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Glass Half Full | Yatin Pandya, Footprints EARTH

Yatin Pandya is the founder of Footprints Earth, a professional service organization involved in environmental studies, architectural design, indigenous research, alternative technology, and affordable housing, located in Ahmedabad, India. He is well known for a holistic approach, engaging, environmentally sustaining, socio-culturally responsive, and contextually appropriate architecture. His vision is to create contextually relevant contemporary resolutions that are inspired by the rich Indian traditions. He has authored several books on architecture, like ‘Concepts of space in traditional architecture’, and ‘Elements of space making’.

We interviewed Yatin Pandya, to know the inside story of his journey and his projects and understand how his contribution makes the glass half full.

Tell us about your journey. What inspired you?

I have been raised in an extended family and sharing has been an integral part of my childhood. I had eleven siblings. I come from a middle-class family and resource crunch has always been around. I cherish those conditions now, for what it brings out in me. It comes naturally to me to work with limited resources and be creative.

The idea of frugality, multiplicity, and plurality has been an extension of my life.

I, naturally, searched to understand the validity of certain principles from traditional ethos and architecture. Not, because old is gold, but based on the performance criteria. Like, how people feel comfortable in absence of electricity, what were the strategies applied then. On the grounds of environmental management, how traditional architecture performs better. Yesterday’s architecture is timeless. It is important to see the principles of engagement, not to emulate those materials, elements, shapes, form, and geometries, but purely the ethos and the principles of space organisation.

This led to long research and was published as a book, ‘Concepts of Space in Traditional Indian Architecture’. The book tries to explore the architectural elements of space by creating a spatial syntax, which has an emotional overtone. Also, traditional architecture has emerged by the people, for the people, and is of the people. Hence, the end result has socio-cultural appropriateness. It knows the idea behind the style, the cultural conditioning, and the context, and hence, it emerged. That is where you distinguish between traditions and history. Traditions are a living history, whereas history is a dead tradition. I believe that in India, we don’t have a fossilised yesterday, we have a past which even continues to be part of us today. So it is as much a contemporary. The very reason it has survived is proof of those values we share even in the changing times and circumstances. These are the biases with which I have been raised. And, as an architect, it has given me the confidence to consider such approaches.

What projects would you like to talk about today? What was the idea behind those projects?

I believe in three things, for holistic development. One, which is also my mantra is ‘Inspire by yesterday, and aspire for tomorrow’. The conditioning of the past and your aspirations and know-how of tomorrow will recreate the reality of today. Second, development has to be seen from four lenses, timeless aesthetics because buildings last beyond us, socio-cultural appropriateness because you are building for someone else, environmental sustainability because your design decisions can have larger implications, and economic affordability to make things viable. And third is community participation and guided by research. These three have been the foundation on which our work stands.

Design is not about finding one answer to one question.

Rather, it is about asking many questions, finding many answers to each of the questions, and then identifying one answer that answers most questions. It is not about discretion, but about prioritisation. Against the above mentioned four lenses, how does a response or an approach measure up?

Exploration with waste materials © Footprints EARTH

I would like to talk about the approach behind those projects as well. It is by the scale and the contextual conditions, that the answer differs project to project. Overarching principles remain the same. I will run through three projects of various scales.

The first, Ujasiyu, meaning light and ventilation in Gujarati, a product that could be inserted into slum houses for natural daylight and ventilation. The slum houses, to optimise the land, tend to share three sides of their house with the neighbours. This often results in dark, gloomy, and dingy rooms, that are not optimally used and affects their home-based economy. Even during daylight, they had to use electricity to light the rooms, which is a burden for them. Mahila Housing Trust approached us to find solutions for these beneficiaries and to take care of the ventilation and natural daylight. After surveys and research, we came up with ‘Ujasiyu’, an FRP dormer window with jali on the sides, where the users have to simply replace a part of their existing GI sheets with Ujasiyu. The hot air rises and escapes from the dormer gap. The translucent sheet gives one enough daylight. Two years ago, we won the UN World Habitat Awards (2017 Special Mention) for the same. Ujasiyu, a small intervention changed the quality of life for the slum dwellers.

Ujasiyu, a light and ventilation insert for slums © Footprints EARTH

The second, Manav Sadhna Activity Centre, also happens to be an intervention in a slum but of a different scale. Manav Sadhna, an NGO, approached us for an activity center in the slums in Ramapir Tekra, Ahmedabad. Most women in the community are involved in rag-picking. A brief was given for the project, mornings it was to function as a school, afternoons to be used to give vocational training to young girls to help them with better employment opportunity, and evenings it was supposed to be a community space for senior citizens to tell stories, celebrate festivities or even can be used as a medical camp venue. We researched the solid waste imperative. Indian society has a history of recycling. Hence, we started studying the kinds of wastes, the ones that can and cannot be easily recycled. For example, one study showed that the discarded glass bottles were crushed and then taken to Uttar Pradesh to be recycled. The slum houses, the materials they were built with, and the costs they bared, became the benchmark for our designs. Not only the design has to be better performing and aesthetically pleasing, but it also has to be cost-effective. Our projects became a collage of demonstrations.

Manav Sadhna Activity Centre © Footprints EARTH

We made multiple iterations for every architectural element in the center and demonstrated it. If we wanted to make a wall, one option was to use fly ash, but instead of sand, we used debris received from the waste dumping site. It was a different kind of brick, not structurally load-bearing but could be used as a partition wall in a frame structured building as a cheaper alternative. It was majorly made out of waste. Likewise, we developed a block made out of fly-ash, that is stronger than the regular brick, a non-baked earth block with 5 percent cement binder, plastic water bottles filled with materials thumb pressured inside it and stained glass bottles used as an external wall to reduce glare from the west or could be used as jali when left unsealed. Similarly, we experimented with floorings, windows, louvers, door panelling, roof, filler slab, etc. We used a variety of wastes in our design, like metal scraps, old pieces of doors and windows, digital wastes like CD, keyboards, uncooked diyas, etc. You see, a plastic bottle melted for recycling versus plastic bottle becoming a Rs.2 worth of brick. This is what we wanted to demonstrate. We used waste material to turn it into better performing, aesthetically pleasing as well as economically cheaper than other options of equivalent performance that they would have used. It is an active centre, that adapts itself in multiple ways to function well in a setting like slums.

Illustrations for Manav Sadhna Activity Centre © Footprints EARTH

The third, Gandhi nu gam at Ludiya, is about a post-earthquake rehabilitation project. We were involved in eighteen villages of Kutch in remote desert-like locations, close to Pakistan border. We worked with various NGO’s to help rebuild the settlements. We wanted to have participatory design and construction practices, to help their livelihood and they could build as they want. Also, we were looking at the wisdom of tradition, and bring in the knowledge and techniques of today. The settlement compromised of Harijans, who are not the landowners in that region. Cumulatively, the settlement wanted grasslands for their cattle and closer proximity to their relatives. A 5-7 feet depression was made to get the soil and make the soil blocks onsite, with 5% cement and manually pressed ram. Ten youths could produce 3000 blocks every day, 300 per person and they earned livelihood doing this. We developed a layout through a participatory process, to choose their neighbours, west-facing home. We had an area of 400 sq.m. per family, each plot was to have two bhungas and one chowki. For every bhunga, they earned Rs.3000, therefore earning a livelihood. George Fernandes, the then defense minister, visited and said that if they did not settle here, we would have lost a settlement near the border, weakening the defense strategy. The houses eventually came out to be structurally stronger as compared to stone and concrete houses. Also, smokeless chuhlas were introduced, as many people had lung-related problems due to it being a sandy area and the use of wood chuhlas in the interiors. We also put solar panels in one of the bhungas to ensure light in at least one room in the house. Slowly, their economics improved.

Gandhi nu Gam, Ludiya © Footprints EARTH

I would like to say one thing, “We can add value to improve the quality of life, and empower gender, empower people, masses. But to do so, rather than giving Gandhian currency the value, let us make Gandhian value the currency and we can achieve this.”

How have your projects made the glass half full? All three projects have made the glass half full in some way or the other. The scales are different, but they have managed to help the community positively. Like, Ujasiyu has miraculously transformed their lives, with more than a few hundred houses who have already installed it. The same has been replicated in Bhopal. Recorded evidence shows that because of this intervention, there has been a reduction of Rs.252-350 per month on their electricity bill. And, the self-employed women in the home-based economy have managed to increase their economic productivity by Rs. 1200-1500 a month.

The people have now made it as a status symbol now, and they say, “Jaha Ujasiyu hoga, waha beti ki shadi karayenge.”

Manav Sadhna Activity Centre © Footprints EARTH

And, Manav Sadhna Community Centre has become one of the most active centers in the slum settlements. Government programs are conducted there. And all festivals, like Janmashtmi, Navratri, Christmas, are celebrated here. One of the extensions was to turn that area into a creche, so that when both parents go out for labour, the local ayas, nannies from the same settlement can look after children. They also earn Rs. 85 a day for this and it becomes a livelihood for them. We also had a tub put there so they could also take a bath. Through the day they get to wash clean, hear stories, play, talk. We even installed a door made out of scrap material. This way a change came and it was very spontaneous. We won nine national and international awards.

Community has developed a sense of ownership towards the place.

Gandhi nu Gam, Ludiya © Footprints EARTH

And, at Gandhi nu gam, the participatory process helped the people accept the design at peace. It wasn’t imposed on them. They developed it, they built it, and they earned livelihood for the work they did. In this process, construction turned out to be cheaper, Rs.75 per sq.ft. At that point in time, it would usually cost Rs.250-350 per sq ft. of construction cost. Also, the youngest members of the family now learned the craft of building traditional mud houses and conical thatch roofs, which are quite complicated. So, the know-how has passed on to the newer generation, which would have otherwise died out. They are now also cashing on the Gujarat tourism campaign ‘Kuch din to guzaro Gujarat me’ where they offer their traditional houses. as short term stays.

These projects have transformed their lives, little by little everyday and they stand as a stronger community today. This has been the glass half full for me.

What message would you like to share for our readers?

The pandemic has taught us frugality, humility, plurality, and sustainability. It has shown us that the same people and the same world is a better place to live in when undue disturbances are removed. Like, when there were no cars on the streets and no polluting factories, we saw the quality of air and water change, we saw flora and fauna come back on the streets. The pandemic, although an unfortunate event, has proved to be a great equalizer, throughout the world. Political ideology, geographic locations, GDP, might of the knowledge and strength of the defense, nothing helped us fight the situation better than humanity and the values in living with nature. One saw the value of family, of living together, of caring and sharing. One must carry forward the learnings from the pandemic.

I want to reiterate my mantra, ‘Inspire from yesterday, and aspire for tomorrow”.

India has the wisdom of several thousand years. We must learn from that, find its contemporary relevance, and apply it as our solution for the future. We will be able to create a better world.


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