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Experimenting with the alternative

Local designs have advantages like quicker construction, ease of maintenance, and minimal resource consumption.


What is termed as mainstream architecture today largely defines the prevailing norms about how to build. It often rules out ecological possibilities in the construction field, hence needs to be questioned, at least partially if not fully. However, it is easier said than done, for the built volume that the alternatives produce is negligible.

Incidentally, there was a time when the local designs were the mainstream, which the British termed as kutchha, demeaning it. It had numerous advantages like quicker construction, ease of maintenance, locally procured materials, low skill operation, and minimal resource consumption. One way of countering the current practice could be to rework with the local, kutchha and avoid using what the mainstream uses.

This is what Thannal, a centre exploring the alternative at Tiruvannamalai, is set out to do. A vision of architect Biju Bhaskar, inspired by Ramana Maharshi, the centre has a couple of structures without cement or steel. Unlike the common practice of stabilising mud with cement, here mud stabilisation has been achieved by lime, chopped grass and pebbles.

Across the last 10 years, a variety of natural building materials like bamboo, mud, wood planks, coconut leaf roof, Mangalore tiles and such others have been used.

Grey water treatment has been improvised using root zone treatment with Canna plant, then a series of alum, lime aggregates, broken bricks and gravel chambers to finally flow into the collection point for watering the plants.

Many traditional construction methods like sun-dried mud bricks called adobe are practical even today. Woven mat finished with mud, called wattle and daub make up a couple of walls.

Cob walls

The centre has been known for popularising cob walls, a method that uses handmade balls of mud. Sandy soil which is not fertile, mixed with anti-termite neem water, has been filled into jute bags to produce what is called earthbags. Earthbag walls are not traditional, suggesting an experiment to extend the idea of mud.

The idea of evolving the centre as one goes along, instead of planning everything with formal drawings, a traditional method, has led the centre to be naturally hybrid. Of course, the cluster of structures appears like a group of small village huts, which one may feel are not applicable in an urban set-up. But, that scale suits the idea of the experiment, explore and apply.

Architects and engineers who can afford to experiment are few, considering the demands of clients, imperatives of regulations and managing the consulting or construction firms. So, the few who can explore the eco-friendly alternatives need to reach out to people, not merely with their designed built products, but also as a process to enable the replication of these ideas. Thannal does it in its own way by conducting hands-on workshops.

Only when eco ideas get widespread application can they question the mainstream.


Builders need to introspect

We need to reduce the embodied energy in all constructions and also cut construction costs.

picture-91Are we ready for some bad news? The acclaimed guru of spiritualty, Thich Nat Han, recently opined that in the next hundred years, major catastrophe will occur to human civilisation. People who till recently refused to believe in the theory of climate change have changed to become believers. The slogan of three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — has not picked up as much as expected. Just as the preparations are on for the climate change CoP (Conference of Parties) at Lima, parts of U.S. and Russia are reeling under unseasonal cold wave. Even Hollywood is producing movies like Interstellar, based on the hypothesis that some day in future humans would have consumed Earth’s resources, leaving it dry and dusty, researching to migrate to other planets. And here in south India, we have just witnessed the most unpredictable monsoon of recent years.

We all are aware of unabated production of goods, which demand complimentary spaces and services, all of which require advanced infrastructure, besides global communication. Facilitating this trend leads to increased movement of money across sectors, ushering monetary prosperity to those who are part of this cycle. To generate such money, Earth’s resources are increasingly consumed, creating imbalance in the ecological cycle. Simply stated, to restore the balance, we need to reduce production. Speaking from the construction industry, which majorly contributes and also benefits from the growth, the first step could be to reduce the embodied energy in all constructions. Simultaneously, we need to reduce the construction costs, energy consumption and life cycle costs.

However, this would mitigate the problem only nominally, for the hunger for more production would still force the construction industry to toe the line of global economy.

Growth-based economic models get pushed and supported by all those who benefit from it, and incidentally most of them are in decisive positions in society. Those who suffer from the inequity are not in dominant positions to reverse the trends. Given this contradictory situation, the real solution would lie in individual resolutions to reduce personal purchases, stop accumulating goods, avoiding unnecessary activities and try living without what we really need.

In a rapidly urbanising India, some of these ideas may sound impractical. With millions of Indians, especially the younger generation, aspiring to live a global lifestyle, it is expected that production, consumption, waste generation and energy depletion will increase exponentially. At present we just do not have any meaningful strategy to shelter half of Indians in cities by 2030, leave alone face the other ecological crises. Adding to this, the present national mood appears to be in production, for marketing them anywhere in the world, just like China has been doing. While charting this road map, we also need to realise the environmental implications of increased production, the way money market will play a larger role and how higher monetary affordability would fuel the hunger for greater consumption.

No wonder, Thich Nat Han is predicting a bleak future.

Build cutcha, live pucca

It is a paradox that all the supposedly negative qualities of cutcha constructions are positive qualities towards green buildings and sustainability.

02bgpThe word ‘cutcha’ probably did not exist before the advent of colonial rules in India. While it is difficult to define it considering the wide range of ideas, the easier mode could be to define the pucca constructions and then simply say, the rest all are cutcha. However in principle, cutcha is supposed to be using more of natural materials than manufactured materials; believed to be less durable compared to the pucca; more often than not built by the local building craftsmen without a formally trained skilled team and is tagged to require periodic maintenance, as if the pucca buildings need no maintenance at all.

Are all the above definitions really true? Red oxide floor is not yet counted as pucca and gets less property tax in Bangalore though such floors have been commonplace for centuries. Roof- top and garden pavilions in Mangalore tiles are hardly promoted by formal systems, though they may last longer the main pucca building. The completely local idea of thatched roof or even a room over the regular concrete roof in many parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, add a cutcha touch at a very low cost, besides keeping the building cool during the scorching summers. The mud, wood and slate-roofed buildings of the lower Himalayan region have existed for thousands of years, yet the PWD will not build similar structures anymore. Bamboo and rattan make up for most parts of houses in the North-East and they are in regular use even today.

The terrace-level food court found in many office buildings in Bangalore have a trussed tiled roof, basically a simple shelter for staff facilities – a cutcha concept skillfully adopted for urban conditions. Semi-open verandahs with brick or wooden pillars around a house cost less than half the regular construction cost, but become part of the enclosed house during larger gatherings. Of course, they make the house appear local and cutcha. Boulder pack foundations save material, cost and time, and are valid in a city or a village.

Rare combination

Perforated jaali walls are a rare combination of unique aesthetics, low cost, good ventilation, even lighting and ease of construction. Building a wall with good materials and then leaving it without plastering and painting can be modern and traditional at the same time. All these and more examples can show how the idea of cutcha can be applied for modern-day buildings without any compromise.

It is a paradox that all that goes with the supposedly negative qualities of cutcha constructions are positive qualities towards green buildings and sustainability. Mud and terracotta-based constructions best exemplify this contrast. Unfortunately our current codes for green buildings, public buildings and PWD norms do not yet accept such principles. Maybe, the private sector needs to lead the way by backing the cutcha sector, paving the path for an eco-friendly future.

The war between cutcha and pucca

These age-old definitions in India are still valid, but with sustainability discussions taking centre-stage, they can also represent low- and high-embodied energy approaches.

26bgTwo words not originally part of English vocabulary, but now well understood in India, which distinguish between the local informal and proper formal buildings are ‘cutcha’ and ‘pucca.’ In Hindi, cutcha buildings are supposed to be temporary makeshift arrangements, while the pucca ones are durable professional constructions.

These age-old definitions are still valid, but with sustainability discussions having taken centre-stage, they can also represent low-embodied energy and high-embodied energy approaches.

Everything that we can name, like building bye-laws, design codes, college education, contractual systems, bank loan procedures and such others, have continuously discarded the cutcha approach in urban areas citing many reasons, but at a huge environmental cost and a lost opportunity for possible personal savings.

The standard

When the British introduced professional and formal modes of construction, backed by elaborate procedures documented in writing, no one would have then realised that the eco-friendly and cost-effective architecture of pre-colonial India was to change forever.

Over those decades, many instruction handbooks had to be produced to change the local practices and finally when the PWD manuals got published about a century ago, with clearly stated specifications for materials, sketches for details and procedures for construction as an all-India standard, the formalisation of Indian construction had come to stay.

The PWD influence

Today the PWD may represent only government projects, but the PWD approach altered the way even the private buildings were designed and built. The societal desire for such pucca buildings has never stopped since then, moving from mud walls to brick walls to cement blocks to concrete construction to aluminium-coated panels and tinted glass boxes. Alongside the above shift in materials, the parallel journey of cost, wastage and energy has also been one of upwardly consuming.

Paradoxically, more than half of the Indian population still lives in cutcha houses, in rural structures, urban slums and low income homes, with many such houses being centuries old. It is common to see high-end resorts build in cutcha style, charging us astronomical tariffs. Private roadside facilities work 24×7 in simple local materials, seemingly permanently. If we take a long train or bus journey, every settlement along the trip appears to be cutcha. Driving through our State capitals, even today we see old schools, tiled roofs, thatch huts, open verandahs, lime constructions, surface decorations, urban villages and such others, performing on average like any other formal city building.

The advantages

We not only see the cutcha everywhere, we hear that such simple buildings are cooler in summer, have no cracks and are cheap to maintain. If this is true, there must be something wrong in the propaganda about the cutcha as temporary and makeshift. Equally, there must be some lessons on ecology and economy to learn from them, for modern-day application, if not for blind repetition.

We need de-growth

De-growth advocates reduced production, laying stress on more equitable consumption of products across various segments of society.

19bgIn the past when we were “less developed” and had only two models, the part of the car that malfunctioned was repaired and re-fixed. Now “developed” with hundreds of car models, we have started throwing that part away to get a new one. Imagine the future – forget repairing or replacing, we may simply throw the car itself away and get a new one! Such things are already happening in watches, fountain pens, cell phones and such others where we are forced to throw them for the sake of a small spare part. Getting anything repaired is becoming cumbersome and will never give us the best product, while replacing is seemingly the easiest.

Of course what we forget in all this is that replacement will consume more carbon resources than repairing; there are thousands of manufacturers to design the new, but hardly anyone to take care of the discarded and the idea of growth gets misunderstood as acquiring by those who can afford.

Reduced production

The theory of de-growth attempts to counter this position. It advocates reduced production, emphasising on more equitable consumption of these products across the various segments of society. Where we need to grow is in the direction of ecological stability, human well-being and resource equity. Society should live within its limits of carbon footprint and not its income or affordability.

Accumulating material objects and comforts is needed up to certain limits, but definitely should not be the focus of our routine jobs and hard work. Sufficient products for all should get priority over efficient products for a few, which can be achieved by innovation and technology re-directed accordingly.

Dream living

The construction industry has been the opium for dream living, complimenting people for arriving at luxury, cajoling them to live what they financially deserve and supply the best from around the world. The lesser privileged are urged to reach the top, where the trickle-down effect continues to tease us, making us buy more and buy costly. The ever increasing cost of construction is linked to this phenomena, not directly but indirectly, where the prospective house owners are forced to shell out more money as every month passes by.

Design and building were among the human activities focused on comfortable shelter and not luxurious living. De-growth questions the latter, the recently emerging attitude in Indian homes and hotels. However as a theory, de-growth cannot be a common theory across time and place for all people.

While the supermarkets have to de-grow, the traditional neighbourhood small shops need to re-grow. The widely travelled generation can go slow, but the younger generation eager to explore the world should continue and seek exposure. The rich may say it’s enough and stop earning, while the poor need to grow and catch up with basics of life.

In this era where India is constructing large numbers of buildings everywhere, virtually in all big cities and small towns, it is time to question our attitudes. Theories of sustainability, like de-growth, are tools to that end.

Lifestyle theories

De-growth is among the many theories that evolved in the spirit of the above, as a counter position to the prevalent carbon consuming economy, and has many relevant pointers.

12janCritiques of eco-friendly buildings often argue that by replacing a few walls and windows, in professionally designed urban buildings, the positive impact on Earth will be minuscule and minimal. Of course, this point is valid, hence the need to widen the application of green and sustainable ideas. However, seeking the solutions, exploring new ideas and applying the alternative will demand such humongous time and attention, we will never be able to ensure that all buildings will be built energy efficient.

Can eco-sensitivity improve the performance of not only our buildings, but also our lives? How can lifestyle theories apply to design and architecture to enhance efficiency and aesthetics? Can these theories lead to a large-scale application of viable solutions that may dilute the impending doom? Without asking anymore of such questions, we know the answer to all of them will be ‘yes’.

Monitoring growth

De-growth is among the many theories that evolved in the spirit of the above, as a counter position to the prevalent carbon consuming economy, and has many relevant pointers for a better future. As a philosophy, it goes beyond construction technologies, design research and urban development, focusing at the very roots of societal desires of buying, possessing, accumulating and consuming, hence can result in a better future. There have been comparable theories in religion and philosophy, suggesting judicious and frugal living, within one means and needs, in the footsteps of Gandhiji.  The power of saying “no” beyond a certain point, when we individually feel that we have adequate resources to live by, is an important factor in monitoring growth.

De-growth is just about a decade old in its development, hence not yet as deep rooted as Small is Beautiful, Critical Regionalism, Ecological Living or Voluntary Simplicity. Western civilization is a land of theories and texts while the Oriental including India, is a land of philosophies and practices. Strangely, most theories on sustainability have come from the West. Why? Is it because they feel they created consumerism, hence are causing an unsustainable future, hence needed to resolve it? We can also note that de-growth has been very European in its origins, spread and popularity, while overdeveloped U.S. or underdeveloped Africa are uncomfortable at the thought. Europe intends to balance tradition and modernity, where the modernity has begun to dominate, so de-growth could be seen as an antidote to modernity as well.

Feasibility factors

The Indian construction industry is growing by leaps, due to valid market reasons; hence we cannot simply apply any theory here without properly assessing its feasibility. De-growth does not refer to stopping production or lowering the GDP, but to a judicious distribution and consumption of resources. It is physical in its emphasis on finding the limits and philosophical in its stress on individual introspection. Together, there is a way to apply de-growth in architecture and construction.

We are the solution…

While this column has attempted to explore alternative building methods, we need to realise that it is not the building that consumes energy but people. 

A century down the line, historians my write how the decades around the turn of the millennium have been epochal — realising the impact of our lifestyles; introspecting our patterns of consuming; researching about climate change; talking about carbon footprints and writing the ongoing history of societal shift into sustainable futures. The fact that we all are part of this moment of time is a matter of both pride and concern. Pride because it is our generation that is mapping the critical future and concern because our much thought out solutions are increasingly failing to stop the tide.

While this Green Sense weekly column has attempted to explore alternative building methods, we need to realise that at the end, it is not the building that consumes energy but people. A mere technical count of eco-friendly ideas used in a green building may not be a good enough solution, despite being a welcome step.

Care about wastage

A building, however eco-friendly it is, will fall flat if its users consume more energy than what the design has saved. This could be simply illustrated by the possible contradiction between the house and people. Imagine a home with mud blocks, stone pillar and filler roof, hence eco-friendly. However, if the family that lives there leads a lavish life buying, using and throwing, the whole idea gets defeated.

If people do not care about reducing wastage, the society and market at large will not care about reducing production or consumption. The energy discussion needs to start from the end consumers — people.

Much has already been said about how the local wisdom is always more eco-friendly and how place-based solutions are better than global practices from abroad. Yet, the global is prevailing over the local, thanks to increased comforts, attractive aesthetics, innovative production, ease of operation, proven durability and such others.

Energy cost

The flip side of this argument could be seen in one example — the corporate game of production at cheap prices at one place followed by marketing at high prices elsewhere has led to enormous quantities of energy in every item we are buying.

While discussing the emerging new ideas, supposedly more efficient, we may not realise the cost at which the new ideas are made to reach every corner of the world and how it would exclude many people in the process.

However, being a part of our times, none of us can negate the trends around us. Instead, what we can do is to observe the trends, realise their negative impacts and attempt corrective measures.

Accordingly, Green Sense has been looking at a few architectural design ideas, material options and construction techniques that could reduce the harm we are causing to nature due to construction activities.

Though some of the design ideas may appear useful and appropriate, this column also intends to state that the real solution to energy crisis lies within us, the people.

Don’t just think, feel the green

Man’s ego makes or breaks eco-dreams, feels architect 

Once earlier we discussed how preaching the eco-friendly idea could be quite different from practising it. Today, we continue on another similar track, just trying to retrospect. Has ‘going green and living with nature’ become another slogan like ‘love thy neighbour’, which mostly gets stated because it is rarely done? After all, what happens by default need not be advised and what is advised does not happen otherwise. If so, is all the media buzz about the alternate, sustainable living rooted in our unsustainable attitudes which harm the nature?


We know what appears perfectly normal in Bangalore: rectangular box-like plans, completely plastered and painted walls, lintel at 7′ height, standard windows in the centre of the wall, increased use of RCC for increased number of columns and beams, plans full of passages, front-sloping RCC roof covered by Mangalore tiles, rear part with flat RCC roof and finally, few elements of beautification thrown in for front looks.

Different take at Auroville

Try this at Auroville, near Pondicherry, where what we call as the green design is the only design approach. The standard building of Bangalore is bound to look strange there, but then Auroville is an exception than the rule. The rule is, what we call as the eco-friendly house, will look out of place in any typical city in India today.

Why such a state of minimal or even negligible acceptance for ideas that may reduce the harm on earth, if not fully save the earth? It is a paradox that not building at all could be the only way to protect nature, but building is the only way to protect human beings. As such, our challenge lies in balancing both.

Reality: Balancing eco and human needs is a challenge for architects

Or, is the conflict within all of us, which reflects a hypocrisy between what we know and what we desire? This reflection is necessary even for the consultants of green architecture, to hopefully understand why most of our knowledge do not get translated as built structures.

Even most of us architects and engineers make a difference only in the plan form evolved as per client needs or in elevation ensuring the building looks prominent on the street front. Even after decades of research and proven track record in many alternative ideas, why are we apprehensive about employing them? How many of us care to reduce resource consumption or study about embodied energy?

The word ‘ego’, it appears, plays a greater role in the making or breaking of our eco dreams. During the early days of experimentation, after Laurie Baker, architect Bindumadhava would ask – are you an eco-friendly architect or an ego-friendly architect? Most of us desire to project our ideas as unique, our house as different and our building as iconic. Ideals of creativity tell us to form our own rules and live without compromising. Alternately, to be eco-friendly, we need to go humble, following the proven paths of sustainability and designing the simple truths.

Preaching vs Practicing

This essay emerges from an interesting comment about how architects, and many others too, live luxuriously and drive posh cars, but advice mud and clay to their clients!

Practice first: Show eco-friendly ideas in your house and office

It could be partly true, though such a generalisation will be unfair to many architects who live a modest life. Living green never meant suffering, being deprived or denying comforts, either for the self or for others. Limiting our needs and being judicious about consumption is the key to green living. Individually, there could be subjective variations to these needs – there are eco-friendly architects who refuse to own cars or own offices, but many others have good cars and offices. As specialists in green architecture, there are architects who jump on prestigious outstation projects, but there also are consultants who prefer to stay local believing that travelling has high carbon footprint.

Having said this, let us accept the universal truth and Gandhian philosophy in saying better practice first, than preach. A prospective house owner need not preach, instead may directly start with an alternative idea of one’s choice for the house to be lived in. However, it is the consultants and contractors who are in a fix, especially so if they are themselves living in a conventional house. Also, they may preach dozens of eco-building ideas, but cannot have a single house full of all such ideas. While it may be ideal to showcase eco-friendly ideas in one’s own house and office, or also in living, criticising such ideas only because the consultant does not live in them would be a loss for the construction industry at large.

The struggle

Belief in the alternative has to evolve not from a fancy standpoint, but from a heartfelt belief to change. It can not only be a desire, but also has be an action. Trust me for saying this – most of us who have been designing with a difference, have struggled in the beginning where questioning client, lack of prior projects, apprehensive contractor, ignorance of ecology and every such issue was a major obstacle.

Prior to our own first few projects, we showed what other consultants had already built to convince the clients. Often there were cases of first-time idea itself, with no exact precedent to show, which was a challenge. However, with a willing client, cooperating contractor and seemingly foolproof idea, the construction took off! With more than a dozen architects in Bangalore working out of the mainstream, today, there are hundreds of alternatives, already proven.

Themes and justifications apart, we need to realise that green or eco-friendly ideas have their own aesthetics. Building with mud is an apt example. Despite having been the most common construction material in the world, today it is the last choice simply because the urban world looks down upon this option. The alternative has to become an attraction not only for eco or cost or cultural reasons, but also for its new aesthetics.

Go for soil cement blocks

They are quite strong and also add character to a building

Simple: The construction process with soil cement blocks is like building with any other block, except taking care of joints and corners

With reference to mud buildings, though rammed earth has a greater history behind it, building a stabilised mud block (SMB) or soil cement block (SCB) wall is much easier and convincing to a new client. Commonly, mud blocks measure 9”x9”x6” with minor size variations, edge profile and cornice decoration options, as may be required for the project.

The soil is prepared the same way as for ramming, but here it is packed into the molds within a small machine. The machine comes with a pressing lid, operated by two workers throwing their weight on it, so the soil gets adequately compacted. After compacting, the fresh blocks are lifted out of the machine and kept in the open outside for drying under the sun. All this can be managed within a 60×40 site or even smaller sites if the road sides can be used.

All the three major institutes, viz. ASTRA, Auroville and DA, have developed their own versions of the block making/pressing machine, with the ASTRA model being popular in Bangalore. It is advisable to have three labourers as a team to start making blocks few weeks before the wall construction, get the blocks sun dried and stock up at site. Ideally, the soil dug up from the site itself should be used for blocks, to save on transporting mud from outside. 

Testing labs

There are testing labs such as Mrinmayee which can study the sample soil to give advice about the water content and quantity of cement and stone quarry dust to be added to stabilise the soil. However, in case the soil is unfit for blocks or it is in short supply, blocks may have to be ordered from outside.

The construction process is like building with any other block, except for care for joints and corners. Unlike what many people fear about, the SMB wall is not a weaker option! While a normal brick can be cut by the mason using his ‘karni,’ here we need a cutting machine. Even electrical grooves cannot be done by a small chisel and hammer, but once again demand machines. No water can seep through the block, as such external pointing is important only to ensure water-proof joints. The joints with stabilised mud mortar can take any number of nails, a routine household requirement. Of course the joint lines, both horizontal and vertical, are visible in the building, adding a character to it.

Alternately, the wall can be mud-plastered if an even surface without joint break is desirable. It can also be painted with any colour, if the mud looks need to changed. It is interesting to note that a mud building offers the option to completely conceal the mud looks or celebrate the earthy looks, once again scoring over other choices. However, we need not highlight the intentions of using mud construction and what option most owners choose!