By Satish Purohit May 2011 Architects of the New Age are creating organic, sustainable, energy efficient houses that draw on local traditions of construction, craft and labour. Building Castles of MudSelf-taught architect Didi Contractor speaks to Life Positive on the art and craft of building holistic homes You build with mud. Can one build such houses in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore or Delhi? Building, like most other human activities, makes destructive demands on nature and disturbs ecological processes. In the past nature had the upper hand and human activities had to comply with nature’s demands or risk extinction. Architects in each situation can try to create ways to do the least damage. Any holistic or ecological approach has to be sensitive to diversity: the particular character and the different problems of each place, each building site. Different materials and technologies become ‘appropriate’ in different contexts. Here in rural Himachal Pradesh I use local building methods and harvest materials such as mud and bamboo from each site. In any other place I would explore the time-tested building traditions of that place. In Bangalore, Chitra Vishvanath, for instance, (www.biome-solutions.com) uses compressed bricks made from the earth dug from basements at the site. How do houses designed by you compare with those constructed with concrete in terms of durability, functionality, repair costs and cost of construction? Various forms of cost should be considered. Monetary costs, which are by nature easy to measure, only affect individual purses and pockets. Ecological costs affect everyone, and even the as yet unborn will have to pay. Concrete has a very high ecological cost. The monetary cost of the houses I design can be up to one third lower but my main concern is to lower the ongoing ecological costs. Good design can save energy at the time of construction and throughout the life of the building. The houses I design have proved durable and are easy and cheap to repair. Repair costs for conventional buildings are VERY much higher but conventional buildings can survive longer without repair. Concrete houses cost around Rs 900 – Rs 1,400 psqft. How much do your houses cost? There are costs at the time of construction and there are ongoing energy costs for the duration of the life of the building. I can usually build the same carpet area for one-third the cost, but I urge clients to spend that difference on energy saving and on the quality of amenities. What is your advise to city-dwellers who can only afford small apartments? Energy and ecology affect us all; our common (holistic) environment is experienced by us all. City dwellers may not have the luxury of living in ecologically constructed buildings but we all contribute to our surrounding environment by the way we live. By being sensitive to common needs in common spaces and being active in addressing such common issues as conservation, pollution, poverty and waste we can contribute to the (holistic) welfare of all.Yemen’s Skyscrapers of MudThe city of Shibam in Yemen has been described as ‘the Manhattan of the desert’. Built primarily from mud, the highest house in the city of Shibam is eight-storeys high and the average is five. While repairs are required annually, some of the multi-storey houses have been continuously occupied for over four centuries now. The impressive structures for the most part date from the 16th century, following a devastating flood of which Shibam was the victim in 1532-33. However, some older houses and large buildings still remain from the first centuries of Islam, such as the Friday Mosque, built in 904, and the castle, built in 1220. Source: UNESCO From what space within does a person on the path ideally design, remodel or furnish the space that he or she calls home? What materials does one consider appropriate in its creation? How does one shape the spaces by using walls, roofs, floors, windows, doors, columns and stairs so one feels physically rested, emotionally rejuvenated and spiritually uplifted? Are there ways to shape home spaces to facilitate respectful communication both within the family as well as with neighbours, promote intimacy, guard privacy, balance conflicting and competing energies between family members and foster inclusiveness in the neighbourhood? While several architects have attempted to answer these questions in the positive through their work in India, some like Nari Gandhi, Balkrishna Doshi and Laurie Baker and others associated with Auroville in Pondicherry have succeeded in doing so in ways that makes them the torchbearers of a New Age in architecture. These men and women have been pointing out the folly of constructing through conventional methods that rely on cement and steel that are not merely heavy on the pocket, but also damage the environment when they are produced, used and discarded. “The basic elements of a modern building like cement, steel, glass, ceramic, plastic and synthetic fibre are not connected to nature in the same way mud, brick, lime, thatch, timber and grass are. The industrial elements are what we know as waste, insofar as they aren’t, to use a trendy word, biodegradable. They also produce non-disposable waste. In its search to be permanent and ‘maintenance-free’, architecture has lost its capacity to be regenerative, and therefore, ecologically sensitive,” explains RL Kumar of the Centre for Vernacular Architecture, a co-operative of building craft persons established in 1989. We also have an example of the work of masters like Hassan Fathy of Egypt (revived traditional Egyptian mud architecture), Nader Khalili of Iran (developed a super mud-adobe system of construction in 1984, in response to NASA’s call for designs for human settlements on the Moon and Mars), Geoffrey Bawa of Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka’s most prolific and inventive architect, who initiated what is known as tropical modernism, and created beautiful sustainable architecture when the term had not been coined) and Christopher Alexander in the US who asserts that anyone can create beautiful holistic architecture if one lets one’s heart lead one’s head. He boldly advocates the use of feelings as a reliable guide for judging good architecture from bad. Nari Gandhi, New Age architect‘We should be happy withevery little thing we have.We should build in the styleof our ancestors with a littlechange here and there. ‘ Organic architecture Described variously as vernacular, organic or sustainable architecture, the work of these architects marries traditional methods of construction and locally available resources with modern technology to address local needs and circumstances. Their work honours the environmental, cultural and historical context in which it exists. “Vernacular architecture values labour over capital-intensive materials that are mass produced and massively subsidised by the government. We need vernacular architecture, which is humane and retains the human touch, because it relies on locally available materials and on craftsmen who work with their hands. No wonder the structures created by such architecture are closer to nature, history and tradition. These insights are not really new – Gandhiji had pointed all this out to us decades ago. All we need to do is follow his footsteps,” explains RL Kumar. The good news is that while the cost of conventional construction varies from Rs 900 to Rs 1,400 a square foot in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, holistic homes can often be cheaper. “Our team has created beautiful houses from mud, random rubble and exposed brick for as little as Rs 300 a square foot that are long-lasting, functional and energy-efficient. However, the costs keep changing. It will all depend finally on the sort of house you want,” Kumar adds. Houses designed by Kumar’s team rely on superior masonry that uses fewer bricks, provides better insulation from the Indian summer and does away with wall-plaster and finishes that can account for as much as 30 per cent of the cost of a house. Kumar bases his practice in part on the principles laid down by Kerala-based English architect Laurie Baker, whose 70-page cost-saving manual on home building is available on his official website www.lauriebaker.net. A verdant roof garden is not just a thing of beauty, it can also keep the roof cool Eighty-year-old Didi Contractor, a self-taught architect based in Himachal Pradesh, who has been building beautiful cottages from mud, believes homes made with hands have a certain ‘emotional content’ that concrete houses lack. “During building, I am very conscious of where the money is going. If I’m buying cement, the money is going up and away. But if I am making mud bricks the money is going down to support someone who can’t find other work here. It is a luxury to be able to do that but it helps overcome, to some extent, the inequity within society. Social costs are very high on my agenda,” said Contractor in an illuminating interview with architect and photographer, Joginder Singh. Living in harmony There is, of course, more to holistic architecture than the use of appropriate materials. It also has to ensure that the human motions and emotions that in their totality make for living – praying, eating, sleeping, defecating, making love, socialising, playing, cooking – and the shape of spaces in the built environment that people inhabit are not at variance. Seminal architectural thinker Christopher Alexander points out that people living in certain spaces cannot feel whole or alive no matter how much they work on themselves. “There is a myth, In these maze-like meandering city streets, my love We too shall own a home the windows will open into the
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