Historic buildings are the most tangible representations of a society’s past, its culture and technical ability. We have inherited a wealth of historic buildings that are not just aesthetic but models of sustainability and vernacular architecture. They invite sunlight and wind and reject heat and rain by using principles of orientation, purposeful proportioning, strategic ventilation and other such passive methods to achieve a comfortable indoor environment.
Today, although we have access to cutting-edge technology and materials, imbibing this wisdom and reapplying it to modern-day buildings can significantly lower the use of air-conditioning and lighting, thereby reducing the energy required for achieving comfortable habitable spaces and lowering our carbon footprints.
Here are some of the most ingenious ancient strategies that have inspired modern-day sustainable buildings.
The Pearl Academy of Fashion Design, Jaipur, inspired by Rani-Ki-Vav, Gujarat
Used for accessing groundwater
Doubled as public spaces
Rani-Ki-Vav (Right) is an example
Pearl Academy (left) uses the stepped built-form for evaporative cooling
Almost invisible until you actually arrive at the entrance, hidden behind a small earth mound that belies its scale, the Rani-Ki-Vav (Queen’s Well) in Patan, Gujarat, is a mammoth subterranean structure that descends seven storeys below the surface of the earth.
Stepwells were structures unique to the Indian subcontinent, built to provide communities year-round access to groundwater. They also played secondary roles—forming well-scaled public spaces that doubled up as temples, gathering spaces reserved for women, well-shaded summer retreats for private use or as a pit stop for travellers.
The Rani-Ki-Vav starts off as a ground-storeyed building, but as it descends downwards, floors get added. The structure becomes very much akin to the urban multi-storeyed buildings of today. With courtyards and terraces of varying scales overlooking balconies, platforms and pavilions, one can only imagine the thriving civic-religious-recreation centre this must have been with spaces for small and big group interactions and performances.
Even on scorching hot days, as soon as one enters the Vav, there's a complete drop in temperature—the cool, well-shaded spaces provide immediate respite from the sun. The periphery of the structure, cocooned within the earth, receives no direct sunlight. In addition, the earth preserves the coolness of the night and keeps the built-form pleasant throughout the day. The presence of water helps raise the overall humidity and promotes evaporative cooling, creating a comfortable micro-climate in hot and arid regions.
The Pearl Academy of Fashion Design, Jaipur, designed by Morphogenesis, is a thriving example of how the wisdom of the stepwells can be applied to contemporary structures. The architects' restraint was a tight budget, and the only way to achieve the design was to virtually eliminate HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) by working with passive and low-energy strategies.
Drawing from the design of traditional stepwells, the entire built-form scoops into the earth, creating an immense stepped, interactive space cooled by the earth's mass and waterbodies that aid evaporative cooling.
The rest of the building rises above because of the need for daylight in classrooms, but the sunken "courtyard" at the base continues to help set up convection currents throughout the built-form. The sunken courtyard, working with modern-day technology and intelligence, contains wastewater that has been treated for reuse.
Great climatic tool
Rajasthani Havelis (Right): Ancient example of such enclosures
SPA, Vijayawada, (left) has a series of connected open-air spaces called the Concourse
The School for Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada, inspired by Wadas of Latur or Nagpur or Havelis of Gujarat and Rajasthan
Courtyards are omnipresent in all traditional Indian architecture—and for good reason. We are a warm-weather country, and these enclosures help induce air-flow that assists in evacuating hot air. Traditionally, these versatile design tools went beyond just controlling temperature—they solved the human need for connecting to nature and outdoors, suffused the internal spaces with daylight, and provided safe and private spaces for daily household chores.
The shape, size, orientation and fenestrations of the courtyard are critical to its effectiveness as a climatic tool, and different strategies can be employed based on the climatic zone the building is located in. For example, all courtyards in extremely hot parts of the country, as seen with the Wadas of Latur or Nagpur or Havelis of Gujarat and Rajasthan, are small in footprint with tall walls so that they are very well-shaded at all times with lower ambient temperatures than outside.
The School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada, by MO-OF is a great example of how courtyards can evolve to suit a more contemporary context. In the academic wing, the architects have explored the idea of a courtyard (called the Concourse) that sits in the middle of the building atop several floors of large, introverted functions that form a solid base. The Concourse contains a series of interconnected open-air spaces for communal activities that are reminiscent of traditional courtyards. Hanging several floors above this level is a parasol layer housing the studios that shade the courtyard. The parasol layer is porous, and the gap between it and the courtyard level is adequate enough to keep the latter well-lit and ventilated. The project successfully packs in high-density by interpreting the values of a traditional courtyard to suit today’s context.
Krushi Bhawan, Bhubaneswar, by Studio Lotus, inspired by Hawa Mahal, Jaipur
The perforated screen or jali is an equally common feature of Indian architecture seen across Hindu, Indo-Islamic and Islamic styles. Geometric simplicity that relies on proportions or intricately carved floral versions in stone, wood or brick, jalis lend a distinct character, cultural identity and beauty to the built-form.
The jali, however, had a very practical role. It almost works as a filter, keeping out direct sunlight (and heat), but lets in the wind. It also keeps out the prying eyes and affords the occupants privacy, while allowing them a complete view and connectivity to the outside.
The Hawa Mahal is perhaps the most famous and iconic of all screened buildings of all times. It is fascinating because the jalis of the building work with the Venturi effect (when wind passes through small openings, it gains speed and pressure and is, therefore, perceived to a greater extent, i.e. it feels breezier) and the Bernoulli's principle (which states that wind becomes cool when compressed) kept the building breezy and comfortable even during the hottest of summer months.
The jali has been used extensively as shading devices in several contemporary buildings. Modern day hardware can make it easy for jalis to slide and collapse, adding an element of flexibility and convenience. However, here are two examples of jalis in contemporary avatars that stand out for their unique approaches.
Krushi Bhawan by Studio Lotus has a jali in brick vents, which shades the building from the sun, saving up to 40 per cent of its cooling load.
More fascinatingly, the screen design draws from the textiles of Odisha and has been constructed by local skilled artisans helping create a “contemporary narrative to traditional craft.” The intervention keeps alive an ancient climatic strategy but also attempts to give a new lease of life to an ancient craft.
The KMC Corporate Office by RMA Architects in Hyderabad has a surprising jali—it is made up of plants! The screen comprises an aluminium trellis with hydroponic trays, drip irrigation and a misting system. It uses the principle of a screen that modulates light and air, but it is also a contemporary interpretation of a traditional cooling system of humidified surfaces. This jali is alive and changes in appearance through different seasons of the year.
Coconut House, Goa, inspired by Padmanabhapuram Palace, Kerala
Timber as a building material is ancient. While the oldest, best-preserved example of a timber building is the 16th-century Padmanabhapuram Palace in Kerala, the region is replete with examples of humble vernacular homes and beautiful palaces that use teak, jackfruit or other indigenous hardwoods due to their natural warmth, beauty and tactile quality. It is easy to transport and work with, and its strength and resilience make it suitable for structural applications in buildings.
Today, the great wisdom in using wood is that it is a carbon-sink—trees sequester (store within themselves) carbon as they grow, so they are actually carbon-negative (reduce the carbon in our atmosphere). Comparatively, steel and concrete, our current mainstream materials, are extremely carbon-positive—their production releases so much carbon into the atmosphere that it is one of the main reasons that the construction industry is responsible for 40-50 per cent of all greenhouse emissions.
Unfortunately, over time, timber rates have become exorbitant—most projects can simply not afford to use it anymore. Moreover, steel and concrete have made us accustomed to longevity that timber doesn't offer.
While by itself, wood is not a material for use in contemporary times, new technologies have come to our rescue and have made it relevant again.
Technologies like GLT (glued-laminated timber) and CLT (cross-laminated timber) allow us to use small pieces of wood sourced from certified/responsible forests that are then laminated together to form larger sections, making it cheaper and more dependable than using large timber members. It is a perfect example of using technology to implement traditional wisdom towards a greener planet for all.
While there are two or three brave examples of whole buildings made with this pioneering technology in India that uses pinewood exported from Europe, New Zealand or Canada, Coconut House in Goa by Architect Ini Chatterjee is path-breaking, as it uses coconut wood from Goa or Kerala as the main structural and building material.
Coconut wood is agricultural waste we get after the trees have lived their life of 40-70 years, after which they become unstable and have to be cut to safeguard against damage caused by uprooting. Chatterjee’s work uses laminated strips of wood from the hollow trunks to make beams and columns, giving the trees (and their carbon) at least another 50-100 years to live before being released into the atmosphere.
Though we love to draw and learn from traditional vernacular wisdom, our current challenge lies in catering to a rapidly urbanising India and having to design for extremely high densities on shrinking plots. Therefore, blindly incorporating these climatic learnings and sustainable cues from our past may not always be possible. But we can embrace the core values of our legacy and reinterpret them in a contemporary idiom—sometimes by applying fresh design thinking and grammar, at other times by using technology.
Vaishali Mangalvedhekar is a partner at SJK Architects, a Mumbai-based collective of built environment professionals