California
clear sky
30.6 ° C
32.8 °
29.3 °
54 %
4.6kmh
0 %
Fri
29 °
Sat
32 °
Sun
35 °
Mon
35 °
Tue
28 °
California
clear sky
30.6 ° C
32.8 °
29.3 °
54 %
4.6kmh
0 %
Fri
29 °
Sat
32 °
Sun
35 °
Mon
35 °
Tue
28 °
Thursday, July 11, 2024

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What to remember while building a house on the hill


Building in the hills has always posed challenges — the sloped terrain with uneven contours, lack of pucca roads, paucity of skilled labour and materials, and varying weather conditions with unpredictable rains and landslides. Earlier, houses were built of stone and mud, the only local materials available, while clay roof-tiles and ply for false ceilings came from the plains. In the Palani Hills, pine and eucalyptus were propagated by the British for timber, but these were not indigenous to the local ecology and were deemed invasive species.

Aside of the prohibition of stone quarrying in forest areas, there are restrictions on felling trees, borewell digging, and use of earthmovers and blasting rock. Kodaikanal-based contractor R. Sreenivasagan elaborates on building regulations in the township and surrounding panchayats, which are defined by zones such as Primary Residential, Economically Weaker, Mixed Residential, Multi-use zone (MUZ) and Agricultural, School and Prohibited. “You need a minimum of 3.5 cents (about 1500 sq.ft.) to build in a residential zone and 12.5 cents in a mixed residential zone. In a residential zone, a home can be up to 2500 sq.ft. and up to a maximum of two floors (Ground + 1).”

While laws are broken and stretched, building according to norms has become increasingly important to protect and conserve the fragile ecology of the hills. Homeowners and architects here are also adopting varied approaches to manage highly efficient systems for temperature control, water, electricity and effluent systems.

A compact footprint

Solar panels fitted on roof of sit-out.
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

From a distance, it could be a house among many, yet, up close C. Stephen’s (name changed) home leaves a distinguished footprint. Everything has to come from the plains, says Stephen, a seasoned self-taught builder who has lived here since the early 1990s. “You must remember, Kodaikanal is an island in the sky!” His compact home on a small plot has independent means for water and electricity. The layout of his 825 sq.ft. two-bedroom with bath, living, dining and kitchen is ingeniously planned without corridors, maximising use of space. Easy to install and with a low environmental impact, AAC (autoclaved aerated concrete) block, light and durable, was his choice for the walls as the closed bubble cells of the block provide good insulation. UPVC windows and composite doors are durable and low-maintenance.

Solar panels for powering, and solar water heating system in the foreground.

Solar panels for powering, and solar water heating system in the foreground.
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

The house sits on a 120,000-litre tank, which draws water from a spring that runs through the property. “Such a large amount of water serves as a good buffer. The house is cool in the summer and warm in the winter,” says Stephen, referring to water’s high specific heat capacity (it loses heat very slowly). A vapour-barrier above the tank, basically a ‘cushion of air’ (constructed of polythene sheets on wire mesh) is his elegant solution to protect the six-inch reinforced concrete foundation slab from ground moisture seepage. He designed a two-chamber septic tank with a baffle in-between ensuring that the scum stays in the first tank while the water flows to the second, gets filtered and recharges the ground aquifers. A 50-ft separation of soil is maintained between drinking water and septic tanks.

Solar panels for electricity make best use of the terrace and the 4 kilowatt system has never given him any trouble, with the solar cells constantly getting replenished. The solar hot water system has a gas backup and can heat 200 litres of water, “unlike a geyser”, says Stephen.

Solar-powered lifestyle

Rainwater system for recharging groundwater.

Rainwater system for recharging groundwater.
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

About five years back, K. Balakrishnan decided to build a centre where he could teach sustainable practices. It would be a unique space where he could pass on his hard-learned secrets for making gourmet cheese, homemade jams and bread. The pandemic turned his plans upside down. Balakrishnan persisted, and finally built his 1500 sq.ft. getaway with a central ‘great room’ where many people can hang out. The living, dining and open kitchen spaces flow seamlessly. The high ceiling reduces heat and the roof is simply designed as one large V-shape to ensure there are no leaks. The dining furniture set is the piece-de-resistance. Says Balakrishnan, “I found a man who wanted to sell a tree! From the centre I sliced out the planks for the table and bench, and from the curved ends I made supports.” The home celebrates design with many such exquisitely planned details. The verandah around the home has a railing made with stretched high tension wire, using specially ordered parts such as turnbuckles and thimbles: “I wanted to feel like I was on a ship,” says Balakrishnan.

Wooden dining table and benches.

Wooden dining table and benches.
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

“My water heating system consumes just 25% of a regular water heater,” says Balakrishnan. The home was designed keeping in mind a solar-powered lifestyle, encouraging the user to be smart and maximise high energy use when the sun is shining and batteries can be recharged. At an altitude of 1750 metres, neither artificial heating nor cooling is required. Aside of the stunning views, wide windows provide ample natural light; powered lighting is required only after dusk.

The water for the home is pumped up from a natural pool formation. All rainwater is carefully directed through the well-designed channels to recharge groundwater. “The water is our own, and the power runs the house independently,” says Balakrishnan with pride.

Seismic zones

In northern Himalayas, builders have additional restrictions as it is a seismic zone prone to earthquakes. Shifting soil, rainfall and undulating terrain are other challenges, says architect Rahul Sen, who has built many homes in these altitudes. The rock bed in these young fold mountain regions are not evenly distributed. Keeping with world-accepted building norms for hills, Sen avoids cantilevered structures and ensures foundations that are deep and well-supported. Many of Sen’s clients prefer non-urban remote locations. While regulations in such parts are few, owners themselves show sensitivity to the environment.

As large spaces of flat land are hard to come by, following the pattern of traditional building, Sen keeps the footprint small, and builds vertically up. While his love for stone continues, Sen prefers to use natural stone where it’s needed most — for retaining walls. The building design is usually a non-load bearing column and beam structure in RCC, adapted for the hill terrain. Sloped roofs allow rainwater to be collected in storage units from 25,000 to 100,000 litres as water is a scarce commodity. The trend towards large glass windows means a non-vernacular approach; here, technology plays a major role with double glazed windows in UPVC or aluminium frames. Moving away from tiled roofs, Sen prefers shingles on a wood frame structure. Stone cladding on thick brick walls adds to the thermal mass, a balance of natural stone and practical considerations. Wood for floors and in cladding, as well as underfloor heated water in pipes help to keep the interior warm and cozy.

An Artius prefabricated home construction in progress.

An Artius prefabricated home construction in progress.
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

Prefabricated homes are easy-to-transport and quick assembly, a good option for the hills. Bhawna Sharma, co-founder of Gurugram-based Artius Interior Products Pvt. Ltd., strongly advocates wood as a building material for sustainable building practice. “Wood is not seen as a viable construction material in India, but it has very good thermal insulation.” They use a pioneering technology, Glulam, which is laminated Canadian timber, a graded material that is lightweight, structurally stable, and with similar loading capacity as concrete. Artius, previously supplying doors and windows, is now also building homes in wood up to two storeys.

The writer is a brand strategist with a background in design from SAIC and NID.

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