By Vikas Menghwani:
I think it was four years ago that I met the operations manager of the building in Gurgaon I used to work in. Our office was on the 5th floor and as consultants in sustainability we were trying to study “energy efficiency in buildings”. I met him in his basement office and in my 15-minute conversation with him, I quickly got down to the question I always wanted to ask living in Gurgaon, “Why have we used so much of glass in this building?” Even though at some level my question was rhetorical, I was expecting a scientific rationale as a response. But I was surprised by his response. He admitted to the whole stupidity of it. “It does not matter to the builder,” he shrugged. “Anyway, the wealthy companies occupying the building have to pay for the air conditioning. So…”
A few months ago, when I had to choose a topic for my class assignment, I chose “use of glass in buildings”. At that time, all I had was motivation – stemming from my Gurgaon experience. I did a lot of research for the paper and realised that there are in fact global voices calling for an introspection in the way we design buildings.
Glass has been an amazing innovation as far as the engineering aspect of building design is concerned. But glass façades in buildings were originally designed in colder countries where it helped in heat entrapment. Its blind use in tropical climates in the last few decades could have one explanation, and that is – the control of building designs over time shifted to the builders, with the autonomy of architects being compromised. My findings were confirmed by a story in Outlook this June about architecture in India. For a city like Gurgaon, where constant power problems prompt diesel generators to run at full throttle, glass envelopes only mean unnecessarily higher power loads in hot summers and avoidable air pollution (due to the diesel). The designs do not just find their way through the international builder conglomerates. Look at the new CBI building for example. There was a story that during the July 2012 grid failure, they were literally melting inside as the glazed walls hardly had any windows.
The copy-cat approach to building design is in place in many developing countries. Even a place as hot as Dubai houses several glass-clad skyscrapers while having an established history of architecture suitable for a desert climate. Of course, globalisation and technological advancement have together contributed to decoupling local conditions and infrastructure design. New “similar” looking buildings can go from scratch to fully functional within a period of months. It is marvelous, but what have been the costs of this transformation? For one – avoidable cooling and power load – which is directly linked to the issue of global warming and climate change.
Glass-clad buildings also need higher maintenance with time. Another pressing issue is of architectural ingenuity. As Outlook also pointed out, except for the Lotus temple in Delhi, all iconic structures in India are of either Mughal or pre-independence period. I am not saying we should have our eye on producing memorable structures. Modern architecture, that originated almost 100 years ago, saluted science and technology and converted buildings into machines. But decades of run-of-the-mill designs should at least prompt us to pause and introspect. Because what we build is here to stay. It cannot be undone. It seems a little abstract to say that the built environment actually is a reflection of how we think collectively. But a closer look at the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of our buildings will show us that it is, in fact, true. When we keep debating over how we need to think differently, should our houses, our offices, our cities not reflect our changing thoughts?