One of the most prestigious projects of Sri Aurobindo Society, Sharanam—Rural Development Centre, was started in Puducherry in south India in 2007. The main purpose of this project is to build a modern, cost-effective building, using sustainable materials and appropriate techniques, and employing local unskilled workers by encompassing the ecological, climatic, cultural, technological, environmental and socio-economic dimensions. SHARANAM aspires to be a model institute, not only for rural development, but also where spirit and form of human development exist in perfect harmony to give rise to a space which would be the architectural self-expression of its core idea.
Sharanam, a 5-acre plot selected for building an inspirational centre for the Integral Village Development Programme, aims to be instrumental in nurturing the aspiration of an integrated approach towards village development in India. In order to bolster the rather lofty ideal, a great amount of research has gone into to designing and building a centre which could offer a wide range of flexible spaces adapted for different functional requirements such as tutorials and classes, seminars, workshops, gatherings, etc.
It was also essential that the people of the villages are offered a backdrop of space which is suited to the ideals of these programmes, measures and schemes started by the Village Programme. This backdrop would consist of the optimum use of land and its ecosystem, soil healing, organic farming, instructive landscaping, total water management and rainwater harvesting, effective waste management, appropriate use of building techniques and materials, a proactive response to climate and its challenges, and the synthesis of all these in a supporting treatment of spaces through a befitting architectural design.
Some of the best and environmentally viable construction and building techniques have been used in the ideation, designing, formulation, and execution of the project, with the following essential features:
- Green building materials and innovative technologies have been used. In fact, SHARANAM is an ecologically engineered superstructure, built using earth from the site itself as the primary building material and minimizing use of steel and cement.
- The earthen technologies demonstrated are rammed earth foundations and compressed stabilised earth blocks (CSEBs).
- The CSEBs manufactured at SHARANAM have enormous environmental, structural, and cost benefits when compared to locally available wire-cut bricks, being four times cheaper, ten times less polluting, and three times as strong.
- The main roof is a large segmental earthen vault built without formwork—9.5 m span and 42 m long—out of custom-made CSEBs, with the roof thickness reduced to only 9 cm at the key stone. Construction methods ensure zero wastage.
- The project has been executed to a precision of 0.5 mm and costs 40% less than conventional reinforced concrete buildings.
The cultural and climatic features have also been given due importance. The design of SHARANAM has been inspired by the careful study of traditional buildings. Following a careful, in-depth assessment, the architectural design has been based upon research and critical assessment of prevailing regional vernaculars, enduring historical traditions, and space and occupancy patterns. In addition, several solar passive strategies have been employed to achieve thermal comfort in an excessively hot and humid climatic zone.
Keeping in mind the environmental and ecological factors, apart from green and eco-friendly construction materials and architecture, other measures employed include resource management, soil healing, water conservation, rain water harvesting, eco-sanitation and renewable energy.
The human dimension has been given due importance and credence. At SHARANAM, architects are hands-on professionals, leading the construction by training and upgrading local unskilled workers (mostly reformed and recovering alcoholics) from surrounding villages. It has employed them in the meaningful creation of a rural development centre FOR THEM, WITH THEM.
The uniqueness of the project, dedication to environment and human growth in harmony, and commitment to development exhibited through this project has not gone unnoticed by the world at large. Sharanam has been acknowledged by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) as one of the top five green buildings of India. In addition, Sharanam has been chosen by the United Nations Environment Programme as one of the four case studies for sustainable buildings in India as per the UNEP Report published in April 2010.