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Mindful Buildings

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Professor Himanshu Parikh who teaches at Ahmedabad and Cambridge has done innovative work in structural engineering as well as in urban planning, environmental upgradation and infrastructure design, with an emphasis on low-income urban and rural areas. In structures, he has developed the concept of ‘mindful buildings’ based on simplicity, frugality and multiplicity. He talks about an ongoing development of a design approach to ensure that while we assimilate new ideas and technologies, our fundamentals remain anchored to our needs.

A building represents a wholesome expression of human aspirations, combining function with our way of life, aesthetics, comfort, environment and respect for natural resources. Appropriate to our own context, we have to achieve this holistic goal in the conceptual framework of simplicity, frugality and multiplicity, the characteristics special to our nation. This quest for mindful buildings brings together a multitude of exciting ideas and solutions, transcending well beyond the conventional notions of ‘green’ buildings.

Simplicity as a design principle makes sense in a country striving to bridge the gulf between its haves and its have nots. As a development strategy, simplicity was central to the Gandhian philosophy and is no less relevant now when we conceive the built form. Can not the aesthetics and elegance of the building come from the purity and relevance of concepts rather than the cosmetics? Some of the most striking buildings in the world from Gandhi Ashram to Sydney Opera House celebrate the underlying simplicity of their form. In all these cases, beauty is not contrived but rather a natural consequence of the clarity of concepts.

We have been striving to KISS (keep it simple stupid!) in all the buildings we conceive. It involves working at all levels from the overall purity of form for the aesthetics to the functional nitty-gritty of removing all unnecessary clutter and layers from the building such as lintels, beams, needless walls and articulations. In our context, where most workers on site are struggling with basic literacy, the simpler the building, the better chance of executing it well. The resulting improvement in quality, speed and economy are the bonus byproducts of the process.

As for frugality, the definition of ‘civil engineering’ put forward by Thomas Tredgold in 1828, namely, “harnessing resources of nature for the benefit of humankind”, holds good in our work. The operating word here is “harnessing” as against “using”. This means that we are all custodians of natural resources and that we conserve, not consume. Put another way by the great engineer A. M. Wellington in 1887, “we master the art of doing that well with one dollar which any bungler can do with two after a fashion”. And we talk about ‘green’ buildings as if we have just discovered something new!!

The attempt at saving resources first started by looking at concrete and steel consumed in modern buildings. With care, form and configuration of a building could be evolved where all the members are almost equally stressed. These ‘equipotential’ structures ensure that all the members are optimally stressed, weeding out inefficiencies of members which are underutilized. The saving in concrete and steel are significant not only because of optimal sizes but also the reduction in the building weights that they imply.

The next step was to reduce slab concrete, wherever it was not required, by replacing with voids. The voids were formed with thin hollow block specially developed from waste flyash and recycled polystyrene (Thermocol) granules. As an added bonus the elimination of beams, whilst maintaining the strength and stiffness, permit heavy loads and free partitioning for future flexibility. The tapering exposed concrete internal columns merge smoothly into the flat slabs without the unsightly drop panels. The terrace slabs are finished with reflective china mosaic to further reduce the heat from direct sun.

Next we looked at masonry in building. Instead of adding weight to the concrete or steel frames, could not the masonry be utilized for load bearing, eliminating the superfluous frames, columns and their foundations? Initially, we started by turning concrete columns into brick boxes by sandwiching brick shear panels in between to resist the earthquake and vertical loads. Subsequently, folded walls with corner bars were developed to totally eliminate the concrete columns.

The lime content in the mortars and plasters (using neeru plaster for example) is increased to replace cement. The conventional kiln bricks are again replaced by high-strength, high-insulation and low-cost flyash and polystyrene bricks developed over time. Where the brickwork is left exposed, the blandness of the flyash bricks surfaces is mitigated by a spattering of red bricks to create exciting new textures and patterns, thus turning an economic necessity into an architectural virtue.

Water as a resource is treated with great respect in our buildings. The terrace water, where possible, is collected for ground water recharge, landscaping, other non-drinking uses and, more recently, for the natural cooling systems. The water for the cooling is recycled using solar pumps. Just by improving the insulation of roofs and walls, the power consumption of one of our industrial building reduced by 60%. Add to that the natural cooling and the power consumption is expected to go down by about 75%, eliminating the use of air conditioners and fans for 10 months of the year including the harsh summers. The fans (but not air conditioning) are just required for the two to three months of monsoon when the humidity levels are too high for comfort.

Last but not least, the concept of multiplicity amalgamates the above discrete ideas into a harmonious whole, weaving into them the other concerns of architecture such as form, function, aesthetics, light, comfort and environment. In this next level of complexity, all the individual and diverse ideas complement each other to attain a higher goal.

For example, the walls folded for earthquake resistance permit recessed windows sheltered from rain and harsh sunlight, yet permitting beautiful indirect light reflected from beamless flat slabs. The natural air cooling shafts are also incorporated into the same wall folds. Beautiful peppered brick facades and clean lines add to the elegance, and it costs less! Similarly, double skin structural diaphragm walls become breathing curtains to weather and landscape, letting in selectively cool air, indirect light and greenery into the building. Internal courtyards with pergolas complete the envelope.

Our last industrial project looked less like a grim factory and more like a welcoming institution of quality, with excellent work environment. In the next phase designed for large spans, heavy loads and free partitioning, the total building cost (including electrical, plumbing, external development and landscaping) comes to just 550 per sqft in spite of good finishes and exposed brickwork. The saving in steel alone is about 300 tonnes compared to similar buildings elsewhere. And the lower running costs and power consumption together with possibilities of earning carbon credits are icing on the cake.

This is not the end. Weaving more and more strands of concerns into the larger whole is an ongoing process, each new project bringing with it exciting new challenges.


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