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Thursday, 27 January 2011






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If something still has some value, better not discard it:

Keen on green

Remember old Mother Hubbard who lived in a shoe? Remember the cottage made of bread and cake where lived a wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel? Things are not that different in the real world either. If you happen to visit Boston, Massachusetts, you will come across the house built by Elis F. Stenman entirely from old newspapers. Near the frontier between Argentina and Brazil there is said to be a house built with used plastic bottles and Tetrapak cartons. Closer to home, Professor Sarath Kotagama lives in an abode built by Architect Kapila Sugathadasa, where 70 to 80 percent of the building material happens to be the “refuse” of other people’s houses.

Seemingly echoing Prof Kotagama’s doctrine of “refuse, reduce, recycle, reuse”, judging by the number of antique shops lining the roadsides these days, displaying old doors, windows, bricks, tiles, joists and soffit (to use builder’s jargon), all waiting to be given a new life in new ways, it is evident that building one’s home using salvage material is fast becoming a fad. Even as (real) environmentalists christen these “doing as the joneses do” types as accidental saviors of planet earth, who are we to complain if this means saving earth’s dwindling resources?

Yet, according to Architect Vijitha Basnayake, using recycled material for new buildings can hardly be called a fad, well, not a new one anyway. “Recycling is nothing new”. Explains Basnayake. “Recycled material were used even in ancient buildings. Romans used recycled materials of older Greek buildings in their constructions. King Nissankamalla used material taken from early buildings in his own constructions in Polonnaruwa”.

Basnayake, who has used recycled material in 70 percent of the buildings he created, believes money can be saved in more ways than one when you fall back on used housing material. A recycled brick, for example, is half the price of a new brick and financial costs can be further minimized by using unconventional used materials such as “discarded cable trunking” for the floors.

Kabok walls

Windows made from recycled wood

He dismisses the view that going green might mean the construction work will take more time to complete with the assurance there is no difference in the time factor and that “No extra time is required”. The only negative point he sees in turning green and using recycled material when building your home is the fact that “some antique dealers and builders encourage people to demolish nice old buildings to take the beautiful old building components. This is a big loss. Using antiques and reusing building materials are two different things.”


In other words, what ought to be considered as recycled material should be, not the antiques, that have acquired a prestige of their own because of rarity, but the material that belong to the middle ground, the doors, bricks, and timber that are not new and have not acquired the status of being “antique”.

Listen to Chandana Ranathunga, a constructor with over ten years experience in the building industry, who recently completed a three storied house in Battaramulla where 80 percent of the material used was taken from a house that was about to be demolished, and you would think nothing could be more satisfying, economical and fun than reusing old building materials to build a new house.

“It is satisfying to know every effort, no matter how small, can still help a lot in saving our only earth. Using recycled items is one way of saving the remaining natural resources,” explains Ranathunga and adds “when it comes to finances, it is less expensive when you use recycled material. Here in Sri Lanka, most old buildings were made of kabok and I know from experience that these kabok bricks are hardier than the engineering bricks used in conventional constructions.” But what about the stigma attached to the material obtained from old, deteriorating houses? The bad spirits that might come with the used doors and windows, (the vass dos) which might cause harm to the dwellers of the new house?

Ranathunga throws his head back and laughs. “This is all bunkum. I have used recycled material to renovate my own home and nothing bad has happened to me”.(Touchwood!). The house he built for a client in Battaramulla, at first glance looks like any other house in the vicinity, but when he explains where every part came from, it is somehow hard to believe that everything from the wooden gate to the cabok on the walls, to the railings on the staircase are the salvaged materials from a knocked down house in Kaduwela.

This is surely the best method to adopt if you too are thinking of building a house of your own in the near future. Why allow houses and old buildings to be smashed to smithereens when there is so much to be gained in reusing them to construct a new dwelling? And when you do, you will not only be saving money, but preventing deforestation as the virtue of recycling used building materials lies in diminishing the need for the building industry to recreate it.

All of the energy that is spent in manufacturing can be saved. The raw materials that would be drawn from the earth can be saved. And at the end of the day, even though when you enter the sitting room of your new house built from earth-friendly old material you might get the pleasant yet uncanny feeling you have stepped back in time to your grandma’s drawing room, you are bound to gain an unmeasurable sense of satisfaction from the knowledge that, not only have you been standing still when it comes to saving planet earth, the only home we have got, but you have been moving in the right direction. So, save this newspaper. Who knows one day you might use it to build the walls of your new house.

Here is your chance to be the change you want the world to be.


‘Greed must give rise to need’

Architect Anura Ratnavibhushana, one of the first proteges of Geoffrey Bawa, and the author of “Creating Simplicity: An illustrated autobiography of a Sri Lankan Architect”, who, even though he does not “as a style incorporate salvage material” in his designs, has built his own house by the Lunawa Lagoon using a few recycled material, states his views on the topic, thus.

What are your views on reusing material rescued from old buildings to build new homes?

It’s a sensible idea and has been practised in a popular way since Geoffrey Bawa and his brother Bevis initiated it way back in their own homes in the 1950s and sometimes later. Periodically, up to recent times some architects have consciously used salvage materials incorporated with modern materials with very pleasing results.

Sometimes the idea has been over used without sensitivity, I believe, producing aesthetically poor results in a hodge-podge appearance. I think people like Bawa used old pillars, doors and windows retaining the age and patina including layers of weathered paint rather than cleaning them & polishing them to pretend that they are new. I think it is a mistake to lose the patina of age when installing them as salvaged materials. Archt Anjalendran and myself, as well as others have followed this example when the client desired such effects.

The Colombo Hunupitiya, Gangarama Buddhist temple is a living example even today of the reuse of salvaged material not only as mentioned above, but including salvage steel-work, bricks, ceramics and a variety of other salvaged building components, though in a crowded manner.

Is this method as environmental friendly as everyone believes it to be?

Yes, it is. But in a very limited sense. Because being environmentally friendly is a much more complex issue involving many other factors and conditions that need to be fulfilled. I must add that this phrase “environmentally friendly” to my mind and reading, is a much abused and hyped-up phrase often concealing greedy commercial aspirations, in competition with like-minded others!

Will deciding to go green mean more time and more money?

This is probably true in situations where building from scratch using minimal materials (avoiding wastage) could be cheaper depending on whether it’s done intelligently rather than as a gimmick. On the other hand deciding to go green honestly and intelligently could be cheaper in the long term, if the thinking is based on CLIMATE and resources sustainability.

I must confess that this is my own opinion at present and I could be wrong. Because climate sustainability is the real issue that need to be addressed in every thing that humans do from now on and the factors that circumscribe it are numerous and complex and changing rapidly as we speak. So you may ask me, then what do we do in constructing our shelters and cities?

The answer probably lies in all the great religious teachings of the world. Our thinking has to change so that we only take the minimum that we require from the planet and give back to it something in return. In other words, Greed must give way to need! before we can design Green Architecture or anything for that matter. We will profit by reading, Judge C. Weeramantry’s recent book - “Tread Lightly On The Earth”.

As I answer you, my mind asks me the question what then is truly sustainable? Is it a humble agricultural peasants dwelling in the Wanni? Or is it salvage material urban shanty? Or something more robust and sophisticated? I confess, I cannot give a precise answer yet. But our search needs to be mindful of the principle of treading lightly on the earth.

In your opinion what are the plus points and what are the negative points of building a “Green Home” using recycled material?

Some of the Plus points are :-

a) Un-perished old materials are usually superior in quality and longer lasting than similar products now. This is specially true of old timber furniture, fittings, steel work, stone work etc.

b) In the hand of sensitive designers and clients, old salvaged beautiful materials and building components can produce a particularly Sri Lankan flavour that is culturally and historically a link that enhances contemporary architecture.

c) Building designs that sensitively use beautiful columns doors etc.

that are salvaged tend to look culturally part and parcel of our country. Although modern buildings can also be designed with a Sri Lankan ambience without using any visible salvaged artifacts.

d) Some overseas experiments demonstrate buildings done out of re-cycled modern materials (plastics etc) with tremendous fresh appearance.

Negative points can be a) Beautiful, well proportioned wooden pillars, doors and windows today cost far more than an equivalent element/component done from scratch using reasonably good materials available today, and incorporating them with modern work can cause time delays and procurement and installation problems that need to be addressed. The modern contractors work-speed and logistics do not always permit experimentation to include old materials, in my view except in specific examples.

e) Combining salvaged artifacts with contemporary design styles without an understanding of good design will usually end with aesthetically weak and pretentious visual results. In some instances buildings can also look jerry-built and like junk yard, unless expertly designed.

Minimize your carbon footprint

Your carbon footprint is the sum total of the CO2 emissions, expressed in kg, that your personal lifestyle causes that effects climate change. Reducing your carbon footprint is the practice of making lifestyle changes to minimize the greenhouse gases that we individually produce.

A carbon footprint is comprised of two parts, a primary footprint which denotes your direct involvement in CO2 emissions and represents the energy that you burn in your home and in personal transportation. And your secondary print which is an indicator of your indirect involvement and entails things such as public transportation and any other public services that you may utilize.

Reducing your carbon footprint is a matter of limiting the activities that you perform that involve CO2 emissions.

Calculators are available online from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy as well as other international organizations that estimate your responsibility in manufacturing greenhouse gases. They calculate your environmental impact in the home and at your place of work.

By estimating the amount of CO2 emissions that we produce on a daily basis and pinpointing its origins we can work to make changes in our daily routine to make our actions more eco-friendly.

The results of analyzing your daily routine can be directly applied toward a carbon management strategy to more easily reduce your carbon footprint. The methods of CO2 reduction are common, lower thermostats, insulate your home, drive your car less, things like that. While no one can reduce their carbon footprint completely, steps can be taken to live as harmoniously with nature as we can instead of overpowering her. Carbon offset is another technique in the green movement that is used when reduction is not an option. Offset are projects that are energy efficient and have credits applied, it is a condition that is known as “carbon neutral.”

Get more information on improving your home with a solar energy system. There’s a wealth of information on making your home more energy efficient so you can continue to live a comfortable life style whilst cutting your utility bills.


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