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.

Friday, September 23, 2011

From used packaging wood to a picnic table

The informal court gets a face lift
A couple of months ago we were asked to design a working picnic table of sorts for Fisheye, this leading brand & creative solutions company, who incidentally has graciously lent us space to work out of (and as a consequence with whom we share an office space with).
The office space is set in a pre 70s bungalow from the older version of Cooke Town and as a result, offers a number of interesting spaces around the building to use. The folks at Fisheye have left their mark on the insides of this building as only they could and wanted to create their outdoor meeting/lunch/evening party space as an extension of themselves. Therefore, they came up with a casual model to base their seating requirement on.... a picnic table. Dave, the seed of all these projects at Fisheye, handed us a couple of downloaded images of picnic tables from the Internet as reference.

One thickness and modular sizing creating a range of parts
Herein lay a challenge- a typical picnic table is a two-sided table with benches attached to either side. The Fisheye requirement was to seat a minimum of 8 and if possible more at this table. A conventional picnic table that could seat that many would have meant something that was longer than 9 feet!. Further, a conventional picnic table was held together by a cross truss at the edges, and this prevented anyone to slide into their seats. Nearly all had to climb over the benches to park themselves down.
While Fisheye were fine with that, we wanted to work for people beyond their team (and us) to include visitors, some of whom may find the process ungraceful. Any redesign though could not topple the qualitative experience of a picnic table.

Krishna the carpenter inspecting the packaging wood
Without a doubt, the material choice had to have a sustainability angle. Our choices were to do it in some sort of reclaimed timber, so we focussed on used packaging wood. So in keeping with what have stated in earlier post on packaging wood, we went to the dealers of this often neglected resource. Design could not begin, and in retrospect the table could not have turned out the way it has, if we had not done such surveys.

Normally, one gets much smaller cut sections of this wood... mostly 5 odd feet lengths and about 4 to 5 inch widths. We had desired sections of at least 6 inches in width for two reasons... one to reduce the number of build-ups, joints and nail usage, and two to keep with the feel of an outdoor, sturdy picnic bench (not a delicate indoor cousin). There are a few places across Bangalore where one can source packaging timber, but only a few stock larger sizes.... usually used to carry heavy machinery for companies like Volvo, etc.
The process involved careful selection of the timber, hauling the wood to a nearby mill to cut it down to desired sizes, and then transporting this across town to our office space.

Assembly architecture
We also wanted to keep a relatively simple structural assembly and perhaps as powerful a system as the traditional picnic table.We used a uniform thickness for all components to keep cutting simple, and used just four basic sizes- one for the bench legs, one for the table legs, one for the table top & bench seats and one for the cross beams that held it all together. Only the table top and the bench planks had some nailing done to hold the individual plans together and the rest of the table was put together used nuts and bolts. So essentially, the table was an assembly of various parts making the table and bench tops, the legs and the cross beams. All of which could be removed and put back where needed. Because of the uniform thicknesses of all components we ended up limiting this to just two lengths of bolts.

Most packaging woods bear the scars of their past... holes where bolts were driven through, recesses that seated metal washers, air cracks and perhaps even some gouged out portions. We decided to keep most of this and as a result it has lent immense character to this picnic table. This also offers various opportunities for creative use by the folks at Fisheye.

The Table top with gaps for expansion and drainage
Not opting for a toxic surface coat, we finished the entire table and benches with a liberal rubbing of linseed oil... This takes the place of the natural oil inherent in the wood.

Packaging wood is mostly pine and comes in a range of shades, from a pale pinkish brown to a deep reddish brown. The deeper the shade red, the greater the natural wood oil content. The oil gives the wood fibre strength and makes it water resistant to a great extent. Of course, one would need to repeat the process of linseed oil application every year or so.
The process of application is laborious and one should take care not to miss any surfaces, and also gauge the absorption of oil by the wood leading to the use of appropriate quantities. The linseed oil was applied with a pinch of an ochre colour mixed in which made the grain stand out beautifully.

The remainder wood after completion of the table
In the process of design many other ideas for the directions that this table/bench could have taken sprung up.... maybe more on that will appear soon on the horizon as sub projects.
What we were most excited about at the end of this exercise was the minimal amount of wastage in the entire process. While very little waste was generated at the sawing mill due to the size of timber reapers and sections chosen, we kept the waste during the carpentry works to the barest minimum. Even these small pieces will find use somewhere soon I reckon.
While it took us about a week to complete this entire exercise from sourcing to finish, it takes only 10 minutes to dismantle the table and about 15 minutes to put it back. The table ensemble is in now in full use and seats about 12 people with great comfort. Feels like a mission that has been more than accomplished.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Adding thought to action

"Stock Market Fear and Greed," by Paul Zanetti.
In the realm of investments and savings there are many choices we make today. For most of us middle class folks it is all about saving for the future (insurance), owning a home and hearth, buying the car that is slightly beyond our budget, making sure that our children get a proper education, a healthcare budget, and keeping something aside for the rainy day. In earlier times this kind of a savings plan may have been touted as prudence personified, and banks and other institutions goaded us into believing that good things come to people who reinvest all what they earn with them or through them.
The fact is all these investment methodologies are based on two things only! Fear and Greed! We go through life thinking that we have to have all these things at the minimum to provide well for the family and ourselves. In a world that has become an individual free-for-all with avarice predetermining all our endeavours, our understanding of who we are and what our purpose is has become murkier than ever before. The gulf between ‘battle-for-survival’ for many and ‘battle-for surviving-well’ for the rest of us has widened to such a magnitude that it has robbed us of our feelings like empathy, respect, consideration for others, and the like. We have abjectly surrendered to the machinations of the business world which thrive on exploiting our two biggest weaknesses; to reiterate, fear and greed. We are perpetually running around trying to earn more and more throughout our lifespan in the hope that money is the only palliative we will need against all ills and illnesses (catering to fear). We all agree that we need all or some of these things in some measure but can we not stop when we reach a certain point in our quests in achieving each of these things (denying greed).
In today’s world this kind of consumption orientation is having disastrous consequences for ourselves as well as the planet we live. In a bid to consume more – buy a bigger house, car, or insurance policy – we cast an inverted eye on the ramifications of our actions. Do we need a ‘bigger or better anything’ should be at least thought through. Buying a bigger home could be problematic when you are old; a car as an investment is a losing proposition all the time (high on fuel, maintenance, taxes, and insurance costs, and is a rapidly depreciating asset to boot!); eating out or eating more too often will beget ill health; hoarding multiple properties only gives you sleepless nights (high taxes, tenant issues, maintenance costs, interest on borrowed capital, etc. etc.); saving for your children’s higher education means that you expect them to be invalids who can’t fend for themselves after a certain age!
We know a lot of people are trying to change this but we call such people activists, saints, sadhus, tree-huggers, pretenders, and so on, and sweep them far away from the dustbowl of our guilt. Anybody trying to do something good about almost anything is seen with a cynical and ignorant eye. Waking up to where the world is headed (socially, politically, environmentally, and commercially) is not something to be shunned with a cursory shrug. All these aspects have a great bearing on who we are and where we are heading and should be part of the decision making process for our every action. So the next time you make an investment think through a few things apart from appreciation of the investment (property), ROI (any investment), and diesel vs. petrol (car). Our simple (or simplistic) calculations are not enough for us to understand the ramifications of our actions; the world suffers a lot when we get it wrong, and it is within the realms of our responsibility to at least evaluate all options in greater perspective.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Tickled by the Rambutan

The rambutan (as seen in the Ooty veggie market)
In continuance to the homage made to the Mangosteen a few weeks ago, another exotic fruit to catch my fancy was the Rambutan. It is also called Ramboostan in the local markets. It is reddish (when ripe) in colour and looks very much like a lychee. The only major difference is that the outer skin is very hairy; in Malay ‘rambut’ means hair. On the inside it is a fleshy pearl coloured pod with a single seed; and is sweet-sour to the taste. There is a website: which offers information on the genus (Nephelium Lappaceum), and how to go about the proper process of eating it!
The Rambutan trees are medium sized evergreens and are a non-climacteric variety, i.e. they ripen only when on the tree. In fact the fruits taste better and survive longer when sold complete with the fruits still on the cut branches. Indigenous to the Malay Archipelago, Indonesia and the Philippines it also grows in Sri Lanka, Burma, India and Thailand. The Rambutan does not seem to have done as well as the Mangosteen in terms of captivating the taste buds of Queen Victoria; and the explorers and horticulturists of her time. Without much support from the west its trade has been very limited, though the fruit has reached Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Australia for cultivation purposes. It seems that traders in the south-east Asian region have given it a major economic push and it succeeds well in these parts.
In India the Rambutan is mostly grown in the Travancore region in southern Kerala. It was brought their by people who had earlier migrated from there to Singapore and Malaysia but who still retained ties to the land. Places where active cultivation thrives are Maramon, Kozhencherry, Ayroor, Ranny, Konni and Mallappally. There is good demand for them in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and prices per kilo are in the Rs. 150-200 range. No wonder that Kerala is just the place for it because the trees grow best within 10 – 15 degrees of the equator at a height of around 1600 ft. MSL. This, of course, just like the Mangosteen, puts paid to my desire to grow them in an orchard within our project in the Nilgiris. I believe Rambutan jams and jellies are heavenly; but, I guess, much like the popular movie title, Heaven Can Wait!

Monday, September 5, 2011

What sets us apart? Clues to what makes communities sustainable- Spaces

This post marks the second of a series with one common theme..... highlighting the areas of living that set us apart from the way/s we lived in the past (and in some traditional/rural settlements that still persist), and which also mark us as unsustainable communities.Here is the second.
Spaces and communities
Who doesn't like, appreciate or even want a palatial bungalow? What is there not to like.... unless you are thinking of the maintenance costs and other costs of residing in a place like this. Space by itself has become a statement of class. Take a look around... the various peddlers of real estate scream out at you dishing out the larger living rooms, the larger bedrooms, and even larger dining tables.... all for a similar sized family unit. Even the specifications are near similar... the difference however, is the price. Nowadays, there seem to no bounds to what one 'wants' as space, expect perhaps the depth of our pockets.
There are some odd outcomes though..... if one buys into a builder development, then the volumes seem to have shrunk. Wonder why? Floor-to-Ceiling heights now hover at a near universal range, between 9.5 feet to 10 feet. What is ironical, is that this remains nearly the same no matter which city, or, geography we live in. This reduction in space (also reflected in the thinness of walls, is due to the builder maximising on achievable floor area. Most individuals building their own homes would do the same mainly because of costs.... be it due to the direct costs of extra material or due to the paucity of space.
How does space matter? A larger volume would mean more air to warm or cool. Too much or too little space could mean 'thermal discomfort'. Ever wondered why volumes of human habitation shrunk in extremely cold regions.... a lower volume meant lesser air to heat up, and lesser surface area exposed to the outside. More significantly, the heights of these spaces were always kept low.... to prevent any heated air to rise above. In humid regions, the spaces would not be bound, and would allow the free movement of air bringing comfort to the inhabitants. Along the same lines, higher ceilings were common in hot-dry conditions. To further aid this, courtyards were integrated to create a kind of thermo-siphon, venting out the stale hot air from the adjoining spaces, which in turn drew in fresh cooler air from the outer faces. In some cases, Jaalis (delicate stone carved screens) were provided on these outer surfaces, which absorbed the heat from the incoming air. Semi-covered and open spaces played as important a role as covered rooms. Verandahs provided shade in hot regions, and performed open to the breeze spaces in humid regions. Open terraces were rest areas in the hot nights of the northern plains.
Through history, the larger consumers were always the wealthy and ruling classes, and the masses lived in far humbler accommodations shaped by what their need and the hand-me-down knowledge systems. Uncannily, the building forms and methods were also sensible architectural outcomes for each specific geography.
Forget palaces, forts, tombs and temples for a bit, but when one thinks of traditional settlements space and form seem to vary from one region to another. What is starkly different when one compares much of these vernacular forms to present day times is how things were never over-sized. Perhaps the reason is obvious. More space meant more material to provide for an envelope, to provide for finishes and for other aspects of insulation, etc.It also made sense that there was a lot of manual labour involved in the movement of material, and therefore restricting the quantities needed made sense. I am guessing that was one of the prime reasons why material was not moved from very far (surely energy of travel did not figure beyond a monetary sense). Nonetheless, there are lessons here for the these times. In some ways, it is still evident today, in areas which are poorly connected by roads.... a boon if you ask me.
Space also has a clear impact in terms of Aural quality, light quality,and even affect our psychology (I am not referring to any Vaastu/Feng Shui psycho babble)... Many of us know the feeling of claustrophobia in small tight spaces. However, each of these have to be seen in conjunction with other aspects of other finishes. For example, the density, geometry and smoothness quality of the surfaces have an impact on the reflective quality of a space; the size, direction and nature of opening has an impact on light and air movement.... and therefore inside temperature. Shapes of any enclosure may also mean an interesting impact on you both financially and psychology. We already know that more surface area, the higher exposure to the environment... therefore more heat gain or loss, and more surface exposed to rain. The larger the space, the heavier the structure..... therefore greater the anchorage or sizing of foundation.
I did an interesting exercise once (thanks to a great teacher I had the opportunity to work with); I compared two spaces with the same area, one a square and the other a rectangle.... I found that the square space would less to build than the rectangular space, assuming they were built using the same methods and systems. Why? The answer is pretty simple really (once again, not some un-understandable explanation of energy lines and directions, which once cant get). The square has a smaller perimeter than the rectangle... and therefore the total wall area (keeping the height the same) would also amount to less. Extend this to less openings required, etc. Less materials per square foot, and so lower costs. This also meant that the square space was less exposed to the elements, and therefore gained and lost much less heat (if oriented similarly), meaning lesser internal temperature changes, providing for a more comfortable internal environment. You can see how space could also affect health.
I am not advocating a standard usage of square shapes as a result, but only emphasising the need to understand the impacts a space could have on us. From a sustainability point of view, traditional buildings had the advantage of having evolved an architecture with region specific forms and hence a more appropriate building vocabulary. Isn't it time we reconnected once again?