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The balancing act

  • Traditional building materials or new-age alternatives? Two architects on finding the right fit
  • Today, architects have several options, especially with contemporary global research on innovative materials resulting in new-age building blocks

The handmade clay tiles of Bodh Gaya
The handmade clay tiles of Bodh Gaya (Photo: SIK Architects)

When asked to design a new series of hotels for religious tourism in 2012, architect Shimul Javeri Kadri turned to the very sites of the project for design cues. The client, Marasa Hotels, was looking at Tirupati, Rishikesh and Bodh Gaya as centres to develop for pilgrims. Bodh Gaya, for instance, is a quintessentially Buddhist town punctuated by monks and the sounds of chanting, says the Mumbai-based architect. But what struck her was the architecture of the area, which abounds in bricks.

Brinda Somaya
Brinda Somaya (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

Kadri’s design for the hotel started in January 2018—incorporating Bodh Gaya’s bricks—and is now nearing completion. It led the architect to consider some pressing questions regarding new technology and how it compares to traditional building blocks and approaches. Today, architects have several options while designing projects, especially with contemporary global research on innovative materials resulting in new-age building blocks. How do architects, then, balance the use of new materials with indigenous products and expertise?

“You see bricks and brick kilns all over the place, right from the monuments to the chai stalls. The Buddhist trail along the way is a testimony to the use of bricks," says Kadri. She describes how brick structures dot the landscape on the drive from Patna to Bodh Gaya in the form of kilns, monasteries, stupas and temples.

The new buildings of the Goa Institute of Management use laterite
The new buildings of the Goa Institute of Management use laterite (Photo: SNK India)

For architects practising in India, the humble brick has been used in versatile ways, as seen in the designs of Laurie Baker, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier and B.V. Doshi, with significant examples in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad. While the temptation to showcase bricks in the construction of the resort was tremendous, Kadri had to consider other aspects too. The structure was designed to incorporate bricks throughout, including the foundation, till a structural engineer pointed out that the resort’s site was on sandy soil. Such a construction would necessitate deep footings, which meant not only quantities but also stability—something brick couldn’t provide.

Rethinking the design, Kadri decided to make vaults, typical of Buddhist architecture, out of concrete but painted them in a shade of terracotta, hinting at the predominant colour of Bodh Gaya. However, she introduced “country tiles" for the roof, managing to create an air gap and providing insulation over the waterproof concrete structure. The typical half-rounded tiles of the region are fashioned by potters in and around Bodh Gaya. “The idea that I found powerful through the project is that you adapt and design to what the circumstance provides you with," she says.

Shimul Javeri Kadri
Shimul Javeri Kadri (Photo: SNK India)

Kadri is not alone in seeking out indigenous alternatives and using them judiciously in her designs. Brinda Somaya, a Mumbai-based architect and urban conservationist, has also been infusing her designs with locally found materials, such as the new buildings for the Goa Institute of Management in Sanquelim. For this five-phase project, Somaya decided to use red laterite stones, which can be found across the state and are ubiquitous in Goan churches and old homes. “Laterite is under the earth everywhere across Goa. Right at our construction site, we found a stream of laterite and we thought it’s best to use it," she says.

Somaya says she has been mindful of using locally available material in her projects as much as possible. The architect also believes we have to keep moving with the times, right from the food we eat to the buildings we build. She says, “New materials are coming in every day—there is huge research across the world on different kinds of concrete and steel. Using these depends on where you are building, what you are building, the client, who is going to use the building, seismic zones and so on."

In the course of discovering meaningful ways to use the clay tiles, Kadri had to consider the economics of producing them. About 26 families worked on the order, and were paid at less than a rupee for a tile. They were earning a daily rate of 120, with cuts being made by the middlemen. “Craft-based construction faces the problems of the farmer and of the karigar—of access to better technology and design, which would help the tiles to be stronger," she says. One way of dealing with this situation, she says, is to bring in medium technology—between totally handmade and high technology—and encourage potters to use it. Compressed stabilized earth (CSE) blocks, made in situ using a mould, could be one way of sustaining their livelihoods, says Kadri.

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