Shafqat House on Strachan Road, Karachi.

Havelian aur Hava: On Architecture and Air Pollution

How Karachi's architecture became environmentally unsustainable.

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Meandering through the sehans, gliding across glossy mosaic flooring, and looking out the quintessential verandas, arms resting on the powdery, colosseum-like white pillars, Ali reminisces what his decades-old house in Karachi used to be before it got renovated. “The only difference is that it has been modernized”, he explains while talking about the aspects of his house that still remain largely intact.

 

Based on Ali’s descriptions of his house, his easy-breezy and glimmering house shines bright in juxtaposition with some of the congested and boxy houses that were constructed relatively recently in his area. The construction just seems so much more beautiful and intricate in the old architecture of Karachi. One of these aspects of construction are the windows that stand tall in almost every room, leading to a reduced need for electricity.

Karachi’s old architecture makes most of us feel some type of way. The giddiness we feel when we drive past Empress Market — marveling at the intricacies of buildings like the magnificent Gharyali Building — is an emotion most of us are well aware of. Personally, when I observe rich and complex heritage intricately set in stone in the buildings of Old Town, I want to claim this city all for myself, to scream that this city is all mine. The stained windows of the facade of the Kanji building shine magnificently in harmony with its muted brick walls. It seems as if it’s ripped straight out of a deluxe historical fiction movie about the subcontinent but it’s hidden in plain sight, with a pigeon perched on every window and the citizens around almost not realising how close they are to a work of art.

The superiority of Karachi’s old architecture transcends far beyond the realms of aesthetic pleasure. It is ostensible that Karachi’s architecture has actually regressed in terms of being energy efficient. The emission of harmful gases is inherent in the way most modern buildings are architectured, a fact that renders these buildings unsustainable. Karachi’s new architecture contributes a lot more to air pollution than before. The city’s older architecture incorporated large windows and balconies, not warranting the use of electric bulbs during the day and fans during the cooler months of the year, let alone air conditioners.

“Hum iss sheher ko pichlay 25 saal se jaan rahay hain. Dekh rahay hain shehr mei kia horaha hai, kis tarha heritage ko kharaab kia jaaraha hai, buildings tabah horahi hain!”, Urban Resource Center’s Zahid Farooq has his fair share of grief attached with the said destruction of Karachi’s infrastructure.

He postulates that the downfall in architecture is because of an array of causative factors such as overcrowding in the city, traffic, and the lack of trees planted. These factors are directly related to the Carbon footprint and air pollution. When talking about the direct link to how we build our buildings today to air pollution and climate change, he explains, “jo humnay reti bajri ke paharh laga diay hain wou bhi mausamon ki tabdeeli mei ehem role play kerti hai.” and also talks about how this new age architecture is commercialisation instead of socialisation.

This is mostly because of how the use of land has changed. The plots that were once home to street cricket and banter are now foundations for indoor cafes, small warehouses, and stores, making use of more electricity and gas. We use spaces to commercialise and capitalise instead of to socialise now.

He also points out that even though our modern buildings make use of the most advanced technological resources, they lack the thoughtfulness and intricacy that buildings like Frere hall shine with, to this day. Zahid Farooq expresses displeasure at how despite legislation, which states that old buildings can not be tweaked, extensions are still made to heritage buildings.

Veteran architect, Arif Hasan, believes that the increase in construction has increasingly contributed to air pollution over the years due to the growth in population that has led to a growth in construction. He points out that the construction materials used contribute to the debacle, with concrete being a readily available, economical option and buildings being encased in aluminum, an increase in the number of buildings is tantamount to a growth in air pollution.

He believes that there are not many environmentally favorable alternatives existing within Pakistan or globally when it comes to the materials used. “The use of wood has its own issues. If we use bricks, they have to be fired which has its issues.”, he remarks. Arif Hasan also identifies the increased Floor to Area ratio that is applied on buildings now compared to the buildings in the past. This could mean that more electricity is consumed for the same square feet area than before, since more storeys are built on it.

“Before you had residential buildings that were 4 storeys or 6 storeys, now we see 16 storeys in a building for the same area.” he says.. Arif Hasan does point out, however, that green architects are bringing about innovation in architecture through other means, better insulation being one of them.

Due to a boom in Karachi’s population, space is more of a luxury than a priority when it comes to building spaces of residence. Inadequate insulation, along with the absence of windows and open areas has led to the residential architecture that the masses of Karachi reside in to particularly require the use of lights, fans and air conditioners. The GHG Emissions fact-sheet of Pakistan states that electricity usage constitutes 26% of Pakistan’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

To curb the issue of unsustainable architecture throughout the world, a multitude of measures are being taken, with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) certification — granted by the USA’s Green Building Council — being one of them. Karachi has a sparse distribution of LEED certified buildings – the HBL Corporate Office at Teen Talwar has garnered the LEED Silver plaque, for instance, due to facets of the building such as its raised flooring and underfloor air distribution system.

One of the very few LEED certified architects in Pakistan, Ahmed Mian tells Sochthat in order to attain LEED certification, a building has to come up to a set of parameters and benchmarks including the site of the building, the water fixtures and the material used in the building. He then proceeds to also point out that it is important to ensure that the indoor environment of the building is also decent. Ahmed Mian enlightens us with the information that architecture and air pollution have a very complex relationship, being connected directly and indirectly. “If you use wood from forests or plastics and acrylics, the building isn’t very sustainable”, he says. Mian suggests using recyclable and upcyclable materials to curb said issue.

He also speculates that the reason for the regression of Karachi’s architecture was inherent in the problems that modernity brings about, “Buildings used to be made of stone and were naturally fatter and thicker … Now, it’s easy to make concrete blocks now, which changed architecture. It is more about speed and cost-effective measures – that’s where modernity comes in … “, he elaborated. On being inquired about what the future of Karachi and LEED certification looks like, he furthers the narrative that we currently lack the creation and enforcement of the legislation to make sustainable architecture predominant and without the necessary law enforcement, a sustainable future is a choice that not everyone will make.

Ahmed Mian’s notion of there not being enough legislature and law enforcement, strikes a chord of familiarity among veteran and modern architects alike. “Karachi’s laws and regulations also have a part to play. If the walls of public parks were knocked down, then perhaps the dire need to have specific community spaces will possibly even reduce,” Asad Kamran, a young architect in Karachi provides a plausible explanation for the rise in indoor community spaces and the exacerbation of the Carbon footprint due to them.

His attempts at the revival of muhallah culture can be seen through his brainchild, Cinema 73, an outdoor community cinema in an apartment complex. He speaks of the need for vernacular architecture, which is essentially architecture suited to the needs of the people and the environment. When pondering over why indoor community hubs for the general populous have recently emerged, he spoke of people in neighborhoods spilling out of their houses to engage in discourse at baithaks in chaurahay, the disappearance of this culture is what he thinks has led to the construction of indoor spaces. Afterall, people do require social gatherings in order to function. Asad believes that gathering outdoors and sitting on floors and picnics on dastarkhuwaans are inherent in South Asian culture and modern day chai dhabas bridge the gap created by the lack of outdoor gathering nowadays. “…providing space for people to gather around, open air, consuming bare minimum electricity…,” he commends.

Asad attributes the boom in infrastructure to the fact that Karachi has grown as a modern urban city along with the idea that there are influencers now visiting Karachi, from all over the world, something that warrants innovation in modern architecture. To curb the rising issue, he simply encourages reverting to outdoor community spaces instead of needing exclusive, commercial, indoor spaces, to serve that same purpose – of community. Building something from scratch for a problem which was being solved by casual, natural means, will lead to an increase in the Carbon footprint, he says Cinema 73 then, for him, was about a spillover effect – utilising a pre-existing space, as opposed to constructing something entirely new.

We live in a world where people push the notion that climate change is not real to shut down global climate strikes. It is alarming to look at climate change deniers ignoring statistics of rising pollution in Karachi. The truth is, the lack of planning and the boom in population, among other things, have made the architecture progress in a way that leads to a drastically larger amount of Carbon emissions than before. Based on the few conversations that Soch had with experts, the drafting and enforcement of legislation are the primary changes to be made to curb this issue.

Additional videography and photography provided by Ali Mehdi, Cinematographer at Soch Videos.

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