Despite several hurdles in their manufacture, Mangalore tile roofs are amongst the most eco-friendly, says architect Sathya Prakash Varanashi

If we were asked to sketch a house when we were young, we typically would have drawn one up with sloping roofs. If it's in South India, one may safely assume, the roof is imagined to be in Mangalore tiles. The choreography of red-tiled roofs partly covered by the lush green canopy of trees in Kerala and Karnataka or the villages in flat lands of Tamil Nadu and Andhra creating a new skyline are etched in the memories of every traveller.

This essay could have as well begun asking where were Mangalore tiles first made and without winking the eyes, the answer would have been ‘Mangalore', a coastal town in Karnataka! Even before the missionaries of Bassel Mission from Switzerland landed in coastal Karnataka during the 18th century, rounded roof tiles, now called as country tiles, were popular all over the south. Produced in most villages, these were hand made, had no interlocking facility, and were more prone for cracks.

New concept

The Missionaries now settled at Mangalore introduced the concept of clay tiles which are flat, grooved, interlocking, and also ensured they are mechanically pressed for greater strength and durability. By the early 19th century there were numerous factories along the seaside stretching from Kundapur to Kollam, producing these tiles.

Tiled roofs are part of building with clay, possibly amongst the most sustainable construction systems. They create an induced passive cooling, wherein the tiles and the air underneath get heated up and the hot air is allowed to escape outside in the gaps of the tiled roofs. This ensures cooler air from the floor level rises up. The secret behind the thermal comforts of traditional tiled homes lie in this natural air draft, besides the soft light they let in through the tile gaps. There are minimum windows to ensure least heat gain and glare-free living. Of course, higher the roof height, the greater the benefits.

Incidentally, much of the tiled roof we see in large cities may not be actual tiled roofs! There is a trend of topping the concrete roof with tiles, often popularised by house builders. People believe this would eliminate the possibility of theft by removing tiles and stop all water leakage but still ensures that ethnic Mangalore tile look from outside. It's comparable to providing one roof type over another roof type! We are employing two independent roofs together; hence the costs are high. The tiles are pasted upon thick mortar, hence heat transfer increases and replacing a broken tile is very difficult.

Irrespective of how the tiles are used – as original roof or cladding – Mangalore tiles are among the cultural preferences of many communities. Despite the onslaught of newer technologies, dwindling manual labour and depleting soil resources, we find tile roofs among the most eco-friendly ideas. It is good to see their continued popularity and revival by architects even in cities like Bangalore. As such, it is important now to focus on how to design with tiles.

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

Keywords: real estate