The TH Interview: Chitra K. Vishwanath, Earth Architect

Photo: The grey water storage and lily tank all lit up on Diwali night at Our Native Village, an eco-resort outside of Bangalore (Chitra K. Vishwanath)
More often than not, I am greeted with blank looks whenever I mention the words 'earth architecture'. But forget mud huts and even the Great Mosque (Mali's masterpiece of traditional earth building). Despite it being an ancient building material, designing with earth these days is not as humble as it may appear, especially in urban settings. This unseeming paradox is one that Indian architect Chitra K. Vishwanwath - a well-known veteran of the profession - has worked with for almost two decades. Along with her firm belief that mud is possible in urban settings, her works show that the proof is in the pudding: earth is just as versatile and aesthetically pleasing as your run-of-the-mill, high-tech, designer eco-material - as well as answering that unspoken question on everyone's mind: why bother with earth?TH: When did you build your first earth building, and could you describe some of its features?
Chitra K. Vishwanath: I graduated in December 1988 and after a one-year stint in an office in Bangalore, I started one of my own with the support of my husband Vishwanath. In the first five years of our practice we did just two mud buildings and rest were economical structures based on Laurie Baker's innovations.

There is not much to say about the first two mud buildings but a lot about our house which we completed in 1995.

We decided to use earth as a primary material after looking at the site and incorporated a basement to procure the needed mud. This is now our mantra every time we design: look for the possibility of getting earth for the building - which is usually best done by incorporating a basement. This house of ours is also a laboratory of ideas: ideas on material use, spaces suitable for different climates, biodiversity, water and food. So far, it has no need for fans, recycles water, harvests rainwater and has a facility to turn waste into fertilizer. What we love about our house is that it is always growing on us and fosters innovation as a partner, thus it is always a work in progress. After completing our house in 1995, all the work we have done is ecological and 99% using earth.

Photo: Residence for Pratibha and Sanjay Singh; To the front door with the rainwater harvesting tank in the foreground hidden by the climber and the typical North Indian landscape (all done by Sanjay who is from Bihar)
Photo: Residence for Pratibha and Sanjay Singh; interior atrium (skylit) with a tree growing in the middle - which is also the living room
TH: What are some of the inspirations that steered you in this direction?
CKV: Inspirations have been many and always depends on how one looks at it. The philosophies and methods of Laurie Baker, the Indian Institute of Science and its innovations in mud construction and all the different works at Auroville have been my teachers, but to be able to put it in action in the fast-growing city of Bangalore - will compel me to claim it has been just our persistence and firm belief that mud is possible in urban settings. Also, the contribution of our engineer friends who have helped us realize our visions is paramount.

Photo: Residence for Nishwath and Prakash; Skylit dining space of the house, looking toward kitchen
TH: What is an interesting recent project that you've been working on?
CKV: Now the office has grown from a one-woman show to eight partner architects and people from other professional spheres - all working on many different projects. I work on few and one of the recent one is a small resort near Satpuda Game Reserve, in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

This project has been interesting personally because it was in a different context. Here we had to learn from contending with a restricted range of available material and still make the place unique. We were lucky to have a very enthusiastic contractor who is also a trained architect, Vikesh Agarwal. His team worked wholeheartedly and we worked extensively on "cob" walls for the rooms, and we also built partly with rammed earth.

There are many other projects happening in the office which are all very interesting in terms of their nature of client brief, construction method and materials and finally the design per se. We find every residence to be a fresh challenge.

We are currently doing a marketplace for rural women, an orphanage / reading centre, an eight room resort in Coonoor, on 150 acres of abandoned tea estate, a school for blind children and numerous residences.

Besides Architecture Biome (as the new office is known) is also involved in giving strategic consultancy towards issues of water, sanitation (we just built 10 bamboo based EcoSan toilets in flooded districts of Bihar), alternative energy and consulting for other architects in making their projects ecological. As Biome we also conduct workshops for school children, college students and do training in rainwater harvesting and building techniques.

Photo: Biological Pool or "biopool" at Our Native Village Eco-resort; tney are are swimming pools in which water is cleaned by means of microorganisms and plants. They also harbour bio diversity and are like good old village ponds.
TH: How would you characterize the green building movement in India, in terms of past and recent developments, and in comparison to North America or Europe?
CKV: The Green Building movement is taking big strides in India and most informed architects are looking at ways and means to make right choices.

Our vernacular and historic architecture has always been very sensitive to nature. We can see many examples of innovations of water harvesting, cooling, ventilation and use of local materials in them.

In the recent past works by the likes of B.V. Doshi, Charles Correa and Achyut Kanvinde too incorporated material, climate and culture in their projects and for all of us practising now there is much to learn from them.

Currently, there is an improved awareness with both architects and clients of the negative impact on the environment buildings can make and there is interest in both to work towards sustainability. Many times the decisions of being green makes business sense in terms of reduced cost of water, energy and maintenance aspects and in a lighter vein they are also taken in light of the attention these projects would receive in the media - and this is a lot to do with how Western press would see our works!

Indian architecture has a very strong language historically and has held its own, while the British incorporated elements and created a synthesis. As we embarked on building our nation after independence we were in a hurry. Though we have some good works by foreign as well as Indian architects, what happened was that as India built large educational institutes and many infrastructure projects, it also built many sorry buildings in concrete and bricks.

With the advent of the information technology (IT) and service sector, our buildings started aping whatever was happening in the West. So, now we have a profusion of glass and steel in our buildings which consume enormous amount of energy to maintain, while the materials used are also energy-intensive to manufacture.

With advent of LEED certification, Indian architects have now got an impetus to follow a new trend. So there are many Platinum, Gold and Silver-rated projects in India, which on hindsight can only be improved upon - since as the Noble Laureate Amartya Sen puts it, we are "argumentative Indians." So with the advent of LEED we will surely see a movement of Indian architects to come up with ratings which are contextual to India.

Finally, in a very serious vein, if LEED is so concerned about energy and sustainability I wonder why does it rate buildings with the names of materials that take enormous toll on people, energy and environment to mine them? Instead of Platinum, Gold and Silver, its best buildings should be given "Mud", "Wood" and "Stone" ratings.

Detail
TH: Why do you think earth-based building is important in urban settings? Does incorporating earth into the building process significantly help to reduce the ecological footprint of a house?
CKV: Since I am more aware of the Indian context I will answer from this perspective, because it also brings to focus that most eco-solutions will be based locally though they will certainly have global consequences.

In India most buildings are made with bricks. These bricks are fired with wood, gas being very expensive and also very rarely available. This wood is sourced from nearby forests since we have almost no sustainable plantation for firewood purposes. These brick making industries come up in villages outlying a city and thus also take away agricultural land. Many times the soil used is of good quality for agriculture. In this way, loss of arable land and therefore food works its way into bricks, making it a less-than-sustainable material. Also, these Asian brick-making industries are contributing to a growing ozone hole over New Zealand.

When the bricks are made non-locally, they must be transported via long distances into the city - adding to air and noise pollution and other health hazards, including accidents. On the global scale, this long-distance transportation of materials within an oil-based economy means consequences like war in Iraq and the melting of glaciers... the list could go on.

In all of this, let us look back as to use of earth: with the use of earth from below your building area, the transportation is reduced, you are using soil from where no food will be grown, thus reducing the footprint in totality.

Similarly, the energy used in most of Indian construction is human labour, thus the work feeds  people and not a manufacturer. Building with earth in this context makes sense and is common sense.

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Tags: Architects | India

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