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Measure twice, cut once is a sustainable approach to building in the hills

An architect designs the case for why environmental sympathy should lie at the heart of all building activity

Rolling hills and vales covered with tea bushes, dotted with silver oaks and the colourful scarves of tea workers as they plucked tea leaves, filling their shoulder slung cane baskets with two leaves and a bud – the ratio for optimal tea; this is the landscape I was surrounded with as a child.

Growing up in this idyllic little town of Coonoor, in the Nilgiri Hills of South India, one develops a bond with nature, and an appreciation for quiet contemplation. To date, I know I have arrived home, when the cool fresh air of the hills hits my face and when, after the long climb up the winding ghat roads, I see those hills. Birdsong abounds and one can occasionally hear the call of the Malabar squirrels in the trees.

Owing to the weather, this little town offered the perfect sanctuary in pre independence India to the British, who built large colonial style bungalows here. Today, old timers who have since acquired those homes, reminisce about a time when their closest neighbour was five miles away. With the effects of global warming several city dwellers have been looking to relocate to these hills to enjoy its verdant landscape and climate. With a shortage of labour and rising prices, making a living from tea has become taxing. Several tea estates have been plotted out and are being sold as gated developments. Instead of music, the hills now abound with the sound of construction. The town I grew up in, is fast disappearing.

The construction industry’s carbon footprint is upwards of a third of the carbon emissions globally. Developers who build here seem to think that constructing in the “style” of the old colonial houses, and installing systems for rain water harvesting and solar power is enough. What about the effect of the practice of cutting steep hill sites to turn them into flat sites for quick construction? What of the use of towering retaining walls after having cut away half the hill side and their impact? The administrative bodies seem to believe that introducing new policy like that of the vacant land certification to deter people from building in these areas, or delaying the sanctioning of structures is enough. What about the resultant soil erosion from the clearing of large parcels of tea to be awarded the certification? What about the pressure on the land and the resources of the small towns that make up the Nilgiri Hills? Essentially what all this amounts to is a whole lot of greenwashing.

In Architecture school we were encouraged to make physical scaled models in order to study our design proposals and their impact. We would always begin by building out the site and its context. The recommended practice while making these models was to measure twice, cut once – so as to use our model material efficiently. Could we use this as an analogy on how we should approach building in the hills and other ecologically sensitive zones? Unfortunately, very few people hire architects in India. They seem to be a luxury that a select few can afford and even fewer deem necessary. Most people buy property and build in the hills enamoured by the view, little do they realize that they in turn form a part of another’s view. A building is not simply a structure that one looks out from, but a lantern in a landscape that one also looks toward. As the Australian Pritzker Winning Architect Glenn Murcutt recommends – “to touch the earth lightly” is the need of the hour.

Contrary to popular belief, the role of the architect stretches beyond a simple sketch of a plan and layout of rooms. To me, Architecture is an expression of longing for controlled interaction with the elements – sunlight, air, soil. It is important to understand the climate and the terrain. To have buildings sit delicately and aesthetically in their surroundings while harnessing the climate and the prevailing conditions so as to reduce artificial heating and cooling. To allow the building to breathe and to use materials that have the best impact on the well-being of the inhabitants and the Earth.

A building is not simply a structure that one looks out from, but a lantern in a landscape that one also looks toward. As the Australian Pritzker Winning Architect Glenn Murcutt recommends – “to touch the earth lightly” is the need of the hour

Constructing a building to look like a colonial bungalow doesn’t guarantee aesthetics or reduce its environmental impact. Similarly, constructing a home with modern materials like steel and glass doesn’t necessarily mean it is aesthetically unappealing or environmentally unsound. Mahatma Gandhi advocated building from materials found in a five-mile radius around the site. It was a call to apply appropriate material in construction. Materials themselves don’t make a building good or bad. Material choices should be governed by context – the orientation to the sun path, the wind load on the building, the thermal mass of the material. The role of architects also includes advocating to engage ecologists and permaculture experts when designing the landscape. Encouraging the use of local species that give back to the land and promote soil regeneration, while working in tandem with architectural features.

Sustainability then is an attitude and approach towards building. The greenest building is one that already exists. The only road toward long term sustainability is to build in a way that is robust and appropriate, ensuring the longevity of the building, both aesthetically and functionally. While developing and using carbon negative materials offers one solution for the construction industry, going forward, let’s tackle the climate crisis by Measuring Twice, Cutting Once.

Adhiti S Gautama is an architect by profession who is invested in the built environment. Over the last decade she has worked with exemplary firms in both India and Japan, the likes of Studio Mumbai, Stephane Paumier Architects and Shingo Masuda + Katsuhisa Otsubo Architects. Currently an Associate with a Bangalore based firm, she is passionate about doing climate responsive work that is rooted in its context, using material and crafts indigenous to the region, while remaining avant-garde in approach. She hopes to impact methods of thinking, making and doing.

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