As the mercury keeps soaring, India is experiencing its hottest summers in 122 years. By mid-May, maximum temperatures in North India have crossed 45 degrees celsius consistently. Extreme weather cannot be attributed to a single cause. Heatwaves are a result of the compounding effect of global warming, pollution, and existing weather patterns. Researchers have pointed to another issue that is aggravating the already existing problems of heatwaves - Western Architecture.
India is located near the equator and experiences considerably higher temperatures than most of the western countries. The traditional vernacular architecture was adept at dealing with the Indian climate but in the 90s traditional architecture started to lose its ground slowly. In the 90s, India was transitioning to a market-based economy; liberalisation and globalisation policies attracted western companies to set up shops in India due to cost advantages. Subsequently, when new offices were built, foreign companies extrapolated the same aesthetic they had in the west.
Now, tall buildings with glass doors and reflective facades are a familiar sight in major Indian cities. It would be not easy to distinguish between the cityscape of Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. Blindly following the one-size-fits-all design aesthetic has created more pressing problems than just dull designs. Tall Buildings need a strong structure, and builders inadvertently use concrete and steel structures. Although they are strong building materials, they absorb a lot of heat. The glassy facades reflect heat raising the temperatures of the surroundings. The glass doors and walls don’t help either, as glass is a good absorber and radiator of heat. Two decades ago, these impacts were not of significance, as the room temperatures in these buildings could be easily moderated by air conditioning. But two decades later, now the problem of climate change and its impacts have aggravated, and lousy architecture has become a major part of the problem.
During the summers in India, the rooftops heat up very quickly, and the heat flows to the lower floors, creating hot boxes. The quick fix is air conditioning, but they release a lot of heat back into the atmosphere and increase the use of power (electricity). According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), buildings use 50% of the world’s electricity, mostly for temperature maintenance and ventilation, out of which air cooling contributes 20%. How ironic it is that the system invented for cooling is increasing the temperature of the surroundings. Air conditioning guzzles electricity which again if sourced from non-renewable resources significantly contributes to global warming.
The heatwaves have surged the demand for electricity in India, which in turn has spiked the demand for coal. As large parts of north India face long hours of power shortage, the government is trying its best to source coal from all possible resources. India is caught up in this vicious cycle of demand and supply, which is reaching its breaking point; we are only worsening the situation in this entire process.
Chandra Bhushan, a Delhi-based environmental policy expert, estimates that 90% of the construction buildings follow modern western-style architecture and pay little attention to regional climate and vernacular architecture. Architects and their crew build what they see, and hence we see only look-alikes. Earlier houses were built with clay or sun-dried bricks, which are poor conductors of heat. Houses had large courtyards and windows for cross ventilation and dissipating heat. Roofs were covered with thatches to reduce heat transmission drastically.
Today, it is impossible to adapt to the architectural practices followed 50 years ago completely. The price of land has increased, and certain facilities have become the norm and irreplaceable. Still, the way ahead is to use the learnings from vernacular architecture and amalgamate them with modern practices. As British architect Laurie Baker, also known as the Gandhi of architecture said “true meaning of architecture lies in the responsible and prudent use of limited resources and imbibing the characteristics that surround it”. His work focuses on cost-effective and energy-efficient designs using indigenous materials. He emphasized on renouncing the excess and extravagance while designing. He said it is the duty of the architect to study and research the site, conclude its advantages and disadvantages, and use the resources available in an efficient way. The onus now falls on the new generation of architects to bring back the vernacular architecture and fine-tune it to the current and future scenarios. Many innovative solutions are being perused like doubling walling; in this method, two concrete walls are separated by insulating material like clay or sand. Limewash is being used to whitewash terraces and rooftops to reflect heat outside. Green terraces and window gardening are slowly being adopted as standard practices. It is the time for course correction, and in the next 7 to 8 years, the urban landscape might change for the good.