Crafts against Climate Change: Eco-materials from India

Indians have traditionally lived close to the earth, their cultures shaped by symbiotic relationships with ecosystems. Indian arts and crafts strongly rely on nature for its form, philosophy, and existence. Native landscapes aroused the artistic sensibilities of resident communities, evolving craft practices that met utilitarian and ritualistic needs. The intersectionality of ecology and culture is evident through ancestral forms of craft.

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India's handcrafted heritage has an interdependent relationship with the ecosphere. Any change in ecosystems can have a profound impact on the handicraft sector as well as the region's collective culture. Indian crafts are typical to their native landscapes, fixated on natural resources to stay alive. Traditional human systems are enmeshed with environmental systems, resulting in parallel narratives of environmental degradation and the vulnerability of craft communities. In the wake of climate change, can the vernacular technologies of craftsmanship combat ecological degradation?

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© Dr. Shneel Bhayana

Indian handicrafts are inherently sustainable by design, emerging from explorations with locally available resources. Traditional craftwork techniques are rooted in material optimization, waste minimization, contextual suitability, and energy-efficient processes. Craft practices offer a peek into vernacular knowledge systems that can be used against some of the most pressing and age-old environmental problems, such as water and air pollution. ArchDaily explores three novel construction materials that employ endangered Indian crafts as a tool for reviving ecologies:

Indus: Combating Water Pollution

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© Dr. Shneel Bhayana

Indus is a bio-integrated wall designed to treat polluted water, specifically within small-scale artisanal facilities in the developing communities of India. The wall is essentially a living skin made of tiles that can be constructed from locally available materials such as clay and laterite. Each tile is layered with a microalgae gel that treats contaminated water as it trickles on its surface.

The project uses digital tools to re-invent age-old knowledge and give local crafts a new form, language, and identity. The biomimetic patterns of the tiles are inspired by the veins of a leaf - nature’s intelligent design to direct water where it is needed most. Though the algorithmically fashioned molds are 3D printed, the tiles can easily be manufactured on-site using regional materials, reducing its carbon footprint and employing resident artisans. Each mold is tailored by the design team - researchers at the Bio-Integrated Design Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL - to suit the scale and type of pollution for different sites.

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Courtesy of Dr. Shneel Bhayana, Dr. Brenda Parker, Prof. Marcos Cruz

"With Indus, the aim is to make the biological process of water treatment easily available and decentralized" explains Dr. Shneel Bhayana who heads the design team. Like culture, biology is always relative to a particular site condition. Indus was developed to equip every community with its own version of the wall specific to the industry and contaminants identified in the water. The project was structured to be used by the natives, deploying regional materials and traditional handcrafting practices to add value to the local community.

CoolAnt: Fighting Global Warming

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Courtesy of Ant Studio

Inspired by vernacular methodologies of cooling, architecture firm Ant Studio has created an efficient solution to urban heat and global warming. The designers used traditional techniques coupled with modern technology to devise an air-cooling system made of terracotta cylinders. After soaking the material in water, the air that passes through the cylindrical pots is naturally air-conditioned, working on the concept of evaporative cooling.

Mimicking the geometry of a beehive, the natural air coolant manifests as a cluster of densely packed barrel-shaped pots made of baked terracotta. The system serves as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional air conditioners by not emitting chlorofluorocarbons, a chemical that depletes the earth's ozone layer. CoolAnt also doesn’t require electricity and can be used in building facades and interior spaces to enhance indoor air quality.

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Courtesy of Ant Studio

The device was built off the indigenous knowledge of traditional potters of India. The artisan community primarily uses earth as raw material to fabricate pots - locally called matka. This form of earthenware is commonly used in Indian households as a natural refrigerator, keeping its contents cool through evaporation facilitated by its porous texture. CoolAnt aims to support and revive the dying craft of pottery by engaging the artisans to build terracotta cones.

Carbon Craft: Upcycling Carbon Emissions

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Courtesy of Carbon Craft Design

Instead of viewing pollution as an inevitable byproduct of industries, Carbon Craft Design uses it as a raw material to fabricate tiles made of “carbon black”. An innovative venture by architect Tejas Sidnal, the project merges technology and craftsmanship to repurpose carbon emissions. Carbon black is a waste material that is generated in tons during the combustion of fossil fuels, and eventually gets discarded or further burnt.

The monochrome tiles get their color from upcycled carbon, preventing further combustion of the material and locking it into a decorative element. The tiles are made by shaping, cutting, and later mixing carbon black with cement. Handcrafting consumes a lower amount of energy than mainstream ceramic tiles while empowering the artisan community. Tiles were an economically viable product that the team could manufacture with the waste material, as opposed to bricks of façade elements.

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Courtesy of Carbon Craft Design

Sidnal had always been bothered by air pollution. While researching design methods for tackling the issue, he realized that technology alone cannot solve environmental problems. Carbon Craft is built on the generational education of the artisans of Morbi, Gujarat, the second largest tile manufacturer in the world. Skilled in a 200-year-old traditional craft, the artisans could intuitively understand the properties of this new material and educate the design team on efficient production methods. The craftspeople are involved in two aspects of the manufacturing process - designing the stencil and creating the tiles.

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Courtesy of Carbon Craft Design

“I strongly believe that local artisans and craftspeople will be the center of how we address climate change”, Dr. Bhayana shares with ArchDaily. These examples highlight the contribution that India's crafts communities can make towards sustainability and negotiating climate change. The designer-artisan duo operates on a bottom-up design approach where traditional practices inform innovation and development. 

The future of climate action is local. When dealing with ecological adversities, varied contexts call for varied efforts that rally citizens. Through their work, crafts communities can participate in a form of grassroots activism toward climate justice. By re-localizing economic, social, and ecological systems, environmental progress becomes more accessible and effective. A network of localized action will inevitably aggregate into a global triumph.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: The Future of Construction Materials. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Ankitha Gattupalli. "Crafts against Climate Change: Eco-materials from India " 22 Aug 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

© Dr. Shneel Bhayana


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