Going Back to the Roots

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Jun 7 2009, 06:37am hrs
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For the Mehta family in Delhi, every summer brings in the growing desire to go back to their ancestral home in Jamnagar in Gujarat. Having lived in a traditional set-up, the family misses the close-knit set-up of their small-town home. Even today, we dont have artificial cooling methods like air-conditioners or air coolers to bear with the heat during summers. Its entirely a natural set-up, says Adarsh Mehta.

The Mehtas are not alone in missing the comforts of the climate-responsive designs of their ancestral homes. Increasing power demands and long load shedding hours apart from bloated electricity bills, have made consumers adopt climate-responsive designs or passive architecture techniques. Chandrashekar Hariharan, CEO, Biodiversity Conservation India, believes that one needs to start beyond the architecture. One should consider what is the land area you have surrounding the building Is there vegetation that you can plan in those open areas What can you do on the use of building blocks to ensure that there is least heat transfer from the sun, beating down on the external walls Using stone, for example, for a public building is fine, but for a house, its not recommended as stone absorbs heat slowly, and gradually transfers it inside the house. So when you are all ready to go to bed, its warmer inside the house than the night air outside, he adds.

Time to be climate-responsive

Changes in our modern-day lifestyles are increasing energy needs in our homes and the buildings, as they are designed today, contribute significantly to serious environmental problems because of excessive consumption of energy for their demands of heating, cooling and lighting in buildings. But this can be changed with simple techniques like using sunshades, having thick walls and using light colours on the walls are some of the methods implied using passive architecture, says architect Vinod Gupta.

Passive design does not require mechanical heating or cooling for thermal comfort and artificial lighting for visual comfort. Homes that are passively designed take advantage of natural energy flows such as sun, wind, plantation and existing site conditions at the site to maintain thermal comfort. The main passive method of cooling is ventilation, therefore any building requires careful design as well as site planning for an optimum orientation, says architect Vivek Sabherwal.

And it costs...

Climate-responsive design buildings are not expensive. However, the trick lies in learning from traditional systems and blending it with contemporary engineering. Planning strategies for a building in warm climate is to create compact buildings, which minimises window exposure to the west, and to create a cool pool in the building. This relies on stack effect. Hot air rises through the building and escapes at higher level by ventilation, adds Sabherwal. Experts agree that following these techniques is an affordable way saving the environment and achieving the desired effect. These approaches cost less than installing an expensive air-conditioner system, and paying those massive bills on running costs of those air-conditioning. For example, it doesnt make sense to create an exterior with a glass or metal curtain, both high-heat conductors, and then erecting an AC system to cool, says Hariharan.

Surviving decades

Abodes in Gujarat, Chettinad homes in Tamil Nadu, or the few surviving havelis of Delhi and Panipat are the reflections of architectural knowledge and skills that existed in India even until 200 years ago. A walk through the walled city area of Ahmedabad or of Jaipur or Jaisalmer can offer inspiring insights. Courtyards, that have been an integral part of our traditional architecture, provide a thermal refuge from the building, say experts. They provide both light and ventilation to adjacent spaces and create a powerful micro-climate when combined with different functions, wall types, building forms and landscaping, says Sabherwal.

However, one of the biggest negative associated with this form of architecture is the amount of dust and insects it allows inside the house. This wasnt a case in earlier times when the air was comparitively cleaner and pollution levels were not at their peak. But efforts are on to find solutions to these problems as well. Till then, it wont be a bad idea to get rid of the air-conditioner and go back to mother nature for summer-cooling solutions.