Long before the threat of climate change became a global concern, Laurie Baker, The Gandhi of Architecture, saw the necessity to design energy-efficient buildings. It is this which inspired several of his unconventional construction techniques and building elements. This also explains Baker’s aversion to concrete in construction. The main constituent of concrete is cement—one of the most environmentally hazardous building materials. Baker never had any drafted building plans and most of his construction techniques were created on-site to deliver specific requirements of his clients in Kerala and are not formulae that can be blindly adopted in all similar situations. His choice of building elements varied according to the purpose and scale of each project, he improvised at every stage of construction. Here is a brief list of Baker’s techniques in construction and their significance in the context of cost and environmental resonance.
1. THE RAT TRAP BOND
Introduced in Kerala during the 1970s by renowned architect Laurie Baker, the Rat-Trap bond, is a double-wall technique, that significantly reduces the cost of construction, minimizes material and mortar usage, and helps achieve greater thermal efficiency without compromising on the strength of the wall. In Rat-Trap masonry, bricks (considering brick of standard size 230 X 110 X 75 mm) are positioned vertically so that the 110mm face is seen from the front elevation instead of the traditional horizontal alignment. However, the width of the wall remains the same (230mm), thus forming an internal cavity in place of the 75mm face. This is how nearly 30% of the material (brick and mortar) is conserved, thus shrinking the overall construction cost. Moreover, the presence of the internal cavity yields thermal and sound insulation. This makes Baker’s Rat-Trap method both an energy-efficient and an economic alternative to conventional brick masonry.
2. FILLER SLABS
We know that concrete can resist compression but is weak in tension. In an RCC slab, concrete is required in its top half (which is in compression). However, it is structurally not required in the bottom portion (which is in tension). So the concrete in this portion (bottom) of the slab can be replaced by low cost, lightweight filler material like Mangalore tiles or clay, etc. Filler slabs are employed by replacing this purposeless concrete by a filler material thus reducing the weight of the slab and hence the cost of construction. Since the weight of the slab is decreased, the requirement of reinforcement steel is also decreased, further diminishing the expenses in construction.
3. ARCHES AND DOMES
Several of the available building materials including stone, cast iron, and concrete can strongly withstand compressive forces but easily fail when tensile forces, shear, or torsional forces are applied to them. However, to overcome this limitation, a long-lost strategy for resolving all forces into compressive forces has been brought to the forefront again by Laurie Baker. Arch and dome structures inherently possess the ability to eliminate tensile stresses in encompassing an open space, owing to their shape. Just like arches, domes too have a tremendous amount of structural strength and can span a large open space without supporting structures.
4. TERRACOTTA ROOFING AND FLOORING
Flooring and roofing that employ red tiles made from hard laterite clay were introduced by Architect Laurie Baker in Kerala, mainly for kitchen and bathroom roofing and flooring. For flooring, the bed is prepared from broken brickbats (thus reducing the brick usage and hence the overall cost). The mortar layer is placed over the bed, and the Terracotta tiles are laid over it. These tiles require little maintenance, they are cheap and are formed in visually pleasing shapes and sizes. Moreover, this type of flooring does not hinder the movement of electric wires, they allow the wiring to pass through the flooring. Its aesthetic excellence coupled with its ability to provide effective natural ventilation and rainwater drainage makes Terracotta roofing and flooring an eco-friendly, affordable, and durable alternative to cement especially in areas that experience heavy rainfall.
5. FRAMELESS DOORS AND WINDOWS
Doors and windows with no frames are a unique feature of Laurie Baker constructions. Door planks are either screwed together with strap iron hinges or held together with horizontal or diagonal battens to form cost-efficient doors and simple pivotal windows. Door and window frames are responsible for nearly half the timber usage.
6. BRICK JALI WALLS OR PERFORATED BRICK ARCHITECTURE
This technique adopted by Laurie Baker, allows the free flow of natural air into the interiors thus efficiently regulating the temperature. During the day, the perforations create intricate patterns of light and shadows.
7. CURVED WALLS
Baker replaced straight wall constructions with curved walls-an innovative way to enclose a larger volume at the lower material cost. It is said that he drew curved jail walls by hand on the site without any equipment.
8. LATTICED BRICK WALLS
Baker created cooling systems that utilize air pressure differences to draw cool air into the building by placing a latticed brick wall adjacent to a pond.
9. LETTING TREES LIVE AND BUILDING WITH MUD
Instead of cutting down trees, Baker always adapted it in his designs. Mud walls being energy efficient is a common sight in Laurie Baker constructions.
A Gandhian in words and action, Baker revolutionized the concept of architecture through his affordable and green constructions. His immense contribution to eco-friendly architecture and cost-effectiveness rather than simply low-cost will remain unparalleled. As M.S. Swaminathan rightly remarked, he was an “architect’s architect”.