Build to battle the blaze

Architects from the city speak to CE about the need for infrastructural plans and changes to beat the heat
Build to battle the blaze

CHENNAI: Living in sweltering heat conditions in stacked buildings, particularly in a city like Chennai when most of us don’t have the luxury of an air-conditioner, can be tough. In this concrete jungle, comfort is often elusive, as stifling heat seeps in through every crevice. It’s a daily struggle, a battle against the climatic odds that leaves us yearning for respite. However, amid the relentless heat, there lies a pressing need for a shift towards sustainable architecture.

Climate-conscious construction

“Located along the coast, Chennai experiences abundant air movement from both land-to-sea and sea-to-land, these breezes are a daily occurrence and significantly influence the local weather patterns,” says architect Murali Murugan. He reflects on the past three decades when buildings were often designed to cater to societal preferences. He says, “People were in the mindset of the building to appease societal preferences. The spaces were meant to be designed for large families, where much preference or consideration wasn’t given to the secondary activities like children’s play area or their specific spaces, bedrooms would be small or non-functional, showing off big lawn or greenery areas in the front.”

In the past 20 years, along with the boom of IT sectors and other industries in the city, the architect comments that life in the city has been shifted mostly to apartment buildings or individual spaces. Concrete boxes heat up quite fast and thereby store heat, he adds.

Architect Benny Kuriakose emphasises that concrete alone isn’t the root cause of extreme heat inside the buildings. “It is not only the roof that transmits heat inside but also the walls. The brick walls or the glass walls can transfer heat. One of the major problems is the lack of cross-ventilation. Also, we have to prevent the direct sunlight from falling on the walls and the roof,” he explains.

Solutions for sustainability

Advocating for a fusion of traditional and modern architectural principles to enhance sustainability and practicality, architect Goutam Seetharaman says, “Some of these concepts (traditional) can easily be incorporated into design and building practices even today, but unfortunately, the end users and designers feel air-conditioning and false ceilings are easy solutions.”

To ensure comfort in hot climates, it’s crucial to keep the west and south walls shaded, either through tree cover or well-placed overhangs, notes Goutam. Explaining the design-wise changes that can be brought into buildings, he says, “Balconies and service areas can be strategically incorporated into the design, ensuring that usable spaces remain unaffected by the heat. Windows and openings on these sides should be optimised in proportion to the room size to prevent excessive heat infiltration. Proper cross ventilation is essential, facilitated by high ceilings and small gaps beneath the roof to allow hot air to escape. Utilising natural materials like exposed brick or laterite walls without plaster on the west and south sides can enhance thermal regulation, reducing heat absorption during the day and promoting radiation of stored heat at night.

Additionally, employing filler slab concrete roofs with hollow clay blocks can significantly decrease heat transfer from the terrace, contributing to a cooler indoor environment.” Benny and architect Pravarthika, advocate for green solutions. Benny says, “You can also paint the walls white. For buildings with a lot of floors, growing trees on the roof can help with the heat.” Making use of the local materials can also be a sustainable solution. Pravarthika shares, “In the southern part of the country, we have a lot of palm trees. It can be used in your building planning. Some plants require minimal maintenance, acting as natural curtains to block direct sunlight. These plants not only enhance indoor air quality but also promote circulation, ensuring a cooler environment. Additionally, utilising handwoven bamboo curtains or light-colored fabrics can effectively filter sunlight without blocking out natural light completely.”

Innovative Strategies

Delving into possibilities for existing structures, Murali highlights the methods to reduce heat:

  • Vettiveru thati/khus curtains are quite commonly used in hot and dry areas. They are made up of a natural vetiver grass roots that helps to absorb heat from the space. It also gives a natural fragrance and maintains the optimal temperature. Sprinkling water on it creates a cooling effect as the wind blows through it making it an alternative to AC/cooler.

  • Placing a deeksha/stambalam with water helps to absorb heat from the space as water has high specific heat capacity. Avoid placing a bucket/bulk amount of stagnant water as it may lead to a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

  • Old clothes can be made wet and hung on the window openings/balcony space like curtains. They provide a cooling effect.

  • Incorporate using terracotta jaalis/bamboo blinds with perforations to diffuse the direct heat and light entering in to the space.

Other options

  • Going for a grill door can act useful as it allows both passive ventilation and safety, during day time can be open allows air movement.

  • Consider proper placement of the electronics, position it near the openings or in space having ample cross ventilation so that the heat doesn’t pile up leading to increase in interior temperature.

  • Do not keep furniture crammed in a space as it traps heat in pocket spaces and increases the temperature. Go for a minimalistic interior furniture arrangement.

  • Jute bags/gunny bags can be spread on the terrace floor with water sprinkled on it, absorbs the heat and reduces the heat transfer in to the building from the roof.

  • Avoid unnecessary usage of lights/unplug the electronics when not in use as they emit quite a lot of heat into the space.

  • From optimising window sizes to incorporating green roofs and natural building materials, the architects mention that sustainable practices in buildings can provide even long-term solutions to cope up with the unpredictable weather in the city.

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