Sunday, November 9, 2014
Home strengthens the man-nature bond.
From climate-friendly homes of yore to monotonous concrete and glass structures of today, we are losing out on aesthetics and warmth. Thankfully, there are people who are reviving the time-tested practices
THE BEAUTY of living in a place like India is that after every few hundred kilometres, we feel like we are in a completely new place. This is because, the people change, their clothes, their language, their lifestyle, everything changes. And so is true of the architecture of these places. 
An ideal way to notice this would be to travel outwards, towards the countryside, from any major city. The change in scale of the houses from being denser to more spread is obviously seen, but along with that there are changes in design, material, planning and orientation and it is in these cases that one can sense the increasing influence of urbanisation on the rest of the country. And this influence has damning effects. 
In our quest to follow the footsteps of globalisation by transforming our cities to become the next Shanghai and Dubai, we are leaving behind a very strong part of our cultural identity and this shift of the architecture from the traditional, unique and contextual to the modern, monotonous and general has become more rapid now than ever. 
If we looked at our roots for inspiration, we would be evolving our own unique forms of architecture instead of blindly aping others. In villages where people have successfully built their shelters and dwellings using local materials, understanding climate, through trial and error over time, using their own skill sets and in harmony with nature; a distinct change is evident. Cement and concrete are replacing lime and stone, tin sheets are replacing clay tiles, and buildings are replacing houses.
How people thrived
The obvious myth attached to the local and traditional houses is that they are not strong, and are maintenance unfriendly. However, every possession of ours needs care and nurturing, and we only need to look at the 2001 Gujarat earthquake – where the only houses that did not fall were the circular bhungas of Kutch – to understand this.
The circular bhungas of Kutch were the only structures that did not fall during 2001 Gujarat earthquake.What makes these houses so unique? The circular bhungas are mostly found spread across the banni grasslands of Kutch. This grassland sits on the most intensive Earthquake Zone 5. The houses are made round and small using a construction method called wattle and daub – wattle being the sticks/dried grasses that have been weaved together and daub being the earth to bind it all together. 
Some houses also have decorative bas-relief work done with earth plaster and tiny mirrors generally in the interiors. The entrance to the house is small, the floor is made from earth and a layer of cow dung is poured on the floor. The walls too are layered with cow dung ‘lipai’ or ‘lipan’. The interiors are dark and the conical thatched roof prevents the entry of too much light. There are small circular openings towards the bottom of the walls that allow air to be condensed before it enters, resulting in cool air flowing through the openings. 
The combination of these materials, form, and design of the house results in greater climatic comfort than one would experience otherwise.  The circular shape of the house makes the house earthquake resistant, and even if the house does fall, it is light, harmless, and can be easily and cheaply built again.
Another interesting point of study would be the traditional houses in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, which also lie between an Earthquake Zone 4 and 5. Despite the climate, culture, geography and lifestyle being so different from Kutch, the people here too have evolved a system of earthquake resistance. Using the local materials of stone and timber, the houses are built on a high plinth with a construction method called ‘Kath-Kuni’. Alternate layers of stone and timber are laid without any mortar resulting in thick walls that can resist the forces of the earthquake.
The floors in these houses are made from timber, which does not get cold easily. Cattle reside in the bottom part of the house, and the houses are designed such that the heat generated from the cattle and from the kitchen can be used to warm the house. Features like these are unique to different regions of India. 
From north to south, east to west
In Rajasthan, earth and stone buildings and systems of water conservation have existed since eons. In regions near the Aravalis, the people build their houses using a technique called ‘rammed earth’. All the measurements of the house are calculated by the distance between the tip of the owner’s hand till his elbow. This measurement unit is commonly called ‘haath’. 
Bamboo house in Mawlynnong, Meghalya.Further up in Udaipur, one can find ancient stone havelis that are over 250 years old and in Jaisalmer the local yellow sandstone is used abundantly. The use of ‘chuna’(lime) as mortar in stone buildings was prevalent and this lime has still retained its strength. The use of lime also allows buildings to breathe something that does not happen with the use of cement (the base of which is lime).
In Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and the rest of the North East, the use of bamboo has been pre-dominant in all aspects of life – not just for homes. Furniture, cutlery, arts, crafts and also houses are fully dependent on the bamboo which is an easy material to work with. A mature, cured bamboo of the right species can last a lifetime.
In Kerala, some of the traditional homes – called Nalukettus – are built around courtyards that have a significant impact on the house not just architecturally but also socially. The courtyard is the heart of the house around which all the other rooms are built giving light and life to every room. It is also the place around which the family gathers and women especially make the most use of these courtyards. As an exterior place within the house, the women can be freer than they are outside. The courtyard also helps in the circulation of air by letting the hot air escape from the house and pulling in cooler breeze through the windows.
Traditional green roof in Bihar,Courtyards are a common feature throughout the country and serve different purposes in different regions. Courtyards in Rajasthan for example are primarily used for the benefit of ventilation and also for the collection and storage of rainwater. Along the coast of Kerala and further north towards the Konkan, houses are built using red laterite stones called ‘chira’. These stones being semi-porous in nature allow walls to breathe, thus having a direct positive impact on the humidity and temperature of the building.
Why the change for worse
There are a few reasons as to why we are seeing the paradigm shift from traditional, colourful and practical to monotonous structures. For one, the people themselves are overwhelmed by what they see in cities, movies and in the media. They now aspire to build concrete buildings, as it is an upgrade to a pucca house – a symbol of power, status and respect in today’s world.
Natural materials like bamboo and mud are being looked down upon as a poor man
Benefits of traditional houses
Strength: Houses can be 50-250 years old and still be extremely strong
Thermal control: Houses remain warm in winter and cool in summer since the transfer of heat through mud, stone or timber is an extremely slow process
The context: Houses were built for a particular region understanding the cultural, historical and geographical context of that region
Community participation: Traditionally the whole village used to gather around the house being built in the evening after work hours to stomp the mud in order to prepare the walls
Man-nature bond: People using their own skills to build their own house created a special spiritual relationship with their house
Eco friendliness: Traditional houses are one with nature at all times – pre-building phase, building phase, post-building phase

’s material. This notion has drastic effects on the people as they find it difficult to get their children married if they live in a mud house. The true understanding of the word ‘parampara’ or ‘tradition’ is an evolution – of culture, lifestyle and ritual – and if this evolution of our architecture had taken place through the years (rather than a jump), nobody would have looked down upon mud and bamboo.

However, in spite of intentionally choosing to build with modern materials today, the interesting thing about Indians is that when asked about their traditional houses, they will happily, passionately and even nostalgically give a list of benefits of those houses over the current ones.
Another reason for the decline of traditional architecture has been the promotion of industrialised materials. An example for this would be the galvanized iron sheets or tin sheets that have effectively transformed the landscape of villages all over the country. 
At places where once country tiles, Mangalore tiles or thatched roofs could be seen, flat slabs and tin sheets rule today. These tin sheets are cheap to buy and easy to fix but they have huge disadvantages. Besides the fact that it is a processed, industrialised and unnatural material, tin sheets when not fixed properly can be easily uprooted by heavy winds causing severe damage. These tin sheets are extremely thin, and let through tremendous amount of heat during the day making the temperature inside the house higher than outside. At night, house is colder than outside.
Cement, steel etc are all easily available and are marketed as materials that will last a lifetime with zero maintenance, which are false notion. The role of the government too had a telling effect on the situation. Instead of promoting vocational trainings, cultural arts and crafts and traditional skills, it has instead envisioned a method of development that is based on the industries. This makes it very difficult for anything but the industries to survive in the market, thus leading to several artisans leaving behind their age-old occupations and migrating to other areas in search for different, often menial, jobs.
The government also plays a negative role after natural disasters when entire villages are wiped out. For instance, after the 2010 cloudburst in Ladakh, government provided prefabricated rooms made of galvanised iron to the people. However, these rooms could not protect against the severe Ladakhi winter unlike the traditional mud brick rooms which insulate houses from cold weather.
Some hope and efforts at revival 
There is a slow movement within India and the rest of the world to bring the traditional architecture to the forefront by using the technology available to us today hand-in-hand with artisans working with local and natural materials. In Himachal Pradesh, Didi Contractor is reviving the traditional earth and timber houses. In Gujarat, organisations like Hunnarshala Foundation, People in Centre and Thumb Impressions have been instrumental in working with artisans and crafts-persons. Buildaur  in Auroville and Malak Singh and Put Your Hands Together in Mumbai are also examples of people and organisations working towards a better, more sustainable architecture.
There is a slow movement within India and the rest of the world to bring traditional architecture to the forefront by using the technology available to us today hand-in-hand with artisans working with local and natural materials. In Himachal Pradesh, Didi Contractor is reviving the traditional earth and timber houses. 
The government too has become more open to sustainable holistic development. Instead of building mass concrete house blocks after the 2008 Kosi floods in Bihar, the government formed the Owner Driven Rehabilitation Collaborative (ODRC) with some of the above mentioned organisations. The main aim of ODRC was to promote bamboo (or brick) based houses depending on the needs of each of the affected families. The project was successfully tested with two pilot projects in 2010, and the government is continuing this method of construction and rehabilitation till date.
Another example has been the development of houses under Indira Awas Yojana in Gujarat. The government has been studying various forms of traditional architecture all over the state and is exploring the idea of linking it with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) with an intention of getting people to build their own homes according to their choice by following certain technical guidelines.
Together with the initiatives of the government and the people, the possibility of creating more sustainable and humane architecture, and in turn the world, is a dream that can be easily turned into a reality.
Areen is a Mumbai-based architect focussing on environmental friendly architecture using locally available natural materials. 
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