It was ideal housing material for long but had lost favour in recent times. However, bamboo is slowly making its mark again.
When an ecologically appropriate material finds less users, it is time to think. What makes the modern, energy guzzling material ride over the ecologically sensitive one? Equally well, if that material regains its popularity, it is also time to think. What brings about the green sense again?
Bamboo could be an apt example to this trend. Actually a grass, it consumes less primary energy than wood; assimilates more carbon dioxide for photosynthesis than trees, ensuring faster sequestering of carbon; reduces soil erosion due to its thick root formation; and produces more bio-mass per hectare than many other plants with its rapid growth.
An easy to transport material with surface tensile strength higher than steel, bamboo is best among the light weight construction options, where speed of execution is required. It sways with flexibility, hence does not break against fast wind; it is not a rigid construction, hence does not collapse during earthquakes; it grows very fast, hence becomes a rapidly renewable resource; and the culm can be used all through its thicker lower parts, thinner upper parts and the sliced surface.
Majority of construction techniques require externally erected scaffolding systems for holding the materials and workers, with larger buildings demanding cranes.
Building with bamboo needs all these minimally, with expert workers using the built part itself as the support. Even though construction happens part by part, once completed the building appears singular and interconnected.
Yet, the execution does not lead to a monolithic construction, which is in favour today. The concrete, ferro-cement and modern organic forms appear monolithic in their final version.
Even the simple brick wall houses we do have a dozen RCC columns with walls plastered and painted to hide the individual masonry units, though they drain the money and strain nature. Bamboo architecture is neither monolithic nor hidden, which is actually its strength, not a weakness.
Bamboo has been best suited for thatch roof, country pan tiles, slates and stones, which can be comfortably fixed despite the slight unevenness of the canes. As roofing materials gave way for interlocking and overlapping tiles like Mangalore tile which demand perfect levels, bamboo lost favour. Coupled with the increasing popularity of RCC roof, bamboo slowly got relegated to the back benches.
In the past, housekeeping and maintenance was part of living in the house. Today people expect that the building be maintenance free, a pre-condition which rules out too many eco-friendly materials and construction types. Bamboo too is a victim to this trend, which cannot be cleaned all around, polished frequently or left exposed to sun and rain once built. As skilled labourers dwindled, popularity of bamboo also waned.
Promoting the cause
But slowly but steadily, bamboo is again in the reckoning. Internationally, books on bamboo are increasing and the one by Gernot Minke proves the value of the material so simply and directly. Vaibhav Kale, Sanjay Prakash, Neelam Manjunath, Uravu group, Sanjeev Karpe, Saajan and many more have been promoting it in their own ways. Bamboo has a future again.
Interactions among nations for preserving the environment have been going on for quite some time. Concrete action is awaited.
Many of us reading this essay might have stayed past the midnight of December 31, 1999, to sing, dance and welcome the new millennium, waking up to January 1, 2000. We all considered us to be among the lucky few witnesses to the march of civilisation, occurring once in a thousand years.
Now what if we ask, will there be humans to dance on December 31, 2999, and welcome January 1, 3000? It is not a complex question, but a frightening question considering the devastating march of humans on the Earth. May be this rapidly increasing fear is what is catapulting us to greater ideas and actions since 1999.
In the year 2000, 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were set out by the United Nations to be accomplished by 2015, ratified by the largest ever congregation of world leaders in human history.
Though it focused more on societal than environmental issues, it suggested that the humankind could come together, as was later proved by the World Summit of 2005.
A little before it, in 2002, the Earth Summit at Johannesburg placed sustainable development as an overarching concern, further emphasised upon at the Earth Summit of 2012, also called as Rio+20. Here, 192 nation heads, chief executives of private sector companies and innumerable NGOs converged for 10 days to work out the modalities of sustainable development. The major issue that emerged was about reconciling economic and environmental issues, which most often are at loggerheads.
Among the results of these initiatives, an important one is Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with 169 targets. These extended the MDGs beyond 2015 and expanded the inter-governmental agreements.
With the word ‘sustainability’ appearing 13 times in this list, besides climate change, equitable quality, inclusiveness, consumption, production patterns, energy, inequality among nations, global partnership, economic growth and such others, the SDGs must be the most ambitious set of visions ever envisioned by humankind.
The multiple meetings being held from 1972 onwards have reduced as decades advanced and the UN summits paved the path for global leaders to be on the same platform.
The new millennium also saw scores of research, books and seminars, converting the sceptics into believers of climate change.
Today we do not have frequent global events, but the interactions after 2000 have led to agreements by all to restore ecological balance, mainly during the Conference of Parties (CoP), which started in 1997 and has been held every year without fail. Together with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reports, our environmental awareness has advanced far and deep.
How many of these goals have been achieved or are they really achievable at all, should not be the debate today, for the very coming together of nations on a single stage, nations that have been warring a few decades ago, itself is a human achievement.
Now the challenge is to convert this achievement into action and let awareness lead to execution of ideas.
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.
An eco-friendly building uses less resources, local materials, and low power. So, it becomes a cost-conscious project.
For a fresher, discussions on sustainable buildings can be a total confusion. We dine at exclusive restaurants housed in celebrated green-rated hotels; we stay at famed eco-friendly resorts paying many thousands per night and we pay many crores to buy luxury apartments marketed for their sustainable designs. None of these places exhibit any kind of low cost ideas and are so costly; only the rich can afford them. Possibly, there is no connection between cost and ecological concerns! Those who connect them could be wrong.
The reality is otherwise. An eco-friendly project would by default use less resources, local materials, earthy constructions, natural ambiences and low power. So, in principle, an eco-sensitive project also becomes a cost-conscious project.
Unfortunately, people with good incomes do not wish to quit their comforts and luxuries, yet our ecological crisis demands that we be more sensitive to nature. As such, we need ways of retaining our carbon footprint, even while claiming a lifestyle that demonstrates our love for nature and sustainability. This contradiction apart, for the true lovers of nature and earth resources, there are many ways to achieve a balance between cost and ecological concerns.
The small farm house built by Dinesh Shastry near Bengaluru demonstrates many paths to lowering the costs. Being an owner-designed and built house, charges of architects, engineers, contractors and builders were saved. Of course, the construction team had to learn about alternative eco ideas, to avoid mistakes and cost overruns.
Minimising high cost materials such as steel, cement, aluminium and glass became mandatory. This reduced transportation costs, besides time for coordinating their procurement. Hence, the structure got the foundation packed with local boulders, walls had farm soil rammed between simple shuttering and roof was built as a curved vault with local bricks. Construction techniques matter as much as materials, both of which have to be context specific.
The house plan with simple two-staggered rectangles, creates verandahs and backyards with maximum shared walls which are parallel, hence simplifies roof spans. All water and sanitary connections are along one line to save on chambers. Typical woodworks for doors and windows can cost up to three times the wall costs, so they are replaced by perforated clay jaalis, but care has to be taken to ensure adequate air and light. Avoiding plastering and painting saves much money both during construction and over its life time. Much can be saved by disciplined schedules, efficient sequencing of tasks, labour management and controlling wastage.
All these ideas are already known to experts and proven across time, besides which many more ideas are being explored. Every idea cannot be implemented everywhere. So, let us keep our eyes open, learn from each project and try to reduce cost for the next project.
If we do not focus on balancing our material comforts and challenge of climate, we will pay a huge price for our follies.
It is less than a week since we passed another World Environment Day, but we have utterly failed in the test to see if we are capable of saving Nature. In this era of slogans such as ‘Make in India’, which is required to facilitate ourselves without losing foreign exchange, we are not equally focused on balancing our comforts and challenge of climate.
As such, the time has come to choose between bank balance and ecological balance. While ‘Made in India’ needs to be supported, the greater emphasis should be for ‘Made in Nature’.
During the recent times, products made in factories untouched by human hands get much of publicity and advertisement. In food products, they may make sense due to reasons of hygiene, but the non-edible products need not be so. As a reverse trend, especially in developed nations, now it is the time for handmade products, which demand a premier price. Maybe it’s time we take pride in the handmade, to lend a human touch to what we produce. In principle, anything directly from humans will also be equally directly from nature.
Traditionally humans picked up objects and items from around their place to create shelter; as such nearly all of such settlements were organic in character, built largely with natural products. While natural products are the most eco-friendly, the next best is to rely upon processed items, including materials such as clay bricks.
The worst products, in terms of being against nature, are the manufactured materials which consume much of resources, generate large quantities of waste and have very high embodied energy.
This simple classification of natural, processed and manufactured materials may have few exceptions, but can be applied as a litmus test before finalising construction materials. The present trend of material cost, ease of construction and immediate attraction cannot sustain an argument for eco-sensitive architecture. Eco-sensitivity should emerge from ecology of materials, not the economy it can generate. However, is it possible to reduce manufacturing?
Never in the history of human settlements have people lived in an artificial context like we are doing today.
The monetarily advanced urban population is no more living in the natural world, but lives in a manufactured world. Even the villagers, though are seemingly living in the natural world, depend upon lifestyle products which are made in factories.
As we live away from nature, our human instinct to be closer to nature also has its pull factors, driving the wealthy back to farmlands, resorts and hill stations. For many, such visits are like an annual religious ritual, without which they feel restless. It is notable to observe how people meticulously follow rules of religion, but do not care for the rules of nature.
It is time for the religious minded to realise that ‘God lies in Nature’, and for those who may not be, to affirm that ‘Nature is God’.
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.
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.
Ever thought of living comfortably on a tree? Check out the concept.
What did we dream while being a small child? Many of us wished to fly like a bird and live on the trees. Could it be the primitive human genes which suggested climbing trees for protection in those days of living in the wild? Is this inspired by hunter’s cabins or watchman’s shack between tree branches in a farming estate? Whatever be the reason, the dream of kids has now evolved as a doable feat with improved skill-sets and technology for building tree houses.
The idea is still attached with an exotic notion befitting resorts, but the concept of it being an extension of a house for everyday living is now being promoted by the tree house community at Auroville, mainly run by Filip and his friends.
With more than 50 units already built, the new one at Varanashi Farms has ventured into greater heights.
While the basic platform can be erected between braches by anyone, with wood purlins and planks using thick tying ropes, building up the whole tree house to live needs tools, skills, hoisting mechanisms and safety gears.
Among the most possible green projects, tree houses are not only eco-friendly, but become part of the eco, just like the bird nest becoming a part of the flora and fauna. Considering the swaying and growing of the tree, construction cannot be rigid, unlike the ground constructions.
Selection of the tree based on its branching pattern, type of wood, fixing the landing points, angle of staircase and reaching out to the base of the tree house are of paramount importance. While entering sideways is the best, we may have to enter through the floor using a hatch door.
Natural and light weight materials such as wood and bamboo are used for the frame, while floor can be made up with planks. Walls need to be treated more like partitions than solid masonry, hence woven mats and bamboo boards come in handy.
The same wood, bamboo and additionally rattan can be used for furniture. Roofing has many options like grass, tiles, coated metal sheets and such others. Tree house design cannot be drawn up in advance, but for some hand sketches, rest happening and improvising while actually building it. Ensuring it is easy to maintain over the years is a challenge to be met with.
They fare better in climatic regions where wood and natural materials do not rot, crumble or become powdery; however it is mandatory to use seasoned construction materials, pre-treat them against termite and fungus, finally finishing with appropriate surface polishes.
Historically, tree houses belong to the primitive shelter group, but can they be for the future too? Any logical analysis would suggest – yes, they have the potential to compliment our future living. To that end, we need to respect the tree, understand how minimally it should be harmed and merge our needs within what the tree offers. May be, building a tree house is among the most sensitive modes of creating shelters.
Important public buildings ignore the time-tested lessons of sustainability found in local architecture.
Just like we human beings have individual habits, society as a collective phenomenon also has its own share of habits. One among the notable habit is the way we segregate, classify and term our actions under different headings. Eco-friendly and cost- effective architecture appears to suffer from this habit of type casting. Too many people tend to believe that nature-friendly green buildings with local materials and regional character are good for houses or select institutional buildings only.
Important public buildings, hospitals, spaces for multi-national companies (MNC) and such others ignore the time-tested lessons of sustainability found in local architecture, adopting contemporary styles instead. Some buildings employ a few of the criteria of IGBC or TERI for green buildings, aspiring to get respective ratings. Considering the wide range of criteria to score points from, these green-rated buildings may score poorly on local ideas, but score more on products used, management matters, energy saved and such others.
Also, many of them do not consider critical issues like life cycle costs, embodied energy or operational costs (OPEX) in relation to capital costs (CAPEX). As such, there is no guarantee to say a green rated building is a design evolved from local considerations.
Can we imagine a software office with a central courtyard and wall built with un-plastered natural material? Such a non-air-conditioned day-lit space may provide a healthier ambience to work at, possibly better than an enclosed, artificially-lit AC hall. Besides the savings in electricity, a roof finished with exposed clay filler block would need no more maintenance cost lifelong. If we can add a traditional verandah at the entrance, the employees get a space to relax, wait for colleagues or welcome guests. The natural materials all around may provide a soothing feeling, replacing the provocative artificial interiors.
Can we imagine an auditorium with hollow core construction, so the wall becomes a sound barrier? Can it have a tiled roof, which negates the need for false ceiling? Can there be a hospital where patients in waiting lounge in an indoor garden with day light and natural air? All these and many more are possible, if our mindset against designing with nature changes.
The eco-friendly alternatives are not a style by themselves, but an application of green ideas which are possible on any structure. We already have cases where architects have designed hospitals, kalyan mantaps, software offices, schools, industries, MNC seed companies and such others, successfully incorporating cost-effective, culturally appropriate and climatically conforming design ideas and construction techniques. They may not be large in number yet, but are becoming increasingly visible during a drive around in an urban context.
The problem does not lie with the ideas, but with our mindset that considers alternative architecture fit or unfit for a given context. With the consumption pattern and climate crisis deepening, today eco-ideas are valid everywhere.
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.
We have to minimise the damage to nature and convince ourselves about alternative design approaches.
We are going through a time when most people have no time, as such it is imperative that we not only have elaborate essays but also brief pointers towards eco-friendly architecture. We know that every construction can happen only after some destruction; as such theoretically architecture cannot be sustainable. It’s equally true that the need to construct is a valid human activity.
As such, all that we can do is to minimise the damage to nature and convince ourselves about alternative design approaches. The following could be good starting points to that end:
Minimise manufactured materials: Do we know why brick overhead water tanks have given way to plastic-based tanks? These manufactured tanks need to earn profits for everyone from producer to retailer, hence get aggressively marketed, despite the resources they consume or wastage they cause. In contrast, no one markets brick tanks, instead face wrong propaganda against them, resulting in a slow death. Every manufactured item has the same story – they eliminate the natural, local materials and consume scarce resources.
Reduce embodied energy: This term refers to the sum total of energy that goes into a material right from sourcing raw material to its execution at site, or more seriously, finally being returned to nature.
By quantifying the data from all materials and construction energy spent, one can quantify the embodied energy of the building itself. The lesser the embodied energy, the more eco-friendly will the building be.
Explore nature: Building with nature is same as building with natural air, water, light and space. Maximizing them, not by artificial means using electricity but by passive means, would directly reduce resource consumption. This would minimise greenhouse gas emissions which is the major cause behind climate change.
Design effectively: Efficiency and effectiveness have no substitutes in architecture, for they pay back in daily comfort, save on electricity bills, create multi-functional spaces, assist in life cycle maintenance and many such others. Unfortunately, not everyone prioritises plan making, so a good plan should precede all other applications of eco-ideas.
Controlled costs: Cost has a complex relationship with sustainability, where the lowest cost may not be the most sustainable idea. Vitrified tiles are cheap, though they have high carbon footprint. Thatch roofs have lowest embodied energy but demand high maintenance. However, cost has much do with energy consumed and we need to take appropriate decisions for each context.
Perfect the innovations: With hundreds of ideas being introduced everyday, the construction sector is abuzz with excitement, but we do not know how many of them will perform well. Without giving the existing ideas time to err, correct, revise and evolve as a perfect solution, we discard them. Perfecting them is more important than innovating new ones.
We can list many more, however solutions are still hazy. Each one of us needs to explore options towards a better and safer future.