There’s not a single media house which hasn’t written about Bengaluru’s problem with drinking water. You are living under a rock if you haven’t heard about Bengaluru’s water crisis. However, quite paradoxically, the city also witnesses excess rainfall and water clogging on the streets. Millions of liters of water get wasted due to this Urban Flooding. This speaks largely of inadequate management of drainage systems. Can every house become a producer of water? Will the groundwater increase? Rainwater Harvesting the answer to sustainability? An architect and engineer couple in Bengaluru has found a solution to this with their unique style of sustainable housing. Chitra Vishwanath, an Architect, and S Vishwanath, a Civil Engineer is among the pioneers of eco-friendly housing. Attempting to save Bengaluru – one brick at a time. As they say, all good things start at home; the couple’s house is an excellent example of a sustainable house. Their house nearly has zero water bills for the rainy months of the year and a minimal electricity bill.
You read it right. Zero water bill. The structure uses Solar Photo-voltaic cells for power and the entire structure works on the principle of Rainwater Harvesting. Their house is not brand new nor is it built with modern technology. It dates back to the year 1996! “My house is 24 years old, and it is almost the same” Chitra Vishwanath say as they advocate that every aspect of the homes they design is more sustainable. Moreover, they are highly cost-effective than regular housing in the long run.
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The duo has a lot of things in common – Their Graduation in CEPT, (Ahmedabad), a passion for eco-friendly housing, a growing concern about the harm to the environment by an urban lifestyle. And an undying admiration for the philosophy of the late Laurie Baker, a British-born Indian architect, renowned for his initiatives in cost-effective, energy-efficient architecture. Chitra Vishwanath set off independently in the early 1990s to explore what lay in store in the spectrum of alternate housing.
Chitra started her firm Chitra Vishwanath Architect. Vishwanath went on and started the Rainwater Club/ Biome Environmental Trust. But as destiny played its role, their experiments found a safe haven in their own house. The duo was keen to experiment with their house before they preaching sustainable housing to others. “Our house is our lab. We wanted to walk the talk. It makes more sense that we are thorough with the process and challenges of Rainwater Harvesting or solar power. Only when we have experienced it, do we stand in a position to recommend it.” chuckles Vishwanath. The couple built their first house which went on to become an ideal sustainable house. The house harvests every drop of rainwater.
The house functions on the principle of Rainwater Harvesting. The rainwater is channeled into a series of barrels and tanks through a set of rainwater gutters and pipes, with the first rain separators. After that, the initial removal of the first 2mm of water which is usually considered impure, the collected water gets filtered. It is then finally is ready for use in household chores.
Apart from collecting rainwater and minimizing water usage, they cut back on wastewater discharge. They reuse greywater – water from the washing machine and bathwater. The greywater goes through a set of biological filter on their rooftop. The water is collected in a small tank that has a series of drums. These drums grow different plants that live in the greywater and clean it. The water is finally processed and filtered by sand and charcoal, this water is then used for rooftop gardening or in flush on the ground floor.
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In addition to this, they have a ‘Recharge Well’ that collects overflowing rainwater from sumps as well as the stormwater drain outside the home and restores the balance of groundwater tables. By doing so, they save and store around 1 lakh liters of rainwater each year and recharge up to 1 million liters annually into the aquifers. “Each house can be a provider of water if they harvest rainwater. It also preserves the depleting groundwater table and there will be more water than one would need” Chitra reinstates. The composting toilets have efficient ways to separate and upcycle human waste for their rooftop garden. While the liquid waste is diluted and used as fertilizer, the solid waste undergoes microbial treatment to compost into manure. One of the most interesting facts about these toilets that do not require even a single drop of water.
The couple started undertaking multiple projects after making an ideal house where every drop of rainwater gets used for themselves. In order to accommodate more projects, the couple merged their independent firms and named the merger firm Biome Environmental Solutions. Before they begin any project, they study ecology around it, the trees, the direction of the wind, the quality of water, and the groundwater table. The intent is also directed to use locally available material and also have space for the biodiversity around it. They mostly use Earth blocks and Fly Ash bricks to build houses since it’s stronger than the regular ones. The houses have nearly nil usage of chemicals and polyester. Ample spaces are kept for ventilation and the design is planned such that one can dwell without ACs or coolers.
Their work speaks for itself, and the couple has built a reputation of being the sustainability heroes in the housing industry. They’ve instilled the moral responsibility to be informed and do what’s best for the planet in their clients. “Alternate houses are people’s choice, and they are the better choice. We need to think about what we leave back for our children.”, says Vishwanath as he mentions that the clients have started opting for alternate housing much more than before. Biome Environmental Solutions currently has 20 architects who working out of an office, which the couple affectionately calls “home”. Since 1991, the couple has made about 700 houses. All the structures they build have lower pollution levels compared to regular buildings and a higher ecological footprint. Their work has massively influenced the civic sense of the environment.
In addition to their work around housing, the couple has also formed a trust called “Biome Environment Trust” to create awareness among the people on how can they participate in preserving the environment. The team at the trust takes workshops and sessions with students of government schools on rainwater harvesting. It also educates farmers on the treatment and upcycling of domestic wastewater which is increasingly huge in the city. The Biome Trust is working to create a movement to build a million wells in Bengaluru with the help of the many traditional well diggers of the city.
Despite all the attainments, the couple believes the solutions to the bigger problems are rather simple. “If you wish to do something, begin. Things will evolve. The process is more important than the product and it is always teamwork” says Vishwanath. “If you wish to save the environment, just make better homes, save that one drop of water, and plant more trees. Simple!” adds Chitra Vishwanath. Well if the mantra given by these gurus can help us save the world, what’s stopping us?