The Merits of Greenwashing: Social Stigma around Natural Construction in India

The Merits of Greenwashing: Social Stigma around Natural Construction in India

In recent years, India has seen a resurgence of interest in natural building materials, a movement driven by escalating environmental concerns and a growing desire to revive traditional lifestyles. From the busy streets of Mumbai to the serene villages of Kerala, architects, builders, and communities are coming together to experiment with the potential of earth, bamboo, lime, and other organic materials in shaping contextually relevant structures that also embody India’s contemporary ideals. The shift towards using natural materials and other vernacular resources reflects a movement towards sustainability and a deeper connection with nature.

Traditionally, vernacular Indian construction practices were circular and highly in tune with the local climate and ecosystems. A desire to emulate Western countries drove these practices to near extinction, with occasional cases being witnessed in rural regions of the country. Cities cropped up bearing industrially constructed structures that could house the nation’s burgeoning urban populations. As the pendulum swings back from this extreme shift in the built landscape, motivated by global green goals, a desire to return to their roots has invited a renaissance of natural construction in the country. 

India’s diverse geography, climate, and cultural practices have given rise to a wide array of natural building materials and methodologies specific to different regions. From adobe and thatching in states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Haryana to bamboo construction in the northeast states of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura, each region showcases a unique blend of tradition and sustainability. Other methods like rammed earth in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, stone with mud mortar in Uttarakhand, and cob construction in Madhya Pradesh exemplify the rich tapestry of natural building practices in India.

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While a renewed interest has been observed in the country’s builtscape, the Indian architecture community is far from seeing widespread adoption and acceptance of natural construction, especially in its urban areas. Despite their long-standing history in the country, natural building materials have faced societal stigma due to misconceptions about their durability, maintenance requirements, and affordability. 

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“Building with natural materials such as earth, lime, wood, and bamboo has been a practical choice for rural India for centuries”, shares Raghav Kumar of Tiny Farm Lab – a rural circular design, research, build, and innovation studio in the woods in Rishikesh, India, “The key obstacle to working with natural materials is its societal image linked to poverty”. Government policies echo this language, initiating affordable housing schemes as the transformation of “Kutcha” houses to “Pucca” – or strong, durable – houses, the latter usually indicating construction in concrete and steel. “Kutcha” houses are characteristic of transient settlements or rural life, something to be left behind in pursuit of a “dignified city life”.

Indian architecture is inherently contextual, reflecting the essence of its surroundings. “Through my extensive travels across India, I’ve realized that vernacular architecture truly embodies the essence of the country’s design language. One cannot help but notice the dynamic changes in architecture, cuisine, culture, people, and climate every few kilometers traversed in India”, shares Areen Attari, co-founder of the Mumbai-based bio-architecture practice Put Your Hands Together. Traditionally, houses were perceived as extensions of individuals themselves. However, with industrialization came a rapid adoption of Western influences, with Mumbai often likened to New York.

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“As urban India increasingly embraced Westernized ideals of cityscapes, rural India began to view urban areas as the blueprint of progress, gradually forsaking vernacular designs in favor of industrialized materials”, Attari remarks. Despite the inherent comfort and sense of belonging found in vernacular dwellings, the allure of status symbols associated with industrialized homes led many to abandon their traditional roots, driven by social status aspirations.

The transition back to natural construction is currently trending, albeit with challenges such as labor shortages, material scarcities, and technological limitations. There remains lingering skepticism surrounding the affordability, durability, and maintenance of natural materials. Unfortunately, this revival often falls victim to greenwashing, where eco-friendly claims are superficial. However, there is optimism in the fact that such trends contribute to raising awareness and altering societal perceptions about natural construction.

In contemporary urban India, natural construction is trending. However, it is noteworthy that this trend is not as cost-effective due to labor, material, and technological shortages in rural home construction. Nowadays, affluent clients often desire an “earthy” and “Indian” aesthetic for their homes, resulting in structures that mimic the look and feel of vernacular architecture but lack the eco-friendly properties of their inspiration. While these “greenwashed” buildings may be criticized, Attari argues that their proliferation draws attention and awareness to natural construction methodologies. While greenwashing fails to yield genuine environmental benefits for buildings, it plays a role in mitigating the stigma surrounding natural construction, rewriting social scripts to portray these materials as progressive and desirable.

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“What I anticipate is a massive shift where urban India starts emulating the design language of rural India, even if it starts as a form of greenwashing”, Attari articulates in his book On Friendship, Philosophy & BioArchitecture. As awareness grows and societal acceptance evolves, the potential for more eco-friendly construction practices in India becomes promising”. Even if individuals are motivated by aesthetics alone, the acceptance of the material within society is still beneficial.

The revival of natural building materials and vernacular construction techniques in India reflects a restored respect for contextually-relevant architecture. While the transition back to natural construction faces challenges such as skill shortage and societal stigma, there is optimism that increased awareness and changing perceptions will pave the way for more eco-friendly practices in the future. Ultimately, the acceptance of natural materials within society is a positive step towards a more sustainable built environment in India. As attitudes continue to evolve and urban areas increasingly emulate rooted design languages, there is hope for a future where vernacular construction practices define the builtscapes of the country.

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This article is part of an ArchDaily series titled India: Building for Billions, where we discuss the effects of population rise, urbanization, and economic growth on India’s built environment. Through the series, we explore local and international innovations responding to India’s urban growth. We also talk to the architect, builders, and community, seeking to underline their personal experiences. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you think we should feature a certain project, please submit your suggestions.

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