An Indian Architecture Firm Is Using Vernacular Design To Combat Air Pollution In Delhi

BreatheEasy is a retrofit solution aimed at improving indoor air quality in low-income homes.
BreatheEasy is a retrofit solution aimed at improving indoor air quality in low-income homes.Architecture for Dialogue

Last year, Delhi, held the title of the most polluted capital city globally according to a Swiss-based air-quality monitoring group. The rapid, growing industrialisation, and poor enforcement of environmental laws has increasingly reduced the quality of air which is evident in cities like Delhi. While air quality grabs headlines and sparks policy debates, it's the low-income households and marginalised communities who bear the brunt of this toxic air. Here's where Architecture for Dialogue (AfD), a New Delhi-based design firm, steps in with their innovative project, BreatheEasy.

BreatheEasy isn't just another air purifier; it's a retrofit solution aimed at improving indoor air quality in low-income homes. AfD has been on a three-year quest to understand how architecture can build resilience against air pollution. Their journey began with 'My House is Ill', an art installation in collaboration with Khoj Studios. This project explored the relationship between air and everyday spaces, particularly within homes.

The quest for BreatheEasy involved extensive research. AfD partnered with the Prince Claus Fund and Khoj Studios to establish the Khirkee Air Lab. This live-in lab allowed them to experiment and understand air movement and pollution within a residential space. They then collaborated with Asar Social Impact Advisors to conduct a qualitative ethnography study in Madanpur Khadar, a low-income settlement. Here, AfD spoke to residents, primarily women, to understand their experiences with air pollution and how it interacts with daily routines.

Understanding the financial constraints of low-income households, AfD focused on retrofitting existing structures. Their research led them to explore passive ventilation mechanisms, leveraging vernacular architectural techniques like wind catchers and solar chimneys. While wind catchers proved unsuitable due to Delhi's low wind speeds, solar chimneys emerged as a promising solution.

Solar chimneys utilise the stack effect - heated air rises, creating a low-pressure zone that draws in cooler air from below, eventually creating a cross-ventilation mechanism. AfD created a 1:10 scale model and conducted smoke tests to validate this concept. The results were encouraging; paving the way for prototyping.

AfD emphasises the importance of co-creation. They hold monthly meetings with the community, gathering feedback and suggestions. This collaborative approach ensures the final design addresses the community's specific needs and preferences. One example of this is suggestions by residents pertaining to the placement of the solar chimneys, so as to accommodate their use of verandas.

Even though BreatheEasy is currently in the prototyping stage, it holds immense promise. The project not only offers a cost-effective solution to improve indoor air quality but also paves the way for rethinking construction practices to incorporate pollution resilience from the design stage itself. BreatheEasy is a testament to the power of design in creating a healthier and more sustainable future for our cities.

Follow Architecture for Dialogue here and watch a video on the project below.