Something from October 2005… AN ADVENTURE into LOW COST BUILDING TECHNIQUES in ARCHITECTURE

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The goal of architecture is to produce the human being with spaces to live. This definition has far reaching implications, from monumental structures to perform his traditional and cultural rituals, to the basic functions of providing a roof over his head and to keep off the elements that hinder his life. On the topic before us, it is meaningless to enquire into the higher functions. Let us concentrate on that aspect of human living – survival.

 

India’s population is 20% of the planet earth. That is an immense figure. A billion people, which can be translated as at least 150 million families,(considering the large family units of this country). It is estimated that not more than a few million have proper homes. And it is obvious to anybody that the vast majority have no minimum shelter over their heads.

 

The shelterless are in two categories The Urban and the Rural.

 

The Urban shelterless are of their own making – Immigrants seeking fortunes, where the element of risk is involved and as such he has no right to the coffers of the City or others to provide him with a roof. Here if there is a desire to offer him a decent place to live, it is as a self-interested citizen the urbanite wants to remove the squalor and filth by offering a helping hand.

 

The Rural shelterless on the other hand is the result of our feudal tradition and culture. This sudden break into a democratic (freedom and liberty) pattern of society has left this lot totally in a mess.

 

Again, one cannot separate the issues; it is because of one the other has happened. To leave the rural dessert and seek the oasis of the city.

 

It is not our task to ask the why’s. All we know is that there are millions of souls who need a shelter over their heads. How, as a technologist should one go about providing it.

 

Resources are limited, both financial and material.

 

Planning can be optimised to the extent that beyond a particular point it becomes either meaningless or cruel. All human being need to sleep, to eat and perform the daily chores.

 

Having decided to give them the minimum space required how do you go about building this space. This space or shelter which is not just going to be a house but a home for the millions.

 

 Architecture preconceives that this minimum shelter too would offer the resident minimum basic comforts. It is just not four walls and a roof but a space decent enough to call ‘habitable’.

 

It is obvious that we should look into that aspect that go to build this space – MATERIAL and the manner of putting these materials together- STRUCTURE. These two together give the form that envelops the function called house.

 

MATERIAL – availability, both in terms of quality and quantity, and added to this significant factor of cost. How does one go about being aware of the presence of such a material and identify it. This will be one of the main aspects dealt with. QUALITY means all those characteristics of a material that will fulfill the requirements of the needs of a house. This deals with the aspect of specification.

 

It is obvious that in this limited version, the more the materials the more complex becomes the specification leading to higher costs. It would be ideal to limit the whole construction to minimum number of materials. This will lead to better control and quality as well as a simple approach to construction problems.

 

STRUCTURE – ability to combine the materials in such a manner as to give form by covering the spaces desired. Again the structure ought to be easily constructed and economically feasible. The method and approach is of importance. Each situation has its own particular demands. To integrate the material to form a meaningful structure creates the desired space which makes the function possible. 

 

Technology clearly states that any such structure must comply with the fundamentals of stress and strain. Which means that a clear understanding of the forces that make a structure behave is very crucial.

 

This leads to the understanding of the materials, for it is materials that form the structure. And as stated earlier the material should not only have the characteristics to perform as a structure but as also the dual role of considering the demands of environment.

 

The position has already reached the first step of complexity, which clearly indicates that KNOWLEDGE is very important. TO KNOW the behaviour of materials and of structure.

 

It is also obvious that however much one may desire, a single material cannot give us the answers to the above problem. More than one has to combine to form a complex matrix to perform at a high level of competence.

 

A question arises- will such complexity lead to higher costs. It is obvious that any complex material with high performance characteristics requires a lot of research, development and commercial production.

 

At this point TWO OPTIONS confront 1) LOW TECH – LOW COST, 2) HIGH TECH – LOW COST

 

The first option is easy to work with and easy to convey. This is based on existing, traditional methods of construction. Only the approach or detail makes a significant change to obtain cost effectiveness. But, this is a slow process and does not have quality consistency. Each time a unit is built it has to be monitored. It is like handcrafting. Handicraft can be economical for a set minimum number of units but becomes cheap!!(Shoddy) when mass construction is involved. This method should be recommended when one desires a uniqueness in style and individuality.

 

To achieve the objective – high volume and quality it becomes a necessity to adopt a high tech mechanical solution.

 

Earlier, we had decided to limit the number of materials and that is a sound decision. Now we must identify these materials, which will form all the complexities of the various elements, which will totally form an architecture.

 

Into this little world, one must with great care and concentration step in. one must be purposeful, dedicated and very clear in one’s approach.

 

At this junction it is also necessary to bring to focus that a single house is not one’s goal. It is the design and development of a larger complex.

 

A larger complex involves the setting up of the infrastructure required, for without the support system the aim of building an economical house becomes futile.

 

This is the second and larger aspect of COST EFFECTIVE DESIGN.

 

Infrastructure means – roads, streets, electricity, water supply, waste disposal, etc :on the one hand and on the other basic facilities like shops, schools and other community activity centers.

 

We shall confine ourselves to the first aspect of this second part. How can one do a simple effective physical movement system and as also a supply and disposal method.

 

Roads and streets, properly planned and optimized can economise infrastructure. It is obvious that, less the road surface to be covered, less is the input in the utilities.

 

Here again we are into options –a) individual houses, 2) low rise – high density and high rise –low density. Here the answers are not simple and clear, it involves the life style of a community and the social responses that it evokes.

 

Having briefly opened the doors to other inevitable areas, let us confine the building block.

 

A house as we know it, has walls, doors, roof, windows, floor – this is the capsule within which other details fill up.

 

The shell consisting of the walls and the roof, rest on a foundation.

 

A foundation sounds basic enough – it has to distribute the load of the superstructure to the earth. How efficiently can this be achieved? A minimum quantity of material is thus required to transfer this load. Design optimization suggests that the method that should be adopted should have great clarity of purpose. Why put in anything that does not serve the cause. Every item must be accountable. Therefore a knowledge of the soil and its capacity is very important.

 

Walls and roofs, these are the items that load the foundation, less of them, less is the foundation.

 

Now, ask a question – why are we separating these elements. Is it for convenience or has it become the norm through habit and tradition. Man is thinking, questioning being.

 

If, we can integrate all these three into one common element – what would happen, why not?

 

Similarly, question the next item – window, doors and floors – what is their purpose, how do they serve the purpose and what are the alternatives.

 

While doing all this exercise one should not for a moment forget that one is designing a habitable home and not just a built form. Climate and weather play a major role. The material selected, the form derived must also serve these purposes. As otherwise the entire exercise becomes useless. An adventure presupposes- the venture into arrears unknown with exciting and promising answers.

 

Man is limited only by his ability to Reason and Question. These are TWO demanding aspects. It is essential that we are conscious of our premise and confident of our approach. A little DARING with CURIOSITY is the only answer to this monumental problem. There are no easy solutions.

 

What I have attempted to do is to give you a glimpse in the abstract of the immense possibilities, the potential lies in each of us to DISCOVER.

 

 

 

 

K.JAISIM

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