Think about it: construction happens to be among the top three polluting industries of our era. No surprises here, because concrete, cement, glass, aluminium composite panels (ACP) and ceramic tiles —which have become the ‘material' language of architecture today, consume huge amounts of raw material, generate pollution and require huge amounts of energy to make and maintain. So, does it make sense to persist with these materials?

Many architects now use ‘green bricks' — bricks and blocks made with fly ash, the ash from burning coal at power plants. Then, there are compressed mud blocks. But opting for greener materials like mud cannot be a universal alternative. The solution has to be diverse, inventive, and sensitive to the needs, location, and materials available. “Aluminium, if it is newly made from bauxite ore is very eco-unfriendly, but when it is recycled from previous use, becomes far more ecological than a fired brick, or in some cases, even wood. So, there is no one solution or answer...everything needs to be weighed”, points out Bangalore-based architect and MD of Biome Environmental Solutions, Chitra Vishwanath, whose buildings have become famous for the happy confluence of great design and eco-sustainability.

Are such buildings structurally sound and long-lasting? Actually, yes. Fly ash bricks are strong. In fact, old wood (if maintained dry) can be stronger than new wood, because it has had a long time to ‘cure'. Adds Ms. Vishwanath, “Structural soundness is a need, but no building should be so long-lasting that it becomes a burden to the future generation and rob them of the right to have new buildings.

The buildings should be built structurally sound, but cheap. The building should be such that, it itself serves as the quarry for another building that will eventually come up”.

How do you do that? Well, old mud blocks can be degraded and recycled into new mud blocks. Likewise is the case with fly ash bricks. Steel in buildings can be recycled if un-corroded. “So, an arch panel made of clay tiles with steel beams become totally recyclable”, she points out. Industrial waste such as computer keyboards which can't be degraded (as it affects human health) can be used as filler slabs, as Ms. Vishwanath has done in a few of her buildings.

“We use old Mangalore tiles as filler slabs as a routine”, says architect Gautam Seetharaman, of the Centre for Vernacular Architecture. In fact, anything can be recycled, with ingenuity. Of course, all of us do salvage doors, windows, frames, pillars, sinks, plumbing and electrical fixtures, ducts, hardware, insulation, cabinets, fencing etc, but recycling can acquire a larger and creative dimension.

At an office space deigned by architect Sriram Ganapathi, you find discarded bicycle wheels and plumbing pipes forming table legs, shower arms as task lighting supports, packing wood for benches, modified secondhand stools as bar stools etc, all of which make the place not just funky, but also low cost. Then, rather than going for fresh tiles, you can fix waste and broken bits of tile in interesting shapes and patterns to form feature walls.

Gautam Seetharaman has used granite waste blocks from granite processing factories to create random rubble walls using cement mortar.

These walls are not just sturdy stone stuff, but look nice too.Recycling prevents wastage of resources. By using recycled material and incorporating waste material in the construction of buildings and in interior décor, we avert the energy and raw material-consuming, and pollution-generating process of creation and transport of the new building material. It can be challenging, but extremely interesting to reuse old building material. And done right, recycling can even end up cost-saving.In any case, as Ms. Vishwanath remarks, “Recycled materials will certainly be cheaper in terms of ecological cost.

With intelligent clients and designers, cost is not a material-specific issue”.

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