The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What's the deal with deal wood?

It is known more commonly as packaging wood, but has earned a common name of deal wood.... maybe because it forms the main packing material for all trade deals. Considering that, there must be a lot of timber that is going around as part of packaging worldwide. Check out some of these figures:
  • The European pallet and packaging industry consumes about 20 million cubic metres of timber annually
  • Packaging is a huge consumer of wood and as a disposable product accounts for one third of municipal waste streams.
  • A report shows that containers and packaging ranked as both the most generated and most recycled municipal waste in 1999, according to Waste News 'September 3, 2001 article. "Economy waste generation soared in late 1990s, an EPA Report says. "Americans generated 76 million tons of both containers and packaging, and of that 37 percent were recycled. EPA's study also revealed that while municipal garbage (one indication of consumption patterns) reached a high of 230 million tons in 1999-- a 7 million ton increase from 1998-- the recycling rate remained flat at 28 percent over the same period.
  • In 2003, the wood packaging represented about 3% of the woodworks industry of the EU.
There are apparently no specific type of wood that is in use, but a predominant volume is pine and other soft woods. The choice is primarily cost, easy to nail, and density. The intention of this post is not to complain on the quality of wood in use, but more on the quantity in use and the need for looking at this material as a potential material for reuse in different applications. Yes, the primary effort should be at reducing this enormous consumption to reduce the up-the-chain load on forestry (considering that none of these can be considered sustainable plant species).
Every tonne of dry wood stores about 1.8 tonnes of CO2 and by letting this resource go to waste and decay, we ensure that much of this is released back into the atmosphere.

You could buy packing wood (or deal wood as it is know here in India) in many of our older wholesale market areas. Considering the huge quantities being generated as a result of our growing economy, we need to start looking at this as a good resource. This wood is susceptible to borers and termites, but simple treatment and only specific uses should resolve that matter. For example- for internal door shutters and for interior woodwork. We find that this wood can also do decently well in outdoor use, with simple linseed oil treatment and similar such methods. Take care to pick the redder of the varieties, which indicates a high content of natural oil already in the wood. The paler versions only mean greater treatment.
Of course, the Indian situation is better- in the sense, we recycle much of this waste. Already, much of poorer India uses this material for their meagre furniture and other woodwork needs, but surely we can put it to better use...
This very argument can apply to the reuse of reclaimed timber from demolished homes, discarded furniture, and many other kinds of waste. All one needs is an open mind, and the intent to reduce our collective ecological footprint.

Perplexed about a lack of imagination...

I have always fretted and fumed about this, but two things triggered this impulse to write about this. One was the inauguration of the 2010 Commonwealth games at Delhi, and the other was an article by Suhel Seth in the TOI (writing for Lavassa Cities).
The former example was resplendent with imitations of what others had done, and the usual repetitive themes of pan-Indian culture. The latter waxes eloquent on the sheer lack of imagination amongst architects and designers.
Do we really suffer from a lack of imagination? How? or rather, Why?? In a country that needs over 256 million colours to paint it and a land of innumerable stories we suffer from a interesting themes to paint and stories to tell!!! Our airports, our stadia, our shopping complexes, our offices, the homes we build, our parks, our streets, all are examples of rip-offs from the shiny west.
What drives us emulate imported models without questioning their appropriateness? Clients? The big bad market? Or, is it simply an easy alternative to what we perceive as reinventing the wheel?
What if:
  • Bangalore resurfaces as the city of tanks, valleys and hillocks?
  • there hot-dry regions had courtyard homes with pedestrian streets?
  • informal market places became integrated to add texture to our cities?
  • Spaces and corridors for rituals, festivals and celebration were given their rightful urban space?
  • Maidans and playgrounds (not 'hands-off' and fenced landscaped parks) were an imperative?
  • glass gave way to screens, jaalis and verandahs that performed the same job of reducing dust, letting light in and also formed thermal controls?
  • building blocks varied from district to district... depending on soil, stone and other raw material?
  • craft of the region found space in all buildings?
  • what if pavements got bigger and roads narrower..... (have to think this one through).?
  • what if orchards, and mini forests dotted our city-scapes?
  • what if agriculture was part of urbanity?
I am sure you can add much more to this list.
Without a doubt there is a great deal of national pride in who we are, but the expression that we lend to our architecture does not compliment that position. I would not want to sermonise anyone on how we can dream of architectural expressions, forms, types, etc for the various regions and sub regions of this country, and would only hope that we find our ways to do our bit.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Seeking the language (reasons) for an appropriate architecture

In the context of finding that all elusive architecture that belongs, while it addresses both regional needs and global aspirations, we often find the built around us are compromises.
Village House fore court near Nurthyang, Meghalaya
The new found Green rush has thrown up various building solutions to achieve a version of buildings that are responsible to the environment. But are they? Just glance back at the past 50 years or so, and we see a transformation of our urban scape. Roll back another 50 and the differences are glaring. As a parallel exercise, venture out about  50 km from wherever you are in the city and you start seeing examples of a building tradition that seem vestiges of a past in the context of this rapidly changing urban form. Should we construe that the past, which continues to exist even today in subdued forms are passe, and not relevant?
Apply the same filters of assessing their environmental impact from today's green building perspective on them, and we find that they occupy a category that is difficult to emulate.... in other words, as green as it gets. On an other thread look at urban developments across the country and across the world and all this new architecture seems related... country cousins aspiring to follow a trend.
So why do we continue with this inertia of propagating this borrowed architectural model? While it is not hard to see that they do reflect a growing global community, it is difficult to trace a path of transformation, a rationalised process of closure of (or change from) what was, on to the emergence of a new urbanity. Any acceptable change, is a process of evaluating the reasons for change, adopting new ideas that satisfy the reasons for change and discarding those that don't apply, in the process effecting a familiar (understandable) transformation.
Let us look at some of the traits/requirements of the traditional buildings that occupy one of the sub regions of India.
Let's start with the obvious one, climate-  At a macro level, India demands a tropical architecture (with regional variations and exceptions).... an architecture that is designed to keep the insides of the building cooler... not letting heat creep in. However, there are various sub requirements of doing the same....
  • keeping the insides cooler, but in a region of high humidity
  • keeping the insides cooler, but in a high rainfall area
  • keeping the insides cooler, but in a dry and arid area
  • keeping the insides cooler, but tackling a saline and corrosive air
  • keeping the insides cooler, but managing a high glare factor.
Surely, the solutions and the resulting architecture would vary for each of these situations.

New Wood construction house at Malkota, HP
Add another trait layer, natural resources-  the western ghats (Kerala, coastal Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra have laterite rich reserves, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have rich granite reserves, Andhra has limestone and a variety of slates, Rajasthan has innumerable sandstones and marbles, the north-east is an explosion of a bamboo, cane and other grasses, Most of the Central and Gangetic India has quartzite, sandstones, Himalayan architecture is a mixture of adobe, slate, and wood. Bricks made all across India, were traditionally of different sizes, shapes and hues... reflecting the soils of the various regions. Carpentry skills vary where timber use was prevalent. True, there was a difference between Institutional and the vernacular.... but the vernacular was even more rooted. The vernacular sees employment of the most local and prevalent of skills that are associated to the natural resources of the region, a building system that is rapidly renewable, and materials for construction that can be carted from nearby. The building methods were kept simple and used no polluting energies... only human, or animal.

We see ourselves stepping into another trait, culture and building traditions-  In traditional buildings, we see people and culture entwined with the architecture. We see the work of artisans and crafts persons, and not merely contractors. Wonder why? There connect between the crafts person, his craft and the region from which he hailed was umbilical in nature. Every region's buildings reflected a stamp left by the craft persons who worked on it, that was unique. Such craft also reflected a connect with both the natural resources strengths and the climatic attributes of the region. For example, the stone jaali work of Rajasthan and the hot-dry central northern plains, play the dual role of both providing privacy to women inhabitants and cooling hot air as it swept through these stone screens. The Internal courtyard reflected the private usage of an inner-outdoor space and also ventilated the stale air from the rooms surrounding it.The tiny earthen and wood habitations of the Himalayas reflected both the outdoor culture of it's people, and also kept the inner spaces warm at night. The densely packed urban conglomerations of the northern plains indicate the need for shade in the streets. Similarly, the loosely stacked homes in coastal Tamil Nadu demonstrate the need for air to circulate freely to tackle high humidity.

We see that all these aspects of climate, natural resource strengths, cultural needs and building traditions result in a multitude of architectural styles and sub-styles uniquely linked with the sub regions of this country. So what about the architecture of today? More and more, we are accepting trends, dimensions, expression and material thrown up by a global community, rather than seeking a honest (honourable) transformation (connect) vis-a-vis our building heritage. Why? Maybe in this age of quick-fix solutions, when we continue to seek for that elusive language of architecture that would be deemed appropriate, we actually seek reasons to belong...be a part of this emerging global village... uninterested in the consequences of this change.

Where do we start if we were to design an architecture that is appropriate to place and time (place representing natural resources, skill sets and culture, and time representing the changing cultures and new aspirations)? We could start by asking questions like these:
  • What building material groups would I choose to ensure that the building gains less heat? (Doesn't a predominantly glass facade defeat the basic premise of that choice?)
  • What building form would I employ that addresses other climatic attributes of the sub-region like humidity, rain, etc?
  • How were current uses of the building addressed by traditional counterparts, and are they relevant today from a socio-cultural point of view?
  • Which natural resources are available for me to employ sustainably, or more honestly, with lesser environmental damage? For example, excessive laterite mining for construction in the western ghats is today an environmental issue..... so what would be the alternative?
  • Do I have a responsibility towards current livelihoods linked to building traditions? How do I employ those valuable skills?
  • How would I balance the issue of glare and the desire of a more social people, without compromising on heat gain?
  • Traditional vernacular architecture occupied a minimal resource/skill footprint, and a near zero carbon footprint.... Since a large ecological footprint is undesirable (within this 'climate of change'), then how small a footprint can I make?
  • .... and more!
What is more dangerous when exaggerated? Global aspirations negating tradition and the associated identity, or, negotiated change. Choose wisely.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Are current green initaitives only half measures towards sustainability?

Are current green initiatives only half measures towards sustainability.... merely postponing the inevitable?
Essentially all human activity revolves around the extraction of virgin material, energy production/usage and the generation of waste.
Much of today's 'green' activity focusses on the following:
  • Material- Here the focus is keeping things as local as possible and to consume only low energy products. 
  • Energy- Here the focus is on producing cleaner power and increasing the usage of renewable energy for our power needs. When it comes to engine fuels, the focus is on moving away from fossil fuels and opting for more non-polluting alternatives like bio-fuels. On the demand end these initiatives have resulted in technology that consume less power or fuel to give us the maximum output.
  • Waste- Here the focus is on cleaner non-polluting technologies.
These are well meaning methods towards a greener future, but is it enough to become truly sustainable. That begs the question- what is being truly sustainable? I would imagine that it would mean that we consume material in a manner that there is enough left for posterity... for future generations and other species to live quality lives on this earth. It would also mean that we consume energy/fuel in a manner that there is enough to go by for posterity, or, that any residue of our activities does not result in a toxifying of our air, ground or water.

Now, what would be the steps that we would have to take to ensure that we satisfy the above conditions of sustainability? Let us consider the current 'green' measures:
Materials- By consuming local or consuming low energy products would we meet those conditions? I believe that it all depends on the rate of consumption. The stresses are already showing, with a running out of various stones and timber alternatives, or, the astronomical price increases that we have been seeing. It looks to me that to change to a non-consumerist community would be far more challenging (it's kind of an addiction). The answer would be to reach a near net zero virgin resource consumption situation. The focus would therefore have to be on the development of technologies in nearly all fields that see the use of reused or renewable raw materials. Since at IGH we focus on the built environment, the examples would be along the lines of technology to reuse steel without hampering its brittleness (a result of its carbon content), the making of reconstituted concrete/blocks/tiles that bring the use of cement down to zero, low-energy woody materials/ composites, non-toxic resins and polishes, and so on. Does this mean the end of conventional construction? These are the debating points.... whatever it leads to, one thing is for sure... we would need a radical re-think on the business as usual processes.
Energy- The answer is not whether we should use renewable energy or non-fossil fuel energy. What we ought to be focussing on is whether the overall resources that is used in the production of energy can be sustained for ever? Yes, the sun's energy will last us many millennia, but what about the life of technology like PV... they currently have a shelf life of about 15 to 20 years.... what then? Have we figured out methods to manufacture PV technology in a manner that we dont spend more than what we expect the PV products to produce? Can we design systems that are perennial? What about bio-fuels? Can we be sure that we would have enough land for growing the bio-fuel without eating into our forests or adding pressure on our regular food crops?
Waste- Here is quite a crucial component that defines how badly we have tilted the sustainability balance. Be it materials we use for all production/building activity, or, everything we consume as food and other daily consumables, or the fuel we burn to power our transportation, cities and industry..... we leave something behind. Can we endeavour to work on technology that produces no residue, or, renders all such gaseous, liquid or.solid residue into re-usable materials or inert enough not to cause any problem whatsoever to our air, water or land?

The earth's population is slated to settle around the 10 billion mark. While it means that there would only be that many mouths to feed, another phenomenon, which is the increasing global urban population, would have a pronounced impact on what resources we have left. Along with this comes a greater hunger and greater 'want' from a basic 'need' based society. The pressure will be on us to consume less, and pollute less.... which is as much a measure of attitude/s as it is a challenge for technology. Like I mentioned earlier, the former has led us to where we are... and while we do our utmost to bring change in lifestyles, the focus would equally be on gearing the latter to meet the stringent sustainability demands as mentioned above.
I do agree that current 'green'measures are probably the first steps towards such a change, but it only seems prudent that we know where we are headed and what, at best, will suffice.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Of cursive writing and philosophers…..


While at a recent event around town- I got to see the works of a bunch of …….people. For a change, what I saw was very different from the altars that I pray at and it was after a very long time that I was sitting down to listen to what (according to me are) the 'lesser Gods' had to say.
A lot of their work- and it was quite some bit, with more than eight odd people presenting- seemed like cursive writing, very beautifully written words. Most of these people seemed to have as work, exotically written alphabets with near perfect strokes slanting in the right directions.
My complaint, however, was that when one strung these pretty alphabets together- they didn’t seem to do much beyond forming a well-put-together happy song for kids. Some even bordered on being chirpy clap-along merry little nursery rhymes, but not more. It did not seem to me like they pushed or challenged any existing known paradigm….. and why, you may ask, is that so important !? Well, it is almost the subject matter of another entry- at another time perhaps.
A countable few among those speakers, I thought, sounded like philosophers who unfortunately dint seem to get the attention they deserved.
One of them particularly stood out. His courage to try something new was truly commendable. Sadly, he had a poor handwriting which made his work appear to be a scribbling. It was extremely hard to decipher and this I thought reduced that unsatisfactorily small subscriber base- further. From the murmurs I heard around me in the audience, I knew that what had appeared as an end result had done absolutely no justice to his struggles of experimentation. What I liked was the fact that this philosopher, who had a lot of sensible things to say but no cursive writing to boot, had at least 'tried'.
It brings me back to a discussion we were having around the studio a while ago, an excerpt follows: (Harsha stated it)
'I feel though that this debate about what is ‘good’ architecture as compared to kitsch (read glitzy facades and lots of glass and chrome surfaces) is a bit beyond architecture. One needs to address what people are aspiring for, what they want to be seen as, and so on. After all, architects don’t make projects; clients do (at lease most often). One thing I saw in some one like Anil Laul was that identity, and the ‘good architecture’ can wait; the environment, or more importantly, sustainability needed to be addressed first. Not that I prescribe to this view entirely, but I ask myself- what is more precious to me…. a world where all architecture (or most of it) is pretty and interesting, or, a world where the environmental balance is not tilted. The logic of the latter is over whelming- a pretty world wouldn’t survive for long if it turned its back on the environment.
Having said that, I believe that there is enough room for creating an interesting world with an ecological balance'
In conclusion, one wishes that philosophers wrote more legibly and cursive writers with greater thought.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lessons learnt for building design from the experience of driving

How many of us have had this experience? Park the car out in the sun and return after a couple of hours.... and we reel back due to the excessive heat within.
To counter this, we do two things:
  • One, we park the car in the shade
  • Two, we roll down a couple of windows of the car down a crack
In both cases, we have a great level of comfort that is achieved, at least when we compare this to the very first experience. Now let us look at both these changes to the situation closely.
The first instance, where the car was parked in the shade benefited due to the reduction of direct incident radiation. Nothing else changed, only the external environment was modified by introducing an obstruction to the direct sunlight.
The second instance, where the car was parked with the windows slightly down benefited due to the hotter air being vented out from the upper portions of the car, where this internal air is hottest. Nothing here was changed, only the body of the car was made to breathe.
Cut to how a building works for a bit. The body of the car can be compared to the building shell- the walls, the roof, the windows, etc. The windows of the car are akin to the openings on a building- windows, ventilators, clear storeys, etc. How the skin of the car works in affecting the internal thermal environment is comparable to that of the building shell.
If we consider how this shell works in keeping the car thermally comfortable, we find that in most instances it seems to fail, as in the example given above. The point that I am making is that the entire shell of the car (the insulation included) that was meant to manage the gain of heat (in hotter climates) and the subsequent loss of coolth (yes, it is a word in the HVAC industry)  from internal air-conditioning, was inadequate in doing so. I wonder (humour me for a bit), if we had designed cars with a secondary shade providing shell (forget the aerodynamics for a bit), perhaps with perforations (kind of like a jaali), which would perform like a self venting system of sorts, would we have reduced the insulation that the car would have ordinarily needed? Could such a cutting off of direct heat radiation also have lead to a reduced usage of air-conditioning?
Let us now apply the same logic to how a building is designed. Current practises take into consideration local climatic conditions and then design the building shell with materials (or composites) with the desired u-values to ensure an appropriate thermal flow balance. Like in the case of the car, this extra insulation of the building can be reduced by first starting with a modelling method that adopts aspects of shading and venting on a shell with conventional specs. In hotter climates (like most areas in the plains of India) where it is all about keeping the heat out, this would apply greatly.
A double shell  for instance could also be designed to provide extra strength.... a greater base level of air-exchanges would also ensure better internal air quality.... and eventually, a building so designed would end up spending less on air-conditioning costs.
Similarly, other thermal comfort influencers like humidity, can also be addressed by drawing on such parallels/inspiration. Ever wondered why when it is uncomfortably humid, and you are driving, you feel much better, by just rolling the windows down? The breeze helps remove the perspiration, and one starts feeling better. Now, in the building context, when it is humid, all one has to do, is to induce such an air movement. It is not necessary to jump straight to air-conditioning.
Many of us hasten to switch on the AC in the car and do so primarily because we cant stand the dust and pollution of our cities. A similar scenario of dust is played out in buildings, and somehow and air-conditioned environment is always seen as the universal solution. When all we needed was a dust screen! We know that plants perform that role and so do artificial louvres and 'jaalis'. Incorporating such measures would surely address dust control but don't you think that it could also add some vitality to otherwise banal fa├žades?
So, what say we take one hard look at the experience of driving and how we deal with thermal comfort...again?