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Building walls around us

Sathya Prakash Varanashi
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Architect Sathya Prakash Varanashi says the idea of compound walls is a western import into India, especially during the British times

Can any of us guess the resources spent in building compound walls around us? Statistics can be mind boggling – and here it goes. A typical owner of 30 x 40 ft. plot in Bangalore builds 450 sq. ft of wall, excluding the gate area, which is enough to enclose an additional 10 ft. x 15 ft. room, excluding the openings. So, just by spending for a roof additionally over the compound wall cost, we can get an extra room. On the higher side, a 50 ft. x 80 ft. site demands 850 sq. ft of compound wall that can enclose three adjacent rooms of 10 ft. x 12 ft. size each, virtually a small town row of shops. The comparison is simple: if only we had not built compound walls in modern India, many lakhs of new houses could have been built with the same amount of time, energy and materials.

Statistics can be misleading, but they often reveal facts that we never tend to recognise. The idea of compound walls is a western import into India, especially during the British times. The same British did not wall up all their village homes nor did they promote the idea in the U.S., country of their immigration, where even today it is difficult to find compound walls. The absence of such walls has not hindered living in the U.S. in anyway, instead has created a much better civic sense and urban aesthetics there.

Demarcation

Incidentally, even India in the past did not have any compound walls. All houses and buildings opened directly to the road, path or the space in front. The adjacent buildings had only space around commonly used by both the neighbours. This typology continues to function in our villages, small towns and the older parts of new cities. Absence of the wall does not mean anyone can claim our land, for the papers clearly record the ownership, which need not be demarcated and expressed on site all the time.

Even the side wall comes with its own bag of problems. The narrow setback space gets further fragmented, leaving no option for a shared space there for a kitchen garden or parking of two wheelers that both the neighbours can enjoy. Access to fire tender gets narrowed by these side walls, restricting the movement of firemen with water pipes and nozzles. Instead without a wall there, two neighbours, possibly both with narrow setbacks, can enjoy wider space between them.

We are not discussing the social distancing created by the walls that we build around us; we are not discussing the division of us which the walls bring about, both of which are true. We are simply discussing how unfriendly these compound walls are from an ecological perspective. From all arguments, personal to environmental, compound walls are not a healthy sign of a sustainable society.


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