Understanding Arulville Model of Sustainable Vernacular Architecture

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Author – Sneha Sridhar

The construction industry is responsible for about a third of the world’s carbon emissions, making sustainable architecture a pressing need. Natural building materials and techniques are becoming popular due to their design aesthetics and sustainability. In turn, sustainable living has led to the development of eco-tourism, which has increased awareness of the importance of minimizing energy consumption. With rising congestion in cities and fast-paced lifestyles, there is a growing interest in eco-villages or ‘smart villages’, which have become retreats for city-dwellers for them to re-connect with nature.

The Arulville retreat is an excellent example of how natural building techniques and vernacular architecture can create sustainable spaces that support contemporary lifestyles without harming the natural ecosystem. Conceptualized and founded by Anthony Raj, Arulville is located in Mudaliarkuppam, Tamil Nadu about 80 km south of Chennai. Raj took the help of Dharmesh Jadeja, who is a well-known architect in Auroville for his sustainable practices in design, in order to come up with a design scheme that took inspiration from indigenous architecture.

The Arulville farmhouse is set in a rural context on an island. Water bodies dot the site and the project sits along the natural contours, incorporating the trees into the design as all of the trees on the property were preserved. Seating structures capped with stone, have been built around the trees so visitors can enjoy the experience of the natural “breathing spaces”. Excavation pits were converted into lily ponds in order to encourage evaporative cooling. Grey water systems are in place across the site to deal with waste water generated, while natural filtration ponds use charcoal, pebbles and sand to cleanse the water pumped to the overhead tank.

Many of the construction techniques used while designing Arulville can be seen in the vernacular architecture of the Tamilnadu region. Arulville boasts of a varied material palette, featuring exposed bricks, wooden pillars, clay bricks, terracotta tiles, and Cuddapah stones. Local materials helped reduce the carbon footprint of the project as they are durable and have a high thermal mass. This means that these materials have insulating properties that help regulate the temperature inside a building.

A striking feature upon entering Arulville is the entrance porch arch, composed of exposed brick and claypots. The residence consists of the main bungalow, a community dining hall, the amphitheater, water bodies and gardens. The ground floor of the main bungalow has three guest rooms and a hall on the first floor. The amphitheater serves as a performance area and a play area for children. Pergolas have been used on the site as interesting landscaping features, one above the stage at the amphitheater. There is also a cottage on the site where the owners stay.

Excavated soil from the site was used for the rammed earth walls and clay tiles were used for roofing, with coir fibers used as an insulating material. Another vernacular feature used in the structure is the Madras terrace, which adds a welcome break from the flat roof slab. A Madras terrace is constructed by laying terrace bricks diagonally across the room width, over wooden joists. Brick bat concrete is layered over the bricks and then the terrace is allowed to set for three days, after which it is topped with flat tiles and plaster. Many of the materials used were recycled or had the potential for reuse. Reusable concrete rafters, old timber, and filler slabs with used terracotta pans add further value to the structure’s sustainability.

Red oxide flooring was a practical and aesthetic choice, sharing the earthy tones of the other materials used in the structure. Known for its longevity and seamless finish, red oxide is heat resistant, a much needed convenience during the hot summers in Tamil Nadu. Along with the passive cooling supplemented by the various water bodies on the site, the energy needed to ventilate or insulate the building was minimal. Local materials prove to be healthier for the environment and encourage well-insulated and comfortable habitats.

Climatology has long been practiced in vernacular architecture in India to understand the benefits and consequences of designing spaces. Vaastu principles have been used for centuries to characterize arrangements and geometry of spaces. Many of these principles were influenced by the Indian climate, which is why recommendations for orienting certain spaces have a logic behind it. Spaces are differentiated by activity and have been placed in accordance with the sun’s movement. Sun-shading devices such as chajjas, jali screens and the roof overhang have been the quintessential aspect in Indian vernacular architecture to prevent heat gain through the walls. These features can be seen in Arulville as well.

Today, Arulville has become a destination for eco-tourism and an example of sustainable architecture for architecture students and professionals to study. Its climate-sensitive designs are more energy efficient and are usually the norm of design nowadays. Proper design can ensure well-lit and naturally ventilated buildings which in turn reduces dependency on electricity and HVAC systems. Communal spaces such as verandas and courtyards channel the effects of passive cooling, thus demonstrating the climatic advantages of traditional architecture elements.

Anthony Raj, who is also the founder-director of the Centre for Indigenous Architecture, believes that local and natural building techniques are solutions to designing cost-effective and climatically responsive habitats, and one can look to traditional Indian architecture for inspiration. Dubbing his design style as “Grandfather’s House” architecture, Raj is working on design projects while using an indigenous architectural approach to encourage sustainable and regenerative spaces.

With increasing awareness with respect to sustainable living, native and natural construction techniques are quickly making their appearance in different Indian cities. A conscious design approach concerning the use of materials, energy and resources can help the building and construction industry further the momentum of the “sustainable architecture” movement.

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