcement rod to take higher and non-axial loads.
In case electrical conduits are to be encased within the pillar, it’s very easy, running the pipe in the centre. However, these smaller-sized stones are normally used for a 9”x9” pillar with only two stones per course. Not all masons are comfortable with smaller pillars, even if they are minimal load contexts, hence should be employed with due care.
The mason has to take extra precaution in building the pillar, ensuring the corner stones are mutually aligned creating the proper vertical corners and horizontal joints. For the stability of pillar, load from top is mandatory.
As such, until the roof is placed, it is common that the freshly built pillar appears weak. As such it is better not to check its strength by trying to push it!
If locally quarried, stone pillars consume the least energy, need zero life-cycle cost and also look elegant.
Have we observed one major difference between what we see along the street in older parts of the town and the newer parts? Within the line-up of buildings, traditional streets exhibit a variety of pillars, while the newer areas have more of walls and windows.
Pillars are seen in all possible masonry materials like brick, wood and stone, as could be locally available and often matching with the material used for the building. Though carved decorations were common in the bygone days, simple, plain pillars were also popular with the low-budget houses.
Let us remember, in those days, reinforced concrete columns were still unknown. However, the masonry pillars took huge loads of large havelis, shrines, palaces or pavilions. Structurally, pillars take axial load, i.e., the vertical load, from the superstructure in conjunction with the beam.
While the beam has to be singular and monolith across, lest it will crack at the centre, the pillar need not be so. Any material that can take compression can be piled one on another vertically to get the pillar effect. Even bags filled with sand can be placed on each other to get the pillar!
Historically, stone pillars appear to be among the most popular around the world, especially in localities where stone is available. The four major attractions of stone — beauty, dignity, durability and strength – made it a popular choice for a range of buildings, from choultries to temples.
The carved single piece pillars added to the public image of havelis and palaces, expressing the social status of the building owner. Often we see huge stone pillars in Indian temples supporting the massive towers, suggesting the strength of the pillar.
Back in usage
Curiously, single piece stone pillars are back in usage once again, in few cities where stone quarries are nearby. Once the building designs are finalised, the required pillar dimensions are provided to specially quarry it to order.
While the basic component of the pillar comprising the base piece, the main shaft and the top are maintained, carvings are kept to the minimal nowadays. Considering that the roof cannot be cast unless the pillar is in place, the project needs to be coordinated right from the designing stage itself.
Present-day buildings have a clear height close to 10′, but not all quarries can safely supply pillars of that height. In such cases, a short base platform needs to be built upon where the pillar could be rested.
To ensure no side buckling or slippage of parts happens due to unforeseen diagonal loads, and to tie the pillar to the beam on top, a small hole is drilled into the stone at every junction, holes on both sides are connected with iron rods and the holes filled with rich mortar, araldite or even molten lead.
If locally quarried, stone pillars consume the least energy, save time, need zero life-cycle cost, look elegant and are fully retrievable. It is possibly among the most eco-friendly options today.
Reinforced hollow brick pillar is a simple method to get the best of both strength and aesthetics!
Know this?: Verandahs and other small spaces do not require RCC columns
The way society forgets the past, often within one generation, is really strange. Between past practices, best practices and new practices, it is the past practices that possibly face the first blow from societal forgetfulness.
There was a time when concrete columns did not exist, and now we are going through a time where non-concrete columns are seemingly non-existent, as if they have vanished from our imaginations.
To state it simply, the wall is nothing but an elongated column and the column is an extremely short wall. Technically though, there are differences in the way they behave and transfer loads, which the structural engineers will consider before deigning them.
Most short span spaces such as verandahs, pavilions, sheds, and small rooms around 10 ft. span do not require RCC columns, but can be managed with columns erected using the same masonry material with which the building walls are built. In the case of higher loads, where we wish to reduce concrete, the brick column can be reinforced with structural steel.
While both the words ‘column’ and ‘pillar’ are found in common usage, the word ‘ column’ is more applicable to RCC while non-RCC ones like stone, wooden or brick ones are referred to as pillars.
There are many examples and past attempts towards reinforced pillars using cement water pipes, hollow cement blocks and such others. They all require external plaster finish, may not have the minimum concrete volume to embed the steel or finally end up using high embodied energy materials like cement all over.
Alternatively, hollow clay blocks and jaali bricks are preferable, also due to the availability of internal perforations to run the steel through.
In the chosen hollow block, the number of voids and the distances are fixed; as such the numbers of steel rods have to be designed to take the roof, people and materials’ load from upper floors.
Every joint is to be used to have the steel tie called stirrups, placed within the mortar bed.
The rods are first erected from the ground up with some temporary support, each block is inserted from top down, stirrups either slipped down or freshly tied there, and voids and joint finished with mortar. Next, another block is inserted and so goes the process.
Ensuring the rods are held vertical, each block is filled with concrete made with 12 mm jelly. Blocks should be well soaked with water to reduce cement water absorption.
The last course often does not match with the desired slab or beam bottom, where concrete packing or blocks cut thin can be considered. Each block has to be placed perfectly horizontal, within the margins of dimensional variations, otherwise joints will visibly appear angular.
Wiping the blocks regularly and externally covering the pillar with construction plastics during roof casting ensures least damage to the surface, later to be left exposed.
Reinforced hollow brick pillar is a simple method to get the best of both worlds – strength and aesthetics.
The first human shelter would have been made of a thatch roof supported by four tree trunks cut to the required height, the earliest form of our modern RCC columns!
What are the important elements of a building? It is a question that anyone may answer: foundation, floor, walls, doors, windows and roof. The answer appears correct when we look at the buildings, each one covered by a wall. However, buildings did not begin this way. They began with pillars and roofs, and not with walls and windows. The first human shelter would have been made of a thatch roof supported by four tree trunks cut to the required height, the earliest form of our modern RCC columns!
The size of the covered area would have decided the materials, which together would have influenced the quantity of consumption and durability of the structure. Here we notice how construction systems, materials, costs and life cycle were the earliest determinants of architecture. They continue to be so.
Expansive with columns
During the development of design ideas and the changing notion of shelter, walls gained prominence, reducing columns to the back seat. While walls create a room space, the space is actually enclosed within but the spaces created by columnar constructions are visible and expansive, creating a sense of largeness. Columns not only support the roof, but also add beauty to the building, as in Chettinadu houses of Tamil Nadu or Theravadu homes of Kerala.
Traditionally many natural materials lent themselves to be used as pillars — stone, brick and wood being the most prominent. Invariably carved and decorative, these pillars would welcome any visitor home, being in the front of the building. The pillared verandahs cost little, but provide sheltered area for a range of activities. The internal court would have corner pillars, ensuring open planning for the rest of the home. Even a multi-storey palace or pilgrims’ choultry would have many pillars at each level, ably supporting the floors.
Living patterns have no doubt changed, but the time-tested relevance of pillars has not. Somewhere down the line, we seem to have forgotten how to use pillars. No wonder, today building elevations exhibit no pillars, but have a dozen of them within even a small house.
Replacing walls by pillars actually works to our ecological and economical advantage. Pillars reduce material consumption, as could be seen in the traditional courtyard homes with minimal walls. While allowing roof-level shelters, pillared structures do not stop air and light, as could be seen in any large temple complex. Goan ‘balcao,’ Kerala ‘mukha mantapam’ and rural Karnataka ‘jagali’ are all illustrations of simple shaded shelters created by rows of columns. Open sheds continue to dot our towns, housing anything from cars to cattle, besides being garden pavilions.
An ornately carved pillared construction could be costly, obsolete and near impossible now, yet a variety of material and design options continue to be available to us, for a judicious blend of walls and pillars.
The vernacular architecture of yesterday is the net zero carbon building of today.
It is now nearly proven that to relook at our past, pick sustainable ideas of every region and apply them appropriately during construction makes more green sense than many other material and technology driven solutions. The vernacular architecture of yesterday is the net zero carbon building of today. If so, returning to the past could be the ultimate solution towards a sustainable future. Of course, we all know, this sounds too simplistic for our times have drastically changed, the quantum of construction has grown manifold beyond the reach of traditional methods and in many areas the local materials or expertise could be in short supply.
However, if we observe our reactions to the past, we realise that not many fingers are pointed to the past saying traditional ideas are invalid, indirectly suggesting that the problem could be lying in applying and operationalising them. At the deepest level, however, we need to understand that the root cause lies in nobody patronising the spirit of the past today.
A simple example could be to narrate the story of the overhead water tank. Traditionally, they were built with bricks, plastered and painted. Of course, there were issues such as leakage if they were not properly constructed. When the PVC tanks appeared in the market, the brick tanks were relegated to the backseat quoting examples of leakage or construction time, which actually need not be the core issues. Incidentally, the PVC tanks cannot be fully cleaned, water gets hot during summers when actually we desire it cold, create a problem if the pipe joints leak and are not necessarily cheaper. Yet, today we see PVC tanks everywhere!
During the complete cycle of the product, numerous people are involved starting from the raw material suppliers and manufacturers, carrying and forwarding agents, stockists and wholesalers, sales agencies and retailers, and finally, builders and installation team. Everyone needs a share in the profit chain; hence each one aggressively promotes the product through printed brochures, sales personnel, trade discounts, websites, promotional gifts, event sponsorships, newspaper advertisements and every other means available. What counts here is the sales figure and not carbon emission or embodied energy counts.
It is the same story with lime coat vs. chemical paint coat, mud block vs. cement block, oxide floor vs. vitrified floor or digging an open well vs. drilling borewells. While we know all about brick tanks, lime, mud, oxides or open well, with no one talking about them, it’s but natural that they get relegated.
No dearth of ideas
There is no dearth of eco-friendly ideas and construction options that could be discovered from our local tradition which can compliment the recent research findings, modern design ideas and new superior materials. No one argues for doing only what our ancestors did, and the need to blend the past and present has been widely accepted. To that end, traditional concepts also need to be popularised and local materials also need to be promoted.