‘Sustainable buildings are needed as much for the industry as for society’

Renowned architect Benny Kuriakose speaks to Housing News, on the need to adopt sustainable building practices and the lessons that we can learn from traditional Indian architecture

Dr Benny Kuriakose is a versatile architect, known for his cost-effective and sustainable architecture. Kuriakose has also been involved in rehabilitation projects at disaster affected sites, such as Nagapattinam, Bhuj and Latur, and conservation projects including Paliam Palace, Paravur Synagogue, Kottappuram Fort and Kottappuram Market (Kerala) and Gables Bungalow in Coonoor.

“It is high time we design buildings in a sustainable way,” maintains the Chennai-based architect, who holds a master’s in conservation studies from York University and a doctorate from IIT Madras.

“Although the present generation may not be affected much by global warming, the future generations are going to suffer. Buildings have to be sustainable, not only from an ecological and economical perspective, but also from a social point of view,” he says.

Kuriakose started his career with the legendary architect Laurie Baker. “It changed my life. Baker practiced sustainable architecture 50 years ago. He shared his knowledge without hesitation. He had no office; the site was the learning place,” recalls Kuriakose, adding that the relevance of Baker’s concepts have increased manifold. “Today, we design buildings with glass façades that lets the heat in. Then, we use air-conditioners to cool the interiors. Baker showed that there was an alternate way of designing and building. He gave respectability to craftsmen and showed us Indians what is Indian in our architecture,” Kuriakose points out.

See also: Bamboo is the new steel


What is sustainable architecture?

According to Kuriakose, sustainable architecture depends on physical factors such as climate, land, local building materials and social and cultural factors.

“It is impossible to design a building now which is 100% sustainable. Nevertheless, we should try to minimise the use of energy-intensive building materials, such as cement. Any use of cement is irreversible and even walls built with it cannot be recycled. On the other hand, walls built with lime can be recycled.

“Similarly, timber is a reusable building material and so, one can increase its use. Moreover, growing more timber will reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and by using it in construction, one can lock the carbon in the building,” he explains.


The right approach to housing

Housing is a complex social problem, which has many cultural, economic, technical and political dimensions and this manifests itself, especially during the post-disaster rehabilitation efforts, he points out.

“The common mistake, while building disaster-resistant housing projects, is that housing is examined simply as a design or a structure, rather than as an end- product of a complicated process. In post-disaster rehabilitation projects, the house owners mostly do not have a say in the reconstruction,” Kuriakose laments. However, in the Tarangambadi reconstruction project, a novel approach was adopted, where the home owners were involved in the design and construction and it mattered a lot to them, emotionally, he elaborates.

Kuriakose is presently involved in the conservation of the Kalakshetra Theatre in Chennai and the Muziris Heritage Project (MHP) in Kerala. The MHP encompasses a vast area around the ancient port of Muziris, including historically important monuments like India’s first mosque, the first Christian church and the oldest surviving European monument in India.

He has also authored books such as ‘Conserving of Timber Structures in India’ and ‘Post Tsunami Reconstruction: Manual for Supervisors and Project Staff’.

Heritage structures are being lost at a very fast rate and its conservation assumes paramount importance, he says. “One must avoid unnecessary demolition. Conserving our built heritage and putting them to new uses, should be seen as a positive aspect,” concludes Kuriakose.


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