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Going Green with Building Materials

In recent years, choices of materials have often aligned to producing visual effects, resulting in buildings that mimic the appearance of technological progress without the gravitas of sustainability

Green Building Material Amit Khanna RealtyMyths
Amit Khanna Designs RealtyMyths

Mr. Amit Khanna, Principal Architect, AKDA

by Amit Khanna

The architecture of every epoch is defined by its materiality. Whether it be the fortified stone cities of South America, the intricately carved and marbled Mughal architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, or the elegant steel and glass structures of Industrial Europe, buildings can easily be positioned in their time in history simply by looking at the way materials have been employed in their construction. Even architects have been historically defined by the materials they can masterfully maneuver and abstract to their vision. The sinuously curved steel bridges of Calatrava contrast sharply with the austere monastic concrete buildings of Ando, which could never be mistaken for the swooping and visually arresting work of the late Zaha Hadid.

Within this context, contemporary architects have a unique benefit, not only of inheriting several millennia of knowledge about traditionally available materials but also access to new frontiers in material development. From 3-d printing of entire homes to the adoption of aerospace and automotive materials like carbon-fiber, buildings today can be made from an astounding variety of materials. Modern buildings often comprise of a wide variety of materials, sourced from the best manufacturers around the world, constantly pushing forward the boundaries of design capability.

When seen as an evolutionary process, this is a remarkable achievement. Successfully harnessing multiple technologies and bringing them together to make stunning buildings is a departure from the way architecture has been historically made. Materials were traditionally too heavy to transport over long distances, and local skills were often based upon those very materials, such as the precise wood joinery that developed in the Far East, or the remarkable stonework that evolved during the Renaissance. That specific, localized nature of architecture is seeming of no consequence in an increasingly ‘flattened’ world, dominated by conceptions of instantaneous and boundless transmissibility.

A Time for Prudence

However, more than any other time in history, this is a time for prudence in resource consumption. Climate scientists have repeatedly made urgent calls to limit Greenhouse Gas Emissions (modern buildings contribute about 30% to worldwide GHG output every year), reduce deforestation (another area where buildings/construction are culpable), and develop cleaner technologies for producing the raw materials that go into everyday things (with a view to limiting the environmental impact of resource production). Despite uninformed opposition, there is widespread acceptance that the anthropological impact of reckless resource mongering is leading to increasing fragility, diminishing the prospects for the majority of the human population.

Architects will need to shoulder a significant portion of this responsibility. In recent years, choices of materials have often aligned to producing visual effects, resulting in buildings that mimic the appearance of technological progress without the gravitas of sustainability. The global spread of the conceptualization of the glass-clad, air-conditioned tower as the building block of the urban city has not only resulted in an unpleasant homogeneity in cityscapes but is fundamentally flawed in its imagination of how these cities will be fuelled. An energy-guzzling building cannot represent the future of our cities. Until the time buildings can produce as much energy as they consume, their design must focus on reduction in lowered resource consumption, both in construction and functional use.  This issue is ever more critical in India, which will produce a staggering number of buildings over the next few decades.

From the outset, the architectural intent of our firm has been to make sustainability and performance central to our pursuit of a suitable architecture for the subcontinent. Coupled with a recognition that indigenous craftsmanship is an asset, not a challenge, our practice brings together the people who build our buildings on-board during the design process as active contributors. The result is a collection of buildings that may not carry the distinctive signature of a master architect, but are inextricably linked to a common thread of high performance and frugal resource consumption. Immersed in the techniques of construction lies the design intent, using traditional elements like jaalis or screens that simultaneously shade and ventilate, broad blank walls that provide the much needed thermal mass in a hot climate, and deeply recessed openings that provide, as Correa eloquently put it, “a place in the shade”.

Is Brick the Answer?

Bricks have been used for building countless structures over many thousands of years, underscoring their inherent durability. Clay bricks last almost indefinitely, being largely immune to fire, wind-borne debris, and temperature fluctuations and their exceptional thermal mass help mitigate heat transfer. While the manufacture of bricks is recognized to be energy-intensive, over 89% of the GHG impact of a building lies in its operating costs over the 50-year lifecycle of a building. Within those parameters, bricks outperform almost every other building material, effectively reducing the environmental impacts from other systems like air conditioning and heating. Additionally, manufacturing processes have remarkably improved, with the use of energy-efficient tunnel kilns, fired using natural gas, and all waste heat and clay being recycled within the plant, with the effective energy consumption per brick reducing every year. Bricks require little maintenance, and combined with intelligent passive design and insulation, can help create buildings that can be effectively recycled in multiple ways. Salvaged brick has been used to build new buildings, become aggregate for concrete, for landscaping and as a sub-base for roads. When used judiciously indoors, brick can also contribute to improved indoor air quality by eliminating the need for paints and the resulting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) they contain and by eliminating a food source for mold.

It is imperative to state that brick is not the only way to make sustainable architecture, and even within a brick building, other factors make large contributions to the overall environmental impact. However, within the Indian context, it remains a formidable force to produce a climate-responsive architecture, when combined with traditional mitigation design strategies. At AKDA, the wide variety of typologies we have realized in brick, including industrial, multi-family residential and private homes, underscores the extraordinary ability of this humble material.

*The author is the principal architect of AKDA – Amit Khanna Design Associates.

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