WAF Newsletter - Building resilient communities - June 2021

Building resilient communities

Manit Rastogi, Co-founder, Morphogenesis, 22 June 2021

Recent decades have seen multiple adverse conditions in India. However, the unique situation of the COVID 19 pandemic has brought to light numerous gaps in our country's infrastructure, writes Manit Rastogi.

Cities all over India experienced a failure of their ecosystems, and due to the lockdowns, we witnessed the largest post-partition migration of an estimated 139 million migrant workers. Most of these workers moved from rural areas to factories or constructed buildings in the urban metropolis before the pandemic.

India's primary reason for high internal migration has been the country’s prominent green belt, from which most workers hail. However, our buildings are not built in agricultural-driven communities but in metros and cities. This results in the mass influx of migrant workers who often reside and work in dismal conditions in the city and have no (or minimal) savings, leaving them with no 'buffer' to deal with the 'uncertainties' brought on by the pandemic.

At Morphogenesis, we tried to understand how to employ these local communities in their home towns to cut back on migration and contribute to the sustainable growth of these communities. A great exemplar of this is The Pearl Academy, Jaipur. Completed in 2009, the methods used for its construction defined our practice from that point onwards. We worked with local artists and craftsmen to best apply our copyrighted philosophy of S.O.U. L© (Sustainable, Optimised, Unique, Liveable) at the price point that was required.

The architecture of Pearl Academy is a confluence of modern adaptations of traditional Indo-Islamic architectural elements and passive-cooling strategies commonly used in Rajasthan's desert climate, such as self-shading courtyards, bodies of water, baolis (stepwells) and jaalis (fretted or perforated screens, typically made of stone) to negotiate the significant difference between internal and external temperatures.

The underbelly, derived from a traditional baoli, employs earth sheltering, thermal banking and evaporative cooling to modulate surrounding temperatures even when outside temperatures are up to 20ºC higher. Traditionally low-cost inspired methods of roof insulation were used to cut down heat absorption. Inverted matkas (earthen pots) were laid across the surface, the space between filled with sand and broken bricks and then cast over with a thin, binding layer of concrete. The making of these matkas used local potter communities. In all, 120 potters and jaali-makers were given employment on this site for a year. This led us to work on various other projects that would engage the local communities and make them an intrinsic part of our design process.

One of our recently completed projects is The Lodsi Community project for Forest Essentials. This project is nestled in the Himalayan foothills, uphill from the banks of the river Ganges near Rishikesh. The project is a manufacturing facility for holistic products that focus on reviving the ancient science of Ayurveda. The brand's philosophy of infusing ancient wisdom with contemporary aesthetics became a 'mantra' for creating a net-zero building through an integrated design approach, resulting in a self-reliant and an off-grid sustainable production unit.

This project is in an area that is comparatively barren in infrastructure and lacks basic amenities such as energy, water, roads, etc. This results in most of the people of this community migrating to urban cities. The clients for this project wanted to build a factory where the people who grow these plants, ie the local communities, can work in a 'walk to work' environment. Faced with the challenges of no amenities and a lack of skilled labour, we tried to design a workplace for the community where the workers would not have to walk kilometres across aggressive slopes to reach their workplaces. The site is located in the center of the living area of 800 people scattered along the hillside. We worked with these local communities to create a building that they could build using locally sourced materials and techniques.

As a result, they now walk to work and are spared dislocation and ‘catastrophic reverse migration’. The built form draws inspiration from its socio-cultural context of the traditional Garwahli 'kholi' (house). A rectilinear volume-oriented along the East-West axis was planned with a central entrance that divides the facility into two parts. Functions requiring a cooler environment such as herb-grinding, packaging, and storage are located on the upper floor, while functions with high internal heat-gain are located below. The North-South oriented butterfly roof form allows large openable windows taking advantage of the prevailing North-east and South-east winds for ventilation, with 80% naturally daylit spaces and unobstructed views of the valley. The high-volume of space with clerestory windows enforces Bernoulli's principle and helps moderate indoor temperatures. Glass blocks cover the courtyard inspired from the 'kholi' to meet production standards and provide a well-lit central communal space.

Passive design and indigenous construction techniques give a strong architectural expression to the building resulting in an efficient building envelope with an EPI of 38kWh/m2/yr. A solar roof, generating 56kWp offsets the facility's requirements and supplies excess to the grid A site-specific rainwater collection tank and an effluent treatment plant meet the water requirements. Leftover and waste materials at the site have been repurposed and used throughout. All by-products are either reused or used for composting. These parameters results in a building that is net-zero on energy, water, and waste. The existing 'gaushala' (for animal husbandry and production of milk-based products) was incorporated in the planning and augmented with a community gathering space.

This project employs 65 workers, which directly or indirectly supports 75% of the village households. The provision of large aangans (gathering spaces) promotes the region's culture, which is that of a close-knit community. The use of local materials, techniques and labour forms the ethos of the facility, making it a project for the locals, built by the locals and for the employment of the locals. This holistic, interdisciplinary approach aims to set a new benchmark for a decentralised community with a global footprint.

Another ongoing project is the ITC Campus, a project located in Rajarhat, an emerging suburb of Kolkata, which is being developed to handle high-density pressures. The campus is spread across 17 acres and has a mixed land-use brief with IT and commercial offices, hotel, convention centre and residential towers. Being conscious of the tradition of cultural pride and the philosophical inclination of the people of the region, Morphogenesis aimed to create an identity for the entire project where buildings become the physical manifestation of the region's rich artistic and artisanal culture.

However, the pressing question was how to bring together and mobilise this great community of artisans who are usually only active during a short period of the year. This would be around the time of Durga puja (an annual Hindu festival in West Bengal which reveres and pays homage to the Hindu goddess, Durga). Apart from that, this is a dying community, causing members to migrate to other parts of the country to work on construction sites and so on. So we began to ponder how to incorporate these artists and ideas to bring arts and crafts into architecture to celebrate their culture, display the beauty of handmade craft, and revive the dying communities that drive these ideas.

The urban frontage of the tall, soaring stone facades on the east and the west have vertical canvasses that are in the form of intricately carved murals, showcasing art and craft in the Bengal School tradition. The exquisite Bengali script and Tagore's writings on the environment inspire the crafted stone façade of the lower scale convention centre in the foreground. The urban space is used as a place-making tool to host and celebrate the Bengali socio-cultural ethos of discourse, deliberation, and communal festivity. Taking inspiration from the pandals (temporary pavilions), public spaces are scattered along the entire central spine to work as open-air museums, with sculpture and art installations adding to the sense of place.

In this project, Morphogenesis has involved an extensive crafts community and emerging artists from the Bengal tradition, from conception to final detailing, bringing back craft to the public realm. These projects have created micro-ecosystems geographically located closer to the communities. The objective was to generate employment – and to enable these communities to participate in our necessary nation-building exercise.

Manit Rastogi is the Founder and managing partner of Morphogenesis in India and will be a judge at WAF this year in December.

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