Learning from the Past, Designing for the Future

Ibrahim Lodhi tombToday is a hot, sticky day in Delhi, almost 90 F in the shade, and in my apartment, less than ten years old, I’m sweating as I type underneath the fan. In fact, I’m sweating even when I turn on my air conditioner. And yet, outside, in Delhi’s most beautiful park, Lodhi Gardens, I can sit outside in an open air tomb built almost five hundred years ago, and I feel cool.

If I were in Jaipur right now, in hot, dry western India, where it is more than 100 F, and yet feels like 70 inside the forts of the ancient Rajput kings. Admittedly, it may be hotter now than it was in the summer of 1734, when it was built, but these palaces were designed to keep their residents cool without electricity, conditioned air and refrigerants. How? By recognizing some fundamentals of heat and physics. If we want to design for the future, we need to learn from the past.We have known for hundreds of years that solids cool more than liquids which cool more than air. And yet, in US and in Indian corporate, we attempt to cool our spaces and ourselves with air. We also know that the human body loses its heat from radiation far more than from convection (moving air over your surface) or even perspiration (though, it sure feels like sweating is the only option, right now!). Yet, our air conditioning systems rely on convection – blowing cold air over all of us. Instead, we can design like the Rajputs.

In Rajasthan, ancient kings were masters of hydrology and thermodynamics; they captured rainwater across their territory and built hundreds of kilometres of pipes, eventually piping water underneath their floors. This cool water running underneath the floors creates a massive thermal mass, which both stores this coolness, and radiates it when you’re within the structures.

Infosys Hyderabad Campus (existing building)But this technology is not lost to the past. Rohan Parikh, head of Green Initiatives at Infosys, described today the incredible experiment current underway at Infosys. In one of the new office buildings in Hyderabad (one of the hottest cities in India), Infosys has divided the building perfectly in half. One half is conventionally cooled (with inefficient convection using inefficient air), and the other half using in-slab radiant cooling (piping cool water through the floors of each office). The metered measurements from this system will be launched in September, when the building becomes operational. Projections estimate that this building will use only 1/3 of the energy of a typical high-quality Infosys building!

As Rohan says, “We need to design for the future; the design — of a company, of a community, of a society — is its legacy.” Rajasthani kings have left a legacy of innovative thermal cooling; the traditional designs in Morocco use night-time radiation and thermal mass to keep buildings cool all day; and we’re on the path to leaving a legacy of consumption. But we can leave a legacy of energy innovation. But it may mean looking back before we move forward.

10 Responses to “Learning from the Past, Designing for the Future”


  1. 1 Emmanuel Jul 29th, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Very interesting and I totally agree. We are applying the same principles in a sustainable development that we started promoting in Barcelona, Spain. I am very curious about the results from the Infosys building when they come available. Where could I get a hold of those measurements?

  2. 2 sameer Jul 31st, 2010 at 1:27 am

    Very interesting. would like to add that these ancient structures offer natural cooling not only because of the hydrology but also the materials used for construction. almost all structures built by the rajputs and the moghuls used limestone, (molasses and lentils as binders )and a lot of red/ yellow sand stone which gave a natural cooling affect. the walls of these structures are a good 15-20 inches thick as compared to the ones today which are a mere 9-10 inches. there is a vacuum in between the walls which kept the interiors cool in summers and warm in winters. they also included water bodies in the rooms to add to the effect and designed the buildings keeping in mind the direction of the breeze and the sun’s rays.
    the britsh too incorporated these techniques when building India and all such structures have very thick walls with a vacuum in between. The poor too understood the importance of natural cooling and all houses in villages of north India use cow dung and mud as plaster for the walls exterior and interiors which not only keeps it cool but also repels mosquitoes. the rounded mud huts with their thatched roofs keep the heat away. they also used limestone paint mixed with natural indigo colour to keep the huts cool, like in Jodhpur.
    Sadly we havent learned anything from our past and in the name of development have built concrete jungles not suited to our climate.

  3. 3 Micah Aug 2nd, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Great post, thank you for reminding us of the wisdom of the ages.

    I hate to say this, but I have issue w/ one small part of your premise. I was in Delhi a couple weeks ago. It was 110 out, and inside the Taj Mahal (a traditional building I’d say) it was still sweltering! Maybe it was the 1,000 tourists.

    But we all know lots of cool stone is a good thing, so overall I love the idea of using cooled water (or better yet geothermally cool water) to aid in cooling. Re: the Infosys office w/ cooled floors, how do they plan to deal with the problem of condensation? That’s usually the big issue w/ cooling surface mass instead of air, water condenses on the surface like crazy. Half of an A/C’s job is taking out water so you can add cooling without flooding the place.

    @sameer, there can’t possibly be a vacuum between porous building walls, please explain. Maybe you mean a space between the walls? Air IS a great insulator. Interested in this concept, obviously.

  4. 4 camila contreras Aug 3rd, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Hi I see we are all about sustainability but r fooling ourselves about getting off oil – what do u think computers r made off? oil petroleum =plastic and where do u think the energy for using computers an iphones etc etc is coming from – get real everyone – unless we go back to life w out plastic – think about it and by the way – even if we did get off oil do u think wind power is going to b better – wind drops during the nights – and yet we r told to go online etc during evenings – o and what about all those politicians going off to denmark for climate talks – why did they not use online video conferencing – o wait a minute – they know better then we (little pples. What do u think is a carbon footprint and do u think that old man dod really cares about energy – how much is his electric bill and does he leave the lights on in his tax subsidised office and home?

    Its easy talking about all this – in the mean time monsanto is killing off the small farms – more and more people are living under the microsoft nonprofit in africa but they r starving to death because there is the unfortunate consequence of having no real sustainable farming to keep them alive = u r all living under the illusions that you know better.

    Why don’t you do a search and see who makes laws and who is on the take – PACS makes laws BP PACs gave money to obama. U are mean well but you can always go home and live in nice clean area – like so many people you mean well – you are subsidised by politicians who are to make money off the backs of the drones who are paying taxes

    We can all slap ourselves on the back for the good works that we do – but we dont have choice we have options on where to live and when to move and what to eat and on and on and on

  5. 5 sameer Aug 8th, 2010 at 7:15 am

    obviuosly its the space inbetween the walls that creates the vacuum.

  6. 6 George Sep 13th, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Very insightful article Caroline. Would be great if you could publish the results from the Infosys experiment.

    Btw, we were both part of the InStep program at Infosys three summers ago :)

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About Caroline


Caroline Howe explores how to get more people excited about sustainability, through education, new technology, financial tools, and community engagement. She's particularly passionate about engaging young people in developing community based solutions to environmental challenges. This has taken her to five continents, working with her start-up, Loop Solutions, as well as with NGOs, youth groups, companies, UN agencies, and a ton of fantastic youth leaders.

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