Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India, 2002-2004
After years of working in marginalized, informal communities in Mexico, Auroville, an international community in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, presented a dramatic change of venue for the Design/Build Mexico program. Started in 1962 by Europeans studying the teachings of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, the city was founded on the principles of Sri Aurobindo’s most influential student, The Mother. She envisioned Auroville as an international center of human unity that would one day have 50,000 inhabitants. Today it has 1500 permanent residents from six continents, 30 percent of whom are Indian, and covers about five square miles of land. It is well-funded by both private and public institutions, and residents combine these resources to do karma yoga, or life work, directed towards furthering the city’s development. They interpret the goal of human unity in a number of ways, including cultural and environmental sustainability and social equality and awareness. The community’s most famous work is the forty-year ongoing reforestation effort it undertook upon incorporation, which began in the immediate vicinity and later spread all over the state of Tamil Nadu. Auroville is credited with completely revitalizing the landscape of this state through the planting of millions of trees.
Auroville is still largely rural, and rather than developing within a framework of infrastructure, seems to grow in small unrelated parcels when specific funding is granted. The Mother’s vision included a section of the city that will be the international district, providing housing and meeting space for visitors from around the world. In 2001 several donors gave money for the construction of a U.S. pavilion. A previous delegation of students from the University of Washington Comparative History of Ideas program heard about the project and put Auroville representatives in touch with Design/Build Mexico.
The decision to accept this project for the 2002 Design/Build studio was not easy. For years we had been working in very poor communities where our contributions fulfilled serious needs. Auroville is a well-funded community surrounded by people in serious need, and the well-funded portion would be the clients for this project. On the other hand the site, like most of Auroville, was completely without infrastructure and this building would challenge our students to provide energy, water, and waste solutions that would test the Design/Build program’s commitment to environmental sustainability. We asked the Auroville representatives to find funding for a similar project that would benefit the local villages, thereby establishing a better link between this international community and the Indian community and better fulfilling our commitment to cultural sustainability. But the funds available had been donated with specific instructions, and the Americas Pavilion was the only opportunity they could offer. In the end we accepted, believing that the chance to build a completely sustainable building (which requires immense start-up funds) in the context of an extremely poor country was not likely to present itself again.
Bringing students to India proved to be very different than Mexico. While India is much less technologically developed, it has a lot of people and therefore ample labor and ample red tape. It was first the red tape that made an impression. In Mexico students had been able to design the building during a two-week-long charrette held when we first arrived. As soon as they finished designing, we would break ground. Working in informal settlements, we avoided any formal design review or official supervision; like most squatters, we simply built on the land the community has designated and Mexico’s unique land ownership laws allowed for this. In Auroville we had to submit plans for approval well in advance of construction, and this meant scheduling our design charrette for the summer preceding the program. Students met without ever having seen the site to design a building for a culture they couldn’t possibly understand. The challenges were immense.
In September of 2001, a delegation of four faculty members—Jim Adamson, Steve Badanes, and Jason Manges—traveled to India to present the students’ design to the Auroville review panel and to research practical construction matters. They returned with mixed news: construction looked good, building plans didn’t. The panel of Aurovilleans overseeing the project felt that the building didn’t express the identity of Auroville. Nonetheless they provisionally approved the building. This bought us the time we needed to redesign when we arrived in India with the students.
Geographically and culturally India is much further from the U.S. than Mexico, so our normal breakneck pace had to be slowed upon arrival in Auroville. The first order of business was allowing students time to get their feet on the ground. Once everyone was settled with living quarters and bicycles for transportation, we visited the site and started rethinking this building. By week two we were building.
The site struck us initially as large, flat, and dry. It is about a quarter mile off the nearest dirt road, but could be reached by an informal yak trail. There was only one building visible from the site, the Tibetan Pavilion, another member of the future Auroville international district. This was by far the flattest, most empty site we’d ever been given. The first challenge for the students was to design a building that would anchor itself in the landscape and culture of Auroville, so we wouldn’t end up with a figural mass floating in an empty field. The students used the metaphor of an Indian banyan tree as the dominant building concept. Trees in general have immense symbolic importance in Auroville thanks to the years of reforestation work and, because the city is planned around a giant banyan tree, this species is considered spiritually important by the mother. Our site had several small trees on its periphery, but was largely still used for cattle grazing and therefore was primarily unvegetated.
The building is a series of four small dorm rooms set beneath a giant, separate super-roof, which creates the same quality of an “outdoor room” that a banyan tree provides in this climate. The building has the usual east-west linear orientation, presenting its broad front to the soft sunlight from the north. The super-roof shades most of the hot Indian sun, allowing penetration only at dusk and dawn. The dorms rooms are built of heavy, earthy materials: mud bricks and rammed earth. The super-roof is built of light-weight steel and wood. In this way the dorms seem to rise from the ground like a trunk, while the massive roof seems to hover lightly above, like branches and foliage. Each dorm room has a roof of its own, constructed of ferrocement in the shape of a hyperbolic parabola. These four smaller roof forms seem to rest gently on the chunky building walls, suggesting leaves falling from the tree above.
Every decision made in the siting and design of the building was meant to lessen the building’s load on both the fragile natural environment and the limited infrastructure of this poor country. The first intention was to mitigate the intensity of the Southern Indian climate, which is known for it periods of oppressive heat and torrential rains. Compressed earth blocks (commonly called mud bricks) and rammed earth create thick wall sections that absorb heat in the dry climate and keep interiors cool. They also use a minimal amount of cement compared to normal bricks or concrete, maximizing the use of the cheapest and most abundant material around—dirt. While they perform well in heat, they should not be used in situations where they are exposed to intense rain, so the super-roof is instrumental in protecting the walls from monsoon rains. Furthermore, the size and height of the super-roof allows prevailing winds to pass through the larger building complex. The clerestories created by the four smaller parabolic roofs then bring these breezes into each dorm room.
The building is somewhat far from power lines, and very far from the nearest well. The students realized early in the design process that the super-roof was a great opportunity to capture both solar power and rain water. Several local Aurovilleans donated a collection of solar arrays, and a group of students created an energy system that keeps the building entirely off the local grid. They not only planned how they were going to provide solar power, but also selected all low-energy fixtures and fans for the building to limit the energy demands at the source. Meanwhile, another group of students designed a cistern and water tower to capture, store, and distribute all the rainwater collected from the roof during monsoon season.
The building’s waste was another concern. Normally buildings in Auroville use standard septic tanks, but many are improperly maintained and leak dangerous waste into the groundwater table. Our students, under the direction of professor of forest resources Charles Henry, came up with a unique solution to this dilemma. They noted that blackwater, which includes solid waste from toilets and greywater, which includes urine and wastewater from sinks, laundry, and showers need very different degrees of treatment, and in a septic system they are treated together. Blackwater is highly toxic and requires intensive treatment, while greywater is not toxic and requires much less treatment. Students divided the building’s waste stream into two categories, blackwater and greywater. The blackwater is treated by using a composting toilet system, where waste sits in composting bins for six months as it goes through the transformation into compost. Greywater is treated by a reed bed and planted infiltration trenches that form part of the building’s landscape plan.
This divided system means that the streams have to be separated at the source, so while there are showers in each dorm room, all toilets are in a large bathroom at the west end of the building. Certain toilets are designated for solid waste, and others for liquid. The solid waste toilets, or composting toilets, were designed entirely by our students using available local materials such as water bins and car jacks. These toilets pass the solid material to a cabinet beneath the bathrooms that is accessible from the lower, west end of the site. Here, the waste sits in modified water bins and becomes garden compost in six months. Meanwhile, the toilets for liquid waste divert urine to the building’s wastewater stream (coming from showers and sinks) and this is passed into the greywater system. The greywater treatment process begins in a settling tank where any leftover suspended solids settle out. The remaining greywater passes into a reed bed, where a mixture of gravel and plants naturally filter out the pollutants. The nearly clean water then passes into the infiltration trenches, which are essentially long planting beds. These trenches are planted with banana trees, which have a high tolerance for poor water quality and are able to take up the nearly clean water, thereby keeping it out of the groundwater but in the natural lifecycle.
During the construction of the Americas Pavilion students worked side by side with twenty-forty Indian laborers. The Indians often seemed amused or perplexed by the great lengths the students would go to find alternative solutions to construction and infrastructure challenges; using rammed earth proved to be much slower and more difficult than we ever imagined, the bathrooms had to be built entirely from scratch, and the super-roof was a major engineering struggle at times. In the end however, the students had created a building that is remarkably self-sufficient and sustainable. As long as the rains come and sun shines, the building can produce all the energy and water twelve guests would need, clean their waste, and keep them cool and dry. In addition, the Design/Build Mexico faculty considers it one of our most architecturally rich projects to date. As the project neared completion it was clear that the Indian workers’ amusement had turned to curiosity and, they told us, admiration. We hope to see some of the low-tech solutions employed in the U.S. Pavilion in use in the local village when we someday return to Auroville.
Voice, U.S. Pavilion
I’d never traveled to India before. I’d never been out of America before. This is my first big trip around the world. It’s a really big project and there’s a lot of work. And it’s taking place, for me, outside of a lot of comfort zones that I establish for myself to work productively in a school situation.
I feel like I’ve been pulling from a lot of what I’ve learned in school. I feel like this is the first real-world project where I’ve been able to apply the things that I know. And it’s not just everything I’ve learned from books in school, it’s all the things I’ve learned socially in school.
Student, Design/Build India