CHENNAI: On a balmy afternoon, 70-year-old Maragadham, seated in the thinnai of he r Ve l a che r y house, picks a candy pink-coloured palm leaf visiri and fans herself. A few minutes later, she walks into her house — a traditional structure replete with design elements from the yore. She settles on her wooden recliner in the hall and heaves a sigh of relief. “Thank god for this roof,” she says, pointing to the ceiling with a line of timber rafters, painted in powder-blue colour, mounted on the wall in intervals.
“What you see is just one layer. This kind of flat roofing has multiple layers. It ensures that heat doesn’t permeate down. There is easily a three to four-degree difference in the temperature outside and inside this room. I hardly turn the fan on. My father supervised the construction of this house, which earlier had a thatched roof and mud walls. When he wanted to upgrade it in the 30s-40s, he opted for the Madras roofing technique, a sustainable style perfected by the British.
It dominated the landscape during the colonial era,” recounts the retired bank official. Maragadham’s house is perhaps the only structure in the lane which has retained its old-world charm over the decades. “Now, most buildings have been replaced by steel and cement and people aren’t able to live without ACs. When some of the modern buildings in the street face a leak in the ceiling, my house faces no such issues. Even if it does, it’s easy to repair it, provided we find the right people for it.
Such is the nature of this roof,” she shares, as she continues to soak in the pleasant temperature, under the wooden span rooftop. Be it the cool, shiny red oxide flooring, the humble oonjal or the thinnai, every traditional de s ign e l ement wi th a funct ional proper ty and environment-friendly materials have been witnessing a slow revival. The Madras terrace technique, which once spread across south India, too is finding takers, report heritage enthusiasts, architects and artisans, who have been on a journey to integrate sustainability nature-friendly alternatives in the design and create awareness about it.
While the exact timeline of the Madras roof method’s inception is unknown, Asmitha Athreya of Madras Inherited suggests that it was a common feature from the late 1800s until the late 1900s, dominating the landscape for nearly a century. “Even houses that adapted the art deco style used to have a Madras terrace roof. Since the technique works in different layers, there is insulation and it filters the hot air and keeps the temperature cool. This kind of roofing is not something we saw not only in private spaces, but were also integrated into public buildings,” explains the heritage activist and conservationist, pointing to structures like the Shaw Wallace Building in George Town.
More recently, the terrace technique garnered attention during the restoration of Humayun Mahal, wherein the Madras terrace roof of the structure too was reconstructed and restored. The technique, which uses aachikaal/mukka chengal, lime plaster, brick jelly, lime, a concoction of kadukka and jaggery, among others, is known for being time and labour-intensive. However, in the longterm, the permanent roofing method eliminates the need for periodic renovation, notes Aiyanar, a senior artisan from Katral Koodam, who has been in the trade for over three decades. “Over the last few years, the number of people reaching out to me inquiring about the Madras roof technique has increased.
But, when they compare the price with cement roofs and find it expensive, they drop the idea. My only request to everyone is to understand the durability of these traditional roofs. There are buildings which are over 100 years old with the Madras terrace which have stood the test of time,” says the 50-year-old. Over the decades, he went on to learn the nuances of traditional architecture and has since then been a strong campaigner of natural-green buildings. “The methods that were used to build were sustainable and caused little to no damage to our surroundings.
While we talk about reusing and recycling now, it is something that was in practice even in our building methods. For instance, even after decades of being in use, the components of a Madras roof can be separated and used for other architectural purposes. Besides this, if the temperature is cooler inside, one can even save on electricity and the cost that they will incur,” he shares.
Rooting for sustainability
Kaliraj, another master artisan from Sankarankoil in Tenkasi concurs. “Enge oorle idhu dhan prabalam (This terrace is popular in my town). But, the takers for Madras roofing seem to be slowly catching up in the city too. So if someone is interested and asks us to work on it, my team and I travel from here and get it done. So far, we have worked in over 20 houses in either restoring or installing Madras roofs in places like Chennai , Karur , Guduvancheri and Seerkazhi.
While the other components in installing a Madras roof remain the same, clients, based on their preference and affordability choose different kinds of timbers for rafters. Some might opt for teak rafter while others might choose the ones from palmyra trees or neem trees. With awareness slowly increasing, we are hoping that more people choose such sustainable alternatives,” he shares. Krithiga and Aravind Manoharan, two architects who have been practising sustainability through construction believe that these methods need to be revived.
“Vernacular techniques for long have ensured that they don’t leave any harmful residues behind. Starting from the site planning, materials used, treatment of fresh and used water, the methods have been pollution-free. While there is a larger belief that the traditional artisans involved in the trade are dwindling, all one has to do is go to the roots and start exploring in the villages of Tamil Nadu. There are skilled artisans, who have been doing this for generations. Revival is a mindful process,” tells Krithiga. Aravind notes that sustainable architecture and the Madras roof terrace have come a full cycle.
“Like how our blood cells replace themselves after donation, sustainability too is restoring itself and is making a comeback. What we have to focus on is to create more awareness about it, identifying artisans, finding more tangible ways to understand material availability, focusing on not leaving any harmful residues and carbon footprint behind,” he elucidates. With replicas of traditional techniques now parading the market, architect Thirupurasundari Sevvel offers that artisan-based interventions have to become the need of the hour.
“Despite its popularity and geo-specific importance, several replicas of the Athangudi tiles have entered the market. This not only affects its authent ici ty but al so the livelihoods of traditional artisans who depend on it. Now, there are many installing just the timber rafters, replicating the Madras terrace roof, for aesthetic appeal, ripping it off its authenticity. We are at the crossroads of materials and techniques getting manipulated and the security of artisans are at stake. While creating awareness about the technique, this aspect too should be focused on,” she explains.
Recently, the technique garnered attention during the restoration of Humayun Mahal, wherein
the Madras terrace roof of the structure too was reconstructed and restored.