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 practicing, (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 time 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, the 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 that 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.