Honing old homing skills

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

DESPITE India being a country with an ancient tradition of building houses which used little energy in construction and maintenance, the majority of our government housing and construction agencies have been blind to it. Ironically, in a country where 65 million of the 118 million existing houses are made of mud - just I of the solutions for climatically responsive and low cost factor to meet the need for shelter - greater reliance is placed solely on cement, steel and bricks to add to the housing stock. But increasingly, with the spiralling price of energy, these energy- intensive materials will become the preserve of a microscopic minority.

Architects and designers have for too long squandered our energy resources. Add the cost ofactively controlling the inter- nal environment of our modern homes - airconditioners, convectors and such other items of luxury - and one sees how high-cost construction techniques have been perpetuated. It is time, in this age of accelerating environmental degradation, to actively espouse urban building forms that respect nature and are sustainable.

The basics of climate responsive design are well established, and programmes and tools are available, allowing for the simulation and analysis of thermal performance and comfort levels in buildings before construction is taken up. But these impose far greater commitments on and demand very hard work from the men who tell us how to live. It is the lack of this will to adopt to changes that perpetuates inefficiency.

There are decentralised, low cost solutions available. This became clear at the just concluded design workshop, held in New Delhi, on sustainability through climatically responsive low energy architecture . There was some evidence of the realisation that passive and low energy buildings can improve human comfort and, in so doing, improve the living conditions.

Two things were most evident at the meet. Firstly, as some speakers emphasised, though bureaucrats have for long been resisting rethinking and adjusting to the needs of the hour, there has come up a new crop of young architects who have mustered enough courage to propagate the changes required in our thinking. The 2nd realisation, which rather offset this spurt of fresh energy, was the fact that not much thought had been given to the problem of mass housing that precisely is the crucial area where we need to apply ourselves; that our urban mass housing system has already started spelling major health and environmental hazards is more than evident.

It is imperative that the decision-makers realise notwithstanding the current phase of industrial euphoria, the housing scenario in the coming decade s will be marked by an acute materials shortage... mat&ials, of course, of the modern kind; the energy-intensive materials which refuse to go out of fashion with architects and constructors. Prices will skyrocket, and inevitably marginalise newer sections from the hub to the peripheries of our towns And cities.

Yet, there are significaot efforts going on in isolated pockets, aimed at promoting the saner alternative. For instance, the Auroville Building Centre in Tamil Nadu, has been doing commendable work in disseminat 4riate building technologies.

But the'bureaucrats have been resisting any change that would seek to put technology or resources in the hands of the people who understand their own needs, and could do it with far greater economy and efficiency.

In the experiments currently on to seek out alternatives, construction and training proceed hand in hand. At the end of the project, people are left with not only the assets they have helped create, but also the skill to build more houses on their own. But for this, the I st challenge for the nongovernmental experimenters is to wean away the local community from their dependency on the government, which has projected itself as the sole source of resources and technologies. This requires a whole cultural reversal. It would also be necessary to create occupational niches for the people who could earn a livelihood building houses within their village.

The government should also desist from thrusting new technologies on the poor first. The role of the government should be to provide the environment for the self-help process to flourish. For this, the government should provide security of tenure, technical advice, and help in acquiring small loans and cheap building material. This, surely, is not calling for too much.

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