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SUSTAINABILITY A WAY OF LIFE: Moving towards timeless, humane and viable architecture

Written by The Optimist

Sustainability is not just a concept but a way of life. It pushes us to make changes that in the long run improves efficiency and restores balance to our social environment. And promoting sustainable architecture is essential for wholesome development. An ideal architecture is not about producing construction plans alone rather it should have a perfect blend of culture, climate, and assembly.

While environmental management remains crucial, design also plays a significant role in improving viability. At the core, there are five principles that form the backbone of sustainable architecture:  timeless aesthetics, socio-cultural appropriateness, environmental sustainability, economic affordability, and structural strength. The uniqueness of each tenet demands we think out of the box while working on applying them together. Hence any attempt at universalisation of norms and quantification of quality while pushing for sustainable architecture can be detrimental.

The universal green building rating system, although well-intentioned in its nature seems to have certain dark areas. We often see buildings that are heavily decorated with platinum or gold, have pitch dark corridors devoid of natural light, that use mechanized ventilation and a lot of overseas marble apart from external glazing earning the green tag. Architecture has to do much more for its resolve. It has to focus more on the processes rather than thinking primarily about the final output. It has to explore multiple iterations of basic design.

Not only rating norms, out of context, create inadvertently disasters, even building bye-laws often prove regressive and contrary to the primary concern. For example, the city of Ahmedabad for centuries had building bye-laws that encouraged the use of outdoor spaces such as courtyards, terraces, and balconies as living spaces by exempting this construction from Floor Space Index ( the ratio between the area of a covered floor to the area of that plot on which a building stands) calculations.

Previously, 120 centimeters of balcony projection had been exempted from floor space calculations that encouraged people to extend their decks, which protected the lower floors from sun and rain. But tweaks to the bye-laws have reduced the exemption to 60 cms. This projection in the context of Ahmedabad’s solar azimuth (angle of the sun’s position) and altitude is inadequate to shade windows or the walls below. Traditional architecture in the city for centuries built profiles where upper floors projections increased a little further at each level, effectively protecting most of the building.

It is prudent, therefore, to understand traditional architecture and seek resolutions from it. Talking of the traditional does not mean turning the clock backwards nor is it about romanticizing the past. We just need to look for answers for tomorrow and that too purely through their functionalism. Traditional built forms, primarily for their performance credentials, need to be studied. The architecture of yesteryears, firstly, shows us the real meaning of timeless beauty. We can learn the art preserving from such age-old time-tested architecture. The second performance virtue is in their socio-cultural appropriateness. Having evolved from the place, they remain close to the lifestyle of locals and capture the ethos.

The third and most tangible learning is for their environmental management. Having been resolved in pre-electricity days, these built forms employed creative methods with no dependence on electrical gadgets, mechanised services or appliances. The traditional architecture, through fundamental principles of space making, resolved issues through informed decisions at all levels. Siting and location, form and massing, movement and organisational structure, choice of spatial elements, material and technique of construction and surface articulation were all taken care of. Let us examine a few principles as well as spatial constructs of environmental sustainability that were employed by traditional architecture and are relevant in India’s harsh weather conditions even today.

Mutual Shading:

Mutual shading could be achieved by building orientation on-site to expose the least surface to south and west, or subterranean spaces, by raising shared walls, or just stacking of masses over the floor Shared walls along with longer faces and reduce energy demand by less than half. Even a a couple of inches projections on wall surfaces cast shadows and protect the wall surfaces by shading it from the sun when it is intense and overhead.

Ventilation v/s Insulation:

In principle, insulation proves more effective in colder climates retaining the heat within. Whereas in warmer conditions the heat has to be evacuated, in other words, ventilation is the key in warmer regions. Insulated masses help reduce heat ingress by prolonged time lag but the same becomes a heat trap when the outer temperature drops lower than within. Night radiation within where rooms are warmer than outdoors in the evening is a classic example. We are able to sit under a tree or a shaded pavilion even in an intense summer afternoon without discomfort. Each of us emit 75 watts of heat which keeps on getting produced even within insulated internal space and needs to be evacuated. Thick mass of the wall or ventilated cavity wall, earth berming, peripheral storage, folded wall surfaces, and low conductive materials may be the strategies for insulation, multi-tiered roofs, ventilators, courtyards, jaali walls or three-part windows can be effective strategies for ventilation.

Fenestration design:

Fenestration or the arrangement of windows in a building is a creative design dimension of the built environment. Indiscriminate use of glass, remaining insensitive to orientation and proportion has plagued contemporary building aesthetics. While technologically engineered glasses can reduce heat intake by 40 percent, just a meter of awning can reduce it to a quarter. Excessive glass usage also traps solar radiation and increases outer temperature responsible for the glare factor and thereby raising outer temperature by reflecting the sun’s heat.

Traditional windows are a three-part resolution giving complete control to the users. The top ventilator evacuates hot air all through the day, the middle shutter lets in light and provides people with a view. Route for cool air is cleared by the lower third zone of the fenestration. This combination offers flexibility to the user. Jaalis are fantastic fenestration forms we have conveniently ignored today.

With differential lighting, it respects privacy where one can see the outside world through it while keeping away any external gazes. The tiny holes allow light inside while cutting out glare and also allow proper ventilation. Glazing allows for view but not ventilation. Research has indicated that for the hotter regions of India total proportion of fenestration on the southern or western surface should not exceed 22 percent. Unfortunately even popularly used sophisticated software and researched norms derived from colder regions of overseas fail to understand the dynamics of the breeze as a comforting factor.

Optimizing outdoors as Living spaces:

Outdoor living was yet another principle of sustainable habitats of traditional quarters. No matter how much the harsh weather is during the day, it is often quite pleasant in the evenings as mercury drops in the latter half of the day. Traditional practices took advantage of these factors by creating platforms, courtyards, and terraces, promoting outdoor living in fair weather. The art of creating courtyard architecture, a D.N.A. of Indian domestic architecture pan India, is fast vanishing in the contemporary genre.

Courtyards, even in its contemporary avatar as an atrium, can magically reduce the daylight needs and enhance ventilation not only in residences but even in commercial spaces like malls, offices, and complexes. Window fenestration can provide illumination in about three to five-meter range the most. Interspersed courtyards, atria, sky apertures, as well as sawtooth edges, ensure adequate daylight, outdoor views as well as natural ventilation.

Symbiosis of lifestyle and architecture:

Architecture is heavily inspired and influenced by daily life. Research in Japan has revealed that corporate employees in informal attire felt comfortable even in warmer room temperatures. Thus wrong attire was found to be the culprit for having to turn up the air conditioners and spend more energy.

Afternoon rest routine is common in warmer climate zones. From food to furniture, all daily routines combine to create a lifestyle that compliments built form. Introverted lifestyles and the need for privacy gave birth to the concept of courtyards. Swings became inseparable fixtures, giving evaporative cooling comfort to the body with muscle power instead of using an electrical fan. Even though it sounds like a vague generalisation, hotter the climate spicier the food palette is. Fiery food induces sweating, eventually translating into evaporative cooling. In the Indian context, where a large part of the country witnesses temperatures of 12 to 18 *c in winters, summer air conditioning temperatures of 17/18 degrees are followed in banquet halls, hotel rooms or airports due to alien imported standards.

Refuse & Regenerate:

We all know of the three R’s of sustainability: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. We need to add two more: Refuse and Regenerate. We need to learn to refuse and learn to build less and not duplicate resources. Today, lot of cities don’t have air-conditioned public auditoriums that can cater to thousand people, while a school campus has the same facility they use once in a blue moon. This can be avoided. Spaces can be shared and even outdoors can work out if timed around the fair-weather zone. Today, we can promote regeneration of resources through active solar applications, bio waste treatments for reclaiming water and treat waste for generating value-added resources.

The idea of sustainability should not remain a fashion statement or an award but a professional obligation. Harmonious co-existence between humans themselves and nature are two fundamental tenets of sustenance. Architecture needs to be holistically integrated with aesthetic, environmental, cultural, structural as well as Economic concerns.

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The Optimist

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