Empty plastic bottles, wooden crates that hold perishable goods and fly ash are considered waste by many but one architect has turned them into strong building materials.

Meet Ahmedabad-based practitioner Yatin Pandya, an author, activist, academician and researcher who has been involved in city planning, urban design, mass housing, interior design and conservation projects for many years.

The 56-year-old is the founder of Footprints E.A.R.T.H. (Environment, Architecture, Research, Technology, Housing), a professional service organisation.

Yatin was one of the speakers at the Datum Conference organised by Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia held in Kuala Lumpur last month.

He believes that holistic architecture should be “experientially engaging, environmentally sustaining, socio-culturally responsive and most importantly, contextually appropriate”.

“As an architect, I feel we are triply responsible, first because we are altering the landscape and we have to be responsible for what we have changed,” says Yatin, during an interview at the conference.

Yatin believes that holistic architecture should be environmentally sustaining, socio-culturally responsive and contextually appropriate. Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan

Yatin believes that holistic architecture should be environmentally sustaining, socio-culturally responsive and contextually appropriate. Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan

“Second, the building industry accounts for 42% of energy use, and a quarter of material consumption, production of waste and pollutants. So again, we have to be aware of the design decisions we make, so that they have less impact on the environment and the resources we consume.

“Third, what we do lasts beyond us, so even our mistakes can perpetuate. Finally, architects never work for themselves, but always for somebody else. So what we do has to be socially and culturally appropriate for the user group,” adds Yatin, who holds a Master of Architecture from McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

The author of Concepts Of Space In Traditional Indian Architecture and Elements Of Space Making has also written over 200 articles in national and international journals.

He has won over 25 national and international awards for architectural design, research, as well as dissemination.

Ahmedabad is the sixth largest city in India which produces 2,600 metric tonnes of waste every day, despite a good tradition of recycling.

In 2004, Yatin did extensive research for over three years on the possibilities of using both industrial and municipal waste in construction that would help preserve the environment, be of low cost to address rural and urban housing requirements, as well as create job opportunities.

“There are a few advantages to this – less pollution; value addition from the waste being turned into meaningful products; involving people in the transformation process of turning waste into meaningful products; and (the creation of) something cheaper and better to improve the housing and built environment,” explains Yatin.

One example is how he used empty water bottles filled with fly ash – a by-product of electricity generating plants in India that are powered by charcoal energy – as brick substitutes.

“Nobody gives even five cents for the empty plastic bottles but with parties, wedding events and restaurants, there are thousands being thrown every day. We filled them with inert materials like fly ash or dust and they were as good as a brick, which otherwise would have cost 2.5 to three rupees,” he shares.

Yatin and his team worked with elderly widows in one of the settlements in Ahmedabad to fill these bottles with about 95% fly ash and the rest with lime or cement, giving them the chance to earn a livelihood.

A waste material, flyash form brick walls when mixed with lime, gypsum and sand at the Manavsadhna activity centre.

These bottle-bricks were used to build walls at the eight-year-old Manavsadhna activity centre in Ahmedabad, which was constructed using various recycled waste materials. So far, these materials have worked well, even during the monsoon season.

The multiple award-winning centre also used discarded oil tin containers cut into blades that act as louvres in ventilators.

Another west-facing wall was constructed with liquor bottles, the stain from the glass bottles cutting down on the glare from the sun.Being a slum area, many people thought the kids might break some of the bottles but, so far, Yatin says none have been broken by them.

“We are not making anybody guinea pigs. First, we make sure it’s bacteria free, even though we use waste from the dump site. Secondly, these materials actually have the same performance as conventional materials, such as load carrying.

“Third, they should be cheaper or at the same cost as secondary materials but better performing. So that was the criteria we started with,” he explains.

Yatin and his team also made partition walls out of wooden crates (used to ship vegetables and fruits) and steel frames, and panelling out of digital waste comprising used or corrupted CDs.

Building values

The Environmental Sanitation Institute (1997) was another of Yatin’s projects that drew upon common sense and traditional wisdom in its architecture.

Most of its spaces do not have air-conditioning, despite India’s hot weather of up to 45 degrees Celsius.

The Manavsadhna activity centre in Ahmedabad was built using various recycled waste materials like wooden crates supported by steel frames used as partition walls.

The Manavsadhna activity centre in Ahmedabad was built using various recycled waste materials like wooden crates supported by steel frames used as partition walls.

The institute uses only one tenth the usual electricity consumption of a similar-sized centre and also one tenth the norm of a green building recommendation.

It manages its own waste by creating biogas generation out of toilet waste.

Half of the toilets generate blue-flame gas used for cooking, while the other half is linked to a natural, plant-based system of waste water treatment involving rhizome, where the water is pumped back for flushing purposes.

The centre also features solar passive and solar active strategies, using solar power to cook and heat up water.

“Before any talk on green or sustainable architecture, this was the common sense architecture of creating alternative sanitation options for millions of families because a centralised waterborne system could not work.

“India has 6,000 years of habitation history but electricity only existed a century and a half ago. However, people were living comfortably without air conditioners. Some of the vernacular houses now are very comfortable to live in despite it being 47 degrees outside.

“So what kind of principles of aesthetics, environmental management, structural sturdiness and socio-cultural appropriateness can be learnt from that?” he says.

One of Footprints’ latest charity projects is with the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad.

Working with a few companies under their corporate social responsibility projects, Footprints is upgrading and giving new life to five dilapidated buildings while maintaining the character and historical heritage of those buildings.

Footprints also restored a 99-year-old primary teachers’ college and hostel called Somnath Chhatralaya, located within the Gandhi Ashram premise itself.

The hostel received a special jury commendation in the Heritage Architecture category of the NDTV (New Delhi Television) Design and Architecture Awards 2015.

“On one hand, it’s about heritage conservation, on the other, it’s about the value propagation which Gandhi put in place,” says Yatin.

The Manavsadhna activity centre in Ahmedabad was built using various recycled waste materials.

The Manavsadhna activity centre in Ahmedabad was built using various recycled waste materials.

In 2001, Footprints was also involved in the resettlement work of various villages after the 7.9 Richter earthquake in Gujarat, which left 20,000 dead and over 100,000 displaced.

Yatin and his team stayed and worked in the epicentre, reorganising the villages in a fully participatory manner by asking the villagers who they wanted as neighbours.

He says: “We learnt their old way of life and kept the constants that were relevant, from location of new sites, organisation of clusters between neighbours, to their nature of work.”

In total, they worked on 18 villages, each exhibiting their own unique reconstruction techniques and materials, ranging from adobe mud huts to stone-based living quarters.

“The misconception is that tradition is anti-modern. If we can piggy ride tradition as contemporary, it can still become a positive solution.

“As an architect, if you do your job well, with certain concerns and an open mind, you can actually influence a much larger part of the population,” he adds.

Yatin feels there is no good or bad building but rather, appropriate or inappropriate to place and people.

“There are three kinds of obligations any architect has to create – timeless aesthetics because buildings last beyond you; socio-cultural appropriateness because it’s always for somebody to live in; and environmental efficiency because we are responsible for energy, material, space and all resource consumption.”