Understanding Material or Understating Material?

Opinions Dated:  Oct. 26, 2015
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The Pantheon Dome

Ever since the beginning of time, man has had an intense relationship with the nature and its elements, and with the earth in particular. Earth signifies fertility, gives an image of permanence and is used by man for growing food and building. The building traditions of the east are the strongest and the most enduring. Here, religion, scripture, myth and ritual play an important role in qualifying and enforcing sound building practices. Our ancient texts, the building science, ‘Vastu Shastra’ shows a detailed understanding of different types of soils and rock formations in the various parts of India and prescribes techniques appropriate to each of these. There are broad zones comprising of metamorphic rock areas along Bay of Bengal, laterite along Kerala-Konkan coast, basaltic terrain of the Deccan plateau, upper central India with sedimentary stone and alluvial soil of Indo-Gangetic basin.

It is significant to note that the use of classical thin bricks in India was largely limited to alluvial soil bearing areas of the Indo-Gangetic plain as the soil there was best suited for brick making. The size of the brick, however, varied due to soil conditions.

Now, this phenomenon is lost and we blindly adopt a ‘standardised’ brick in almost all parts of India, even where alluvial soil is not available.

Any material used for construction should belong the place where it is being used

Mud architecture has come to be considered just a romantic notion as propagated by various mud fanciers. However, the ideality on the other hand is that burnt or sun-dried mud bricks should be used in the areas where mud is available and the soil property of that area should determine the size of the brick. A resilient surface is ensured on mud in mud-bearing areas by burning it or stabilizing it using cement or lime. Stone, invariably, should be preferred in the areas which are rich in stone to reduce the cost of construction as the material would be available in abundance.

‘Mother Earth’ is considered synonymous with the word ‘mud’ only, not realizing earth also yields several other materials. Stone, a very strong and durable material, is one of them. Stone masonry has been mankind's top building material ever since cave dwellers built a crude stone wall in front of their caves to keep out the weather and provide security. Stone walls are quintessentially a type of masonry construction which has been built for hundreds of years. The main criteria man looked for was durability and a non-erodible surface. The stone had all these qualities.

Today, stone is quarried and taken to stone crushers, crushed to smaller sized aggregate/ dust and sold in the market to form concrete - today’s engineers’ master blaster material. Concrete majorly comprises of stone dust and stone aggregate mixed with cement and is reinforced with steel only to achieve the strength of the stone it was actually broken from. Irony! This causes a lot of energy loss in the process. The idea is to use concrete sensibly as it has its own good qualities and should be used for its inherent values such as a high compressive strength. A spectacular example of concrete use in the past is the Pantheon, built by Rome's Emperor Hadrian and completed in 125 AD. The Pantheon has the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever built. The dome is 142 feet in diameter and has a 27-foot hole, called an oculus, at its peak, which is 142 feet above the floor. Concrete vaults and domes are other compression structures that eliminate the use of expensive steel.

The Pantheon DomeThe Pantheon Dome

A material speaks volumes about the place; it has a timeless quality, it gives an identity and a sense of belonging to a building. Consistency, strong external profile and flexibility in use are certain desirable characteristics in a material that form the criteria for its selection. If the materials we have in abundance are used for their intrinsic properties, they can make significant difference to our city outlook and have the potential for making buildings that speak for themselves rather than the architect or the interior designer babbling a weak concept and a fictitious story to sell the design. That, in its true sense, would be sustainability!

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