How this Indian desert school manages to stay cool even in extreme heat

At the height of summer, temperatures in the north Indian desert town of Jaisalmer, also known as “The Golden City” for its array of yellow sandstone architecture, can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius). Buildings in this region have long been designed to be heat-resistant, a tradition that New York architect Diana Kellogg has continued with her work on the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School.

The project, which aims to empower women and girls through education in a region of India with the lowest female literacy rate, was commissioned by CITTA, a non-profit organization based in the United States that provides economic and educational support to women in remote and marginalized communities. It is the first phase of a three-part architectural project that also includes a women’s cooperative center and an exhibition space.

The eco-friendly sandstone school, named the 2020 “Building of the Year” by Architectural Digest India, will open in November 2021, with 120 girls currently enrolled in its curriculum, according to Kellogg. In the heart of the Thar desert, where climate change is making drought spells longer and more intense, designing a comfortable learning space can be difficult.\

Kellogg, who usually designs high-end residential projects, was inspired by a trip to Jaisalmer in 2014, and wanted the building to represent the hope and resilience of the desert by fusing traditional Jaisalmer architecture with a modern design. “There are cooling methods that have been used for centuries. “What I did was combine them in a way that worked,” Kellogg explained, adding that indoor temperatures at the school are approximately 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit lower than outdoor temperatures.

She chose locally sourced sandstone for the structure, a climate-resilient material that has long been used for buildings in the area, including the Jaisalmer Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site that houses one-fourth of the city’s population. “It’s so plentiful in this area. It’s very affordable, and the extremely talented stonemasons are like magicians with stone,” Kellogg said. “It keeps the heat out while also keeping the coolness out at night.”

Lining the inner walls with lime plaster, a porous and natural cooling material that helps release any trapped moisture caused by humidity, is one of the traditional techniques Kellogg incorporated into the design. She also installed a jali wall, a sandstone grid that allows wind to accelerate in a phenomenon known as the venturi effect, cooling the courtyard space while also providing shade from the sun. In classrooms, high ceilings and windows allow rising heat to escape, while a solar panel canopy provides shade and energy.

The elliptical shape of the structure, which is angled in relation to the prevailing winds, was chosen not only for its ability to capture and circulate cool air, but also for its symbolic connotations of femininity, which match the project’s ethos. Kellogg describes it as “a big, tight hug.” The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School as seen from above. While many of the cooling techniques used at the school could theoretically be applied elsewhere, Kellogg admits that their effectiveness and sustainability would vary from site to site.

Wind directions and sandstones, for example, would regulate temperatures differently than the materials found and used in Jaisalmer. Air conditioning is not used anywhere in the building, not only because it has a negative impact on the environment, but also because it is not common in the area. She believes that by using traditional and natural cooling mechanisms that the students are familiar with, they will gain a sense of comfort from their surroundings, leading to increased confidence.

“I’ve witnessed it myself over the last three, four months,” she explained. “The transformation of the girls from shy to these bright lights devouring whatever kind of information you put in front of them.”

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