Remember nanny's house that had huge walls, high ceilings, grand rooftops and enormous verandas that would keep you cool in summer and warm in winter. Experts say we need a redux of such strong and sturdy houses if we have to protect ourselves from floods and lightning strikes.
With climate change, floods, droughts and storms have become the new reality. They not only take lives but render people homeless and in utter poverty causing significant economic damage. India is the 14th most climate vulnerable nation in the world. The year 2018 saw a record 2.7 million people getting displaced due to extreme weather incidents, more than twice the 1.3 million displacements in 2017, according to a 2019 global report on internal displacement (GRID).
Therefore, it is important that weather risks become integral part of the city planning. India loses over 1.2 million houses to natural disasters annually, the number that is only set to increase.
Anshu Sharma, Co-founder, SEEDS (Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society) says that there is a need to look back at traditional systems of building houses as they have proven to be more resistant to disasters than modern structures. "Each geography in India whether it is Ladakh, Srinagar, Rajasthan or Kerala has its own local style of building houses, which have been forgotten over time," says Sharma. Houses in each state used to be different, as they responded to their local contexts, he adds.
For instance, in Uttarakhand there are traditional four-five storey buildings called Koti Banal, which were built out of alternating layers of stone and timber. Some are still standing tall for as many as 900 years in the earthquake prone areas while a lot of 'modern' structures have given way. Today the government does not allow construction in hilly areas beyond three floors.
Similarly, studies have shown that buildings that were built using traditional techniques of the Taq system (timber laced masonry building) or Dhajji-Dewari technique (made using timber frame with stone and earth infill) were able to withstand the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.
The key difference with the modern western concept of brick and mortar houses is that it treats the house as a machine. "A house is a machine for living in," says the French architect Le Corbusier, the pioneer of modern architecture and the brain behind Chandigarh's city plan. While they are built for efficiency and functionality, they do not relate to geography and the related risks in the area. Therefore, they bear the brunt of nature when things go wrong.
Moreover, these buildings are safe until all specific requirements are met. The steel must be calculated and tied in a specific way, and the cement mixes need to be precise; if not, the foundation of buildings will remain structurally weak with a danger of a collapse in the event of disasters.
This is quite a contrast to the local housing knowledge. "Our vernacular systems treated the house as a living being where construction and overall development were sensitive to nature and responded to local contexts, such as weather and risk," says Sharma.
For instance, after floods in Golaghat district of Assam in August last year that affected 90,000 people and put more than 7,500 hectares of land under water, SEEDS along with Godrej built transitional shelters in Nikori village as part of the response there. They were built using indigenous technique of 'hariya' of putting the entire houses together with bamboo nails and making it on bamboo stilts where its concrete foundation is three-feet deep that helps stabilise the house in the soft soil. When it rained heavily this year, these homes provided safe shelters to families, protecting them from another cycle of devastation.
The way forward, suggests Sharma, does not lie in turning our backs to traditional and switching to modern in entirety. "We can be rooted in the traditional and use modern technology to make it better."
Policy can also play an enabling role here. Government policy favouring vernacular systems in its housing and other development programmes will go a long way in enabling an appropriate culture of construction in the country, he says.