Buildings are built completely out of natural resources, yet they do not become a part of nature and blend with it
We have millions of buildings and we are building millions more. But let’s imagine the shocking possibility that at least 75% of buildings will get demolished during the next 200 years and wonder where all the debris would go. Sounds absurd when we think how every shelter every other animal makes, returns to nature.
Look at the total weight of a building – floors, walls, roofs, doors, windows, toilets, everything. We build them to carry the load of us and our belongings. The building weight would be far more than our total weight. How illogic when we see a bird’s nest weighing less than its occupants. Today buildings figure in books, seminars, schools and tax papers – more as an owned asset, social image, family aspiration, functional performance, capital investment, operational costs, iconic architecture, innovative ideas, human creativity and many others.
Reality is buildings are built completely out of natural resources, located on a natural site, yet they do not become a part of nature – buildings that may blend with nature and become incognito are not always heard of.
Architecture started with shelter making, followed by the need for shade, security, storage, space, safety, protection, familiarity, comfort and such others – on most occasions, each one of these criteria is overdone in our design and construction industry.
From being ecological animals, we have shifted to being economical animals. From economical, it became personal and now we all live our individual aspirations with no due recognition to the eco-impact we are causing.
Connection to nature
We have forgotten that we vibrate better with natural materials due to our connection to nature vide geo, bio, electric, magnetic energy waves surrounding all of us. Of course, we study bio-mimicry, bio-morphism and bio-philia to design bio-climatic architecture, with recent thoughts on building biology also. But how many of us do all this, out of world population?
Our architecture needs to evolve from nature, made of nature and made for nature. Only then, it will become part of nature or someday become nature itself. That’s the simplest mode to realise eco-logics.
Eco-logic is not a great new term. It is what has created our only home called the Earth and the early tribes still live with the logic of their contexts.
Developed human societies created a human knowledge system called rational logic and told us to follow it in every aspect of our lives. In recent centuries, we have evolved modern human logic, as an opposite to eco-logic.
Will the human logic someday overpower the eco-logic is unknown to us, but the way climate change is threatening to change the course of our future, it appears like eco-logic will prevail over human logic.
Maybe its time to change our courses before we too become victims of what we have unleashed on the Earth – the age of Extinction.
How to build stylish, yet eco-friendly homes in the wake of radical shift in construction systems.
If we invite friends home for dinner, the choice of vegetables is among the starting points to decide upon the menu. The same curry listed in the culinary books becomes a different tasting dish with a different vegetable. Not the best example to quote, but so too in buildings where the same building type, say a school, could become different with varied materials.
All construction materials are sourced from nature, such as stone, bamboo, mud, clay, thatch, lime and timber. Of course, water too comes from there, but is rarely acknowledged! It may surprise many to know that every industrially processed and manufactured material also comes from nature.
Lime as the raw material for cement; iron ore to make steel; bauxite as the ore for aluminium; sand as the basis of glass; clay for ceramics; finally crude oil and coal for plastics. So the equation is simple – as we increasingly use cement, steel, aluminium, glass, ceramics and plastics in construction, we are increasing the resource consumption, process wastes, transportation costs, demolition discards and as such, the embodied energy of the building, which directly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change.
There have been radical shifts in construction systems today, especially in the multi-storey sector, yet standard foundations, walls, lintels, beams and roofs dominate the majority of projects.
Here, materials contribute more than building technology in making the building eco-friendly. This is not to demean construction options – more than half-a-dozen foundation types exist; roofs could be done in a dozen ways; walls can be built in more than 15 ways, and floors have multiple choices – but only to mention the sad state of affairs where very few easy-to-do constructions practises are now popular. Most houses are being built with just one type of foundation, wall and one type of roof!
In the past, every region had limited access to materials, hence the local vernacular style evolved which today may be wrongly felt by many as simple and monotonous. But that alone need not drive us to design strange combinations of modern materials which by default have lesser choices. Computer software applications with virtual or augmented reality generated images and animated walk-through complete the act of selling design easy ideas.
So, we end up with varied elements, forms, colours and combinations of surfaces to create what is today felt as attractive and unique elevations. Majority of them rely upon RCC frame construction, cement block or cheaper brick masonry, walls plastered and finished with putty, primer and paint.
Public buildings get finished with façade treatments, cladding panels and glass. How many of these are truly attractive, have a sense of collective aesthetics and follow the time-tested theories of beauty are questionable. Hence, the cacophony of architecture in every street, neither aesthetical nor ecological.
Plastered cement block wall coming in varied colours consumes much more of resources, uses chemicals and has more embodied energy than natural mud, stone or exposed clay blocks. As such, minimising cement blocks and painting are among the first step towards eco-friendly architecture. Zero maintenance by avoiding the need to re-paint, hence reduction in life cycle costs comes as a bonus point!
Ecological natural materials provide unlimited options towards wall elevations unlike what many people think. The variety possible by different material mix, pattern making, proportions, stylistic approaches and daylight throw far exceeds what the standard plastered walls offer. It’s the market at large looking for less work and more profits which undermines the aesthetic quality and environmental values of building with ecological materials.
As climate change is threatening every aspect of our lives, let us walk ecological sensitivity in every aspect of our constructions.
If we ignore valuable advice given by architects of yore and construct buildings against the laws of nature, we are doomed.
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.
It is time to change construction practices and be in tune with nature.
If we agree with the philosophy that we are what we think, then we realise that we are not eco-friendly because we do not think eco-friendly. Our attitudes are not tuned to live with nature.
However many seminars we attend, articles we read or data we collect, most of it will be futile unless we change. So, we console ourselves saying paradigm changes are impossible and continue with our resource consuming lifestyle!
If we intend to change, it will not be so difficult to bring about at least few nature friendly-homes, habits and construction practices. There are a few listed below.
Every design decision should be validated for its ecological sensitivity: In our modern urban living, we all use set of criteria to take individual and collective decisions. Today cost, comfort, image and ego appear to dictate most of our decisions. For Mahatma Gandhi, the litmus test was about truthfulness, which he would apply to most decisions he would take. If we have to create a sustainable future, we also need a litmus test. We should check if every one of our ideas and actions are eco-friendly or not. If not, it is certain that we are harming nature.
Repairable construct i on, replaceable materials and replicable designs: The famous RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) as a solution towards eco-friendly living has had reasonable publicity, with some success too. However, the construction sector has generally ignored this dictum, continuing with its practice of building big, producing more products, introducing new materials and rarely repeating an idea, however appropriate it is. Architecture being an expression of owner aspirations as well, it may be difficult to force RRRs, but we can attempt repairable construction, replaceable materials and replicable designs, which can go a long way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to the construction sector.
Lower the embodied energy, greater the sustainability: Many sets of criteria have been introduced to assess and measure green buildings with varied types of certifications. Surely, they have resulted in marginal reduction in the carbon footprint of buildings, but these rating systems cannot change the future. Given this, one overarching criteria could be to assess the sum total energy a construction project consumes, right from the raw material supply to disposal of debris when it gets demolished someday. This figure is termed as embodied energy and lowering it is the key to a sustainable future.
Culturally appropriate plan and climatically appropriate construction:Architecture is an expression of both aspirations and construction, and as such needs to balance between the two.
Let the design be suited to the lifestyle such that there is a personal acceptance; material to fit aesthetic choices such that it has a societal meaning; construction be eco-friendly such that resources are saved and the overall design be of architectural appropriateness. Such an approach may lead to a sustainable future.
Measures that any builder can follow.
We see larger number of people today opting to live with organic food, less waste, zero preservatives, low carbon footprint and in architecture, with designs closer to nature. Unfortunately, there is no single source at present where one can learn about the basic applicable eco principles applicable to a project. This essay continues from the last, listing some simple applicable measures that anyone can follow.
Common sense can solve what creativity cannot: If we look for the common thought among sustainable buildings of the past, we notice they all had some common sense. Simple observations of what works and what does not, how to put diverse materials together and how to build easy contributed to design decisions. This is not to ridicule contemporary designs emerging from computer software, but to stress on the need to be sensible to a context.
The major impediment towards applying common sense is embedded in increasing professionalism. Young aspirants get academically trained to be part of the industry, with no accumulated knowledge. The construction field itself is being controlled by systems, standards, procedures and formalities, keeping common sense out. If we can bring it in, many more buildings can become eco-friendly.
Build with local materials, not locally available materials: Among the major principles of sustainable buildings, emphasis on local materials is universally agreed upon. Every region inhabited by humans has the required construction materials to provide shelter and security, without which settling down would have been impossible. Invariably, they are economical, suited to the local climate and easy to work with no long distance transport.
In a large metropolitan city, the original local material might have disappeared, yet the regional options would be around. However, today the local materials are being replaced by locally available materials, thanks to the global marketing networks, which does more harm to ecology.
Minimise manufactured materials: With no major exception, most locally available materials are produced somewhere, transported to anywhere and belong to nowhere. They are rooted only to their factory, not to any climate, culture or history, unlike the local materials which have a context. Once built with, the character they give to the buildings also are not rooted in the context, but only in the perceived creativity, publicity and anonymity.
The greater reason to minimize manufactured materials lies in their very high embodied energy, a direct quantitative measure of the consumed Earth resources. Unfortunately, we are increasingly manufacturing and constructing with artificial factory made materials today than ever in our construction history.
Heritage buildings are by default eco-friendly buildings: The past did not permit us to build anyway we wished, but created constraints of wall stability, limited roof options, indoor comfort, maintenance matters, local appropriateness and such others. Most of these resulted in historic structures being climate and construction specific, hence by default energy efficient and sustainable.
We tend to mainly observe beauty and monumentality in traditional buildings, sometimes the vernacular values, not realising how much is there to learn towards an eco-friendly future.
Every region in India can evolve a local, contextual and hence ecological architecture, while being contemporary as well.
In aspiring for ecological architecture, too often, we are lost attempting a paradigm shift in our actions, which cannot be achieved unless we adopt the right methods. Methods themselves are determined by the approach, which needless to say, have not changed much during the last 40 years of ecological awareness. It will be worthwhile to re-focus on a few approaches, without which we cannot make headway in green sense.
Image of the building is less important than its impact on the environment:Visual images have occupied centre stage nowadays, be it in websites, fashion shows, TV news channels or in shopping malls. Architecture cannot singularly escape the trend of the time, so most designs are sold with perspective views, rendered images and unbelievably ‘true to life’ computer-generated walk-throughs. Apartments are launched and institutions are inaugurated with media attention. Amidst all this, how often do we hear about the overall environmental impact of the new construction? Very rarely, may be. Stakeholders of every project need to think of ecology before the elevation.
Contextual designs can also be contemporary expressions: The buzz word sweeping across urban India today is ‘contemporary architecture’, a design approach that originated abroad, especially Europe.
Theoretically, ‘contemporary’ should have meant a design belonging to the present time and place, though majority of these structures in India are disconnected from both, primarily following a pre-established western style.
This is not to demean the imagination and creativity behind the contemporary architecture, but to suggest that a contextual design can also belong to our time and place. If designers can take up such a challenge, every region in India can evolve a local, contextual and hence an ecological architecture, while being contemporary as well.
Difficulty of execution should not be the reason to reject an eco-idea: In a fast-paced lifestyle where time has come to mean money, owners and promoters tend to choose designs which are easy to build.
Accordingly, technology-based approaches using manufactured materials get a priority over labour-intensive methods with natural materials. The fine finish with clean lines and shining surfaces appear more enticing than the rustic and handmade. In this process, we not only neglect the carbon footprint of the building, but also the possible construction variety and design range. The ease and speed of doing is becoming both uniform and universal, diluting climate as a determinant of design.
Designing by intuition is as important as designing by calculations:Construction right from early civilisation up to medieval times was deeply rooted in common sense and contextual possibilities. Industrial revolution followed by varied technological and manufacturing capabilities opened up new avenues, formalising the activity into a profession. Naturally procedures, codes of practice, rules, regulations and all the rest followed. The ecological concerns which led to the new direction of sustainable architecture and the green building movement have gone a step ahead with innumerable standards, ratings and calculations. It is ironic that mind is no more the maker of buildings, but systems are. Ecological architecture demands passion as much as profession, intuition as much as calculation
This essay is the 350th in the Green Sense and Eco-Build series, a weekly column that began in May, 2010. With 8 years completed, stepping onto the 9th year, the present and next few essays would try capturing some simple theories that could convert any building into an essentially ecological project.
It is mostly dumped along the roadside and in empty plots, though large-scale builders are attempting to manage the waste within the site itself.
Every visitor loves to see the neat orderly looks of the house site on the day of grihapravesha , with only the house owner knowing the tension that gripped him or her a few days ago, with construction waste half covering the place. After a few thousands of rupees was spent and a few tractor loads of debris was sent out, the house is clean and shining.
Every construction site in the city, from homes to hospitals, sends out debris, commonly called as construction waste. Does anyone think about where is this ‘outside’ – the magical land where the debris gets hidden? Sadly, the outside is often in the city itself, too often along the road sides and empty plots, showcasing the dirtier part of construction.
Even green buildings are not an exception to this phenomenon, though waste generation is one of the criteria in scoring the green points. Many large-scale builders are aware of the problem and are attempting to manage the waste within the site itself.
The Bangalore city corporation estimates that a typical construction site would generate anywhere between 40 to 60 kg. of waste and has made regulations identifying few landfill sites, mostly in neighbouring erstwhile villages. Legally, proper debris clearance is binding on the owners and occupants. The Karnataka Pollution Control Board has formulated guidelines for waste segregation and management, for mandatory follow-up. All cities across India have enacted similar
legal documents, though smaller towns have no policy at all for waste management.
Yet the problem continues with C & D (Construction and Demolition) waste with increasing magnitude, as our cities are building at a rate never seen before. The landfills identified by the authorities are far and few, which increase the cost of carting away. So, the tractor drivers dump the debris on some vacant area at midnight, which is known but goes unabated. Though these debris clearance contractors are small-time players, today their contacts can be collected from web sites.
Reusing is the key
The first step to greener sense is definitely to minimise waste by salvaging and reusing. Much of bricks, stone, cement blocks, broken concrete, aggregates and earthy materials can be reused within the project itself. Many others like glass, plastics, steel, and wood, can be additives in manufacturing. Broken glazed and flooring tiles can be laid in mosaic pattern.
Electrical and plumbing items can be bought to exact needs. Most containers and packaging can be used by people as storage options. As such, very few materials may have to reach landfills. Of course, all this is easier said than done, because very few people wish to segregate waste and reach each item to its logical end.
Green sense lies not only in building sensibly, but also in building responsibly. We will have to ensure that debris is never dumped on the roadside.
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.