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It’s all in the materials

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!

Strange combinations

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.

In harmony with nature

In a corrective action against mindless material consumption, a group of individuals have formed a community where urban presures are resisted and eco-friendly materials are used. 

01bgp-greensensGRO1H2PVN3jpgjpgImagine we are caught up in a traffic jam, with time running out for a scheduled meeting. The first thing most of us would do is to criticise everything and everyone around us, with the choicest of words.

A little thinking would tell us that we too are the reason for the jam, for our vehicle is adding one more number to the vehicle count around. After all, lesser the vehicles lesser the jam and finally as stranded vehicles are reduced, the traffic hold up would also get dissolved. So, we are part of the problem, hence theoretically, we can also be part of the solution. But in reality, can we solve the traffic jam if we are caught up in it?

There are many such contexts where everyone of us makes up the problem, but no one of us alone can solve it. The climate crisis we are going through belongs to such a category of problem where no individual can resolve it however aware or powerful the person may be. This is not to negate the possibility of an eco-friendly lifestyle at individual level and the impact it may have on global level if everyone were to live so. The question is, will the peer pressures, societal compulsions and the imperatives of living today permit all of us the courage towards living such an eco-friendly lifestyle?

The corrective action towards our consumptive patterns will have to begin with the individual, but we equally well need to graduate from the individual to the collective and from the personal to public. To that end, we need to shed our subjective opinions, differences in ideas and selfish objectives to come together.

A success story

The Marudam community evolving in Kananthampoondi village on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai can be cited as a successful case in point. Comparatively it is a young group, started as recently as 8 years ago, with Govinda doing afforestation; Arun, Poornima, Lila and others with farm school; architect Ajay Nityananda designing the much acclaimed school building and few of the houses; Maitreyi starting Wild Ideas for chemical-free products and few others with more initiatives.

Such group efforts do not start claiming to reverse climate change, but simply aim at living harmoniously with nature, practise organic farming, minimise needs, resist the urban pressures and create a culture of being sensitive to our contexts.

Active engagement

The active engagement of about two dozens of people informs and impacts hundreds of people living in the vicinity, making a difference to them all. The Marudam Farm School, where education goes beyond the curriculum, would result in ripple effects for the visible outreach activities.

In any case, to be effective, such groups cannot be large where the group dynamics would create fissures between the participants. Many small communities can together achieve more than what a single large one can, but our modern age appears to worship the large, a paradox that we need to think about.

Single material, multiple benefits

Rhythmic repetition of a material in construction creates a harmony that cannot be achieved by using a dozen materials together.

12bgp-greensens_12_2771445e.jpgWe are living today in an era of millions of options and multiple materials – thousands of choices, hundreds of colours, dozens of technologies and no two buildings or interiors looking alike. If this is a commendable achievement of our generation, imagine how dull and boring the past could have been?

Our forefathers must have been dissatisfied with their food, clothes, travel and homes. They must have been inefficient and unhappy with their limited design choices, few building materials and very basic construction technologies. Lack of innovative ideas must have forced them to lead a life with imperfections and adjustments.

Or, are we wrong in assuming so? Is it possible that lack of choices might have led them to perfect their known materials and technology? Could centuries of stylistic development have led to millions of regional aesthetics that we cannot even comprehend today, leave alone recreate such richness? Can we grudgingly admit to self-introspection to see what is better – innovations of today with all the imperfectness they have come with or perfections of yesteryear achieved through time, tested, studied and repeated across centuries?

Evidently, the answer does not lie in either but in a case-by-case evaluation for blending and applying traditional wisdom with modern thoughts. Unfortunately architectural education and civil engineering degree course prepares us mainly for ever changing modern ideas. Naturally, the theory of design and history of our architecture are irreversibly relegated to the backseat. Of course, then we justify our choice of modern thoughts by quoting  global trends, market demands and client needs.

Let us look at the idea of single  material as an illustration. Temples of Bhubaneshwar, bungalows of Bengaluru, monasteries of Ladakh or building types of Tamil Nadu temple towns lacked varieties in material or style. Most often they used just a few materials and their visual attraction can be attributed to the rhythmic repetition of same material, creating a harmony that cannot be achieved by using a dozen materials together. In total contrast, mixing many materials to create a hybrid and cluttered appearance has come to stay as a trend today.

Ecological sense

Single-material approach makes tremendous ecological sense. Every region can claim only a few local materials to be the best fit for its climatic context, suggesting that other materials should be avoided. Being variation of the same, be it stone, bricks, mud, bamboo or any other, there will be least wastage, for the material left out after one kind of usage can be employed for another purpose. Probably, passive cooling, lowered life cycle costs and maintenance matters are better addressed by these few choices. Can there be better green buildings than these?

Even today, conscious architects are applying single or very few materials’ concept as an approach to ecologically sensitive architecture. This can counter the image conscious, photogenic, visually loaded and stylistically hybrid architecture, which gains popularity merely being provocative to the senses.

It is all about materials

Some exceptional buildings are around, but what about the majority of structures? Why are they becoming predictable and ordinary?

18PP-greensense_18_2377914gThere was a time when building materials were limited and design options few, within which our elders created houses and offices. These apparent limitations did not stop them from creating amazing buildings, monuments and historic cities, which even today continue to be the backbone of the world tourism industry.

In contrast, today we have thousands of options, yet do not seem to create buildings of equal worth, for the future generations to cherish. Few exceptional buildings are around, but what about the majority of structures? Why are they becoming predictable and ordinary?

One of the major causes appears to be the role played by design vs. materials. The handful of materials available then meant all buildings would look alike; as such the challenge was to evolve attractive designs wherein design gained pre-eminence over the materials. Not that those materials were neglected, but materials did not have domination over the design.

Market and materials

Today, it is the reign of market and materials. Every other construction related event gets sponsored by some product manufacturer, material company or supplier; building material exhibitions are among the most crowded ones around; and material manufacture is racing with other industries to get financial highlight.

What is the relevance of all this talk in the context of green sense? Most materials are getting sold thanks to buzz words like advanced technology, improved performance, assured longevity, ease of maintenance, style of the day, attractive aesthetics, amazing surface finish, sold in 50 countries and such others. They never mention equally valid words like high embodied energy, industrial waste, depleting natural resources, challenge of disposal, increased indoor heat, sterile looks, volatile organic compounds and such others. How can materials that consumed high energy for production and execution create an energy efficient building?

Eco challenge

Yet, in these days when the material seems to dominate the design, most buildings fail to face the eco-challenge. It is a fact that much research and development activity has shaped these manufactured materials, but do we stop by to think at what cost to nature and when will that cost be reimbursed to nature again? In many nations, we can access material catalogue, choose the item and order – no hassle of going to consultants.

If this trend comes to our context, what about architectural creativity, house customization or design development? Thanks to technology, new product launches happen every week and imagine, every product needs to earn to make profits. Where would all that resource come from?

Influencing design

The idea is not to portray materials in the negative, for they have always influenced design even during historic times, but in those days the power of material was limited. However the shift from natural to manufactured, need-based to market-driven and subordination to domination are greatly impacting architecture. We design ordinary boxes, yet make them catch the eye by finishing them with high-end materials. The role of materials has changed, hence the need for caution.

Local materials for sustainable living

From an economics perspective, the construction materials we buy may cost less, but from an ecological perspective, making the product in one place and marketing it in another causes havoc to nature.

31HAB-greensens_31_1925371eWhen a wound does not get cured despite varied treatments, what do the doctors do? They study the symptoms deeply, get a basic understanding of the wound and try finding out the root causes. If this diagnosis works out well, they are sure to counter the disease at the starting point itself. All our best intentions and actions will fail if we fail to reach the source of problem.

This analogy applies to sustainable development equally well. Increasing number of studies from around the world are suggesting that globalisation is among the root causes for unsustainable development. This theory is yet to be fully proven and can be questioned putting the blame on the impulses of many developing nations towards matching the developed world and aspirations of millions of people to live the way rich nations live, which together can result in energy consumption and materialistic desires. However, the global market cannot be totally exempted from the blame, without which the nationalistic and individualistic urges cannot be met.

The modes by which unsustainable ideas get fuelled by the global economy are both subtle and strong.

Helena Norberg-Hodge comically points that oranges from 10,000 km away are costing less than oranges from 1,00 km away. No logical theory that we are aware of from historical times can explain this. Of course, we can thank increased production technology, instant communication, paper-less transfer of international currencies, insured global movement of goods and all such reasons that make the above statement true. However, the point is not about proving her observation, but about realising at what cost to nature we are achieving it all.

Elaborate logistics

From an economics perspective, the construction materials we buy may cost less, but from an ecological perspective, making the product in one place and marketing it in another causes havoc to nature. It demands elaborate logistics for packing, transporting, marketing team, C & F agencies, insurance, internet connections, managerial staff, software and hardware for online records.

The embodied energy of the product at the destination cannot even be calculated by our present methods. Even if we manage to get the energy figures, most possibly it would be ridiculously high compared to local materials.

Building with products from far away Indian locations or from abroad may appear beneficial from cost, but would be disastrous from the climate perspective.

Globalisation also has cultural impacts, mostly on the negative side, as such localisation can ensure cultural continuity. The multinational market showcases investment to boost local economy or job creation, but it also siphons off local income back home and discourages local skills, draining the nation of its resources. As such, localisation is necessary to preserve nature, culture and economy.

It is time we critically look at localisation, understand why it is necessary for a sustainable future and then dovetail all our alternative ideas within this frame, so that energy consumption may reduce, wastage may get minimised and we get to live with lowered carbon footprint in the future.

If you want to build the natural way

If corrective actions are taken, eco-friendly architecture is worth it.

25HAB-greensens_25_1731748eThe idea of building with natural materials is great, but the materials face a major limitation. Being part of the ecological life cycle, they tend to wither by wear and tear; underperform if defective materials are used; and deteriorate much faster than manufactured materials if problems are ignored. As such, with the technical and industrial capacity we have researched during the recent centuries, we have started processing them with chemicals, coatings and additives or even replacing them with artificial materials.

By this, while some of the limitations of natural materials have been overcome to our advantage, we have landed up with huge resource and energy consumption, endangering our civilisation. Hence, the urgent need to return to building with nature.

By watching the performance of structures and materials, one can ensure better strength and durability of any building, especially so with eco-friendly architecture. Letting the walls get direct rain and wind is among the major concerns, where water may penetrate into the joints, space between composite walls or wall cavities. Cracks and surface dampness are the easy indicators.

All possible points of water ingress should be sealed. Conventional wall plastering may have no structural strength, but it seals the walls. The weight of the structure and regular watering of plants result in changing soil characteristics, often leading to unequal settlements. Cracks running diagonally and sometimes even horizontally indicate it, which needs early checking by engineers.

What is adequate

Most eco-friendly houses are small structures, not higher than ground and two more floors. Load bearing walls are more than adequate for them, with no real need for RCC column and beam. Nowadays, RCC frame structures are employed blindly everywhere, so most engineers and masons have lost the knowledge of masonry walls. Out of ignorance or otherwise, if the walls are overloaded, they may compress and cracks.

Also, heavy loads of beams, upper floor walls and such others should not be placed directly upon a small area, technically called point loading. Engineers should be consulted to ensure that the loads are distributed, lest the walls crack.

Under a flat roof, the load bearing walls perform better. In case of sloping and curved roofs, the weight of roof will try pushing the wall at the lower side, hence traditionally there used to be a wall plate beam or timber member on top of the wall. This crucial member, if forgotten in a masonry wall, will put the wall under stress and it may crack, bulge or lean outside.

Walls may otherwise face the same fate if the masonry blocks such as brick, hollow clay blocks or stabilised mud blocks are improperly made, with inadequate density, porosity, strength or curing. In case of doubt, it is safer to get them tested in advance.

As it can be seen, much depends upon quality and professionalism to make a good building, be it conventional or alternative.

Do we have material options?

By gentle twist of words, we can also say that we are living in a material world, with maddening choice of materials.In principle, all the building materials come under three categories – natural, processed and manufactured.

07HAB-greensens_07_1677150eIncreasing numbers of social thinkers are writing today about how we are living in a materialistic world, suggesting consumption and depletion of resources. By gentle twist of words, we can also say that we are living in a material world, with maddening choice of materials. Selecting and shopping what we need is no more a simple task, but demands researching and rejecting among the options. The idea of selection would vary case by case, with eco-friendly construction having its own set of criteria.  Over the decades, specific qualitative and quantitative standards have been evolved to judge and classify materials under the green category.

In principle, all the building materials come under 3 categories – natural, processed and manufactured. Mud, wood, stone, sand, slates, lime, bamboo, rattan, thatch and such others which we use mostly in their natural state with minimum re-sizing come under the natural category. Even today, these materials dominate the larger building stock of the world and are among the best choices towards a sustainable future. However, if they can meet the quantitative demand for materials in this ever expanding urbanization is a matter of debate. Also, while items like wood are renewable sources, few of them like stone are exhaustible. Much of contemporary architecture of today can not be achieved only by natural materials. Notwithstanding these counter positions, we may safely assume that using natural materials compliments our objectives of sustaining the Earth resources – an option with least energy consumption, minimum procurement wastage and negligible residual wastage.

The next category called processed materials suggests an altered state of the material, process itself ranging from the basic to the advanced. Village brick making with firewood alters the raw clay into burnt bricks permanently altering the characteristics of mud, hence can be called as processed material. So are products from iron ore, paints from vegetable dyes, pottery from clay and tying ropes from natural fibers. They consume some energy and produce some waste, but get customized for the intended use, hence become more efficient than being in the original state. Like the natural category, the processed items also lead to depletion of natural resources, hence judicious degree of processing and usage may balance their adverse effects.

The worst kind that leads to maximum resource consumption, waste generation and energy requirement are the third kind – manufactured materials. Excepting some raw materials used in the production process, much happens through chemicals and artificial means to bring a new material to the earth. The high ended industrial process not only demands skill, but also wide spread marketing to make the production financially profiting, a goal normally fulfilled by the market economy. The artificiality of the material ensures, the raw materials used never get to return to earth and regenerate. Popular items of today including steel, cement, glass, aluminum, plastics, construction chemicals, vitrified tiles, adhesives, insulation items and  many more of them are flooding the building scene today.

No wonder, the green house gas emission from building industry has been on raise – a matter to be taken more deeply.