Urban Red Herrings

Opinions Dated:  Aug. 20, 2015
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Architect Anil Laul contributing to the design of the bamboo structure, Image source: wrkshp.org

– an extract from ‘GREEN is RED’
A practice that defies rationale is the way we design our roads and drainage systems. Roads require a minimum slope while drains require the maximum slope. Yet, we persistently build our drains on the side of the roads. Our very first steps are riddled with contradictions. For some inexplicable reason, these very basic issues are completely ignored or overlooked, but, it is this fundamental contradiction that is ultimately instrumental to setting the pace for our never ending and ever compounding problems. Had the choice of land been correct, then the two contradictions need never have arisen. Each should have been dealt with separately, as was the case when the traditional settlements opted for the higher lands or for those that had adequate gradients. Building on flat lands was taboo to begin with. This basic decision, then, provided the very foundation for sustainable development strategies.

We use 20 (now 12 and even 10) litres of water in our cisterns to take 100gms of POOP to the sewage treatment plant and then complain of water shortage. Waste water from the kitchen and the bath is further added, to create self-cleansing velocity only in order to take this to the sewage treatment plant located on the outskirts of the habitation. This becomes essential since we identified flat land and therefore, ended up with no slope to efficiently transport the sewage to the desired destination. As a result we end up utilising close to 50 litres of Water to get rid of 100gms of POOP. Incredible, but true. This unfortunately, is the accepted planning norm. Is there something amiss? On one hand, an engineer at the sewage treatment plant screams for less water so as to convert the sewage into bio gas. We, on the other hand, perforce have to give him excessive water to contend with owing to lack of slope. Interestingly, the twenty litres of water required to take the night soil sewage to the treatment plant comes from our colonial legacy which consigned the newspaper to the noble task of cleaning the royal butt, after which it was flushed down the water closet.

As they say... “No job is complete until the paper work is done”

Plot Proportions- The source of hyperacidity

Together with the error of incorrect choice of land and almost as if to compound it, is the decision of a rectangular plot, often with a ratio of 1:2.5(i.e. a width of 1, with a depth of 2.5). As a deterrent to this norm of planning, the traditional texts stated that the owner of a home on a rectangular plot would suffer from ulcers in his stomach and constant acidity. Sounds bizarre and almost ludicrous, but bears merit, and I can only get into detailing this during the course of my writings in a future book.  This is briefly touched upon in the Local Agenda 21 document at the end of this book. This statement and its rationalisation form the basis of a fresh insight into planning for sustainable settlements that are humane. The difference between human and humane may only be a simple ‘e’ but the entire concept of planning undergoes a world of transformation.

 “Conformity is the Jailer of Freedom and the Enemy of Growth” -- John F Graves

Translating this myth into simple mathematical terms, the stomach ache, acidity & ulcers can be translated into simple analogy with an elementary illustration. Though exaggerated, this example would light the bulb of the mind and reinforce the belief that there indeed was merit in traditional practices. We just have to make a concerted effort in trying to unravel these fundamentals. Taking a rectangle of 5 ft x 80 ft would result in a room with an area of 400 sqft and so would a square of 20 ft x 20ft. And yet, the rectangle would have a built up wall with a perimeter of 170 r. ft as opposed to a square with a perimeter of 80 r. ft. Assuming a height of 10 ft for each room, the rectangle would consume 1700 sqft of masonry while the square room would consume only 800 sqft of masonry. The consumption of material would be lesser and so would be the heat intake. So elementary, yet ignored for its sheer simplicity.

This concept of plot proportions is the one that the British left behind and was based on the countries with severe winters that need more heat intake. There is yet another example of the several incongruities that have become a part of International practices. Many countries ruled by the British still have bye laws and engineering standards which require and stipulate that roofs must withstand 6 ft of snow load. These countries are within the tropical belt and have never and can never have snow in the first place. But the bylaw still exists and persists.

In the present day context, the argument in favour of a rectangular plot is that the length of sewage pipe and the road length would be lower. Can sewage pipes and road economies determine the quality of planning human settlements? Can this singular logic be the all prevailing one and at the expense of all other factors? This made a case for a good rethink and in the process I developed a planning methodology that not only economised on the services and development costs but made for humane settlement design. The densities, when compared to similar plotted development, were in no way compromised either.  This form of planning made for self governance at the most basic level. Each home had a direct bearing on the other and consequently resulted in planning where the concept of ‘Ubuntu’ (the African concept of planning and living as a part of society) became the fulcrum of sustainability. Even though seemingly complex, once tried and tested, it is elementary and can be addictive for planners as has been the case with me. In adding diagonal planning to this, every parcel of land has all sides open for cross ventilation or as doctors’ breeze, the term used in some countries.

More often this aspect of planning is broadsided by academicians and yet it this very group that complains about the lack of freedom of thought. To see the world of creativity that opens up, one has but to open one’s eyes.
The Standardised British Brick Virus (S.B.B.V.)
Yes, true to this subhead, this Virus has been the deadliest ever and is the root cause of unsustainable building practices and the tragedies of global warming, climate change and any further fashion statements that may be coined in the near future. Traditionally the British Brick was close to 2 inches in thickness and this had jumped to 3 inches thus consuming far more fuel. Mathematical wizards found merit in this increase of thickness as they found that the number of bricks required to be produced would be lesser. One can trace back the increase in size of the brick to the latter part of the 18th century when the British Government imposed a tax on a per-brick basis. The builders’ world began to make a larger brick to beat the tax regime and this remained unexamined ever since. Finding its way into the academic world, even the education system adopted this standard of brick without question and rationalisation. This, then, is the deadly unbridled virus that hit all building practices the world over and continues to do so.

To fully appreciate this, one has to go back in time when the IPCC (Intercontinental Panel for Climate Change) was first set up. Britain faced a major crisis with the coal miners’ strike during the period of the industrial revolution. Europe, and more so Britain, was leading the race of rapid industrialisation and consequently had to depend on oil and coal to feed the steel, power and building industry. Bricks were the forerunner in coal consumption. It was during this period of turmoil caused by the strikers demanding better wages that the IPCC was born - only to cut dependence on coal and the coal miners. Over-dependence on power and steel as the main propelling forces, found the attention of Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of UK, who then spearheaded the establishment of the IPCC. Using carbon emissions as the base for climate change and global warming, a brand new business empire of pseudo environmentalists took shape. Just about any problem gets intertwined with this business and goes onto becoming a marketing tool for selling any agenda to the world. And, of course, there is then the fluoride (the Witches’ Cauldron) that puts in the finishing touches.

Ignoring one essential component driving the high coal consumption - the brick, was a serious oversight. The next obvious step was to invent a new generation of materials for driving the building industry which, in turn, was the driver of the economy. The serious outfall is conspicuous almost all over the world, directly or indirectly. This contagion is so potent that even when the brick is not being used in a building, the engineering references of modern materials continue to be related to the qualities and standards of the brick as the sacrosanct building component. Logically, a simple reversal of the size of the brick could have reduced the consumption of coal but this iota of thoughtfulness was overlooked. There was a flat footed race for inventing new building materials and as an outfall of this, the Humpty Dumpty tumble down took centre stage. This gave the promoters of processed and industrialised building products a considerable amount of leveraging power to dictate terms to the industry by piggy back riding on the IPCC.

Thus, one of the simplest components of the building industry, the brick, has ever since been grossly misunderstood. It is here that yet another of the very basics of our building practices goes astray. The authors of these standards have been long gone but we continue to adopt irrational standards even now. My teachers learnt only these standards contained in these books, accepted and taught them. I also taught from these very books and students still regard these as gospel truth. I am certain that these authors must be laughing at us from their graves thinking of us as brainless and clueless nitwits who never moved ahead.

While the pivotal issue is one of the non-erodability of the brick and therefore,its strength requirements, we have standardised the brick around the compressive strength as the basic essential requirement. Clay in separate regions varies and therefore, it stands to reason that the size of the brick must vary accordingly.  However, a brick made of burnt clay must essentially deliver and result in a crushing strength of a minimum of 150 Kg. per sq cm. This would confer on it the quality of being non-erodable and the privilege of being used as a first class building component.  But, in standardising the size of the brick, we expect the earth to standardise itself and yield the quality of clay we demand of it. Easy enough, if you’re are God -- and even so, that is a tall order. We, therefore, had slim bricks known as the Lakhori and Nanakshahi bricks in India and the slim Roman bricks or their equivalents for many other parts of the world. They required less energy in burning and resulted in a brick with a non-erodable surface and coincidentally of better strength.

The slim bricks that are shown and used in the courtyard of my office are said to be more than 300 years old and were sourced from an old home being demolished some distance away from the village I live in. Baked with cow dung cakes, these are non-erodable and have stood the test of time. Difficult to break, they have to be cut with tungsten carbide cutters akin to those used to cut stone. The question, therefore, that begs an answer is, “How did they get such good bricks when coal was not available in the Anangpur area or the state of Haryana, where I live?” Coal was available some 500 to 700kms from here and yet our ancestors burnt bricks far better than those we have today in spite of using high-end brick kilns. The real paradox is that technology is moving northwards and the quality of brick is moving south. Is there an apparent contradiction? Is this then where the fundamental problems of sustainable building practices begin? Could our problems begin with something as basic as the size of a brick? Suddenly technology needs a revisit, or so it would seem and such is my firm belief. Little wonder then, that ancient building sciences followed the principles of a fundamental maxim which stated:

“The lower the caste, the slimmer and smaller the brick, the higher the caste, the bigger the brick”

It was not that they practiced or propagated the caste system. All that needs to be understood is that a poor person could use the local soil to burn slimmer and better bricks, using lesser fuel, to get a home that would withstand the vagaries of the elements and resist erosion and corrosion alike.In doing so, he could use even cow dung cakes as fuel for burning which would give him the desired brick. The rationale was obvious. The slimmer the brick- the lesser energy required to bake it. The higher caste could afford blending of clays and superior forms of fuel and transport produce over distances.

Yet another Indian myth states-

“Do not use an under burnt or a broken brick, or you will lose your son” 

If interpreted as intended - non-erodability was the key factor. Every individual builds a home to pass it onto his future generations. It is a basic instinct of man to carve his name in posterity with an aspiration to make a statement of his existence in the sands of time. A house made of poor brick would easily erode and therefore, the structure would not be capable of passing on from the father to the son. The son would perforce have to build another home in due course and would therefore, be compelled to move out. This myth needs to be understood for its sheer logic and cannot be wished away just as an archaic belief.

“Knowledge is not when we start speaking big things. It is when we start understanding small things” -- Author unknown

Getting to understand the non-erodability factor and surfaces as the fundamental criteria, a host of directions emerged and the perspective changed. The surface engineered prefinished interlocking blocks with various lean back-up materials such as up to 60% of paper-mache, have proven to be an efficient alternative and are rated as the best six product designs in the year 2001, by Design Sense museum, London (sponsored by the Corus Foundation). This simple block was competing with the likes of Honda, Motorola and Philips in the finals and received a commendation. The development of this block is in understanding the rudimentary performance standards required of a walling material whilst at the same time, respecting the inherent qualities of basic materials.

This interlocking of the block provides for a good earthquake-resistant solution and this technique has won several national and international awards. Used diagonally, this makes for an even better wall which is much akin to the cross-stitch that lends strength to the susceptible hem of the garment. I will later go into the details of the manufacture and use of this technology for women empowerment in a stunning project which was led by two fresh graduate lady architects, wherein women masons manufactured and used these blocks. The client raised the daily wages of the women workers by 75%, and even then, successfully made a substantially cost efficient home.

Now They Have Your Heart Too

The choice we have is that of a ‘Rock or a Hard Place’ or as is also said one of the ‘devil or the deep blue sea’. With the addition of fluorides to drinking water, it was the capacity of think that was subjugated. Target Brain. The concept of safe drinking water through Reverse Osmosis, a nail is virtually being driven into one’s heart. Mission Heart Attack accomplished successfully. The additional bonus achievement is Osteoporosis and Cardiovascular disease to millions of people, thus raking in enormous benefits for the entire Pharmaceutical Industry.

Even the drinking water by the means of expensive high technology systems, considered healthy and safe water, is a serious misconception. The consumption of this water has almost lethal consequences. Surprising as it may seem, it is the so called ‘soft water’ we drink that is possibly the single largest reason for cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. First, they had your Brain and now they have your Heart, the uncivil way. Soft water is good for generating extravagant lather in soap, but the body requires semi-hard water, which contains minerals like copper, carbon, calcium, amongst several others. Therefore choice that we are left with is one of the good lather from soap or, the healthy body. In consuming soft water, we limit the intake of essential minerals to less than 100 ppm (parts per million), therefore causing the body immune systems to break down, making us more susceptible to diseases. And yet our faith in bottled water is immense. The bottled water industry that is growing by leaps and bounds seems to be in close competition with the oil industry. To combat this, a simple solution developed at my centre, provides Water for all, at virtually no cost. We have christened it as the ‘Common Man’s Water Filter’ and this can even be passed on to future generations. This is not only pure, but is healthy, as it builds the body immune systems as well.

I will lead you into this journey down the line as I progress with these discourses. Indeed, my purpose would be well-served if I get some of you to jump over to my side of the fence and join forces. Too much is being shovelled down the throats of people as appropriate and the only way forward. This is done through hype and mass hysteria, created through every conceivable media. It now has a major presence in the academia and even the basic education system. This desperately needs reversal and a critical reassessment.

This is more like a blind man asking, “Can there be anything worse than losing your eyesight?” The answer is “Yes there is-- Losing your vision”

Slumming it up
It is unfortunate, but slums seemingly defy solution the world over. I would put together a separate book on the various solutions that we have built for slum rehabilitation, catering to some of the highest densities.Never has there been a solution to slum rehabilitation where those to be relocated, actually became co-petitioners in the Supreme Court of India stating that they would only be willing to move to the proposal as designed by my office. Even though resistant to the orders of the Supreme Court of India in the first instance, they pleaded that every aspect including the technologies be in keeping with the demonstration units designed and built by my office. The point that I wish to make is that Slums do not defy solution. It is in the interest of some to have a proliferation of slums. This makes a business for a few, in order to retain their illegitimate financial interests.

Further on in the series, would be several simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. These may be of interest to academicians and students as well as others from various disciplines.

“Any action is best performed at the lowest level that it can be best performed”

The purpose would be to establish the fact that solutions to the present day problems lie in appropriate planning, building technologies and methodologies. Myths and legends were woven around these fundamental principles so as to have us practice the correct ways of living sustainably.

Architecture and human settlement design is not about mere building bye laws and saleable floor area on an individual parcel of land or its high values. It is an all-encompassing discipline that virtually impacts every aspect of our lives and the very world we live in.

Green is unadulterated common sense

Every book that I intend to author will conclude with a common document called the Local Agenda 21 for the South East Asia Pacific Region authored by me for the Johannesburg Summit. Even though it was written for the South East Asia Pacific region, a large part of the issues addressed find common ground in other parts of the Globe as well.  This has, therefore, also been carried by several Journals under the title ‘Sustainable City Strategies’ as well. It has also found its way to the desks of several young architects and the Promoters of green concepts. Students and other organisations have used segments of this document for their research programmes and this further detailing could be of assistance to them. No one seems to want to address all the issues simultaneously and in dealing with them in a compartmentalised manner, as they normally do, many a question remains unanswered.

I have had mixed reactions to this document. Some felt it was a head-splitting exercise; others felt it made sense in its entirely, but required several read-overs, detailed illustrations and explanation for the sake of clarity. I had the limit of restricting the base document to ten thousand words only. The approach thus being adopted, will deal with each aspect as one book at a time. Furthermore, each set of issues will be highlighted so as to draw the readers’ attention to the specifics dealt with in that particular book.

This book and the others to follow are not intended to quarrel with green sages. Neither are they intended as some kind of self-adulation. I am more than convinced that green requires no certification as being so. I have never understood the rationale of getting a government or institutional certification for something that is so basic. I am inclined to believe that if what you do requires a government or institutional certification, then there is some area of doubt or a hidden agenda and the certification is a mere cover for some inherent inadequacies in the solution being pushed. Over all these years of interaction with the government, I have but one conclusion which is:

“The Government is the problem and not the solution”

Another form of oppression is standardisation of the human mind and the thought process through legislation on the strength of Institutional opinion. If it is, indeed worth it, the product, the design or even the approach will become self-propelling.

“Green is not a fashion statement, it is merely the logical and ‘common sensical’ way to go and common sense, though rare it is said, should require no approval from specialised agencies”

Whether it is the concept of green, global warming or climate change, each has become a buzzword for good intellectual conversation at the cocktail circuit. Many have made this a way of life and hawk these concepts as a full-time business. Much funding is also available for research in this direction.

Let me illustrate the absurd lengths that this whole green imbroglio can go to. Those wishing to pursue higher education and write research papers for their thesis must invariably write their proposal using the closing sentence as - “And its effect on global warming and climate change”. The research proposal could be as absurd as to “why the pig has a curly tail” but the final objective has to conclude with the relationship to Green, Global Warming and Climate Change. The concluding statement would effectively, therefore read as – ‘Why the pig has a curly tail and its effect on Climate Change and Global Warming’. Concluding with the aforementioned statement would almost get one a huge research grant.

Should this conclusive objective be missing from their research proposal, more likely than not, the proposal would be summarily rejected. Such is the power of the inscrutable world of the green building, climate change and global warming protagonists.

“A lie, when repeated again and again until the teller of the lie himself begins to feel that the lie is indeed the truth, then his telling it will be so compelling that the other person would begin to believe that it indeed is the truth” 

Similarly, the onslaught of articles in the media is so enormous and on a daily basis, that one is left with no option, but to agree and in doing so, the number of green loyalists and businesses continue to proliferate like none other. It is at institutions of excellence in advanced learning where the time tested traditional wisdom, as passed down the ages, is convoluted. This is then, tweaked to introduce a hidden agenda, repackaged as the product of intense research, patented and sold globally as a product of higher learning.

Here is another example from the theatre of the absurd. I was watching the Climate Change series on an International Channel. A most intriguing episode was that of a researcher claiming that the wind broken by cows was a major source of global warming and climate change. He claimed the cow emits more methane from its posterior than all other sources on earth. He was actually holding a microphone to the cow’s posterior for the sound bytes and other measurement gadgetry to match. The conclusion was that we need to change the cows’ feed so that they emit lesser methane which he states is causing our environmental problems. I give full marks to the researcher for having dreamt up this line of research and then having convinced an agency to fund this. This requires selling skills of the highest order! The programmes aired on this channel are very slick, but are often based on what I call the ‘International hidden agenda approach’. This is research-for-research sake, with a whole lot of computing figures in order to scare the daylights out of the viewer and beat him into subjugation. There is evidently enormous money in the business of making knowledge a bastion of the few.

Genetically modified products are losing credibility and organically grown foods are the order of the day. But, they were there all along in the first place.

Traditional medicine is in and the chemicals as researched and advocated are on the way out. But, they existed and were in extensive use until the recent past.

Traditional healing through yoga and meditation and naturopathy is the preferred route to healthy living. But, this was also practiced until the very recent past.
Traditional herbal beauty products are in and the chemical formulations are passé.
Virginity is in.
Vegetarianism is in.
Living with nature is the most desired.
Joint family living is making a comeback.
People’s participation in planning and decision making in civic matters is a way forward.
It is almost as if living in the past would soon be considered futuristic.
Even though technically available to me, my conscience has not permitted me to becoming a victim of funding. The strings attached and the nuances are too many and the hidden agendas make me nervous. I have chosen to do ‘RE----SEARCH’ and not ‘RESEARCH’ as is commonly perceived and propagated at the institutional level.

To my mind, re-search is simple and requires a blend of nature’s bounty, traditional wisdom as well as the technologies developed by man.

This makes for a healthy, workable and heady cocktail. It is this decoction that has resulted in a home for me and my family and has won me many accolades. This is a combination of several rationalised technologies, planning methodologies, which then culminated in a holistic humane settlement design. Even as I write this, there are some other interesting issues that are on the drawing board.

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