Building by nature’s rules

Breathe easy: Kolkata-based French architect Laurent Fournier builds brick domes without bamboo supports using the help of Muzaffarnagar artisans. Photo: Laurent Fournier

Breathe easy: Kolkata-based French architect Laurent Fournier builds brick domes without bamboo supports using the help of Muzaffarnagar artisans. Photo: Laurent Fournier

All smiles: Kolkata based French architect builds structures that stand in harmony with the environment. Photo: Laurent Fournier

All smiles: Kolkata based French architect builds structures that stand in harmony with the environment. Photo: Laurent Fournier

Happy walls: A school in Sunderbans is being built using bamboo, brick and mud. Photo: Laurent Fournier

Happy walls: A school in Sunderbans is being built using bamboo, brick and mud. Photo: Laurent Fournier

A building is a non-green operation from the start. There can only be ‘green actions’ where the owner’s lifestyle and the skills of the builder are in harmony with the environment

On his 18th birthday, Laurent Fournier was gifted the 1973 book Shelter by Lyod Kahn. The book, which sold over 250,000 copies, had led to the green building revolution in the West. Its emphasis on a counterculture that entailed building your own shelter and drawing from indigenous styles jumped off the pages for Fournier, sparking a lifelong passion for building shelters that stood in harmony with the local environment, both in design and spirit.

In 2003, after a decade of working on projects in India and Paris, and a year after he had graduated with a degree in architecture from Paris, he moved to Kolkata for good. Fournier, 51, has built a variety of homes, schools, ashrams, NGO offices, workplaces and micro cold storages across Paris, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. Fournier spoke to BLink on why ‘green’ is the most misunderstood word, and the principles that drive his design.

Excerpts from the interview:





Cities are becoming concrete jungles. Temperatures are rising. Urbanisation has meant a huge influx of migrant population in need for safe, quality, durable housing solutions. Can eco-friendly architecture make a difference?

First of all, we cannot separate ‘eco-friendly’ from other considerations such as ‘safe’, ‘durable’, ‘quality’; to which we can add ‘affordable’, ‘convenient’, ‘comfortable’ and ‘beautiful’. No material is eco-friendly by itself. Even a mud wall is not so in a place where the ground has plenty of stones and little soil. Concrete can be eco-friendly if it is used rationally. For example, a concrete tie allows for much thinner walls, and is therefore an important saving in terms of the quantity of mud, stone or brick used. Even glass can be eco-friendly when it allows in natural light and blocks cold wind during winter. But the question is deeper than that: Can construction ever be eco-friendly? It is fascinating to see how almost all the materials that we use are a result of eons of life processes on earth. Lime is the result of animals which have made calcium available to us using their skeletons, and clay is the result of acidic decomposition of rock and silt by the roots of trees. Bamboo, timber and straw are dead plant matter.

Actually, ‘green buildings’ do not exist. A building is already a non-green operation from the beginning. There can only be ‘green actions’, for which the behaviour of the owner, the skills of the artisans and the architect, all contribute to a design consistent with a sustainable lifestyle. This is specific to a time, place, society, family or person. Safety perceptions and concerns can be bridged only with a dedicated client. A client who wanted a thatched roof but was worried about Diwali firecrackers setting it ablaze, decided to invest in installing a sprinkler on his roof that can be operated during Diwali.

Give some examples of your eco-friendly constructions that suit India’s hot climate.

I built the meditation room in Asha Niketan, a multi-faith ashram, in one of my first projects in Calcutta, in 1992, using just brick and cement. People loved it for its simplicity and the strikingly colourful cement flooring that reflected four colours.

One year ago, I started designing the College for Indigenous Food and Culture in Odisha. This building is unique for its stone masonry and use of very little concrete. We built shallow brick domes here, with bamboo shutterings, with the help of master masons from Muzaffarnagar, from whom I learnt this technique. The masons were riot victims rehabilitated by the Hunnarshala Foundation, which discovered their splendid skills. At Kalyani and Baruipur I’ve helped build these domes without bamboo, with mortar used as glue, and the arches simply balance one another. The technique is common to the age-old Asian tradition of building vaults. This is eco-friendly because you save up to a third on material costs. Of course, the highly skilled technique incurs more labour cost, but labour is eco-friendly. It is materials that pollute.

I completed a school in the Sunderbans in February this year using raw bamboo with just the edges grouted with steel rods. Bamboo is commonly used to build Durga Puja pandals. Grouting the edges allows it to join firmly with concrete. Other techniques I’ve employed include building one-foot-thick thatched roofs in Baruipur that use densely packed straw — nearly four times the usual quantity. This way the roofs last 15 years. I learnt this from Maatha Chaaj, an artisan’s collective from Bhuj. I also made a cold storage in Nadia using mud and bamboo.

We have to realise that in a degraded environment, there are strong limitations to what a single, small building can achieve in terms of comfort by natural means. If the neighbourhood is devoid of trees and the air is full of dust and soot from diesel exhaust, maybe the only eco-friendly action would be to plant and nurture a tree.

Are there some no-nos that you adhere to?

I never use asbestos even though it’s cheap. I don’t try to save on labour. I don’t use Chlorpyrifose (an insecticide) or other chemicals except boric acid. I refuse to indulge in grossly illegal activities such as filling-up ponds or building on wetlands, constructing buildings right up to the boundary wall, or interior refurbishment in a structurally dangerous building. All these are real assignments that I have politely refused in Kolkata. The architectural community is not in such a bad financial shape that they can’t afford to refuse such illegal and disgusting jobs.

Is environmental consciousness depleting?

On the contrary, there is a genuine demand for more meaningful and responsible architecture. Earlier I would have to camouflage my green design decisions using aesthetics as a cover. People would criticise my designs, calling them ‘experiments’. Today, I no longer have to hide. For the young, the environment is no more just a fringe interest. They’re beginning to care.

Published on June 23, 2017

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