Meet the people who are going back to the basics of construction, but with a sustainable twist. Plus, post-pandemic home trends
For the longest time, summer vacations meant weeks at the maternal grandparents’ 100-year-old colonial bungalow in Ahmednagar. Abbott Bungalow has survived three generations — perhaps because it was built prioritising features like natural cooling, solar orientation and sustainable materials such as stone floors and walls made with chuna (lime), husk and mud. The very factors that are lacking in most ‘modern’ structures.
This is one of the reasons why sustainability in design is now being recognised and rewarded. At the recently-concluded ArchDaily Building of the Year 2021 competition, for instance, natural materials were in the spotlight. Bamboo hostels in China, a circular glass Apple Store (with 1,461 white oak slats forming a central canopy) in Thailand, among others, were adjudged winners. What caught our eye at The Hindu Weekend: multipurpose residences on Iran’s Hormuz island, with colourful domes, built with architect Nader Khalili’s superadobe technique (using layered bags filled with adobe). If you’re wondering why domes… because they are familiar structures in the region and their small scale makes them compatible with the building capabilities of local craftsmen.
As we enter a post-pandemic reality, built environments are set to evolve even more — embracing both local sensibilities and cutting-edge technology. Think upcycled wood, debris walls, plastic waste blocks, light generating cement, and air cleaning bricks. Research projects such as the one at Lancaster University a few years ago, which found that adding nanoplatelets of carrots and sugar beets ‘can strengthen concrete while reducing the volume of cement required’, are increasing too. India, for one, is looking into bamboo and recycled/upcycled materials such as plastic, carbon, and rice husk.
On the down side, however, many of these experiments don’t find a place in mainstream construction. Experts say prohibitive testing and industrial production costs, the need for skilled labour and consumer willingness, to an extent, are to blame. “There is resistance to trying the offbeat,” says Pavitra Sriprakash, director of Chennai-based Shilpa Architects Planners Designers, who encourages her clients to use tiles made of recycled plastic or PET bottles as panel walls. What we need is more people adopting local, carbon negative, and alternative building materials. To spread the word, and to rethink old requirements. Here are five architects and engineers who are doing just that, and hopefully, paving the way for others to follow.
Deepak Guggari, 45
Studio VDGA, Maharashtra
Office partition walls withcardboard
Architect Deepak Guggari recalls playing with cardboard boxes as a child. Now it has come full circle with his project, Office in Cardboard. Shortlisted for the Dezeen Awards 2020 (in the large workspace interior category), the 2018 project’s partition walls are made entirely from honeycomb board (cardboard) and MDF.
“As the client, Star Engineers, is eco-inclined, I thought why not let it reflect in the office. Although cardboard is a tough material, it is lightweight and has good compressive strength. It turned out to be fabulous,” says Guggari, adding that it was a zero-waste construction as any waste material was picked up by locals to upcycle. The nine-inch thick walls used at the 13,000 sq ft space are fabulous for acoustics, he explains, and they have interesting cross sections — a combination of sharp ends and rough cuts to give it an organic feel.
Addressing drawbacks, Guggaru says he was worried about the monsoon but the structure has remained intact for two seasons and it is a success. “The other factor is that cardboard has to be used in a controlled atmosphere [air conditioned, no water, etc]. Which is why we tried not to have any internal wiring,” says the designer, who now wants to experiment with mud and concrete walls, plastic bricks and bricks from waste.
Aravind Manoharan, 28
Pizhai Azhagu, Tamil Nadu
Building houses with mud, limestone, jaggery and egg whites
Manoharan’s role model is Laurie Baker, the late architect who believed that an ideal home is one that is built with materials sourced from within a 5 km radius. But it was a trip across North India four years ago, soon after graduation, that crystallised his vision for Pizhai Azhagu (Tamil for ‘beauty of mistakes’), the sustainable construction company that he co-founded in 2018. “I had travelled through Delhi, Rajasthan, Bihar, and other states, and noticed how the construction of houses differed depending on the climate and what was readily available [think stones and bamboo in West Bengal, and mud in Jharkhand]. I stayed in some of them and their holistic characteristics — in winters, mud walls trap the heat, while in summers they ‘breathe’ and keep the interiors cool — left a lasting impression,” he says.
Since then his interest in vernacular, indigenous techniques has grown. One of his builds is a 3,500 sq ft house that used recycled wood for beams, a mixture of lime, sand, kadukkai (yellow myrobalan seeds) and jaggery as mortar, lime and egg whites as plastering (for a smooth glaze), and banana and lotus leaves as termite protection. “Much of this traditional knowledge is dying out now,” says the civil engineer, who spent 2020 visiting over 50 villages in Tamil Nadu’s Kongu region, meeting elderly artisans and masons. “They are repositories of information on folk architecture and they taught us how to source materials and make structures — cob walls [made with mud and straw], limestone foundations, and pot tile roofs.”
Manoharan and co-founder, Bharat Raju, have also compiled this information as a photo documentary on Facebook (Towards.localization) and Instagram (@pathavan_in_search_of_path). “Currently we are renovating a 90-year-old courtyard house near Vellakoil, using lime-jaggery-kadukkai mortar, and lime plaster. A farmhouse project will also reintroduce cob walls and palm wood roofs,” he says.
Tejas Sidnal and samples of his carbon tiles
Tejas Sidnal, 32
Carbon Craft Design, Goa
Handmade buildingtiles with carbon waste and marble chips
Last year, news spread about a company making ‘building tiles out of air pollution’. It is true, for the most part. “Our first line was created with carbon captured from the atmosphere, in collaboration with Graviky Labs [which makes inks from carbon emissions]. But we soon realised scaling up production would be tough. How much can you capture from the air? So now we get to the carbon before it becomes airborne,” explains Sidnal.
The Goa-based architect and entrepreneur, who formed Carbon Craft Design a year ago, uses recovered carbon black (rCB), a waste product generated at tyre pyrolysis factories (where oil, gas and steel are extracted from used tyres through thermal degradation). “rCB is usually sent to cement factories and brick kilns to be used as cheap fuel, which causes particulate matter air pollution,” he says. The upcycled carbon is mixed with cement and marble waste from quarries and handcrafted by artisans in Morbi, Gujarat, into stylish, monochromatic tiles. Each piece is equivalent to preventing 15 minutes of car exhaust pollution.
The tiles have since been used in several building projects. “We’ve worked with several architects,” shares Sidnal. “We are currently retrofitting the third store for adidas [after Mumbai and Delhi], in Chandigarh. We are also in discussions with H&M.” As they scale up, Carbon Craft Design is now planning to also manufacture plain machine-made tiles — to make pricing more competitive (the handmade tiles go for Rs 300 per sq ft). And they are considering more partnerships, with outfits such as Takachar, a social enterprise that helps prevent open burning by farmers by buying rice husks and straw and turning them into charcoal, and Pune-based Magic Glass, as a source of glass waste as raw material.
Sameep Padora, 46
Sameep Padora & Associates, Maharashtra
Black limestone step temple
When Anushree Jindal of JSW Cement approached Sameep Padora & Associates in early 2018, the brief was simple: to design a temple for the villagers around Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh. When Padora first visited the site, he already knew it would be made with black limestone. “We noticed people had built homes with the same material and we realised there is an embedded set of skills and knowledge systems in the region that we could use,” says the architect, who finished the project in a little over a year.Locally-available black limestone slabs were corbelled to form the main body of the temple, and to create a ghat, or steps, to access the water. “We wanted to use limestone in a structural manner. So it was not about cladding, but building it entirely with stone, which was an engineering challenge given the material’s weight,” he says.”
Padora — who has also worked with innovative materials like waste basalt stone dust (rammed to make load-bearing walls) and brick tiles (for a vaulted library using RCC) — says recyclable material should become a standard for any kind of ecologically-oriented project. “Locally available material is usually cheaper to source, as transportation costs are minimised. Also, there is usually an extant knowledge system in building with the materials that would have been refined over centuries.” Having said that, choosing such materials also has drawbacks. “The embedded know-how is slowly fading, as are associated skill sets,” says Padora, who is now constructing load bearing laterite structures, as well as traditional stone and wood construction, in Himachal Pradesh.
Vinu Daniel, 39
Incorporating plastic toys in house facades”
In a few months, a house in Vadakara, Kerala, will almost certainly stop traffic. The facade of the two storey building will have Donald Duck, the Hulk and other characters holding up the bricks! Because plastic toys have now been added to Daniel’s repertoire of waste materials — such as construction debris and discarded parts of washing machines — that are repurposed in the buildings he designs.
“I was thinking of ideas for a project one evening when I happened to step on a Lego block from my son’s collection. I realised that even in homes like mine, where we avoid plastic, it finds a way in because we can’t say no to our kids.” Most homes have toys gathering dust, and an open call had people generously donating them. Over 800 have already piled up in Daniel’s office and he is looking for another 1,200 pieces. “People save toys because of sentimental value. But since it is going into a house, and will get an everlasting value, they are happy to contribute,” he says, explaining that the toys will be positioned in such a way that “they support the mud bricks”. Going forward, he says he will be exploring more plastic waste. “There is no choice for us; it is one of the most commonly found waste materials. We also need more architects embracing waste [of all kinds] in buildings to make an impact, to make upcycling popular among the people.”
5 home trends for 2021
The post-Covid design brief is changing. Personal space is of paramount importance, sustainable options are the top pick, and clients who once thought big — according to Bengaluru-based architect Vinita Chaitanya, pre-Covid client briefs often gave her carte blanche for interiors “that were comparable to so-and-so 7 star” — are now concerned about how they spend their money. Here are a few trends we see emerging in 2021.
Central courtyards and picture windows
“It is pleasantly surprising to see how emerging trends are very vernacular now. The courtyard is an inherent characteristic of the traditional Indian home and it is now back,” says Kunal Naithani of White Studio Architects.
“People want green spaces — whether it is a verandah opening out into the garden or a courtyard. [Where possible] we are creating little courtyards, cut outs, or skylights to bring in more light,” says Chaitanya. “In a 20-year-old penthouse that we are doing up now, we have carved out two spaces to create these huge picture windows to bring nature in.”
Textures and colours
“Mosaics, terrazzo, beaten metals, rough cut stones are now popular, as opposed to shiny Italian marbles and tiles,” says Naithani.
“Textured fabrics such as bouclé are being skilfully used in contrast with velvets. The colour palette is also veering towards neutrals and pastels — which is visually subtle but effective — while beige is the new grey,” says Mumbai-based architect and designer, Ashiesh Shah. “Higher ceilings, taller windows and arches are in too, to break the boxiness of spaces.”
Vertical green walls
“In demand now, they provide the space for gardening in cramped places or where adequate outdoor landscaping is not possible. Such walls act as interesting facade elements, while adding a touch of calm,” says Anupama Mohanram, of Chennai-based Green Evolution.
“Every sound matters now. During lockdown, we had very quiet zones, and now these are becoming noisy. Traffic is also almost up to speed. So sound insulation is a big thing now. Besides adding fabrics, a lot of soundproofing is being done through windows and doors, and panelling of walls,” says Chaitanya.
Practical yet personal spaces
“People now want a loungy space on their terraces [which was earlier just for utility and services]. We are creating pergolas, or tiny areas with just a beautiful umbrella and a lounge chair. Since there is an emphasis on fitness now, I’m also getting clients asking for walking paths and jogging tracks,” adds Chaitanya.