India is urbanising faster than its urban planners can handle. Countless new structures are built to either upgrade buildings or sometimes take undue advantage of local land use regulations. With rapid urbanisation comes a growing demand for buildings, and unfortunately, this means the use of highly unsustainable, polluting and exhaustive materials. 

By Riya Gokharu

In addition to rapid urbanisation and its challenges, the amount of construction waste that is being recycled in India is also extremely low (only up to 1%). Even though the Swachh Bharat Mission has recognised the need for better waste management through its Swachh Survekshan 2021 programme, its initiatives have seen limited success.

“The cost of crucial building materials such as steel, cement, resin, PVC pipes and cables is spiking from 30% to 50%.” — The Hans India

Looking to the past

Things were not always this way in India. In ancient times, buildings were designed with local techniques and resources that helped to combat climate conditions. For example, houses in the western part of India, Rajasthan, were thoughtfully designed with local materials that contributed to passive cooling, reducing the need for air conditioners. This tempered the extreme heat of the region, where temperatures can reach up to 50 degrees in the summertime. There was a similar approach when it came to innovation in the built environment, where there was a lot of trial and error to establish the best practices without relying on new technologies. 

Unfortunately we’ve seen a gradual shift in Indian society, to where some of these best practices have become obsolete. Modernisation and advancements in technology have led to negative impacts on the environment, such as buildings that do not support the local climatic conditions, or building materials that are not locally sourced. Given the urgency of the situation, What Design Can Do through its Make it Circular Challenge is inviting designers and creative entrepreneurs everywhere to submit proposals for a more restorative and resilient way of living.

“Today, cities idolise standardised, Westernised structures that are ill-suited for the climate.” — Experts during the local research workshop conducted by Quicksand

Debris House by Wallmakers, photo by Anand Jaju.

Where are the opportunities for design to make a difference?

Building with unsustainable materials: Many urban consumers gravitate towards building materials like glass and steel because they carry connotations of wealth and luxury. But circular materials like clay and bamboo are much more abundant locally, and vastly more suited to the climate. In the right hands, they are also beautiful — just take a look at some of the designs by Wallmakers or the Malba Project.

Second life of building materials: Given the rapid urbanisation, there has been a greater demand for building materials that are often unsustainable or do not account for a second life. Looking back in history, building materials such as clay and paddy were sustainable, locally available and can be easily broken apart and reused. Thinking of the right materials at an early stage also helps in eliminating waste — see some of the natural homes built by Thannal

Innovation as the missing gap: There are abundant opportunities for innovation in building materials but currently innovation is happening in silos. In the past, local communities were known for collaborating and sharing traditional materials and techniques. It’s time to look back and find ways to mechanise traditional techniques that suit the local environment — one can get inspired by Carbon Craft’s work.  

“Designers have a huge role to play, something we have been taking for granted. This challenge is an opportunity to communicate and design correctly and affect people’s consumption patterns.” — Tallulah D’Silva (architecture t)

Natural building techniques photographed by Thannal.

Going back to thoughtful building

Looking back at India’s traditions, there is so much we can learn from them in terms of materials, techniques and innovations. In fact, where ancient practices often embraced the values of circularity, contemporary ones are proving to neglect them. Yet we still regard sustainability as a new-found and future-facing concept. This is the first thing that has to change if we want to tackle the pressing challenges of the built environment.

Then the task is to design, innovate and manage our waste more mindfully. The Make it Circular Challenge has the potential to contribute towards a circular society by opening doors to support local materials and practices, so that we could eventually increase the demand for them. If we could bring about this shift in mindset, we might have a shot at balancing the needs of a growing population with the consequences of a warming planet. 

Thinking of applying from India?

The challenge is now live in India through its country partner, Quicksand Design Studio, an interdisciplinary creative consultancy headquartered in Delhi. Quicksand facilitates the creation of meaningful experiences through design research and innovation.  Founded by Quicksand Design Studio, UnBox Cultural Futures Society offers a space for experiential learning that builds on emerging contexts and cases of multidisciplinary, creative collaborations that are rooted in people-centric approaches. Learn more about applying from India here.

Flooring outfitted in carbon tiles by Carbon Craft Design. Top image: Debris House by Wallmakers, photo by Anand Jaju.

Presented by the Make it Circular Challenge, this article is part of a limited series exploring different perspectives on circularity from around the world. Read more on this topic here.


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