Building with local stones can be among the simplest of actions towards a sustainable future, advises architect Sathya Prakash Varanashi

For those preparing for quiz competitions, there is curious information available. Stone is possibly the most omnipresent flooring material found in the world — from Roman roads to Hampi Bazaar streets. It is found everywhere, be it at Pompeii (city and commune in the province of Naples in Campania, southern Italy, famous for its ancient Roman ruins) or Poompuhar (a town in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu). In all civilizations, stone was preferred for structures of cultural importance such as shrines, palaces, public halls and such others.

Being an everlasting material, stone is hard enough for outdoors and soft enough to be polished for indoors. The traditional polishing was not like the mirror polish by machines of today, but a fairly smooth and level surface achieved by hand tools used for stone dressing. Compared to the other known materials viz., wood, mud, sand and lime, nothing could come close to stone in strength and durability. No wonder, for thousands of years, stone has been the king of all construction materials.

Amongst the factors contributing to the popularity of stone, is its widespread availability. Found nearly in all parts of the world, people everywhere learnt how to cut it to size and use in construction.

By default it is a natural material, irrespective of the type or variety, as such is a green material of high order. Thanks to modern technology, stone can now be processed and industrially worked with for a wide range of direct and specialised applications.

Carbon footprint decrease

Durability is a marker for eco-friendly constructions. If the life span of a building can be stretched, its carbon footprint decreases, since the same embodied energy gives us greater returns.

Family houses lasting over centuries are spoken of with awe and the news is published in the media to state how they lasted for hundreds of years. The secret is no secret to people in the construction industry – it is the use of durable natural materials like stone.

Greedy exploitation

Archaeologists term a major part of human civilisation as the ‘Stone Age’, as if to recognise the way stone started to shape human destinies. We know how it continues to do so even today, in our computer era. Building with local stones can be among the simplest of actions towards a sustainable future. For the advocates arguing against stone, primarily because of reckless quarrying around urban areas, the answer lies in the comparison between the embodied energies going into local stone and the other manufactured materials apparently available cheap in the market.

The problem does not lie with stone as a material, but with the greedy modes of exploiting it. Mostly we are not sensitive to mother earth and do not carefully locate the quarries.

It is an apparent contradiction today to discuss stone in buildings for strength and longer life, when we are increasingly designing lightweight materials, and for shorter life! The worst is with interiors, where even the promoters sometimes expect to change it all in less than 10 years, even though there could be a polished granite floor below! It is time we re-validate our thinking process, and start building for bringing in longevity in our uses. With stone perhaps.

And we shall discuss a whole lot of them in the coming weeks.

(The writer is an architect working for eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at varanashi@gmail.com)