Western Architecture is Making India’s Heatwaves Worse

BEnny Kuriakose reminisces about the time his father built his first house in Kerala, a village in south India. The roof was made of concrete. It was 1968, and the family was proud to use the material, he says, which was becoming a “status symbol” among villagers: the new home resembled the modern buildings cropping up in Indian cities, which in turn resembled those in images of Western cities.

However, inside the house it was scorching hot. Solid concrete retained heat all day, and then radiated that heat inside the house at night. The coolest thing about neighboring houses with thatch roofs was that the heat trapped in the thech between the gaps made it a poor conductor.

The Kuriakoses’ experience was an early taste of a phenomenon that, over the next few decades, spread across most of India’s big cities. Many Indian architects began to abandon the traditional Indian building designs that were developed for different climates over many thousands of years. Instead of using the thick, insulating walls of the southwest and the intricate shades and earthen verandas that are typical of the southern region, modern architects have adopted a minimalistic, boxy design. Today, buildings in downtown Bangalore often look like those in Ahmedabad, in the north, or Chennai, in the east—or those in Cincinnati, Ohio, or Manchester, England.

“In most cities, people have blindly followed the Western model,” says Kuriakose, an architect now based in Chennai. “There was no attempt to look at the local climate. There was no attempt to look at the materials which are available.”

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That uniformity seems like an error in this climate change era. Large parts of India have been stifled by a spring heatwave since April, with temperatures lingering close to 110°F for weeks in some places, and topping 120°F in Delhi this week, making it dangerous to go to work or school—all weeks before the official start of summer. The rising energy demand to cool has caused daily blackouts within cities. AC units that are still running are releasing hot air into the streets which is worsening urban heat island effects. As such heatwaves become increasingly common and long-lasting, experts say India’s modern building stock will make it harder for Indians to adapt.

Environmentists call for fundamental changes in the way India constructs its cities. Positive signs are emerging. A growing number of sustainability-minded architects are reviving vernacular approaches. In February, the Indian government committed to revising urban planning guidelines. It also promised to invest in training planners for better city design. However, progress is slow according to Aromar Revi (director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, an academic-focused university). “We need to essentially affect the entire fabric of our cities, from planning to land use, to building, to transportation systems,” he says. “We are only at the start of that conversation.”

Indian cities show how traditional architecture is losing ground

As India transitioned from a market-based economy to one that was primarily based on the markets, the architecture of Indian cities changed rapidly. The rise of globalized or Western styles in construction was a sign that the trend toward more modern architecture is underway. This shift was partially aesthetic. Developers favored straight lines and tall skyscrapers in America and Europe. The young architects also brought with them ideas that they had learned from abroad. Economic considerations were also important. There was increased pressure to increase floorspace as land became increasingly scarce in urban areas. This led to the removal of thick walls and small courtyards. It was much faster to construct tall buildings using concrete and steel, than to use traditional earth blocks that are better suited for low-rise structures.

The consequence of that cookie-cutter approach was to make buildings less resilient to India’s high temperatures. It seemed to have minimal impact at first. It could easily be offset by electric fans and air conditioning, and the energy costs of cooling were not developers’ problems once they sold their buildings. “Where a home [built in the vernacular style] needs around 20 to 40 kilowatt hours per meter squared of energy for cooling, today some commercial places need 15 times that,” says Yatin Pandya, an architect based in Ahmedabad. When AC units are turned on to help people sleep at night, they release heat into the streets, which can increase the local temperature by around 2°F according to U.S.-based studies. Glassy facades, which can reflect sunlight onto the footpaths depending on how they are oriented, can be visible during daylight, depending upon their orientation. “You’re creating [problems] in every direction.”

The shift away from climate-specific architecture hasn’t only affected offices and luxury flats, whose owners can afford to cool them. A massive program of government housing was launched in 2015. It relied heavily on flat and concrete roofs to maximize urban space. Flat roofs absorb heat more efficiently than sloped roofs. “We’re building hot houses. In certain parts of the year, they will require cooling to be habitable,” Bhushan says. He estimates that roughly 90% of the buildings under construction today are in a modern style that pays little attention to a region’s climate—locking in increased heat risk for decades to come.

Revi says that even the smallest artisanal builders, who are responsible for many Indian houses, now prefer standardized styles. This team rarely has a qualified architect or designer. “So they build what they see,” he says. “They might build traditional elements into their village houses, but when they come to the city, they’re driven by the imperatives of the city, the imaginaries of the city. And there the international style is the aspiration.”

Similar shifts have happened in developing countries all over the world, with cities from the Middle East to Latin America taking on the “copy and paste texture of globalized architecture,” says Sandra Piesek, a Netherlands-based architect and researcher. As the global construction industry embraced concrete and steel, local materials, designs, and technologies became displaced—with lasting consequences. “Some of these traditional methods didn’t undergo the technological revolution that they needed,” to make them more durable and easier to use on a massive urban scale, Piesek says. “We focused instead on [perfecting] the use of concrete and steel.”

Climate change for vernacular architecture

A movement to revive more regionally-specific styles of architecture—and combine them with modern technologies—is well underway in India. Many architects in Auroville (on the east coast of Tamil Nadu) have been advocating the use earth walls and roofs over the past 10 years. Earth absorbs heat and humidity and can be used for larger structures. In the dry hot northern city of Ahmedabad, which has suffered some of the country’s deadliest heatwaves in recent decades, Pandya’s firm Footprints E.A.R.T.H., uses careful orientation and overhanging roofs and walls to shade its buildings from heat, and central courtyards for ventilation.

“We are course-correcting now,” says Bangalore-based architect Chitra Vishwanath, who built her own home and hundreds of other buildings using earth. While large universities train students in building according to climate, non-profits, artisanal and small-scale construction companies offer workshops. “Younger architects who are graduating today are extremely sensitive to climate,” Vishwanath adds. “I would say in another 5, 10 years westernized style buildings won’t be built so much.”

Vishwanath states that the adoption of climate sensitive architecture will greatly decrease energy required to cool buildings. This could prove to be of great importance for India over the next few years. While only around 8% of Indians had air conditioning in their homes in 2018, as more people enter the middle class and can afford to buy their first unit, that figure is expected to climb to 40% by 2038, according to the government’s 2019 National Cooling Plan. Health experts say AC can no longer be considered a “luxury” in India’s increasingly brutal climate, and that expanding use for low-income households is essential to both saving lives and supporting India’s economic development. But it will come at a high cost in terms of India’s greenhouse gas emissions—unless cleaner cooling technologies can be developed and rolled out rapidly.

Increasing the use of traditional materials in India’s sprawling construction sector would also make a dent in the country’s emissions. Vernacular architecture is more likely to use natural and locally-sourced materials such as earth and timber than concrete or steel. These are made through complex industrial processes, and then transported thousands of kilometers away. Indian researchers publish a paper for 2020 in the International Journal of ArchitectureIt was found that vernacular materials produced between 0.11 and 18 MJ of energy/kilo. Modern materials, however, require from 2.6 MJ up to 360MJ per kg.

It wouldn’t be feasible to replace all the modern materials used in India’s buildings with vernacular counterparts. Though technological advances are making it possible to build larger, multi-storey buildings with earth, it wouldn’t work in a skyscraper. People don’t have the luxury of traditional features such as sloping roofs or detailed window shades when designing their new homes. What’s more, it can be very difficult for cities to have verandas/courts because of the cost of land.

Given those challenges, Kuriakose says the future of Indian architecture won’t be simply reverting to how things were fifty years ago, before his grandfather installed their concrete roof. It is important to harness the local-rooted problems solving techniques of old architects in order to move forward. For example, his firm has developed traditional sloped roofs that allow for water runoff in monsoon season and heat absorption. Concrete is also used to reduce costs. “We are trying to use the knowledge system which has been passed on from generation to generation over the centuries,” he says. “Not to blindly follow how villagers used to do things.”

Pandya (the Ahmedabad architect) puts it differently. “Sustainability is not a formula—what works in Europe might not work here,” he says. “Like a doctor, you have to understand the patient, the symptoms, the conditions—before you arrive at the cure.“

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