In India, A “Universal Town” Has Become A Green Building Lab

In southern India, a community founded with a spiritual purpose has become a bit of a test bed for green building.

Auroville is an “experimental” township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, near Pondicherry. Founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa of the Sri Aurobindo Society and designed by French architect Roger Anger, the aim of this UNESCO-funded project was to become  a “universal town” belonging to everyone and no one, where the dream of “human unity” might be realized. The lofty spiritual aim of this community’s founding is a work in progress, necessarily, but one thing the community seems to have succeeded in accomplishing recently is attracting architects.

Auroville, The Last School

image via The Atlantic / Mark Bergen

The Atlantic reports that even if the lowest current estimate is accurate, this town of 2,000 contains around 20 architects, accounting for 1 in every 100 of Auroville’s residents. (By way of comparison, it has been estimated that in India as a whole, the profession accounts for 1 in every 2,000 people.) And these numbers may not even account for the many fresh architecture grads who come to Auroville to study.

What are all those designers drawn to, exactly? First, to the town’s history of innovative architecture. Many of the structures here reflect the city’s unique heritage of French and Tamil dwellers, along with arrivals from 45 different countries. Many of those seekers have, over the last forty years, lent their own national style to the homes, guesthouses and collective spaces here, resulting in structures that are both unique and elegant.

Young designers don’t stand to make a lot of money here, as many of Auroville’s residents eschew cash for the chance to devote themselves to the arts or research in fields like renewable energy. What they expect is a chance to experiment with forms, materials and aesthetics that often aren’t available in other parts of India.

One home designed by Buildaur — a national design firm — is the case in point. It makes use of gently arching bricks, and walls that are the same reddish brown as the dirt surrounding the site. To say these materials were locally sourced would be putting it lightly, as most of them were dug up from within a few miles — a technique, like the smaller bricks, borrowed from traditional rural building in the region. Workers are funneling sand through the bricks in something called filled slab for this project, using a technique that’s more labor intensive than those used in conventional modern construction, but which dramatically cuts down on the need for concrete, a material increasingly ubiquitous in Indian cities.

Auroville, Buildaur sites

image via image via The Atlantic / Mark Bergen

And that’s a big issue, as India’s current pace of construction, according to one projection, will heighten greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 400 percent in less than forty years, in part due to its reliance on this material.

According to Dhruv Bhaskar, one of the two principal architects at Buildaur, the firm’s projects can be be up to 45 percent more energy efficient than conventional homes, via these green building techniques and others found in structures throughout Auroville.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.