ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40

Building on straw, mud and mangoes!

Architects meet to discuss innovative ways to create sustainable cities by drawing inspiration from traditional materials

By Smriti Daniel

If there is a time to look to the future, it is now. Global warming and the resulting devastating climate patterns have become an undisputed fact; toxins have soaked into our soil and contaminated our rivers, our air is quickly becoming overwhelmingly unhealthy, and key ecosystems are being destroyed faster than ever to make room for more concrete and metal. At the heart of this are the cities, with their constant demands for more houses, more cars, more water, more everything. Everywhere cities are bursting into growth, and in this surge the potential for their collapse seems innate. It is more than evident that we cannot go on as before.

Ashley de Vos

In recognition of this reality, the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (SLIA) chose to use their National Conference on Architecture (February 22-23) as a forum to explore Sustainable Design Futures. The role of the architect in creating “sustainable cities,” new approaches to design and innovative materials all came under the scrutiny of the conference as architects from all over the world came together to share their knowledge and discuss their options.

“Lifestyle development has to be sustainable and environment friendly, and is of critical importance and urgent as well,” stated Rukshan Widyalankara, President of the SLIA, going on to add that the design community had a large part to play in arresting the progress of environmental deterioration.

While the idea of sustainability is really nothing new, the word itself is, explained Chandana Edirisuriya, Chairman of the Conference Committee and Vice President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects. Looking back, he revealed that “ancient societies organized their lifestyles in such a way that the habitat so created replenished the resources of the earth in a cyclical process.” The situation has changed beyond recognition today, with ever growing demands for housing taking little or no notice of the need to preserve the environment.

Arosh Gamage

The conference kicked off with a session on “The Role of Architects in Creating Sustainable Cities,” which discussed the importance of dealing with the challenges presented by sustainability at the city level. The architects of the “Urban Era,” would have both the opportunity and the obligation to emerge as leaders of their communities – playing a key role in preparing cities for the future.

Environmental considerations have frequently and unfortunately, had to take the back seat to economical considerations. Very few, beginning with the world’s superpowers, have been willing to give humanity’s future wellbeing first priority at risk of losing out in the short term.

The question has always been, can we achieve sustainable development without sacrificing the global economy? Addressing the issue, Deshamanya Vidyajyothi Ashley de Vos explored the idea that “‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’” was what we needed to achieve.

Nature itself offers us many lessons on how we can approach design more effectively, revealed Arosh Gamage. As a part of “Nature Studies” – theory subject in Year One for students of design and architecture at the University of Moratuwa, she has her students study nature. Asking the question, can nature be a metaphor for sustainable design, she drew attention to the way nature’s designs always serve a specific purpose - from the “danger colours” of certain butterflies’ wings to the size of leaves in different parts of the island.

Taking the idea a step further were architects Dr. Sootorn Boonyatikarn and Dr. Vorsun Buranakarn who say they were inspired by the mango tree, which not only utilizes natural energy sources such as the sun, rain and soil to grow, but also provides mangoes for us at the end. The result is the “Bio-Solar Home” which produces its own water, biogas and electricity. “It is totally able to survive without connecting to the city infrastructure and is truly sustainable,” reveal the proud architects, adding that it is the first house in Thailand to make money selling electricity to the grid.

The Bio-solar home – providing its own water, biogas and electricity

Part of the secret may lie in looking at traditional materials, such as mud for building, explained Dr. Ranjith Dayaratne. “Earth architecture,” as it is known, has evolved until it can now compete successfully with other modern technologies. Another option is modular, energy sustainable, prefabricated housing revealed Dr. Judith Trimble. Such structures are gaining credence in Australia and offer many people the opportunity to live in houses that are energy efficient, built with minimal waste and pollution, and have the additional advantage of being easy to extend or even demount for re-use.

Yet another option is building with straw stated Ariyadhammika Wijeratne and Piyal Ganepola, adding that Straw Bale technology seems ideally suited to Sri Lanka. Continuing to look at design and architecture in the Sri Lankan context, Vijitha Basnayake and Dilmini Dissanayake emphasised the importance of key themes in any given project that included material reuse and flexibility of spaces and evolving planning. Predictably, when basic design is faulty, more than the aesthetics of a building suffer. Buildings are becomingly increasingly ‘sick’ according to Dr. Indrika Rajapaksha, thanks in part to poor indoor air quality and bad ventilation systems. Such sick buildings adversely impact the comfort and productivity of those within.

Building with straw:Ideally suited to Sri Lanka

How do architects approach the challenge? Imagination can be used to understand “the true nature of the problem” and “to create a unique solution with a unique character,” believes Sunil Gunewardena. Stating that “the new century will be marked by several dramatic changes that will leave their effect on knowledge, science and the arts,” Dr. Susantha Gunethilake posed the possibility of sustainable Sri Lankan architecture as a socio-cultural product held with the larger shift underway from Eurocentric moorings to a strong Asia base.

Girish Doshi wound up the conference by exploring the changing language of architecture, which made architecture “joyful, exhilarating, complex and often created in the midst of chaos,” while also requiring that every design boast “a sense of order and overlaying of idea and a capacity for its element to be read in multiple ways.”

In the end, the conference brought home the realisation that this generation has the power to shape how the future unfolds – though it will be far from easy. While many of the effects of our rape of the planet are irreversible, there is still much that can and has to be saved – and it is this awareness that must find roots in the cities which lie at the heart of the Urban Era.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.