Every individual needs to introspect on the indirect, implicit or invisible role one would have played against the interests of nature.
Most of us have been caught up in a traffic jam at least once. Never would we blame ourselves for causing the jam, instead we curse other drivers or maybe our choice of the road. Of course, we too have caused the jam, at the least by joining the hold-up, increasing the number of vehicles by one more. Traffic jam is a collective phenomenon with every individual driver contributing to it and it cannot be resolved without every person cooperating to clear it.
On a similar note, if asked what caused the Kerala and Kodagu floods, most of us would not wink our eyelids before blaming climate change at large and human action at the local level. Outsiders like us who do not suffer are only devouring the news as if we have no role in it. Locals are not willing to own the crisis, pointing a finger at the government or greedy investors. The vast majority of people of Madikeri might have never cut the trees, levelled the land and made the roads. So, they do not feel directly responsible, even though they are hard hit by the crisis.
As sensible citizens, we may not like to engage in a blame game, but if we do not locate the causes behind the crisis, we would be inviting the crisis again in future. Curiously, statistics available on precipitation says it rained heavy last year also, disapproving the theory that excess rains are the main culprit.
While many of us sympathised with the owners who built at the river level or cliff edge, equal many would have criticised it as thoughtless actions by the owners. If we were to be in the shoes of those owners, we too would have built so. Our context directs most of our actions, which appear thoughtless to someone outside those punishing contexts.
Let us think why are so many people involved in actions apparently against nature – is it just to earn a living or could it be also to meet the demands of people like us? We demand lifestyle products, construction materials, goods transportation and manufacturing of a million items. By supporting a market economy and creating a supply chain, can we absolve ourselves of the responsibility? Definitely, no.
We all are responsible for the crisis just unfurled. Every individual needs to introspect the indirect, implicit or invisible role one would have played against the interests of nature. It may be easier to realise the harm we are doing, but it will be very difficult to change our course and live differently and eco-friendly. Yet we can attempt a beginning.
We need to realise that the Kerala and Kodau crisis has been caused collectively by every one of us, by the seemingly insignificant individual action of us. That could be an impulse to live differently from now on.
In the wake of the deluge in Kerala and Madikeri, we need to study the impact of constructions and other human interventions on the environment.
Every school-going child reads about natural disasters, but how often she gets to read about man-made disasters? Not until now, but it’s time to recognise this term as more critical, with the recent floods in Kerala and Madikeri further proving a point about human actions.
The very predictable post-flood analyses is pouring in for Kerala. How global winds were diverted to India, pouring in more water from skies than normal and how torrential rains are bound to lead to deluge. Regional vulnerability of Kerala due to shallow river basins with limited water carrying capacity, being at the receiving end of Western Ghats, and the low mean sea levels (MSL) are being highlighted.
The government is not spared, blamed for sudden opening of gates of reservoirs, releasing more water than what the land can drain. Storm water drainage systems are blocked by uncontrolled construction, while lack of regional and local development plans gets a fitting response from nature. The forgotten Gadgil Committee Report of 2011 is now being quoted again, with climate change being blamed at large.
The Madikeri context is not exactly the same as Kerala. Here major causes listed are unabated levelling of slopes for roads, grounds and buildings which prompt landslips; estates replacing forests; drastic reduction in native trees in favour of beneficial trees; massive deforestation leading to erosion of sponge-like top soil that absorbs water and many such others.
Most analyses present a third party observation, with a general observation that local interventions aiming at commercial gains have resulted in the calamity, which could have been averted. If we were to say so, we better be sensitive to our fellow citizens and realise we too would have done exactly the same things that Keralites or Coorgis did, if we were to be there. What is this trait in us that prompts us to ‘develop’ at the cost of nature?
Disasters happen at the regional level, but happen due to a cumulative effect of millions of local actions. The collective cause cannot evolve without the individual contributions. These local and collective determinants are not restricted geographically to Kerala or Madikeri, for we know how everything is connected.
The rapid urbanisation of Bengaluru might have caused deforestation, demanding the much needed construction timber. The surplus money Bengaluru has might have prompted investments in access, estates, tourism or infrastructure. May be, Bengalureans need to realise their contribution to the sufferings of Keralites.
It is a juncture when we cannot be sure if these disasters are due to natural reasons or man-made. We could be confused about what is critical now – analysis, diagnosis or prescription. Even if we know of the solutions, with our kind of electoral governance, we could claim helplessness.
To begin with, we can at least realise that destruction of resources precedes every construction; infrastructure actually fractures the land and development can lead to disasters. To stop climate change, we need to change. Are we willing?
Five basic principles must guide all construction activities but we are violating them.
Air, light, rain, heat and humidity are the simple pancha sutras which can ensure that our architecture is in alignment with nature. It sounds so simple that everyone can follow them. However, what is easier to say is often difficult to do.
This truth is more apparent in the construction sector. During historic times, people did not consciously follow these principles, but designs evolved with these five sutras as the pre-condition. In many ways, architecture evolved around these five conditions. Following the technological advances we achieved, we could alter the state of nature in our building interiors, both mechanically and artificially. Architecture lost its alignment with nature.
Air moves everywhere maintaining oxygen for breathing by animals, except in the interiors of luxury hotels built by us. Nature has daylight everywhere supporting bio-diversity, except inside iconic auditoriums designed by architects. Rain ensured the Earth gets washed every year, except in our structures that bar rain. Heat and cold go cyclical balancing themselves, except in building indoors where we switch on energy-guzzling air conditioners. All plant produces depend upon right humidity, except humans who ignore it to let their skins dry up.
It is saddening to see how natural principles continue to be neglected in the majority of buildings. We are trying to ape the west, trying to prove we are as good as they are. We have proven that we are good at copying, not realising what we are copying is not good, but very bad.
Of course, increasingly people are discussing and even trying to apply these principles nowadays. Ecological designs are surely on the rise, though limited to groups of converted people today. Over the decades, there would be more people and projects joining the new movement of designing ecologically sensitive habitats, now dubbed as an elitist action by some conventional practitioners.
An early pioneer, Ken Yeang, popularised eco architecture; a thought leader, Janine Benyus, wrote about biomimicry; building biology is catching up now; bio-philia groups are getting enlarged; parametric looks into forms in nature and learning from nature is getting more attention. These all are recent western trends, but India has its achievements too.
Even a simple spatial sequencing from open to semi-open to semi-enclosed to fully enclosed with indoor courts can connect architecture to nature. Little shift from manufactured materialist style to natural minimalist can have major impacts on architecture. Keeping the windows open for air, learning to live with the available light, designing to let rain into corridors or courts, letting the body adjust to bearable temperatures and enduring humidity at least for health reasons can go a long way in aligning architecture with nature.
Let the natural air flow through our spaces; design for daylight lit up our activities; rain be an enjoyable interior asset; heat contrasting with cold boost our body health and comfort conditions get created by humidity. Let air, light, rain, heat and humidity rule our architecture again.
The real textbook of green architecture does not lie inside the walls of libraries, but outside those walls, in what surrounds all of us.
In these days of climate change, if we ask any young person how to face the crisis, they are bound to respond suggesting living with nature as an ultimate solution. Net zero buildings will only minimise energy usage, green architecture saves on few resources only, carbon footprint theory will help in consuming less and greenhouse gas emission data may help us change our technologies. Each one of them is only a partial solution, unlike the holistic theory of living with nature.
Given this position, can we re-learn from nature, the way our ancestors might have done many millenniums ago when they moved on to become settlers from being nomadic? Specific to buildings, can we analyse forms and formations by nature to list out the design criteria implicit in them?
Principles of the universe have been shaping everything in nature right from the beginning, so it should be possible to learn from the way nature designs. Possibly, the real textbook of green architecture does not lie inside the walls of libraries, but outside those walls, in what surrounds all of us.
Let us take coconut, as an illustration, trying to read into the design logic employed by nature. The thick external husk provides the cushioning needed when the nut falls from great heights, while the hard shell inside avoids any possible breakages. Outermost fibrous skin ensures the least damage to the husk itself, while the husk reduces dehydration of the soft kernel with water until it becomes a sapling.
Coconuts are round and oval in shape to let the nut roll over, which helps in minimising impact pressure and also the propagation of the seed across distances. Considering that coconut trees traditionally grew along riversides and seashores, before they were formally cultivated by people wherever possible, the nuts could also float along the water flow.
Coconut tree has less foliage compared to many other shorter trees, yet has to capture sun energy. As such, growing taller above other obstacles becomes mandatory. But then, the tree may fall against high winds commonly seen near water bodies, hence the highly fibrous swaying trunk and porous leaf. The height enables the nuts to fall farther away from the tree bottom, improving the possibility of propagation.
We can notice how a single design element caters to multiple needs like the husk ensuring safety, water retention, rolling on the ground and floating on water. The way nature can synthesise diverse criteria to evolve one singular and judicious species called coconut tree is simply amazing!
Can we compare architecture by nature with architecture by humans? Yes, it is possible to analyse how natural forms evolve with design logic, without even knowing of high theories like bio-mimicry. Students in schools of architecture at MES, Kuttipuram or KSSA, Bangalore have already proven it. It is time everyone involved in construction sector starts doing it.
We can learn a lot from nature which displays a design sense in every object it creates.
A new-born baby is a joyous welcome to any family, eagerly looked forward not only by the parents but by all. However for the baby it must be a strange new world to arrive into, initially with light, sounds and smells. Gradually, the baby observes objects all around her, a world filled with forms created by natural and human actions.
Most of tangible human productions can be seen as objects in 3 dimensions. As such, the making of every building and every city is also an act of making of forms. During the primitive days, humans would have learnt to do so by imitating nature, a stage long forgotten now thanks to the relentless march of our civilization.
However, nature continues with design sense in every object she creates by imbibing principles of ecological life, economical life and performance life. Unfortunately, our life has taken a different path from that of nature. It goes undebated that every object we see in nature has an ecological life, being part of a life cycle. Even though it sounds cruel to read Paul Rosolie who says every animal eats another animal in the jungle, except few like elephants and in turn is eaten up by another animal, we need to realise the fact that all are part of an ecological life. Objects begin and end with nature.
We humans take pride in using the term economy as if nature never knew it, but the economical life invented by nature is nowhere matched by people. There is nothing unwanted or extra in anything we see around us – be in the animated or the unanimated world. The judicious consumption of resources, minimalism of materials and the absence of wastes are much to learn from. We tend to place over-emphasis on the performance life of our products, but even here nature wins over us. Be it fruits and vegetables, foliage and forests, lakes and rocks or the world under sea, everything seems to be performing impeccably.
When nomadic humans settled down, every shelter they built was rooted in the nature around. As they advanced technologically, this connect got diluted. Is it possible to revive this nature-architecture connect? Yes, if only we attempt to apply the design principles of nature in our own creations.
If we realise that the performance of a building is more important than the perceived appearance, we may move closer to nature in building designs.
Let us ask any elderly citizen a simple query about what we learn from nature. With their lifelong wisdom, they may possibly list harmonious living, sense of continuity, resilience to changes, contextual adoption and such others. They may refer to the ecological equilibrium maintained by nature as a unique phenomenon, something we should emulate.
Now let us look at how we humans have been living. Without going into rhetoric, upon simple observations, we know how we live is antithesis to nature. In other words, by observing what we learn from nature we realise, we do not learn from nature.
Architecture today is among the few human activities which is in direct contrast to everything natural. Construction of buildings and destruction of nature are directly connected, with increased construction worldwide contributing to up to one-third of greenhouse emissions, which further on cause ozone hole, global warming and climate change. We have not only moved away from nature, but also have made natural equilibrium lose its balance. Even the word ‘balance’ has lost its meaning in the process.
Most children continue to draw, just like the elders did once, a round circle showing the lifecycle of a butterfly. The line ends where it began, suggesting how everything is connected. In the global sense, we humans are an integral part of such cycles of natural balance, yet we stand apart. We do not claim a life cycle, but a lifestyle.
The problem for nature starts with our lifestyle, which we preserve and enhance as if it’s a precious little gem of human civilization.
In urban India, we have moved from floor-based living to furniture based, from outdoor space uses to indoor enclosures and instead of doing tasks ourselves, we are outsourcing a whole lot of them.
Out of context
Our buildings do not emerge from the context, but from image, imagination, technology and trends. It’s time we realise the image of architecture is less important than the impact it has on nature. The performance of the building is more important than the perceived appearance. Given such theoretical premises, we need to learn how to locate a building in a given locality.
Despite such design approaches much needed today, design has become an anytime- anywhere-anyhow application on architecture and construction. The design by nature, which invariably is contextual and connected, is missing in our human constructions.
The dilemmas of the above kind cannot be resolved fully. The related questions cannot be fully answered, but can only be pondered over.
May be, a sincere pondering over, may lead us to live little closer to nature than what we are now. May be that act of introspection will lead to improve the nature-architecture connect.
Buildings and other infrastructure in hill stations should not mar the beauty and ambience of the locale.
If we ask people “Do you like hill stations like Ooty or Wayanad?” everyone will say yes. Then if we follow it up asking “Do you think hill stations like to have people coming over there?”, not everyone will be equally affirmative. After all, we have spoiled the terrain with roads, exploited the views with buildings, littered the landscape with garbage and contaminated the sources of water.
Could these be the only reasons why hill stations dislike humans? After all, aesthetics goes beyond facilities and services, getting expressed in every one of our individual and collective actions. Here lies the tragedy – we go outdoors to relax in the lap of nature and we spoil that very natural settings with our constructions. Most of the buildings in hill stations make neither green sense nor hill sense.
The reference to hills is only anecdotal, for the issue is with our design approaches which negates anything natural. After all, before humans became designers and builders, nature has been designing, building and creating forms. None of them appear to be out of context; there are no ugly rivers; no terrible looking trees; no stones which appear nonsense or no unattractive animals. What are the principles of beauty found in these elements of nature and have we studied them to adapt in any way in our modern human constructs?
Of course, there is a major difference – natural forms grow in their context, while human needs are built up out of context. Buildings do not grow that way to become big from a miniature model kept at the centre of the site. Act of one-time construction differentiates us from nature, which follows slow evolution.
However, can we find ideas towards sustainable architecture in nature? If so, can they be universal or do we need to search them out in every region? How does nature ensures minimalism in its objects where nothing appears unnecessary in any and every part of the object? Can there be design parameters to be learnt from all such phenomena?
There surely are specific criteria behind everything around us, but we have lost the impulse to read them. During the early civilizations, people lived with nature, hence understood and adapted them. Human constructions blended with natural creations, hence there was harmony of different kinds. Architecture of the locality evolved from the landscape of that locality, both complementing each other. Now, times have changed. Even if we were to discover how nature designs, we may find it difficult to follow them in our designs.
The fact that designing with nature is sustainable goes undebated, but are people and designers willing to seek that path in these days where modern architecture is ruling the world? We need to seek answers to such difficult questions
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.
Imagine 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.
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.
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’.
Do we all love nature? Of course, we all do and such a question is seemingly unwarranted. Now if we ask, does nature love us – the answers could vary. There could be few people who may affirmatively claim that nature loves us all, but the majority would get sceptical and wonder why nature should love us, considering all the havoc we have been creating.
During our developmental processes, we have continuously taken from nature. Brick-making takes from top soil; eco-tourism depends upon ecological attractions; vegetable farming sucks soil nutrients; heavy industries take away mineral ores; and golf courses consume large quantity of water.
In return, what are we giving back to nature? Polluted environment, depleted resources, degraded land, amassed waste – the list can go on endlessly.
Yet, we proudly claim how we make things. It’s time we realise that it is not we the humans who make cars, but nature which makes them. Without all the supplies of nature, the laptops would not have been possible. Later, when the performance life of cars and laptops end, we do not keep them with us, but throw them which is an act of returning them to earth.
Construction & destruction
We are trying to solve the puzzle of energy consumption in buildings, but the major problem lies with the act of building itself – every construction follows some destruction, some processing and some materialistic modification such that no building can ever be completely eco-friendly.
If so, how would one view this Green Sense column, running in its 100th edition today? It intends to create hope amidst loss, share ideas to reduce the harm, minimise energy consumption by taking architecture beyond the mainstream and finally, to invoke respect to past practices and present contexts so that we can be sensuous, sensitive and sensible to nature.
If we are the starting point towards unabated energy consumption, we can also be the starting point towards balanced energy conservation.