The old houses of the Kashmir Valley are living examples of climate-resilient and sustainable architecture.

When a massive flood hit the valley in 2014, a major part of downtown Srinagar, a prominent city in the Valley, was submerged in water. Apart from the memories and shelter, the flood took away the traces of vernacular architecture with it.

After the first floor of his house was submerged in water, Junaid Ahmad Shah thought of renovating it. Shah, a private employee, used his savings in building, what he could call, his “dream house”. Replacing the wood logs that were used as rafters to carry the load of the house, with steel bars and thick mud walls with thin brick walls, he was transforming his house on the lines of modern architecture. It took him years of hard work and finances to complete the renovation. A place that once carried the legacy of indigenous architectural techniques was transformed into a three-storey concrete building.

In Kashmir Valley, temperature in the summer shoots up to 35 degrees Celsius, while in winters, which usually last more than five months, the temperature falls nearly 8-9 degrees below zero. So, Kashmiri houses were designed in accordance with the climate. Credit: Amir Bin Rafi/Mongabay

However, he never thought that he would miss his old home. “In the run to build my dream house, I forgot about the basic reasons for building a house; comfort and sustainability.”

Sitting in one of the corners of his newly built kitchen, he remembers his old house. Donning a traditional garment, the pheran, with a kangri (earthen heating device) inside it, Shah looks at the ceiling. “It was only seven feet high in my ancestral home. But the ceiling in my new house is nine feet high.”

Kashmir’s architecture evolved in response to the Valley’s climate, including addressing harsh winter periods. Credit: Amir Bin Rafi/Mongabay

The old homes

Old alleys of Srinagar’s downtown are still dominated by heritage, culture, and tradition.

According to Sameer Hamdani, design director for the Kashmir chapter at Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, the architecture of the Valley had evolved keeping in the view that it’s a cold region. In the Valley, the temperature in summer shoots up to 35 degrees Celsius, while in winters, which usually last more than five months, the temperature falls nearly 8-9 degrees Celsius below zero. So, Kashmiri houses were designed in accordance with the climate.

“Vernacular architecture is something which comes through a period of experimentation within a society, from generation to generation,” Hamdani said, further adding that this type of architecture does not require any designer. Houses were built in such a way that they responded both to climate and the availability of materials.

A stable for livestock in Sangnad built using mud, a cheap material with better insulation. Credit: Amir Bin Rafi/Mongabay

Shedding light on the old construction designs, Hamdani said in the past houses were built largely for comfort and liveability. “The ground floor would be short in height to retain maximum heat inside, during winters.” Hamdani further added that the ceiling height of other floors used to be higher because people would mostly sleep there. However, “contemporary architecture” has a ceiling height of nine feet.

Hamdani said before the 1940s, the only materials available in the valley were wood, bricks and mud and due to the inertness of these materials, they responded best to the hot and cold weather. Hamdani said that mud has the best heat retention capacity and that is the reason why rooms that are plastered with mud feel warm in harsh winters.

Also, the heat-retaining capacity of the houses depends on the number of windows and their dimensions. While vernacular architecture would have one or two small-sized windows per room, the contemporary one trumps tradition. According to Dildar Dar, an engineer, the windows in old houses measured 3×4 feet while in new designs, people go for 8 feet windows in a 10 feet wall. This results in an unnecessary flow of air, resulting in heat loss during winter.

In one of the congested areas of Srinagar’s Zaina Kadal area, an old man narrates a tale of his times. “When I was young, the chilla-i-kalan, the harshest period of winter in the Valley in December-January, when the temperature drops to minus 8 degree Celsius, would be much harsher than it is now. Lacking the basic facilities of water and electricity, my house used to be warm in winter and cool in summer,” the elderly man said. He recalled houses being built with a wooden framework and walls made of mud and clay, which provided insulation from the cold winters and helped to regulate the temperature inside the house.

In the same lane as the old man, in the narrow alleys of Zaina Kadal, lives Sajid. He recently constructed a new home, a concrete building. However, unhappy with his house’s response towards the winter cold, he believes that the major flaw of contemporary architecture lies in its design, the material used and imitating western designs. He fell in love with a house design that he saw on Instagram and constructed his house on the same lines.

“It was a replica of that, but it did not serve my purpose,” said Sajid, who has covered his windows and doors with thick blankets to deal with the cold.

Houses built in the traditional style using small bricks and mud stand in contrast with cement buildings. Loss of adherence to traditional architecture styles or adapting its principles for modern taste have led to houses losing their local climate resilience. Credit: Amir Bin Rafi/Mongabay

Evolving construction materials

According to a study, “Financial evaluation of different space heating options used in the Kashmir valley”, published in the International Journal of Ambient Energy, new buildings (constructed mainly after 2000) are not designed to meet heating requirements. The study found that modern houses in the Valley had “poor insulation levels and loose-fitting doors and windows, thereby contributing to huge heat losses,” in turn, adding to the long-term costs of heating during the harsh winters.

Hamdani says that post-1947, after India’s Independence, when Kashmir opened up to the world, many new construction materials such as cement, steel etc. came to the Valley due to ease of transportation. Aspirations also gradually started reflecting in the architecture.

Mehran Qureshi, assistant professor of architecture at Islamic University of Science and Technology observed that the market has been flooded with building materials which are not local and do not respond well to the cold climate of the Valley.

“It is particularly true of finishing materials like cement finishes, and cladding materials like marble, granite, etc. These materials compromise the thermal comfort of our houses. Introduction of glass, especially puncturing the walls of our houses with huge fenestrations (the arrangement of windows in a building) of glass, adds to the heat loss from our interiors,” Qureshi explained.

“In architecture, we study climatology, because the architecture is dependent on the climate of a place,” Hamdani said. “The rooms were partitioned with varuusi (a temporary wall made of wood), to allow a multiplicity of the usage of space. It would turn one room into two and vice versa.”

He adds that despite spending millions of rupees, one doesn’t get the basic usage of a house right.

The temporary partition known as ‘varuusi’ divides a room. It ensures quick warming in winters and a spacious room in summers. Vernacular architecture of Kashmir allows for multiple usage of space. Credit: Amir Bin Rafi/Mongabay

Engineer Dildar Dar said heat retention inside the house and air flow can easily be replicated in new constructions based on contemporary design and modern aesthetics. “We can use the same materials that were previously used and the roshandaan [small window] for light and ventilation would equally be effective in maintaining the internal warmth,” Dar added.

Traditionally built houses have small windows known as ‘roshandaans’ that are carved out to light up rooms and stairs. With insulation benefits, the facilitation of air flow and an appealing design, these structures served aesthetic and utility purposes. Credit: Amir Bin Rafi/Mongabay

“We are only after glass frames, huge corridors and large spacious buildings. But as an architect, I have never been asked to design a house which can withstand severe cold and earthquakes,” Hamdani expresses with a mix of agitation and sarcasm.

Kashmir is recognised as a zone for high tectonic activities and prone to high intensity earthquakes.

The two major techniques of construction – taaq and dhajji dewari – withstood disasters including high intensity earthquakes. Dhajji dewari is basically a framed structure where the spaces between the wooden frames were filled with stone and brick masonry held together by mud mortar. The frame was shock proof and earthquake resilient.

Kashmir is prone to high intensity earthquakes. Some houses built with logs, over a century ago, have survived devastating earthquakes. Credit: Amir Bin Rafi/Mongabay

Similarly, taaq system includes a load-bearing wall constructed with horizontal timber-lacing inserted in masonry in a grid-like configuration at each floor and lintel level. The masonry piers are held together by the horizontal timber sections in order to support the incline weights.

Qureshi says the architecture was modular, following a system of taaq construction which was proportional and geometrical. This logic of division of spaces would be applicable from the smallest to the largest house in the locality and ensured a uniform urban character despite the different scales and architectural expressions of buildings.

According to Rayees Ahmad Shah, a climate researcher based in Kashmir, before building any structure the topography, weather and position of the sun must be taken into consideration. “We come from a cold place, so mud and wood are the best materials we can use in construction,” he corroborated Hamdani.

Shah believes that properly planned housing designs can help in cutting down the usage of heating appliances including kangri and coal bukhari, thus reducing carbon emissions. “If we keep our house sizes according to the usage and avoid constructing huge corridors, halls and tall ceilings, we can control the flow of air” because the more space you have the more will be the loss of heat.

Giving a personal example, the researcher says that he has plastered the inner walls of his house in Ganderbal with mud instead of cement. “I plastered the walls with mud. It gave me proper insulation at a low cost. So, I am able to cut on using carbon-based heating equipment like kangri and hamam.”

A view from a hilltop in Pampore area of Pulwama district shows the changing architectural styles of the valley. Credit: Amir Bin Rafi/Mongabay

This article first appeared on Mongabay.