Disaster-proofing houses naturally

Disaster-proofing houses naturally

Natural calamities have become a rule rather than exceptions staring at the face of global societies and governments today. Thanks to climate change and human exploitation of nature, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes etc which were rare occurrences have become daily affairs over the globe, taking civilisations back by decades.  

Pre-monsoon storms in the northern plains in 2018 killed 200, injured 400 and damaged 1,800 houses in UP and Rajasthan. The devastating floods in Kerala last year put the state on the disaster map of the world. Rains also lashed Kodagu, razing 840 houses and damaging many besides claiming lives.

The intensity of recent tornados in Havana, Cuba — which even the tornado-prone place had not witnessed in 80 years — was baffling!

Natural disasters could be gradual ones like sea erosions, melting ice caps and sinking localities or sudden calamities like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods etc. But both these types pose a two-pronged challenge. While the immediate first includes saving as many people as possible and putting their lives back on track, the latter task is comparatively longer and arduous.

Disaster warnings save lives and movable assets to a great extent but houses and other structures bear the brunt of nature’s fury. Disasters play havoc with every aspect of life like health, livelihood, morale etc, but more so housing, restoring which is a costly, long drawn- out localised activity in the aftermath of the calamity.

Apart from the cost and time involved in reconstruction, the debris left behind by damaged buildings is an additional burden on overflowing landfills. Moreover, rehabilitating victims in their own houses is easier economically, socially and psychologically than in far-flung places because human societies need not only shelters but socio-economic infrastructure. Innovative, sustainable and affordable disaster-proof housing offers a solution to the problem.

For long, local weather, available materials, customs and culture have always dictated housing. Brick-tiled roofs to cool the interiors in summer, sloping roofs to drain off rainwater, jharokas (small latticed windows) like in the Hawa Mahal of Jaipur, thick walls, covered patios, courtyards, metal roofing, tiles and panels preventing sunlight from entering the houses during summers and facilitating air circulation under reflective roofs, open spaces inside houses for group activities — all point towards this.

Now, however, it is the turn of natural disasters to define housing specifications. Ever since man outgrew his nomadic phase and made caves his home, an element of permanency is attached to houses because of their fixed nature.

Yet, an unusual feature of housing in earthquake-prone Japan is the presumed limited lifespan of houses and rebuilding them. Houses, except kitchens and bathrooms have no designations and spaces are divided using sliding doors made of wood and paper — perhaps, to minimise casualties and deal with them better.

Closer home, Munroe Thuruthu, an island in Kerala, subject to sinking during high tides — flooding the houses, leaving them stinking as waters recede, disrupting connectivity and livelihood — stumbled upon the concept of disaster-proof amphibious houses using light water-resistant material. First of its kind in the country, these houses built on slits rise over the water level during floods without floating. They can be transported as single units too.

Building with bamboo

Innovations are relevant in connection to construction materials, too. India is the second largest producer of bamboo and has a huge potential to use them in construction. Bamboo reduces cost by 50% and cools the insides considerably.

Superior to timber, flexible yet strong and enjoying half the tensile strength of steel and twice the compression strength of concrete, it is an excellent eco-friendly construction material. Fast-growing bamboos emit oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide much more than trees. Earthquake, typhoon and storm-resistant, bamboos, if treated and designed well could be the modern trend.

Recycle and reuse are modern mantras. Container homes, designed from out-of-use steel shipping containers is a good way to get the best from waste. Houses of all sizes and shapes could be created using the big lego blocks in a short time as construction takes place in factories to suit the prepared foundations. 

Many discarded materials could be put to use — for instance, discarded glass duly processed could be put to use as concrete sealers, reducing building costs considerably. 

Architecture which has gone a long way in catering to every budget, class, age group, tastes and needs has a new task ahead of it. Disaster-proof housing is the need of the hour!