Designing for Noise

designing for noiseAs Queen’s 1980s song, Radio Ga Ga, laments, “we hardly need to use our ears“.  Actually, we abuse our ears or, at the very least, ignore the abuse that others heap upon them.

Unfortunately, while we are easily able to close our eyes, nature hasn’t equipped us with lids to effectively shut our ears.

But what does architecture and design have to do with all this?

Usually, unless an architect is designing something with an overt acoustic requirement like, say, an auditorium or a recording studio, only visual aesthetics are considered.  However, as Julian Treasure points out in this TED talk, the auditory aspect is more crucial than we realise.

He illustrates just how detrimental the effects of noise can be, not only in special environments like hospitals or schools, but in homes and offices as well.  For myself–even though I’m quite aware of the debilitating effects of loud noise–the talk was quite an eye-opener.

See the video on TED | Why architects need to use their ears

ShKo Bungalow at Karjat

The design for the ShKo bungalow at Karjat has finally been completed. It’s taken a lot longer than most because, apart from the complex slope, there was a severe constraint of building within a small portion of the entire one acre plot — the rest is prone to occasional flooding from the adjoining river.

Like other architectural designs, this too makes maximum use of local materials and of passive cooling.  External stone walls are at least 24″ (60cm) thick and provide a formidable barrier to heat-gain even in a place like Karjat.  Deep verandahs on the South and West don’t allow direct egress of strong sunlight from mid-mornings till evening. And high roofs with openings at upper levels allow constant ventilation to take place.

Rainwater harvested from the roof will be collected in the basement that is automatically formed by the sloping land. It will also be used to flood the pool which will not, hopefully, have any chemicals used to disinfect it. The current plan is to do natural filtration but the eventual system will depend on getting a reliable and qualified consultant to carry this out.

Some Renderings

Comparing LED & CFL Fittings

For the MChi interior site in Bombay (Mumbai), I found some really nice LED light fittings but they are more than three times the cost of identical CFL fittings. Now we all know that LEDs consume very little electricity  and they have an extremely long life but I wanted hard numbers to convince my clients – after all, they are the ones paying for everything.

It didn’t take long… At the light shop, it was pretty obvious that the 18W LED fitting threw as much light as an identical one housing 36W of CFLs.  Frankly I was a little surprised by the 1:2 power consumption ratio because I always assumed it was more like 2:3. However, LED technology is making such rapid strides that yesterday’s facts are already redundant. Putting all the costs into a spreadsheet immediately produced a very compelling argument in favour of the former.

An Example of Total Cost of Ownership – LED v/s CFL

While the life of an LED bulb is in the region of 50,000 hours, the calculation over such a long period (while in favour of LEDs) is rather unfair because even at 5 hours per day, that means 27 years.  Instead, I’m working with 30,000 hours which represents a more realistic 16 years.

Even accounting for the fact that the LED driver (an electronic device that regulates the power that LEDs receive) doesn’t have a 50,000 hour life, the calculation still showed a huge saving.

The calculations here are not likely to remain valid for long because the cost of power is sure to rise even further and that of LEDs can only go downwards.

Blocked in China – Not

Not blocked in China

Not blocked in China. And won't be unless they decide to have something against sustainability.

Reading an article on censorship in China, I came across a website that tests if any site is blocked in the land of the dragon.  Google, Twitter and a whole host of other popular sites that we take for granted are inaccessible to the average Chinese citizen who might not know how to use proxy servers.

Just for fun, I tried and, not unexpectedly, got the all-clear.  The server tests whether a website is accessible in five different regions and I wonder if there are any sites that are blocked selectively.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
– Voltaire

Meanwhile, our telecom minister has said that India won’t ever block social media while also saying that companies like Google or Facebook have to remove offensive content or be liable for prosecution.  That’s tough. A halfway house is never easy to implement.  I completely support the removal of universally unacceptable things like child pornography but most content companies do that in any case so what our government is talking about is the usual “hurting religious sentiment”.  Our people have become notoriously thin-skinned over the last couple of decades and we really need to re-learn how to laugh at ourselves.

ShKo Bungalow at Karjat

Survey plan for the ShKo property

Survey plan for the ShKo property

Last week ended with a site visit to Nasrapur, Karjat. This is the fourth design in the same general location after the [RaBV], [BAli] and [LGEs] bungalows so I’m extremely familiar with the area and climate.  Part of this particular one-acre plot is prone to flooding during the monsoon, and the only portion that is safely outside the flood zone (even considering the massive downpour of 26th July 2005) is on a mound near the road.  On this rise stands the ruin of an old shed which I had seen earlier but was unable to explore properly because, until recently, it was overgrown with Mucuna pruriens — locally known as khaj khujri. This climbing shrub causes extreme itching on contact with young foliage or seed pods and I wasn’t about to take my chances.

View from the river side towards the mound where we will build

View from the river side towards the mound where we will build the ShKo Bungalow

Unlike other plots in this cooperative society, this particular site doesn’t have too many mango trees — mostly due to the flooding aspect. We intend to plant native trees such as Millettia pinnata or karanj which thrive in such conditions.

I am really looking forward to starting the design. Conceptually, I’m looking at a string of structures — some of them without walls — forming a sort of “C” shape around a water body.  The river, unfortunately, is too far away and not visible from the mound.  The mountains of Matheran and the Garbat plateau, though, give a splendid view to the West.

High-Rises and Sustainability

SkyscrapersReading an article in Architecture Week about the impact that urban towers have on the natural environment, got me sitting on one of my pet hobby-horses.

I have never been convinced by arguments that high-rises are better and more sustainable than low-to-medium height buildings. I suppose some people get a kick out of defying gravity by erecting very tall structures but that, to my mind, is pure hubris.  Even if we dismiss the recently publicised link between the building of skyscrapers and a bubble economy, I still say it doesn’t make sense — purely from the sustainability point of view.

It may sound anachronistic but the fact remains that living high above the ground makes you lose touch with it.

One of the favourite arguments by proponents of tall buildings is, that they free up open space by reducing the physical footprint of built-up areas  However, at least in the Indian urban context, this is a fantasy that all but the most delusional will reject. In Bombay (Mumbai) where I live and work, every single patch of land is covered to the maximum. What little is left open–because it is mandatory–soon gets swallowed up by parking.  There may be a token play area, swimming pool or jogging track, but blank expanses of unpaved space where children can play freely, are conspicuous by their absence.

The second argument in the urban context is: as land is scarce and expensive, having high-rises propels affordable housing. Bunkum! You don’t need to look beyond Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong to realise that cities with the most high-rises also have the most expensive property in the world.

The other favourite argument of the tall-buildings-are-good school of thought is that they reduce energy usage in comparison to low-rise sprawl. Unfortunately, data shows that the opposite is the case..While the energy cost of transportation will certainly be higher if people live in far-flung areas, the overall energy footprint of a high-rise dweller is far greater.

Tall buildings–especially those that have large parts clad in glass–need much greater cooling in a tropical climate like ours.

Why is this?

High-rises have a huge amount of embodied energy in their construction and materials. Adding to that, the energy cost for “lifting” people and water against gravity is constant and very high.  This more than compensates for the additional carbon footprint that a suburban dweller uses — especially if the suburban dweller is able to rely on public transport for the daily commute. Ninety five percent of this city’s citizens do exactly that.

And what about quality of life? Given a choice, families–especially those with young children–would invariably prefer a place where the young ones can grow up with enough place to play. But that is altogether another story.

Further Reading:


SVAGRIHA – a simplified version of the GRIHA Green Rating System

They’re calling it “Small, Versatile, Affordable” GRIHA – a less complicated green rating system for projects less than 2500 sqm. in area.   Quoting from the email they sent me:

ADaRSH (Association for Development & Research of Sustainable Habitats) is pleased to announce the launch of

Small Versatile Affordable Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment

A Rating system for small homes, offices and commercial buildings with built-up area less than 2500sqm

SVAGRIHA is a significantly simplified, faster, easier and more affordable rating system and will eventually function as a design-cum-rating tool. It was required that attention be paid to smaller buildings in India which although have small individual environmental footprints but their cumulative effect is far bigger. SVAGRIHA has been designed as an extension of GRIHA and has been specifically developed for projects with built-up area less than 2500sqm. SVAGRIHA can help in design and evaluation of individual residences, small offices and commercial buildings. The rating comprises of only 14 criteria (instead of 34 of GRIHA) and the interface comprises of simplified calculators. These calculators can be filled using information from construction drawings like areas and quantities of materials. This can be done easily by the architect of the project. Once completed, the tool will tell the consultant the number of points that they are able to achieve in that particular criterion and provide recommendations for any improvements in order to improve the environmental performance of the building.

Process of SVAGRIHA Rating

  • Registration of project with ADaRSH
  • Submission of completed calculators, drawings and other documents as required (quantity estimates) to ADaRSH
  • Assessment/Review as per SVAGRIHA
  • Site Visit and due diligence check post construction (mandatory)
  • Evaluation by GRIHA certified Evaluator
  • Award of Rating.

Note: The site audit to check compliance will be done once the project is complete and all equipment to be verified are installed.

For more information please visit

GRIHA is the national green rating system for India developed by TERI and the Indian Government. I’ve always felt that GRIHA is far more suitable for us than (the more popular & better known) LEED rating system.

SVAGRIHA has just 14 criteria compared to GRIHA’s 34 and can act as a good checklist at the design stage.

SVAGRIHA CriteriaSVAGRIHA point groupsLooking at the point groups, I’m happy to note the weight given to Energy and Water conservation. At the same time, to achieve a rating, the design must achieve minimum standards in all categories. So while they say that 25 our of 50 points will give you a one star rating, adding up all the minimums means you actually need at least 28 points.  And finally, the table below shows the star rating that can be achieved.


Trees, Landscaping and Microclimate

A bunch of new pages have been added to the sustainability section of this site and deal mainly with landscaping, appropriate plantation and how to create a garden to attract birds and butterflies.

Many people seem to want to disconnect their property from the surroundings but it should be the job of the architect and the landscape designer (if there is one) to ensure that a project is a part of the environment in which it resides because a building’s footprint extends beyond the area that it covers – it includes the impact on the surrounding land and on the earth’s resources as a whole.

Kaya Kalp Project – Early Example of Green Design

Satellite picture of Kaya Kalp

Satellite picture of Kaya Kalp

This project, completed in the mid 1990s, is an early example of green design in India – long before the term became popular with most Indians.  It was built using mostly local materials and at extremely low cost but there was no compromise on quality, comfort or aesthetics.

While it was designed as a training centre for handloom weavers, the flexible design allowed it to be used temporarily as a school as well as a community centre.

I have not been to Maheshwar in years and have no recent photographs but I know that the trees have grown well because they are very clearly visible in satellite pictures.