“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright, American architect
“The complex and ambiguous relationship between man and nature is central to Indian architecture.” ~ Charles Correa, Indian architect
Architecture is an intrinsic and inescapable part of our lives, and we share a complex relationship with it: we build for shelter, to fulfill our dreams, to make a statement, or for our spiritual needs. However, the same construction industry that produces architectural masterpieces is also one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases and a voracious consumer of natural resources. Construction is only slated to boom further, but we run the risk of ruining the very land we build on; clearly, the equation seems wrong.
This dilemma has sparked off debates worldwide, amongst both architects and consumers of architecture, seeking environmentally friendly solutions. There is consensus that architecture must be sustainable and ecologically sensitive.
Sustainable architecture, simply put, is that which creates minimum environmental and ecological impact by being energy efficient, reducing negative consequences and byproducts, and exhibiting climatic and geographic sensitivity.
Why is sustainable architecture the need of the hour?
“In many cities, a misunderstanding or miscalculation of environmental impacts has led to many harmful interventions and developments in areas better suited as green belts. The negative impact of these developments is seen when disaster strikes communities in places that are inappropriate for construction.” ~ Chitra Vishwanath, Indian architect
Architecture is a resource-intensive industry, relying on both man-made and natural materials like timber, sand, metals, cement, bricks, stones and glass. Extensive quarrying of natural materials, looting sand from river-beds leading to their altered course and behaviour, indiscriminate felling of hard-wood to fuel the industry, and reclaiming land from water-bodies and forests for construction are direct consequences of the demands of architecture.
Besides altering natural environments, architecture has also become a contributor of environmental waste and excesses. In addition to the energy expended throughout the construction process, buildings also increase electricity and water loads, alter land-use patterns, and sometimes, through inappropriate building materials and design, prevent the effective functioning of natural phenomena like water drainage, sunlight penetration and wind flow.
To reduce architecture’s carbon footprint, allow for the replenishment of renewable resources, and regulate the use of non-renewable resources, sustainable architecture is the need of the hour.
Looking back at architecture
“The various styles of architecture are all the result of thousands of years of ordinary people trying to make buildings that keep out the rain and wind and sun by using whatever materials there were, lying around or growing in the place where they live. So I see what principles have developed over centuries from their forefathers’ study of local conditions and materials and then apply these principles to what I want to do for my client. Sometimes, the local architecture is so beautiful and so apt that I feel it would be foolish and an affront to try and design in any other way.” ~ Laurie Baker, British-born Indian architect
Historically, architecture was always highly localised in terms of design, to suit the specifics of sun, wind, rain and snow. Materiality lent a distinct character to buildings in a given geographic area, through use of local materials which withstood local climatic conditions. Architecture, hence, had always been sustainable by default, creating very minimal impact on the surroundings.
Be it igloos in Arctic regions, cave houses from Turkey, log-huts in Borneo, roof-less houses from Egypt or turf-roofed buildings from Scandinavia, most countries in the world had unique architectural styles to offer.
Closer home, distinctive temple architecture in Kerala, mud and stone homes in Rajasthan’s deserts, buildings on stilts in flood-prone areas, laterite constructions along the western coast, timber and stone construction in the Himalayas, or even monuments using local sandstone or granite ensured that architecture was distinctive, efficient and highly sustainable.
Modernisation and the advent of technology allowed architecture to become image-driven; unfortunately, this is often at the cost of context-driven parameters, sometimes resulting in the use of unsuitable materials or an excessive use of space and resources.
The current scenario of globalisation has led to architectural homogeneity in many countries, in essence losing regional variation and identity. Vernacular architecture acquired a negative connotation, implying a lack of development and contemporariness.
How can the construction industry change architecture’s impact on the environment?
“Any construction process impacts and modifies local ecology. For an environmentally sensitive architect, it is crucial to analyse the nature of these impacts to take correct decisions.” ~ Chitra Vishwanath, Indian architect
Without discounting the huge advantages the construction industry gained through technological developments, it must be said that it is probably time to look back at the history of architecture, introspect, and re-learn certain aspects from the past.
Maximising a building’s energy efficiency is the key to sustainable architecture. Concepts like using the existing slopes of the land, least dependency on mechanical systems for lighting and ventilation, use of insulating materials, harnessing solar and wind power, rainwater harvesting, water recycling and re-using, and use of appropriate local materials and technologies have the potential to mitigate the damage caused.
Adhering to the standards of green building certifications like LEED and GRIHA is the norm in the industry today, paving the way towards eco-friendliness and sustainability.
Adaptive re-use of existing buildings is an exciting new idea, popular worldwide. With buildings from the last couple of centuries no longer serving the purposes they were built for, they are being retained partially or wholly, while modifying just the interiors to meet contemporary requirements – a great example of environmentally friendly architectural practices.
How can you, as a consumer of architecture, make small changes to help sustainability?
“I have never doubted that in a country like ours any of us has any right to squander or waste, or use unnecessarily money, materials or energy.” ~ Laurie Baker, British-born Indian architect
Aware architects as well as clients are increasingly embracing need-based instead of want-based architecture, with each person occupying a smaller footprint on the earth by reducing the size of their offices or homes. Substantiating the smaller footprint is the idea of self-sufficiency for electricity, water, heating and cooling systems, and mindful use of energy. These may seem like minuscule steps, but they definitely bring significant benefits to the clients as well as the environment.
Merely by being sensitive to our location in space, we can hope for a sustainable and thriving architectural industry at minimal environmental costs. Far from being a fad or a buzzword, sustainable architecture needs to once again be the natural course of the industry.
“I believe in God. Only, I spell it Nature.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright, American architect
[A version of this article was first published in the in-flight magazine JetWings in Feb 2016]