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Building blocks of change

Updated on: 10 July,2011 09:44 AM IST  | 
Yolande D'mello |

Architects from around the world are collaborating with their Indian counterparts to give back to the community while sticking to what they are good at. Moving walls, schools deep inside sand dunes and bamboo homes that come up in 20 days but last 20 years are just a few of their altruistic innovations, says Yolande D'mello

Building blocks of change

Architects from around the world are collaborating with their Indian counterparts to give back to the community while sticking to what they are good at. Moving walls, schools deep inside sand dunes and bamboo homes that come up in 20 days but last 20 years are just a few of their altruistic innovations, says Yolande D'mello

When a secondary school in Hyderabad wanted to add a few more classrooms, the management decided to consult 50,000 architects. The New Jiya Community School participated in the Open Architecture Network challenge, an online initiative by Architecture for Humanity, an organisation that brings together professionals from around the world. The network works on a simple principle ufffd pool expertise to help those who are otherwise unable to afford their services. It allows online conversation on design, construction and development services, while bringing about real-life changes in cities globally.

Robert Verrijt and Shefali Balwaniu00a0 of Architecture Brio. pic/Atul Kamble

Their webpage has an extended list of challenges, and a longer list of proposals to solve each of them. Every year, 25,000 individuals directly benefit from structures designed by Architecture for Humanity.

According to the World Bank, educating children worldwide will require the construction of 10 million new classrooms in more than 100 countries by 2015. But as Architects for Humanity reiterates ufffd it all begins with a bright idea. The Better Classroom Design challenge is their latest initiative.

Architects around the world, and in our own backyards, are contributing their skill, knowledge and imagination to reach out and do their good deed for the day, not by doling out cash but doing what they do best ufffd build.

Learning while climbing a platform
Architects: Shefali Balwani and Robert Verrijt, Mumbai

Magic Bus Centre for Learning at Karjat conducts activity-based learning
for children with a view to teach them about leadership and livelihood.

Shefali Balwani and Robert Verrijt have been spending a large part of their day in playgrounds. But it's not all fun and games. The Mumbai architect and her Dutch partner who started Architecture BRIO in 2006 are drawing up plans for an open-learning centre for Magic Bus, a not-for-profit organisation that works towards empowering underprivileged children through sport.

The company works with the Magic Bus Centre for Learning & Development in Karjat, at a 20-acre outdoor campus that plays host to their programme of learning using outdoor activity, to design a play area that will educate through sport.

Verrijt, who previously worked in Sri Lanka now works out of BRIO's Khar office.

On the Thursday morning we meet them, they are busy working on how to incorporate a Jacob's ladder and a jungle bridge in a plan that will connect the playground to the pavilion. "We wanted the design to have an open theme. So the structure cannot have closed rooms. We need open platforms that the kids can climb onto," says Verrijt.

Two timber decks will be connected with a jungle bridge and swings. These will become a part of the activities that include moving from point A to point B while dealing with physical hurdles along the way. In the discussion that follows, children are asked to identify real life difficulties that would arise while trying to get an education given their circumstances -- these would include family pressure to work, etc. The deck will be sheltered with a plexiglass roof. The brief given by Magic Bus stressed the need for a space that would reflect the play element, while allowing kids to explore their creativity.

A day at Magic Bus, that set up its Mumbai chapter nine years ago, starts off with setting goals for the kids. A song sets off a chain of activities that the kids partake in, going through a series of games, and winding up with a discussion with a mentor-volunteer.

u00a0"Our programme aims to teach children aged seven to 18 leadership and livelihood. It's activity-based learning that's different from conventional classroom studying," says Pratik Kumar, COO, who oversees the NGO's functioning in Maharashtra, New Delhi and Andhra Pradesh.

The deck will be sheltered with plexiglass. "We intentionally didn't create a building with walls like one would usually do for a school building. We looked at what was most critically required for the building," says Verrijt.

This way they avoided building walls and windows and yet build a structure that is ventilated naturally.

The project, funded by UK-based Laureus, a foundation that promotes learning through sport, will see completion next month. "The limited budget meant that we must come up with innovative ways to reduce cost without compromising on quality," explains Verrijt, adding, "We have a timber deck with a demountable steel structure supporting a roof of a high quality material which can last over 30 years. This way the NGO can save on maintenance costs."

Architecture Brio has also been nominated in 2009 for the Zumtobel Group Award for Sustainability and Humanity for their design for a staff dormitory that will follow the design of a cage built from bamboo, and will take shape in the coming months.

Obstacle course or building plan?
The learning pavillion that Architecture Brio built for children at Magic Bus, stands at the centre and can be used to hold workshops, organise games and group sessions. The Jacob's ladder and zip lines form part of the structure, incorporating an obstacle course into the building design.

Made from steel columns and plexiglass, the open structure allows easy wind flow, and an unrestricted view of the surroundings. The structure uses locally available granite.

Two decks form another activity zone connected to each other via a jungle bridge that the kids can clamber on to and cross. From the second deck, kayaks can be launched through a ramp into the river.

Moving walls Architect: Scott Gerald Shall, Philadelphia

Architecture professor at Temple University, Philadelphia, Scott Gerald Shall is the founder of International Design Clinic (IDC) that works with design students in partnerships with aid and humanitarian organisations.

One of its projects brought Shall to Mumbai in 2008 to work with Mumbai Mobile Cr ches, that educates children of migrant construction workers at building sites. With a team of design students, Shall's project was a response to the need for clean water and shelter while the kids sat for daily class. His team included Felipe Martinez of LA Community College, and Apurva Deshpande from DY Patil College, Navi Mumbai.

In the second week of their stay, the team noticed how the children were susceptible to an alarming range of illnesses brought on by airborne pollutants. "We expanded our research and discovered several indigenous plants that could remove contaminants from the air. As this line of inquiry progressed, our team delved into matters of construction, hypothesising that it might be possible to create a green wall that would help clean the air within its confines," says Shall over email.

To suit the work of the NGO that is required to hop from one construction site to another, the wall would have to be a portable one. Two parts of the wall included the exterior structure, and the infill that goes into the wall was variable. Once the building was built, and the school had to be moved to a fresh construction site, the workers could drain the earth from the wall.

"Though this was a hypothetical solution, the team assessed that it could be constructed using common plastic tarps, and various forms of earth and rubble through a system of construction that eliminated the need to purchase full blocks, and minimised the amount of waste typically created during construction," explains Shall.
IDC, through funding from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), teamed up with local labourers to build experimental versions of the wall.
The Trombe wall however remained a project that wasn't replicated once Shall's trip ended. Extensive notes for this simplistic design still keep the hope alive.

This tarpaulin sack on her head is actually a Rs 99 water filter
To help locals figure how the Rs 99 water filter works, the IDC created a pocket-sized graphic manual describing its construction process. To address the need for clean water, Shall and his team turned to the sun. Using a standard sweater bag, a reclaimed tarp and four grommets, the team proposed creating a bag for transporting water that could unfold and expose its contents to the sun rays. Their study revealed that six to eight hours of exposure to the sun could eliminate over 98 per cent of contaminants in the water. Testing was carried out, and only locally available materialsu00a0 were used to build it.

Grassroot movement
Architect: Vaibhav Kaley, Bengaluru

Vaibhav Kaley is sticking to what he's most familiar with ufffd bamboo. He has even named his four year-old architecture firm after it. His company Wonder Grass works exclusively with bamboo, using it as principal material. "While traditionally, bamboo was used for roofing, we also use it to build walls. My father has been my inspiration. He was known as Bamboo Man, since he worked closely with the material," says Kaley, who sources his bamboo from Nagpur.

Bamboo is seen as poor man's timber but Kaley isn't fighting to uplift its social status. "India is the largest producer of bamboo. It grows fast and widely across the subcontinent. Besides, it holds tremendous potential as a building material. India also has an acute housing shortage. Over 25 million people are homeless, and bamboo can help build affordable housing at low costs."

Kaley is currently working on a housing complex for factory workers of steel manufacturing firm, AB Rolling Mills Pvt. Ltd. at Vapi, an industrial area that lies three hours away from Mumbai. Each 350-square feet home is made with bamboo-mesh walls covered with plaster, and costs a modest Rs 1.25 lakh to build. Solar power, dry sanitation and water harvesting systems make each housing unit a green home. "We have started with 25 houses that the residents will test for a period of six months. Following this, we will continue to build the remaining 100 houses," says the architect who is working with builder Rohit Gada of Vikas Constructions on the project.

"Instead of steel, we use bamboo and cement to fortify the houses. Each house takes 20 days to complete, with eight people working on it. The skill required to build these structures is simple, with basic carpentry mixed with some innovation," explains Gada over the phone in between business meetings in China.

For the builder, bamboo housing is convenient since the material is easy to transport and assemble off site.

Kaley says he has received enquires from residents across villages in India, who are taking to the idea of low-cost green housing. "The life span of this bamboo house is 20 years. After that it will require basic maintenance, but you'd have to take care of a regular cement and brick structure too," he reasons.

Think global, act local
Architect: Sandeep Virmani, Kutch

When an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale rocked Bhuj district in Gujarat in January 2001, Sandeep Virmani was there to help get the residents back on their feet, and safe in their homes.

Three years later, when one of the worst tsunamis hit the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Virmani went on to mend broken homes.

Currently, he is in Indonesia, working on a building plan for 5,000 shelters that are being set up in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

After having graduated Virmani realised he wouldn't be happy building penthouses for the rich. He tried his hand at designing luxury homes flanked by tranquil pools but found himself discontented at the end of most projects.

"I always wanted to work in the social sector, and in 1989, when I trained under an Indo-German fellowship
programme that built homes for the marginalised in south Gujarat, my mind was made up," says the managing director of Hunnurshala, a Kutch-based NGO that works with communities to reconstruct homes struck down by natural calamities.

The initiative kicked off in 2001 after the earthquake in Bhuj, when professionals trained in various fields got together to help. It resulted in setting up a network of 150 like-minded do-gooders who continue to work towards water management, organic agriculture and preserving grassland ecosystems in addition to rebuilding destroyed homes using traditional techniques that locals are familiar with.

"Usually, after any calamity, the government gives huge contracts to builders to reconstruct homes but the quality of housing is never a consideration. What you get are cement boxes, nothing more."

Hunnurshala changed that. State governments now invite Virmani and his team of 50 architects, engineers and social workers to collaborate with local artisans, using traditional building techniques. "We help with technical guidelines but try to stick to local materials. So, in Bihar we use bamboo, in Gujarat, we made mud walls. In Kashmir, we used wood and stone."

The team first builds a demo home with the locals, finally handing over the remaining contract to artisans after they have been groomed at a 10-day training camp. "We tend to learn a lot from indigenous building methods. Equipped with a fresh skill, artisans are able to set up small construction businesses, while their families get a home," says Virmani. It's all in a day's work.

Building schools inside sand dunes
By: Cohesion Foundation
For: Children of migratory workers at Kutch salt pans

According to Cohesion Foundation, an NGO that works for the betterment of the salt pan-community that works along the coastline of the Rann of Kutch, more than 1,00,000 people work on the pans where sea or water from borewells is allowed to evaporate, leaving behind salt.

Salt production is labour intensive work, and workers are subject to a slew of occupational health hazards.

Infrastructure is poor, drinking water and electricity scarce, and defecation in the open, common. A saline environment, with strong winds and intense sun makes it difficult for vegetation to sustain.

Cohesion Foundation works with migrant communities that spend between eight and nine months at the pans before returning to their villages during the monsoon.

Due to seasonal migration involving entire families, children miss out on a regular schooling system.

Cohesion has been working with salt-pan workers of Kutch since 2001 to support the education of their children by setting up temporary schools, in most cases, a single room hut. The schools are affiliated with the government education system schools, which means their attendance is registered, making the children eligible to take government exams and receive official certificates.

Each salt pan school has a single teacher trained by Cohesion, and belonging to the local community.

Workers build their huts here by digging pits in the sand, measuring approximately 2.5m x 4m and 1.5m deep.

Above each pit, a tent is constructed, usually made from jute or tarpaulin, fortified by branches of the Prosopus Juliflora, a local plant. Available grass is strapped on top.

The excavated earth is piled around the pit to secure the tent, protecting it from winds.

Openings are kept to the northeast, facing away from wind direction. Cohesion looks to build their schools following the same principle, with technical enhancements to suit their needs.

One such need is temperature control. A classroom can accommodate up to 40 children and a cr che for younger children with a single teacher to watch over them. The building plan includes a double skin tensile roof made from traditional materials, which doubles up as a rainwater harvesting system during the monsoons, since the structure is inverted to work like a funnel.

Spatial organisation includes a central assembly or play area with four nooks to accommodate a cr che. Low dividing walls ensure that the teacher is easily able to observe all children without leaving the room. The flooring is lined with cattle dung.

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