Is the Relevance of Laurie Baker Buildings Over?
Recently in a Facebook page in Malayalam, there was a lot of for and against arguments for Baker buildings, which prompted me to write this. One of the questions I face while giving talks at many places is whether the relevance of Laurie Baker buildings is over or not?
One of the arguments made is that the disciples have not followed the legacy of Baker and sold the legacy of Baker to make money and fame. I also agree with this to some extent. Baker was such a magnanimous figure so none of his disciples will come anywhere near that. Of course, out of the many hundreds who followed Baker’s principles, very few would have made fame and money. I think making money and fame are both not bad, I will not go into the details of this. But whether one follows the principles of Baker is something we can look at. In the first 6 or 7 years of my career, I followed Baker’s principles strictly. When I started designing buildings in 1985, there was no COSTFORD, Nirmithi Kendra nor Habitat Technology Group. But then I decided to break away from it due to various reasons. I thought that there is no point in blindly following Laurie Baker’s principles. We have to take this to the next step, especially when some people were blindly following this. Shankar, Jaigopal, Sajan of Costford and many others tried to do innovations in their own ways. I believed in Baker’s principles but made a lot of changes based on my experience, my knowledge, my convictions and I believe very strongly that what I did is correct. What I did were the buildings which I have designed and what I am known for.
I did the residency of the Superstar Mammootty’s house in 1992 (he was a superstar even at those times, more than 28 years ago). I used exposed brickwork, there were no concrete lintels in his house, we used clay tile flooring for the entire house except the verandah, we used lime plaster, we used recycled timber demolished from an old building plus a lot of other features. At that time, Mammootty used to tell others jokingly that I have told Benny to build a low-cost house and asked him to spend any amount of money. He could have afforded anything but decided to build a house with natural materials. I never called it a low-cost house, and what is low cost is very relative.
I will make one argument here. The cost of walls of a building is around 15% of the overall cost of the building. So if one uses earth for building walls and adding cement to strengthen the walls, then the overall cost saving will not be more than 5% of the building costs. I myself have built many earth buildings and say it from my experience. But the general public is made to believe that by using cement stabilised earth blocks, one will save 30% of the overall cost of the building. The hidden costs in construction are covered up. I would like to point out that the building profession, of which I am a part, does not always speak the truth. The cost comparison is an engineering and based on the calculations. Have you seen anybody publishing the calculations of how they save the cost, especially when compared with the conventional construction? We have also mystified this field, what Baker did was demystifying architecture.
Another argument made is that the relevance of Baker is not much nowadays. I think it is the other way around. Baker’s relevance has increased many times. When Baker was practising, (his peak period was in the 1970s and 1980s), the word “sustainability” was not at all being used. But he always used to speak about saving materials, saving energy, reusing old materials etc. which are the basic principles of sustainable architecture even now. His famous question while designing and building “is this necessary, if not, don’t use it.” The whole sustainability principles are rooted in this one question which formed the basis of his philosophy and principles. He was a man who was ahead of his times in saying this. All the disciples are supposed to follow these principles.
Is Baker’s technology outdated? We are living at a time, where changes are happening so fast. In 1975, Centre for Development Studies brought out a study by Robin Spence, emeritus professor from the School of Architecture, Cambridge University which said that the social benefits of Laurie Baker buildings were very high. One of the arguments which are made is that Baker uses techniques which are more labour intensive and uses materials such as lime, which is very low energy-consuming. In the 1970s and early 1980s, cement was a controlled item and we used to import it from Korea etc. The building industry has undergone changes over the last four decades. Labour rates have multiplied 25 times, while the cement price has increased only less than 10 times. It is very important to understand these changes. Sustainability changes over the years. I am assuming that all the building professionals understand this reality and work towards building a sustainable future. Those who have not changed will perish.
Using burnt bricks is an issue. Using earth or laterite for buildings is also an issue if they have to be transported over a distance. Using cement blocks also has many problems, adding fly ash to cement blocks makes them much better. Shortage of resources is a serious issue. That is why I always say that conserving an old building is always green and sustainable. You are recycling the whole building and the greenest building is one which has been built many years ago. It uses at least 40% less materials and at least 50% of my practice is the conservation of old buildings. Also, another thing that I do is to recycle old doors, windows, rafters, timber beams, bricks in my buildings. Even some of the award-winning projects I have done use old doors and windows. The cheapest building you can build now is to use recycled materials and I do the same in many of my projects.
It is not true to say that Baker imported exposed brickwork from the west. In North Kerala, we had beautiful exposed laterite work in many places. Baker used brick galls, but timber jallis were common in many Kerala buildings such as Padmanabhapuram Palace and stone jallis were common in North India. What Baker did was to design buildings in Kerala which were suitable to our climate, while the designers from our land, who were western by their way of thinking, but Indian by the way of living, designed buildings which were not suitable to our local climate. You should remember that the so-called “engineered” buildings in the 1970s and 1980s were flat-roofed. There were hardly any arches. That way, Baker brought in a revolution in our building aesthetics and changed the mindset of the Malayalees. He showed all of us that there is a different way of doing architecture which is very much rooted in the climate and materials available. This is being continued by the disciples of Laurie Baker and the sloped roofs etc. has become part of the mainstream.
It is true that Baker’s buildings were labour intensive. Also, it depended on good quality workmanship. The masons who did these works were not construction workers, they were real craftsmen. I learnt tremendously in my career from these people. They took so much pride in doing beautiful exposed brickwork. This is the kind of building which many of our architects and engineers said that they will not last for more than 10 years. The first building which Baker did in Trivandrum for Rs. 1500/- is still standing and will stand for another 100 years. The Centre for Development Studies building will stand for another 500 years without any problems. The two-storied building in Trivandrum where I spent a substantial part of my life is made with earth blocks (no cement added to the earth blocks) is more than 100 years old. Even an earth building lasts for more than 100 years.
I did my Masters from the United Kingdom, where there are so many exposed brickwork buildings which are more than 200 or 300 years old. It has rained for more than 130 days there. During the daytime, the bricks absorb water and at night, the temperature goes below zero degrees and turns into ice. Exposed brickwork could withstand such worse climatic conditions and the building sciences I studied is telling me that the exposed brickwork will be more durable than the plastered brickwork.
The durability of a building depends on the workmanship and design details, provided you use the minimum quality of building materials. If the workmanship is bad during concreting, then the leaks will develop in concrete roofs and the durability is affected. If the plastering is done badly by the mason, then it will start flaking in a few years. There is no short cut for good workmanship. I know how Baker used to take care of ensuring good quality workmanship in his buildings. So I have no hesitation in saying that his buildings will last forever. When a dam is designed, it is designed for a particular lifespan considering the siltation etc. But there is no such factor in building design which says that the buildings have a limited lifespan. If it is well constructed and well maintained, the buildings will last for a very long time. I agree that the quality of workmanship has gone down over the years. But this quality reduction can be seen in all the fields including politics, health, education etc. This is a much larger issue to be addressed.
Please read this article in my blog to read about concrete roofs and its durability. https://www.bennykuriakose.com/single-post/2020/06/07/CONCRETE-ROOFS-AND-DURABILITY
Of course, it is true that Baker used to say that buildings need to last only for 25 years. The society is changing and the requirements are changing. A toilet which was considered very modern 20 years ago has become old-fashioned now. A lot of changes are happening in kitchens and bathrooms. Of course, these are very middle-class concepts. Baker has talked about this 25 years under this consideration. But now we know that we don’t have the resources to build new houses for all. I am in various committees of the Governments. In Kerala, the number of homeless people is standing at five lakhs for the last 20 years. Although we are constructing so many houses per year, the shortage of houses will continue. This is because when we construct 10 houses, another 10 houses are demolished. A British Architect once said that a building becomes out of fashion, the moment you occupy the house. In this era of Sustainable Architecture, it is high time we think that we have to conserve our old buildings.
There is ignorance on the part of many as far as the Baker buildings are concerned. When I was working with him, he never reduced the thickness of a roof slab to 7.5 cm. Reducing the cost by reducing the quality or by not doing anything can be done by anybody. But to get the same performance and reduce the costs, you need higher knowledge. This is what Baker showed us. If you do use less number of doors and smaller sized windows, the cost will come down naturally. But this is not what Baker showed us. His buildings were much cooler and thermally comfortable. A study done in the UK showed that one-third of the concrete slabs done in the UK was leaking. The waterproofing companies in India are minting money. Whether it is a conventional concrete roof or a filler slab roof, it will leak if not done properly.
The biggest crisis that the building industry is facing today is the bad quality of construction. It is very natural that mistakes happen. Everybody is not like Laurie Baker. It is very important to learn from mistakes and move forward. I am very optimistic and hopeful. Some of the very young architects in their early 30s in Kerala are able to think and design in a very different way and they will be the future hopes of Kerala.