THE mercury has been rising steadily in Kerala in the past two months, leaving half the population scampering to fix air conditioners and coolers in their homes. The temperature in most cities hovers between 35 and 38 degrees these days, and living without some cooling mechanism is becoming unthinkable.

But ever wondered why it seems pleasant inside your grandmother’s ancient house, or the old church or museum nearby, even during the hottest of afternoons? Well, it might have to do with the way these buildings were constructed, and the
materials used.

While Malayalis would think that they have come a long way from the lime plaster and terra cotta roof tiles of the past, into concrete and more concrete with sleek glass and metal add-ons, they might just have sacrificed something crucial in the process — climate responsiveness. And that is what ‘green’ architects like Shyamkumar Puravankara are trying to revive.

“Across countries, traditional methods of architecture have always been climate responsive. Buildings were made using locally available materials, which suited the climate of each place. For example: laterite stones in Kerala,” he says. The Kasaragod-based architect — who specializes in building climate responsive houses — terms laterite, bricks, etc., as ‘breathable’
building materials.

But isn’t it practical and expensive to use those methods now? That’s a common myth according to Shyamkumar. “All we need to do is add modern techniques to the original methods.” He himself grew up in such a house, and says his ancestral home is the inspiration for the houses he builds. His own house has been built using the same methods, also as a model for others.
So what exactly are these heat reducing building practices?
The first and most effective method he uses is that of leaving walls unplastered. “Plastered cement increases the heat, unlike exposed laterite stones or bricks. In Kerala, the walls used to be plastered with lime (kummayam), which is again a natural material.” There are various beautification options for exposed laterite today, and the premium ones look as good as or even better than a plastered wall, he adds.

The architect also adds a nadumittom or inner courtyard whenever possible, something which was a staple of most old houses. “It enables the passage of hot air and cross ventilation becomes possible for every room. Homes also had a verandah running across the entire length and breadth which prevented the sun from hitting the rooms directly.”

Another crucial element is the ceiling made of wood or thattinpuram, below the roof, with an attic space in between which acts as a heat barrier. “Again, people ask if wood isn’t expensive. But we calculate the total energy cost, which comes to approximately the same as a concrete roof, especially if acacia wood is used.” Terracotta tiles on the floor and on the roof are also natural cooling mechanisms, which are affordable. He advocates windows made of wood, divided into four panels, with glass only for the upper two panels. “The lower ones will shut out the heat when kept closed during the hottest times of the day.”

Expectedly not everyone can afford an inner courtyard or verandah but unplastered walls can cut the cost, he points out. However, we associate exposed brick walls with poverty. “A plastered house was something the middle class aspired for, in the past. And unfortunately, the Malayali builds houses to show other people, not for his or her own comfort. However much one tries to convince them, they go for the aesthetics, which again is debatable since old houses were by all means more beautiful.” Interestingly, Kerala was a state where Laurie Baker successfully introduced the low cost, exposed brick buildings, which also resisted heat.

So when exactly did we stray from our unique building techniques? “It was during the independence that the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru advocated affordable housing for all, by introducing box type structures with no sloping roofs as directed by a renowned foreign architect. It was a well-intentioned move by all means, but what people forgot was to add the other heat reducing methods suggested by the architect. They copied his style blindly and every house in the country started to look the same. What works in Uttar Pradesh won’t work in coastal Kerala.”

And how practical are they in apartments? “The same methods can be used for apartments as well and I have employed them in a few projects in Bengaluru, like Good Earth. The columns are made using concrete or steel, but the walls are left unplastered.” The architect has so far built around 30 homes in this style and their owners couldn’t be happier. Not surprisingly, the temperature in the houses he has built in this manner is at least five degrees lesser than outdoors. None of the houses have air conditioners installed, and even the use of fans is minimal! He has also experimented with mud blocks, bamboo, gypsum plastering and more, and says the possibilities are endless but people do not invest much thought into anything but the aesthetics. And for that, he would blame architects as well. “Architects are well aware of these possibilities but instead of educating the people, they take the easy way out, which could be more expensive as well.”

A positive trend is that more people are expressing an interest in green buildings; architects as well as home owners. “There will be a saturation point when it comes to the heat and people will eventually turn to climate-responsive methods of construction. And once people realize that even the rich are opting for exposed walls, the stigma associated with it will disappear as well.”


Complications in installing concealed wiring for electrical fittings

Difficulty in driving nails into the walls

Both can however be resolved if the inside of the walls are plastered and the outsides left exposed.

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