Call it low-cost or eco-friendly, alternate technology or appropriate technology, the principles followed when building houses that respect the laws of nature are not only cost-effective but also pleasing to the eye. Nilima Pathak goes scouting for such structures in Delhi.

Anil Laul's farmhouse is sure to grab the attention of anybody who has an eye for ethnic, eco-friendly designs.

Built on 6,000 square feet, the house has a certain rustic charm to it, drawing students of architecture as well as architects and planners who find it an apt example of a low-cost, eco-friendly house which also helps protect, conserve and recycle resources.

"This was quarried land when I bought it way back in 1987,'' says Anil, taking us to his home situated a little away from the heart of Delhi.

"Since most of the construction materials were already available here all we needed were labourers to work. I wanted to preserve the natural look of the land as far as possible and worked with the elements of nature including the sun and wind," says Anil, an architect who was instrumental in setting up the Laurie Baker Building Centre (LBBC) in Delhi, an organisation promoting low-cost,
eco-friendly structures.

An interesting facet of the house is that it is built below mean ground level. "There is logic in this surprise element and it is to do with insulation. Also, the house becomes earthquake-resistant," he says.

No attempt is made to mask the fact that the walls lack plaster. Instead of using regular bricks that are 3 or 4 inches in breadth for the walls, Laul used stones that are 12 to 18 inches thick. Says the architect: "The thickness of the walls insulates the house in such a manner that it is cool in summer and warm during winter. We seldom need to use the air conditioner."

The garden is landscaped by boulders and the impressive stone steps leading into the house, the courtyard and passages have all been constructed with stone left over from the construction of the house.

The main drawing room opens onto the lawn and is used for entertaining guests.

By and large, the lighting is natural. The living room is a picture of perfection, particularly in the early evenings when the low sun filters through the latticework of the wide windows lighting up the huge stone steps that lead into the central courtyard.

The house, constructed on the principles of the late architect
Laurie Baker, cost Anil just Rs1.2 million in 1993.

Using low-cost technology to build eco-friendly homes is not new to Delhi. Way back in 1988, Laurie, an award-winnning architect who died in 2007, used unconventional tools, methods and materials to build relatively inexpensive houses with pleasing features. So radical and impressive were his works that ironically he was much sought after by the rich as well to design homes and offices across India.

The British-born Indian designer worked extensively in southern India before heading for Delhi. His idea of low-cost housing technology meant going back to one's roots, to an understanding of a common way of living and disrupting as little of the natural surroundings as possible. The result was not just cost-effective, but also energy efficient and almost zero-maintenance structures.

In fact, one of his core building principles was: do not rob natural resources and do not use them extravagantly or unnecessarily.

With much fanfare the Laurie Baker Building Centre (LBBC) was set up under the aegis of the Ministry of Urban Development.

The idea was to disseminate cost-effective technology so that the owner could trim construction costs by 15-20 per cent.

An autonomous body, LBBC was to work on a no-profit, no-loss basis.

It was promoted by the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), which was supposed to be the monitoring agency.

In addition, the Building Material Promotion Council was responsible for authenticating the technology and introducing it to the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and other government departments to bring it to the mainstream.

But somewhere along the way, things went awry and priorities shifted. Alternate technology was put on the backburner and low-cost structures were hardly, if ever, promoted. Affordable housing remains a dream for many and ironically, Laurie buildings have now become synonymous with the rich.

Unmindful perceptions

Says Ramesh Kumar, president of LBBC: "[One reason low-cost housing never really took off was because] of the lack of awareness among the masses. The technology did not make it to the CPWD's manual and scheme of things. Although the government had been keen at one time, red tape did not allow it to flourish."

Anil agrees, but instead of terming it low-cost technology he insists on calling it appropriate technology.

"The term low-cost is considered by some to mean a structure meant for slum dwellers. I want to dispel this image. Alternative skills mean value-added construction for the same value of money. I am living in an area where stones and coarse sand are available in plenty. I have used those materials to build my house. It is just that common, sensible approaches and practical structures are considered extraordinary and my house has become the talk of the town," he says.

"One has to stress how we blend architecture, engineering, art and artisans. But rarely does one see the integration of all four. Do that and the structure becomes sustainable,'' says Anil, who is an adviser on various technological committees and art commissions, and has assisted in the development of local and national housing policies.

"I would say that in a way even a Rolls Royce is low-cost, because its performance is so fantastic that you get value for money," says the architect.

Anil's large living room with its rough-hewn granite walls exudes cool chic. Though there is an overwhelming tone of grey, it is masterfully set off by eclectic objets d'art and tastefully arranged furniture. Vivid hues of the upholstery give it a contemporary finish.

"I have built an 'introverted' house,'' says Anil, a specialist in low-cost alternative housing and earthquake-resistant structures.

"The master bedroom is at the centre of the house and there is a reason for this. It offers a clear view of the courtyard and my wife can spot visitors as soon as they enter the perimeter. The living room for guests as well as the kitchen is also visible from there."

The architect has used a revolutionary concept in roofing, the funicular shell, to great effect. The funicular shell is more efficient than the standard RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) as far as insulation and weather protection are concerned.

The ceiling is patterned with bricks and each pattern is different, adding an interesting dimension to the interior.

Coloured tiles, pieces of marble, waste granite... all have been recycled and used in some way, adding to the house's allure.
"Interestingly, only once in the last 12 years has the house been painted. It is time we realised that paint is the main cause of environmental degradation,'' he says. "Delhi alone consumes about 60,000 tonnes of paint annually which gets washed away year after year by the rains. Thus, substances like lead, zinc, cobalt and arsenic [the raw materials of some paints] seep into the soil, leading to water contamination."

Sofas, beds, bathtubs, counters are all inbuilt, thus reducing the cost of furnishings drastically. The interiors are tastefully accentuated by accessories, giving the home a modern look.

And just in case you are wondering what would happen during the monsoon when there is a threat of floods, Anil has built a drainage system in such a way that no water collects around the structure. The drain empties into areas a little away from the house. "But no water leaves my premises," he says.

The kitchen and bath wastewater empty near the banana and papaya trees in the garden – another novel method to watering the plants but in a cost-efficient way.

Contrary to popular belief, low-cost housing is not a structure for the poor, says Anil, who recently designed a private residence in Chandigarh based on the principles of Appropriate Building Technologies.

"It means cutting unnecessary expenditure even while building a beautiful house. It is about reducing construction costs by using alternative methods of construction, using local and indigenous building materials, local skills, energy savers and environment-friendly options and other effective measures.''

Although residential buildings, offices, hospitals and schools can all be worked out with these technologies, there are only a handful of structures in the city that have integrated this know-how, say experts.

Hopefully, with the drastic change in the econmic situation worldwide, more people will begin to realise the value of these natural principles and take a step towards trimming costs.

Getting back to the basics

Laurence Wilfred Baker, popularly known as Laurie Baker, started an architectural movement by propagating cost-effective, yet aesthetically built, homes in India in the 1950s.

His futuristic vision of India, encapsulated in his buildings and ideas of architecture, emphasised efficiency in the use of materials and energy, improvisation and adaptation of local craft and artisans' traditions and the needs of millions of homeless. The hundreds of buildings designed and constructed by him are examples of equitable and sustainable architecture.

He came to India in 1945 and a chance meeting with Mahatma Gandhi made him remain in India. Highly influenced by Gandhi's teachings, Laurie maintained that India's greatest architectural teacher was Gandhi, who spoke consistently about the building needs of India. He was referring to Gandhi's statement that the ideal house in India will be built from materials found within a five-mile radius of the house.

Laurie put this lesson into practice in virtually all buildings he built in India. He devised his own architecture and an ethically satisfying way of practising it.

He died at the age of 90 on April 1, 2007 in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

– Nilima Pathak is a New Delhi-based writer.