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Breathing Space: An architect tells us how to design an intelligent home

When I set about designing and constructing my house in Gurgaon in 2003, I needed to understand what is of real value in our lifestyle and what is simply consumerist drivel.

New Delhi |
Updated: May 24, 2015 1:00:46 am
The south side of the house The south side of the house

By Sanjay Prakash

When I set about designing and constructing my house in Gurgaon in 2003, I needed to understand what is of real value in our lifestyle and what is simply consumerist drivel. Don’t get me wrong. We enjoy sleeping in our air-conditioned bedrooms or savouring good wine, but it didn’t make sense to get an energy-guzzling clothes dryer instead of a verandah, or to transport material from halfway across the world just for an exotic-looking floor. So the task before me, as an architect, was partly to understand what would be the smart response to the climate and environment we live in.

Light and shade
Houses in Delhi can keep warm in winter without heaters and keep relatively cool in summer. We aligned large glass facades to the south and north with appropriate overhangs for summer shade, and reduced the use of glass in the east or west. With courtyards and shafts, brick jalis, and just enough glass for glare-free daylight, we ensured the house remains well-lit and ventilated. A thick earth-roofed kitchen garden over our dining room, heavy brick domes and a vault with lightweight insulation above them, were other features incorporated for this cool home.

A door made of mangoo wood and a bamboo handrail along the staircase A door made of mangoo wood and a bamboo handrail along the staircase

Going green
We used sandstone for roofs and boundary walls, green marble to termite-proof door and window frames, mango crate wood scantlings for doors, stabilised mud plaster for some walls, natural stones present in the landscape, and renewable materials like bamboo for floors and railings. We constructed domes and vaults that minimised on steel and maximised on craft. By using low-class bricks from a local kiln, terrazzo floors and Rajasthani stones, we also generated benefits for the local economy. We improvised and reused waste in a way that an old copper bowl turned into a wash basin, old patterned glass into skylights and leftover air-conditioning pipes were crafted into faucets.

Catch the rain 
We figured we could store every last drop of rooftop rainwater, filter and store it in a large (100,000 litre) underground tank and use this relatively soft water for washing and cooling. Also, since we added gravel and debris to the topsoil, when it rains, the ground soaks it up easily.

Waste not, want not
The waste water from the showers, wash basins and sinks is filtered in a corner of the garden and used in a sub-soil irrigation system. With low flow faucets, flushes and showerheads, and a dishwasher that cleans two days of dishes with water that would flow out of a kitchen faucet in 10 minutes, the house has reduced our domestic water needs by half.

Cool customer 
The house was designed to be well-insulated, light coloured (on the roof, where it matters), and its glass surfaces shaded in the summer, so it rarely requires any form of mechanical cooling till April. For the late summer and the monsoon, the house was fitted with a central air-conditioning system with stored cold water — the chilled water is produced by a commercial water chiller — that was set to deliver air-conditioning at up to 28° C, which is healthier. This system can run for a few hours on battery even when the main electricity fails.

Energy booster
CFL lights (if the house were built today, they would be LED), task lights, and carefully selected appliances make the house consume as little as 500 W most of the time, discounting air-conditioning and water heating systems, which are also low-energy consuming. This is less than the one solar lamp that was given to us as a housewarming gift and which has not been used, as it doubles the power consumption of the house.

Solar Energy
There was a token use of garden photovoltaic lights, but the hot water system is fully solar energy fed and the backup electricity required is only occasional.

Smart Food
It is not smart to reduce a lot of energy use and waste a lot of food. Therefore, our food is segregated and composted, our garden is organic, and we grow our vegetables without using pesticides. I saw butterflies in our garden for the first time in decades (I discovered later that their populations have migrated due to excessive use of chemicals in urban gardens).

All these features have nothing to do with what we conventionally regard as smart in smart buildings: automated IT-based building management systems. In the end, we have a house that suits our family well and is healthy to live in.

The writer is a Gurgaon-based architect

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