Controlling the process of Sustainability

article on sustainable architectural practices.

In concluding part of the series on Sustainable Architectural Practices, Himanshu Burte looks at the work of development firm Good Earth which has been trying to change the consumption pattern in the building process. Business, especially real estate development, is often blamed for the current ecological crisis. That criticism is true to a large extent. The logic of free market economics has always been centred on profit. Non-capitalist systems too have pursued economic sustainability at the cost of ecological sustainability.

How the firm evolved

Over the last 30 years or so, the world over, land and built space have been traded more aggressively than ever as a commodity, causing large scale destruction of habitats. In this context, a development firm like Good Earth, based in Bangalore, is an interesting enterprise. The people who founded it were originally design and building consultants in Kerala and have worked for long with the philosophy and technology established by Laurie Baker. However, they have since become developers to be able to realize their sustainability agenda more fully. How does the logic work? Natasha Iype, a trained architect and one of the directors, explains that the move from consultancy to development came about for a simple reason. Being developers offered more control over the user demands that architecture has to satisfy in the marketplace. It also allows for greater control and freedom for experiment in the process of construction. Finally, it paid better and ensured that the group would be able to survive financially and constantly attract younger professionals.

The founders of Good Earth, a group of architects and engineers based in Kochi, Kerala, carried on from an earlier NGO called ESDC which collaborated with COSTFORD on projects designed by Laurie Baker. ESDC had been set up by architect Jaigopal Rao and engineers Stanley George, Binu K Jose, Matthew Varghese and others in the late 1980s. Jeeth Iype joined ESDC in 1993 and was followed by his wife Natasha, also trained like him as an architect in Mumbai. The group built many cost-effective residences, institutions and other kinds of buildings.Over a period, a kind of frustration and boredom began to set in among the team members including Iypes and George.

They felt that their agenda of working towards a sustainable habitat was too often at the mercy of what clients demanded from buildings and the construction process. This reduced the scope for innovation, among other things. The returns from consultancy in cost-effective construction were also not enough to sustain a large group. This last motivation is important to consider. Even though it is fashionable to believe that commitment to a just cause should override monetary returns, the absence of adequate compensation does drive committed professionals off their chosen path. Good Earth’s logic thus can be seen as a way of achieving otherwise contradictory ends through a sensible application of professional skills. After a number of individual digressions, the group reorganized itself in the late 1990s in Bangalore as Good Earth and entered the development business. Jaigopal had already gone his own way and set up Inspiration, an independent consultancy with his wife Latha Raman.

In the period leading up to the formation of Good Earth, the group and its individual members also pursued consultancy in parallel. For instance, the consultancy wing of the group, House of Consultants, designed Sambhavna, a hospital for the gas affected in Bhopal. Sustainable architecture and communities The broad focus of Good Earth is on creating sustainable communities. There is a stated commitment to liveability, as well as to using low-embodied energy materials and techniques. But Iype points out that a sustainable building alone is not enough and it is important to have a sustainable approach to maintenance. Moreover, a sense of community does not necessarily develop by default. It has to be actively nurtured right from the process of building and after occupation, say, through various cultural initiatives. Iype sees an important role for the firm in ensuring that these objectives are actually met.

GoodEarth projects are run in close collaboration with its clients. Like most developers, the firm identifies and acquires a plot of land on which a residential layout is designed. Individual clients buy into the development and have custom houses designed and built by the Good Earth team. The finance for the entire project is raised to a large extent over the stage-wise payments clients make in the process. The customization of design helps build a rapport between the in-house architects on the project (Natasha Iype for Orchard, for instance) and clients, which carries forward into the management phase after occupation. In the last few years, the group has built a number of residential developments in Kerala and around Bangalore which appear to have succeeded at different levels, beginning with sustainable construction. Good Earth builds largely in load-bearing systems (except in the occasional multi-storey project) and has continued the use of brick learnt on Baker’s projects. One known social benefit of load bearing systems, Iype points out, is that a larger percentage of the project cost is given over to workers rather than to big capital businesses or traders who sell industrial products. But Good Earth has also revised the palette inherited from Baker and Costford, experimented with other materials and expanded into systems Baker did not actively implement.

Revising Baker’s techniques

Iype says that using Rat Trap Bond or Filler slabs is not practical at the scale of an entire development today. The former involves too much waste of cement mortar falling through the hollows in the wall (See Volume 4 – Issue 7, July 2010 for more details on Rat Trap Bond). Baker used to ensure that this was reused but that was only possible at his scale of independent houses. But Iype says it is impossible to do when you are building 56 houses at a time in one development using the same design and supervision team. Filler slab too is becoming unattractive in spite of the steel and cement it helps save and the insulation if offers, since waste Mangalore tiles are difficult to find today. The replacement in terms of hollow terracotta blocks are too expensive in comparison. Moreover, Good Earth’s clients do not like the unplastered underside so these tend to get plastered and painted.

Through tests by independent scientists, Good Earth found that the insulation benefit of a filler slab is noticeably reduced when the slab is plastered. Accordingly, the firm builds largely in solid masonry (Flemish bond) and RCC slabs where required, though it is pursuing the possibility of using more of wood, which is perhaps the only truly renewable building material. “For roofs, we are thinking of a frame of jungle wood, supporting a membrane of plywood and screed-like concrete cast on it with perhaps roof tiles on top to reduce the heat gain”, says Natasha Iype. “We are also interested in ‘green roofs’ since they cut down the heat gain”, she adds. Of course, she is clear that progress will happen one small step at a time, since the firm would like to be sure about a particular technology before it is used at scale. iypes residenceControlling needs and conserving water Good Earth taps an important area of achieving sustainability by trying to shape client expectations and demands.

“I always try and persuade clients not to ask for airconditioning, and not to buy microwave ovens….” This is the very opposite of the conventional developer who seeks to attract clients with the promise of more avenues for consumption. Parallelly, there is much attention to other devices for physical and psychological comfort like verandas. “Clients used to feel that we are over-providing verandas- one in every room in some projects. But once they started living there, they began to appreciate the provision.” Whether such simple devices actually wean away users from the standardized comfort of air-conditioning is difficult to say, but there is perhaps some link here to be explored. Meanwhile, water recycling is already an established part of Good Earth’s repertoire. In addition, Stanley George has been very active in developing the firm’s capacity in rain water harvesting and alternative energy sources. Design for sustainability Quality of design plays as important a role in Good Earth’s work as quality of construction and a sustainable approach in general.

If a building is well built, the livability its design offers is the next most important concern of clients. The commitment to design can potentially be opposed to that of maximizing profit in the case of a builder. However, Lype emphasizes that, perhaps because of Good Earth’s history, the entire team – including engineering and finance teams- shares a thorough commitment to making sure that design objectives are achieved. It helps that the firm’s approach to design is not form-centric. Even though individual architects bring different emphases to different projects of the firm, it is clear that it is the livability of the space that is the core value in design. A cross-cutting value is avoidance of waste. The way the trade-off works out is interesting. It would appear that Iype would reject casting small slabs at close but different levels (say one at lintel level and another next to it at roof level), even if it improves interior spatial quality. At the same time, she does not hesitate to over-provide verandas, as mentioned earlier since they contribute to physical livability. Challenges Good Earth is an important initiative because its sustainable architecture is built for the consuming classes in India.

By making an ecologically responsible architecture attractive to these classes they might be making a small contribution to changing the culture of consumption. We can only hope that the change will have some trickle down effect. At the same time, the model the firm has chosen comes with its own limitations. In one way, it reverses the ‘social service’ aspect of Baker’s example by transferring lessons from his low-cost architecture to serve the elite. Another limitation is that being at the mercy of the market perhaps reduces the scope for significant innovation and quantum leaps since the cost of failure (an essential aspect of experiment) is high. A consultant who experiments in collaboration with a client is perhaps less affected if a particular experiment fails. Moreover, there is also the constraint of working at scale. A relative homogeneity of means and ends is always knocking at the door in this situation. How Good Earth pushes against these challenges would be worth watching.Good Earth Orchard This is a community of 56 homes, built in seven acres of land and is Good Earth’s first attempt at a fully built comminuty in Bangalore. Each home is built on a plot area of 2400 to 4000sqft of land, and measures about 2400 to 3000sqft in area.

Good Earth’s first venture into community housing was ‘Good Earth Hamlet’

An attempt at community housing which bridged the existing gap between independent houses and the urban stereotype block of flats. The emphasis has been on community spaces to encourage interaction while at the same time providing for individual privacy. The half-acre plot is on the banks of the Kaniampuzha river located in Chalikkavattom, a quiet suburb of Cochin. The central courtyard creates an intimate space, free from vehicles and safe for children to play. The circular form is most economical, both in terms of space and structure. Seventeen units, using an FSI of one, and a height of ground and two upper stories are appropriate, considering structural economics, as well as the blending in with the surroundings. The setback areas serve as private backyards for the ground floor units, and the first floor duplex units have terraces at each level. As one enters the hamlet through wooden gates, a paved pathway leads to the green, undulating courtyard beyond which one catches a glimpse of the waterfront through the stilted semi-open area.

The stilted areas on the ground floor act as wind tunnels and enhance the air circulation in the courtyard. The structure is recessed in parts at the first and second floor level to form terraces overlooking the courtyard.These terraces break down the mass of the structure and together with the sloping roofs make an interesting form. Walking around the courtyard, past the collage of corbelled seats and bay windows, one is drawn to the waterfront, where a club and crèche lie on either side of the semi-open space used for interaction. Each individual unit has been designed to have an identity, in terms of its planning and location in the community. Every home has adequate natural light and cross ventilation. The interior spaces flow into each other, having walls only where required. The bedrooms are oriented towards the outside, while the living areas overlook the courtyard.

In keeping with the firm’s principles of cost-effective construction, the structures minimize the use of Reinforced concrete and steel. The 9″ brick walls have the outer face exposed and flush pointed and the inside plastered. Arches are used to span large openings and windows, while doors are spanned with pre-cast thin lintels. Economical timber sections of jack-wood and anjali are used for the doors and windows.Filler slabs, using rejected Mangalore tiles, make up the roof and the floors, thus making the slab lighter and also reducing structural steel. Besides being economical, the filler slab also keeps the inside cooler and is ideal for hot and humid climates. The interiors are kept simple with terra cotta flooring and lime washed walls, with an occasional arch or a bay window to add character to the space. The sewage system uses a series of septic tanks for the solid waste, while the grey water is separately treated.

The rainwater from the roofs is allowed to percolate through the courtyard, thus recharging the ground water. Organic waste is collected for composting; to achieve a sustainable recycling system. Thus the design works efficiently, using minimum circulation space and a maximum of the site to create a built environment, which enhances the lives of its inhabitants. A result of enthusiastic teamwork between the architects, engineers, masons and other skilled workers, the project was completed within the estimated cost, in a period of 16 months. The hamlet today, with perhaps a flower patterned curtain on a window, clothes hanging on a terrace, people conversing across terraces and a tricycle left in a courtyard, gives warmth, security and enough room for individual expressions while embracing them into the community.Project: Good Earth Hamlet Location: Chalikavattom, Kochi 17 family units Total Built up area: 22,500sqft Project Cost: र150 lakhs

Himanshu Burte for BuildoTech Magazine India

                                                                                                               The features:

  • The design creates an identity for each home, involving the user, and balancing the efficiency of scale with their responses.
  • Verandahs and courtyards within the homes are used to create personal expression and craft.
  • Simple forms, practical detailing respond to each context, rather than being standardised, which then creates an interesting space and place.
  • Waste water treated through a DEWATS system, and recycled, used for irrigation.
  • Rainwater collection tank with storage upto 15 days.
  • The use of indigenous species in the landscape, to create biodiversity. Species with a cultural, medicinal and conservation value.