A small village in Uganda is building a school using building and sustainability principles inspired by Gandhi and the architect, Laurie Baker.
Closer to home, Vinu’s team has designed a residence called ‘Chirath’, the Malayalam word for lamp – a name the client chose to signify a new way of looking at age old systems and beliefs. Typical of the work he does, Vinu has evolved the traditional Kerala home structure to facilitate modern needs and living. In addition to other improvements, while building traditionally, using waste and mud, the team split the traditional Kerala sloped roof so it retained its ability to keep the house cool, but flooded the home with natural light.
From five thousand kilometres away, a young Indian architect has surveyed the location, analysed the soil and told them how to get started without spending any of their scarce resources or taking a single flight. “Whatsapp isn’t just for sending memes,” Vinu Daniel says wryly.
Daniel is an award-winning architect whose intuition and passion for sustainable construction and upcyling innovation seems fortuitous given how climate change is already impacting the country and specifically, his home state of Kerala. “I don’t think the world has really acknowledged climate change,” he says, “especially the ones in power. The fact is, until the water stops we will not do anything. As long as there is a trickle… we will not change. My preparation is for an apocalyptic scenario.”
Choosing The Environment Over Status Symbols
It’s a scenario we’ve brought upon ourselves, the architect believes. One of Baker’s principles, ‘avoid opulence’, seems to have been leached from the traditional Indian value system in recent times. Daniel says, “Laurie Baker salvaged Kerala from the Gulf boom until the 90’s. He made sure there was a sensible way of building and in those days, one in five newly constructed houses was inspired by him. It became a sort of status symbol, to have a house whose walls remained un-plastered.”
Daniel grew up in the deserts of Abu Dhabi, holidayed every year in the deep tropics of Kerala and experienced the ignorance of and dissonance in cut-pasting the material aspirations of one environment onto a disparate other. “Baker assumed people would follow through on his principles even after he retired. But post 2000 other people rode the real estate boom. Architects began to blindly copy international detailing for status, for opulence. Every state suffered. When I started to work here, I saw this Arabic style development and thought, we are going to pay a heavy price.”
There’s no denying the evidence that a blind disregard of ecological realities is causing cities to drown around the country. However, can the path out of third world realities be paved with good intentions?
Can ecological building be sustained given our population density and the pressures of our urban environments? Aren’t mud constructions short-lived and hard to maintain? How does one source building materials from within a five km radius in Gurgaon? How do you build a storied eco-friendly building in land starved Mumbai?
There is a practiced patience with which Daniel dismantles each misassumption one by one. “Conventional concrete guys hide the fact that their buildings also require maintenance,” he begins, “We live in a tropical environment. My grandfather worked during the Laurie Baker era. He built a building according to his principles which still stands. Baker’s buildings, like the Loyola Chapel, have withstood the rigours of the tropics and of time. Yes, thatched roofs need maintenance. So do mud buildings but there are innovations now – like coatings on the walls – so that residents don’t find it a daily chore to keep their homes clean.”
When it comes to building material, Daniel is emphatic, “Debris is the raw material of the future. There is enough trash to build your home and it is much easier to find waste material in urban areas. Whether it is in Africa or here or anywhere – urban areas are similar – everyone looks for industrialised products and discards the most wonderful resources. The way forward is for us, scrap engineers, to go foraging through their discards.” He acquired international recognition for several ideas, not least the way he’s upycled washing machine base plates to create stunning grilles.
Changing The Perception Of Sustainable Living
The architect is currently building an 8-storey building in Ahmedabad, “It’s in an earthquake zone. We’re filling the inside with mud, making a debris wall. In the land of Gandhiji, I am fulfilling his principles.” As for creating low-cost, eco-friendly homes at the scale of a megapolis, Daniel says the solutions already exist, “Slums are the best example of homes built with the most cheaply available material. You take their knowledge, and with the luxury of time and thought process that my life affords me, I can be inspired, take their needs into consideration and create more thoughtful solutions.”
The real challenge, the seemingly insurmountable one remains the problem is perception, “They believe sustainable living won’t create status. You can’t consider building with mud to be a great thing.” A lesson in the true value of status came early to Vinu Daniel. “My father was a brilliant industrialist. He made a lot of money… out of plastic,” the architect snorts, “Yet the day after he died, I was a pauper. And it struck me that this, material success, doesn’t mean anything.”
The prejudices are inbuilt in society though, he says, “Everyone strives to live the high life. The government is a product of these mass delusions. There is something cruel and sadistic about this sort of (inequality) culture. The truth is, you cannot avoid the basic elements of a shared environment. You will put your foot in the same gutter water as the slum dweller. You will breathe the same industrial smoke no matter how many purifiers Hema Malini sells.”
“But Gandhi was born into this culture. So was Martin Luther King and many inspiring individuals,” he says, “And that’s why I believe architects who work with sustainable materials don’t need to be glorified. Our responsibility is to use materials in such a way that others are inspired to use them too. The wheel won’t stop unless we all make an effort en masse.”
Daniel’s work has garnered him a reputation abroad. The work he is doing in Uganda is because the Kwagala Foundation read about him in an African magazine and put him in touch with the little village. “They took me around the village via video and we identified a plot and other things. They lowered the camera into a pit and I told them to send me a sample of the soil three metres down. Once we get the permissions, I will finally go there and interact with the community and teach them how to build.”
Despite being celebrated internationally, his impact locally could be more dramatic but Daniel repeats a phrase in Malayalam which translates roughly as ‘the lily that grows in your own yard is never as lovely’. But he is optimistic, given the dire forecast. “We are poised towards destruction and maybe that is for the good. No wrong against Mother Earth will go unpunished. Before that, maybe we will find a way to work together, the masses and us and the government. And if that happens, we are en route…”
Vinu Daniel’s own interpretation of sustainable architecture can be seen in his design for Chirath residence, in central Kerala, which was completed in 2018. Scroll through the gallery below for details on his design: