Is the Relevance of Laurie Baker Buildings Over?
One of the questions I face while giving talks at many places is whether the relevance of Laurie Baker buildings over or not? Consequently, a slew of for and against arguments concerning him appeared on a Facebook page that prompted me to write this article. One of the points expressed in that post is that even the disciples have not followed the legacy of Laurie Baker and have sold his reputation to make money and fame. I also agree with this to some extent.
Baker was such a magnanimous figure that none of his disciples would be able to come anywhere near that. Of course, only a small percentage of those who followed his principles would have achieved fame and fortune. I think making money and gaining recognition are both beneficial. Nevertheless, I will not go into the details of this. But whether one follows the Laurie Baker style of architecture is something we can look at.
List of Contents:
1. Follow But not Blindly
I strictly followed Laurie Baker construction techniques for the first 6 or 7 years of my career. When I started designing buildings in 1985, there was no COSTFORD, Nirmithi Kendra or Habitat Technology Group. But after that, I decided to break away from it for various reasons. I thought that there is no point in blindly following Laurie Baker's principles. Shankar, Jaigopal Sajan of Costford and many others also tried to do innovations in their ways. I believed in Laurie Baker but made several changes based on my experience, knowledge and convictions. I designed buildings, and today they are what I am known for. I believe that what I did was right.
It would be better if I used an example to explain what I mean. I did the residence of Superstar Mammootty in 1992. Exposed brickwork, no concrete lintels, clay tile flooring for the entire house except the verandah, lime plaster, recycled timber from an old building were some of the notable features of that house. At that time, he used to tell others jovially that he had told me to build a low-cost house but I can spend any amount building it. Even though he was(is) able to afford a palace, he decided to construct a humble home with natural materials. I would never call it a low-cost house, as low cost is a very relative term.
2. Simplifying Architecture with Laurie Baker
Here, I would argue that, from my experience, the cost of building walls is around 15% of the overall cost of the building. So if one uses earth for the walls and adds cement to strengthen them, then the overall cost saving will not be more than 5%. But, the general public is not aware of this, and believe that they can save 30% of the overall cost by using cement stabilised earth blocks. The hidden costs in construction are covered up. The cost comparison is an engineering jargon derived from tedious calculations. Have you seen anybody publishing how they save the construction cost, especially when compared with the conventional construction? The building industry has been perplexed as a result of this. On the other hand, Laurie Baker de-mystified it and exposed it for all to see.
3. Laurie Baker Architecture Style
Another argument is that the relevance of Laurie Baker buildings may be dwindling nowadays. But I think it is the other way around. The relevance of Laurie Baker structures 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 spoke about saving materials, saving energy, reusing old materials, etc., which are the basic principles of sustainable architecture. Numerous sustainability principles are rooted in a fundamental question generally asked by him- “is this necessary, if not, don’t use it.” This question formed the basis of his design philosophy and construction methodology. He was a man who was ahead of his time. It would be ideal if all of his disciples could listen to his words.
He used materials such as lime, earth which consumes low energy. In the 1970s and early 1980s, cement was a regulated item, and we used to import it from Korea and other countries. So, is it possible to avoid cement and switch to burnt earth bricks? Using earth or laterite for buildings is also an issue especially if they have to be transported over a distance. Using cement blocks also has many problems, but adding fly ash to cement blocks makes them much better. At the current rate of development, the shortage of resources may be inevitable which can be 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. Conservation uses at least 40% fewer materials and so, at least 50% of my practice is the conservation of old buildings. Another thing that I follow is to recycle old doors, windows, rafters, timber beams, bricks in my works. Even some of my award-winning projects are done using old doors and windows. The cheapest building you can build now is by using recycled materials and I do the same in many of my projects.
It is not true that Baker imported exposed brickwork from the west. In North Kerala, we had beautiful exposed laterite work in many places. Baker used brick walls and timber jaalis that were suitable to the climate of Kerala. At the same time, the designers of our land who were western by their way of thinking, but Indian by the way of living, designed buildings that were not suitable to the local climate there. We should remember that the so-called “engineered” buildings in the 1970s and 1980s were flat-roofed. There were hardly any arches or sloping roofs. That way, Baker brought in a revolution in our building aesthetics and changed the mindset of the people. He showed all of us that there is a different way of doing architecture, very much rooted in the climate and the materials available. This is continued by the disciples of Laurie Baker and has become part of the mainstream architecture of Kerala.
4. Good Quality Workmanship never Goes out of Fashion
Another statement usually made against Laurie Baker is that his method of construction is more labour intensive. Laurie Baker buildings were indeed labour intensive. But they depended on good quality workmanship. The masons who did these works were real craftsmen and not construction workers. I learnt tremendously from these people in my career as they took so much pride in doing their work. This is the kind of building that many professionals said will not last for more than 10 years. There is no shortcut for good workmanship.
Laurie Baker used to take great care in ensuring that his buildings are built to a high standard. So I have no hesitation in saying that all of Laurie Baker's works will last forever. There is no such factor in building design that limits its lifespan. If it is well constructed and well maintained, the buildings will last for a very long time. The first building that Baker did in Trivandrum for Rs. 1500/- is still standing and will continue to stand for another 100 years. The Centre for Development Studies building will stand for another 500 years without any problems.
The two-storied building made of earth blocks in Trivandrum is where I spent a substantial part of my life, and it is more than 100 years old. It is no surprise that an earth building lasts for more than 100 years. I agree that the quality of workmanship has gone down over the years. But this quality reduction can be seen in all the fields like politics, health, education, etc. This is a much larger issue to be addressed in a separate blog. Coming back, another advantage of using bricks is that they can withstand worse climatic conditions, and it was evident from the ancient exposed brick buildings in the United Kingdom.
5. Laurie Baker and Durability
Of course, it is true that Baker used to say that buildings need to last only for 25 years. Society is changing, and the requirements are changing. A toilet which was very modern 20 years ago has become old-fashioned now. An innumerable number of changes are happening. Keeping this in mind, Baker stated that the lifespan of a building would be 25 years. But now we know that we don’t have the resources to build new houses for all. The number of homeless people in Kerala is standing at five lakhs for the last 20 years.
Although we are constructing so many houses per year, the shortage of homes seems to continue. This is because when we build10 houses, another 10 houses get demolished. A British Architect once said that a building becomes out of fashion the moment you occupy it. We are living at a time where changes are happening at a rapid pace. The building industry has undergone drastic 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 crucial to understand these changes and act accordingly.
In 1975, the Centre for Development Studies brought out a study by a former professor of Cambridge University, Robin Spence, which said that the social benefits of Laurie Baker buildings are very high. But many people are still unaware of these Laurie Baker buildings. Reducing the cost by reducing the quality or by avoiding a few elements 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. His buildings were much cooler in temperature and thermally comfortable.
The biggest crisis of the building industry today is the bad quality of construction. Naturally, mistakes happen. It is important to learn from mistakes and move forward. I am very hopeful that some of the young architects in Kerala who are able to think and design unique compositions will be the future hopes of the state. I believe that all building professionals will understand this reality and work towards building a sustainable future.