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Touching the earth, lightly

Design

A student project, a two-occupant habitat design, was chosen for construction and finds itself a nook. Joshua Dawson, its designer, recounts his experience.

This was the first architectural design project for me. The brief was to design a habitat for two or more people at Bheemeshwari, about 100km south of Bengaluru. Ours was one of the four, out of 40, projects chosen for construction by the studio instructors.

The class was split into four groups of 10 students each to aid in the construction and funding. However, only two projects were exhibited at the MLR Convention Centre, Bengaluru, at the RV School of Architecture’s annual exhibition.

My inspiration came from architects such as Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and Glenn Murcutt. The idea of ‘touching the earth lightly’ merges the concept of sustainability with beauty.

We were working with three sites. The first one, which was for designing the habitat, was along the backwaters of the Kabini River at Bheemeshwari. The site for the construction stage was at the parking lot of Navarang theatre, while the site for displaying the structure was at the MLR Convention Centre.

The form of the structure was designed to complement the 200-odd species of birds at Bheemeshwari. The deck at the back, which is separated from the main structure by blinds, is supposed to overlook the Kabini River. The entire structure was raised on 2½ft high stilts to protect it from water when the river swells.

Everything we learnt about the material was either done by talking to professionals and people who make bamboo ladders, or by experience on site — as we had only a week to construct the entire structure and transport it for the exhibition.

Our construction and exhibition site were nearly 15km apart. We could not afford to be rigid with the construction. At the same time, we had to build a 18” x 15” and 12” high structure, which could easily be detached, transported and reassembled.

Splitting of bamboo requires no complex machinery. It can be done manually. We used three basic tools: a hammer, a long rectangular knife (to split the bamboo longitudinally) and a hacksaw. Splitting the bamboo meant we could cover more surface area, and we tried to do more with less material by splitting one bamboo of 5” diametre into four pieces.

We started with a grid for the floor. The junctions of the vertical and horizontal slats for the base had to be extremely secure.

We lacked the skills to execute the kind of bamboo joinery that we studied in books, so we adopted a different technique that was faster and easier for us. We first nailed the two bamboo members together to keep them in place.

But this alone would not help, especially for the base. The sheer force acting on it would displace the nail from its original position and this would cause a failure in the joint — so we had to increase the strength of the joint by using another material.

We substituted it with coconut fibre, and were amazed at the binding strength of the fibre. Coconut fibre dipped in water was used to bind the two members of bamboo using a special knot. When the water in the fibre evaporates, it shrinks – thus making the knot tighter and the joint thrice as strong.

We then lifted the grid and used a similar joint to secure it to the stilts. Since we were working on a shoestring budget, we could not afford to use plywood for the floor.

Instead, we obtained about 30 wooden crates that are used to transport cloth from a textile factory and dismantled them. The wood was just about enough to cover the area of the entire floor.

Instead of building a single wall, we used panels to facilitate easy transportation. Faced with a choice of placing the bamboo strips in the panels horizontally or vertically, we chose the former for two reasons: first, when mouldings or grooves are vertical in a structure, they tend to strike the viewer; while horizontal lines have a calming effect on the mind. This was something we learnt in art appreciation class. Second, more surface area of the walls is covered this way.

Although, structurally it would be unreasonable, as placing these strips horizontally would just make the panel heavier. This was especially true for the vertical tilt in the design. To support the heavy panels, we used eight thicker bamboo poles as columns to keep the panels in place. Again, the panels were merely tied to the columns with coconut fibre.

For the roof, we made a similar grid. It had to be strong to withstand heavy rain, but light enough to be supported by the bamboo.

Navarang theatre (the construction site) had many large movie posters made of tarpaulin cloth. After a movie has finished screening, the cloth goes to waste. Just like the wooden crates, we re-used these posters to make the ceiling impervious to water.

Thatch was used to cover the grid of the roof, and we sandwiched the tarpaulin cloth between the two layers of thatch.

We finished building the entire habitat a day before it was due to be displayed. The structure was dismantled early that morning, the base split into two halves, and it was transported by tempo to the exhibition site.

Being only in the second year now, I may not fully understand the terms ‘Green architecture’ and ‘Sustainable building’ yet, but I am pretty sure we managed to capture the essence of these words.

After my project was complete, my design teacher Anuradha Dinesha pointed out that the project and method of execution forms the perfect model for low-cost housing. The only initial investment that would be required is land and tools.

Bamboo can be grown on that land and then harvested for construction. Besides, bamboo is the fastest-growing plant and is known to grow about 60cm or more in a single day.

The structure now stands in the garden of the owner of Navarang theatre, Poornima Gowda, who agreed to pay the transportation cost if we rebuilt the structure at her residence.

I had read about Karan Grover in a magazine, when I was in grade 11. His achievements and contributions to the field of architecture stun me.

And he was the keynote speaker at the event! For me, the life-transforming moment came when he said that my structure had inspired him. When the world’s ‘Greenest’ architect makes a statement like that to a first-year student, it takes more than words to describe the feeling.

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May 2020
11 May 2020