Learning the art of architecture

Architects play a key role in determining the sustainability of a project. They must, therefore, utilise technology to enhance their designs instead of letting technologies govern their designs. A right combination of passive and active design strategies will minimise resource use.

The architecture of India has evolved through centuries. It is shaped by its rich heritage and influenced by cultures from across the world. The Indus valley civilisation and the Vedic period are the most remarkable examples of the ancient wisdom of building science in the country. The excavation of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa sites of the Indus valley civilisation have revealed advanced town planning principles and engineering expertise which was much ahead of its time.

Vastu Shastra, which translates the 'science of architecture' are ancient building guidelines in India, believed to have been developed between 6000 and 3000 BC, that describe principles for layout and spatial geometry for buildings and cities. Presented in the form of a metaphysical plan called Vastu Purusha Mandala, the system emphasises that the built structure is a physical being which must be in harmony with nature.

Building construction is not a modern concept but is as old as the construction of shelters by humans for comfort, safety and protection from extreme weather. This led to the evolution of regional styles of construction all over the world that are now governed by usage pattern, social behaviour and climate of a particular region. This type of indigenous construction was done predominantly using locally available materials and, hence, is inherently sustainable.

Although architecture is an ancient profession, formal architectural education is a relatively recent phenomenon. The ever-increasing demand of infrastructure for the growing population also needs a large pool of trained professionals for shaping the built environment. Formal architectural training equips the students with necessary tools such as basic understanding of space in relation to its function, aesthetics of built environment, building materials, construction technologies and project management in order to design and execute projects.

Unlike ancient times, the modern-day student has access to the works of international architects and global best practices. Such a student aspires to design modern-looking buildings, in line with international trends.

However, most of the modern buildings provide a much lower degree of thermal comfort and many of these are not usable without mechanical cooling and heating. This is in contrast with the traditional buildings that create comfortable living environment without any mechanical cooling or heating and have low environmental impact.

Moreover, globalisation has given access to international technology and, in the present era of mass production, traditional building construction practices have slowly dwindled to give way to concrete, brick and glass construction. This adoption has not been without reasons. These modern materials offer ease of execution, faster construction times, high durability, low maintenance, in addition to thinner walls that help offset rising land costs.

The way these modern materials are used often replicates foreign design vocabulary without any consideration to the climate and environment. Unfortunately, sustainability is seen as an add-on feature to these replicable designs. Students have a ready list of design features that can be incorporated to make a building green. For example,jaali walls, courtyards, green roofs etc. In fact, in today's context, green building and sustainable design is also often seen as a technology driven product.

When a young architect is asked about the green features in the design, he/she will start talking about the state-of-the-art mechanical cooling system or the capacity of the renewable energy plant proposed in the building. This piecemeal approach does not lead to an efficient design.

It is very important for the students of architecture to understand that a green building is conceptualised on the drawing board itself. Sensible decisions must be made at the designing stage to design in sync with nature. Climate and environment must be given due consideration while spatial planning, orientation and deciding the size and location of windows.

For example, we all know that we can reduce electricity bill for lighting by installing the most efficient latest LED light. Now, consider the fact that most of the offices operate in a 10 am to six pm schedule, and if these office buildings are designed to maximise the utilisation of day-light, we could almost eliminate the need of artificial lighting.

Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment conducts a design competition at the annual National Association for students of Architecture convention. In this competition, participating students are given the design brief for a real project and are required to submit architectural design solution that is most sustainable. The entries are judged based on the architectural strategies instead of mere technological solutions.

For example, this year, the students were asked to design an office building in Gurugram. The students came up with innovative designs that take into consideration the local climate, the sun path and wind direction. They attempted to predict the shadows from the surrounding existing buildings and how that may affect their design. One design had placed glass strategically, so that it does not cause any glare to the drivers on the highway adjacent to the site.

All designs took into consideration the behavioural aspects and attempted to provide social spaces for encouraging interaction among colleagues. The designs also attempted to enhance the health and well-being by incorporating a variety of recreational spaces and it was pleasing to see that they were sensitive to the current challenge of poor air quality in the NCR and almost all the teams made an effort to provide a design solution such as natural plant based air-filters in the wall facing the prevailing wind direction.

The designs illustrated how a functioning green building can also be aesthetically pleasing. In the previous year, student teams had come up with solutions for re-thinking the housing designs that can significantly improve the quality of life by providing access to better daylight and ventilation.

It has been realised and acknowledged that to make sustainable and high performance buildings, the right combination of passive and active design strategies must be used to minimise resource use. Passive design strategies try to maximise the use of freely available natural energy sources like sun and wind instead of electricity. These strategies include incorporation of day-lighting and natural ventilation.

Active design strategies use electrical energy to keep the building comfortable. These strategies include artificial lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Architects play a key role in determining the sustainability of a project and they must utilise technology to enhance their designs instead of letting technologies govern their designs.