Re-discovering the virtues of cob construction, a mud wall so thick that it can take all load without getting eroded by rains for a long time.
All of us have heard of mud walls, possibly the wall material for the majority of standing structures in India today including all rural buildings. Of course, the increasing presence of burnt bricks and cement blocks are a threat to the popularity of mud, yet traditional mud walls are around us. But how many of us have heard of the term ‘cob walls’?
Dictionary definitions apart, cob walls are the original approach humans used to construct walls with, even before learning how to make mud bricks to specific sizes to sun dry or kiln-burn them. For many thousands of years, cob walls dominated the early human settlements, including those in Babylonian or Gangetic plains.
Have they lost their relevance today? Partly yes, but not entirely. In many rural areas, people continue to build with cob, but in cities, it has almost vanished. Curiously, now there are increasing attempts to revive this technology by groups such as Thannal and Marudam in Thiruvannamalai, Sacred Grove at Auroville, Made in Earth, Mudhands and Biome in Bengaluru and few others in different parts of India.
We are rediscovering the virtues of cob construction. Simply stated, it is a mud wall built so thick that it can take all load without getting eroded by rains for a long time. Some surface moisture, peeling and erosion may occur, which can be repaired periodically. The volume of the wall acts as thermal mass, keeping the building cool in summer and warm in winter. With high compressive strength due to the thickness, cob walls are also earthquake resistant.
Having said this, haven’t we heard, seen or been to such structures like shrines, choultries, monuments, heritage homes or even palaces? Of course, many of us have been there to wonder about the thick walls, not realising their possible potential today. Often these walls were thicker at base, tapering as they reach the top at least in one side, often on both sides.
Cob walls do not need much structural calculations, great construction skills or big budgets. A lump of clay is called cob, so building with them must have been an easy discovery during early civilizations. The fact that even after construction became regular and formalised, cob continued widely, seen even now from lower Himalayas to coastal south India, proves its time-tested qualities.
Cob walls make minimal demands of clean sub-soil with less clay and more silt, space to accommodate thick walls, some local additives to reduce cracking and material options for final finish. Typically, cob walls are plastered with mud mixed with straw, though in poorer homes they were left un-plastered, with mud slurry and lime wash as crack fillers. If we walk into an old house with plastering peeled off, we can see the original clay lumps revealing the origins of wall construction.
While cob uses local soil to build, it is not the same as the other mud architecture techniques. Building with double hand size mud balls dipped into additively mixed mud slurry as the joint binder is seen some rural areas, which is very close to cob practices. Rammed earth walls could be mistaken as a cob. But they are much thinner at 9 inches only, while cob could be 18 to 24 inches thick. The other differences being the smoother surface of rammed earth, very few surface cracks, no need for plastering and such others.
The Adobe system depends upon mud bricks made to size, sun-dried at the site itself and used to build with. Stabilised mud blocks are also sized blocks, with cement and quarry dust added to gain different properties like strength, thinner walls, durability and better surface density. Cob walls are much simpler than all these.
The re-discovered cob walls are not merely repeating the rural practices, but have attempted technical improvements. There also has been deeper studies about the causes behind surface cracking with solutions; possibility of avoiding thicker base where the whole wall width could be same; different options for additives for the mud; scientific modes of quantifying the components of mud into clay, silt, sand and such others to accordingly decide the right kind of proportion ideal for the cob wall.
These methods of improvisation re-validate the use of cob walls again to claim a position in sustainable architecture. It is time we look into it.
The concrete jungles we are creating may endanger the future of our living itself. It is time to adhere to some sets of basic principles.
Words like green sense and eco-build are often mistaken. The converted naturalists tend to overemphasise air, light, heat, rain and humidity as the only or main criticalities in a good building. If these “pancha sutras” are followed, everything will go great.
The critiques would question how other essentials of architecture can be ignored and how mere adherence to few criteria can fulfil the larger role of design. Of course, every word of their critique is right. The real challenge lies not merely in conforming to nature but balancing nature-architecture equilibrium in their respective roles.
There are many other pancha sutras to be followed. We may list construction, maintenance, demolition, disposal and recycling as the second set. While the first two are somewhat discussed at least to consider the options, the rest is completely ignored as if our buildings will last forever. Everything we build today will have to be demolished one day, but we live as if such a day never comes. The concrete jungles we are creating may endanger the future of our urban living itself.
Considering buildings have evolved from the primary need of shelter making, the third list may have space, activity, storage, protection and privacy. These are being increasingly focused upon, at least in structures being put up by professionals like architects.
Possibly, these were not critically considered in the past, since the lifestyle of those days were not so demanding. Designs revolved around simple, multifunctional and large halls, which were open for many adjustments. Today, we indulge in micro-designing, locating every activity in a specific place.
Buildings need to provide a place for body and peace of mind. So comes the fourth list with security, strength, durability, functionality and flexibility. While the first three everyone talks about and also provide for, the last two only some people talk about and very few are able to provide for. It needs critical thinking, wide experience and an understanding of how people live. When we decide how to live, we can design the true architecture.
The last and fifth set of sutras derives from services, facilities and comforts we seek from buildings. They are water, sanitation, power, lift and air conditioning. Evidently, they refer more to modern and urban contexts, than the architecture of the past which would have had none of them. Incidentally, it is this list which ignores the role of nature most, trying to rule it instead. Considering they all have come to stay, we cannot negate them but can be sensitive to do the least harm to nature. Going a step further, we may attempt living with some discomfort and inconveniences, like all our previous generations have done, at least to let future generations have access to resources they too would need.
The five sets of pancha tantras each totalling 25 principles, is not an exhaustive list towards an ideal arch
Five basic principles must guide all construction activities but we are violating them.
Air, light, rain, heat and humidity are the simple pancha sutras which can ensure that our architecture is in alignment with nature. It sounds so simple that everyone can follow them. However, what is easier to say is often difficult to do.
This truth is more apparent in the construction sector. During historic times, people did not consciously follow these principles, but designs evolved with these five sutras as the pre-condition. In many ways, architecture evolved around these five conditions. Following the technological advances we achieved, we could alter the state of nature in our building interiors, both mechanically and artificially. Architecture lost its alignment with nature.
Air moves everywhere maintaining oxygen for breathing by animals, except in the interiors of luxury hotels built by us. Nature has daylight everywhere supporting bio-diversity, except inside iconic auditoriums designed by architects. Rain ensured the Earth gets washed every year, except in our structures that bar rain. Heat and cold go cyclical balancing themselves, except in building indoors where we switch on energy-guzzling air conditioners. All plant produces depend upon right humidity, except humans who ignore it to let their skins dry up.
It is saddening to see how natural principles continue to be neglected in the majority of buildings. We are trying to ape the west, trying to prove we are as good as they are. We have proven that we are good at copying, not realising what we are copying is not good, but very bad.
Of course, increasingly people are discussing and even trying to apply these principles nowadays. Ecological designs are surely on the rise, though limited to groups of converted people today. Over the decades, there would be more people and projects joining the new movement of designing ecologically sensitive habitats, now dubbed as an elitist action by some conventional practitioners.
An early pioneer, Ken Yeang, popularised eco architecture; a thought leader, Janine Benyus, wrote about biomimicry; building biology is catching up now; bio-philia groups are getting enlarged; parametric looks into forms in nature and learning from nature is getting more attention. These all are recent western trends, but India has its achievements too.
Even a simple spatial sequencing from open to semi-open to semi-enclosed to fully enclosed with indoor courts can connect architecture to nature. Little shift from manufactured materialist style to natural minimalist can have major impacts on architecture. Keeping the windows open for air, learning to live with the available light, designing to let rain into corridors or courts, letting the body adjust to bearable temperatures and enduring humidity at least for health reasons can go a long way in aligning architecture with nature.
Let the natural air flow through our spaces; design for daylight lit up our activities; rain be an enjoyable interior asset; heat contrasting with cold boost our body health and comfort conditions get created by humidity. Let air, light, rain, heat and humidity rule our architecture again.
A tribute to Balkrishna Doshi, who has won the 2018 Pritzker Prize, the Nobel equivalent in architecture.
I define architecture as a living organism. It is a place where you live and celebrate life. … ‘I hope my work is received in the spirit it is offered. My name is Balkrishna Doshi.
The first sentence is what Doshi says in the video released by the 2018 Pritzker Architecture Prize announcement and the second is the concluding line at the end. These two lines virtually represent the human qualities of his designs and the humility with which he accepted the equivalent of Nobel prize in architecture. At the age of 90, he can put every other youngster to shame, be it being approachable by a fresher or in being able to cite fresh learnings every time one meets him, who rightfully claims he is still learning.
Most Indians might not have heard of Balkrishna Doshi, since architecture is still taking baby steps in our nation with million other priorities. However, considering how difficult it is to create meaningful buildings in our country, it is commendable that Doshi could rise above our socio-political limitations, to make India proud by being the first Indian to get this highest honour. Yet, the international calling has come rather delayed, with Euro-American architects winning majority of the last 44 Pritzker awards, where creating great architecture is easier.
Of course, the western contexts are familiar to Doshi. After studying at JJ School of Architecture, Bombay he boards a ship to the U.K. in 1947, from there to Paris to work with the master architect Corbusier. When Corbusier was commissioned to design Chandigarh, Doshi returns in 1954 to be his local architect. He also assisted Louis Kahn of the U.S., besides teaching there during the late 1950s. This western exposure made him look for deeper eastern meanings in the way we live.
Doshi has been cited for his low cost social housing in the prize, with many foreign media highlighting it. However, he deserves the award for the diverse roles he played just when India was in post-independence growth years – academics through School of Architecture, Ahmedabad; architecture through his firm Vastu-Shilpa; documentation and designs through Vastu Shilpa Foundation; and lecturing across the nations reaching out ideas to people.
What is special about this award is Doshi has been quintessentially an Indian architect, having never designed any major buildings abroad. Also, he does not follow the modernist approaches learnt from Corbusier and Kahn, instead synthesising the modern with the Indian contexts. In choosing such an architect, the Pritzker awards has made a slight departure from the modernist international architects whom they typically select.
Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad by Louis Kahn is an international design with an Indian appeal, but IIM Bangalore by Doshi is an Indian design with an international appeal. It virtually defines how institutes of national significance should be built. His design studio Sangath has been listed among the 125 best works of architecture designed since 1891. Notable among his projects are Aranya low cost housing; Institute of Indology; CEPT University; Premabai Hall; Tagore Memorial Hall; Vidhyadhar Nagar new town plan; Bima Nagar housing; and Hussain Doshi Gufa.
Words of the critique Alexandra Lange are worth quoting here: “As architecture has taken a social turn, the Pritzker jury has worked to find laureates that fit both their aesthetic sensibilities and an awakened sense of political responsibility. Doshi fulfils that brief to the letter, while (in a welcome gesture) increasing the prize’s geographic inclusiveness.”
Pritzker jury citation sums him up meaningfully: “Doshi has created an equilibrium and peace among all the components — material and immaterial — which result in a whole that is much more than the sum of the parts.” Still looking for the immaterial and the intangible, Doshi continues to work even now.
Few architects can imagine building new visions, educate generations of students, inspire architects across the nation, investigate into Indian contexts and advice multitudes of initiatives. Doshi appears to have achieved them all with ease.
Of course, we may also acknowledge all those who teamed up with Doshi in this journey of multi-tasking, which again tells much about Doshi as a leader and not a lone traveller, a category many creative architects get trapped into. And everyone knows, he is not going to stop, bound to travel far from here.
Doshi has created an equilibrium and peace among all the components — material and immaterial — which result in a whole that is much more than the sum of the parts.”
The real textbook of green architecture does not lie inside the walls of libraries, but outside those walls, in what surrounds all of us.
In these days of climate change, if we ask any young person how to face the crisis, they are bound to respond suggesting living with nature as an ultimate solution. Net zero buildings will only minimise energy usage, green architecture saves on few resources only, carbon footprint theory will help in consuming less and greenhouse gas emission data may help us change our technologies. Each one of them is only a partial solution, unlike the holistic theory of living with nature.
Given this position, can we re-learn from nature, the way our ancestors might have done many millenniums ago when they moved on to become settlers from being nomadic? Specific to buildings, can we analyse forms and formations by nature to list out the design criteria implicit in them?
Principles of the universe have been shaping everything in nature right from the beginning, so it should be possible to learn from the way nature designs. Possibly, the real textbook of green architecture does not lie inside the walls of libraries, but outside those walls, in what surrounds all of us.
Let us take coconut, as an illustration, trying to read into the design logic employed by nature. The thick external husk provides the cushioning needed when the nut falls from great heights, while the hard shell inside avoids any possible breakages. Outermost fibrous skin ensures the least damage to the husk itself, while the husk reduces dehydration of the soft kernel with water until it becomes a sapling.
Coconuts are round and oval in shape to let the nut roll over, which helps in minimising impact pressure and also the propagation of the seed across distances. Considering that coconut trees traditionally grew along riversides and seashores, before they were formally cultivated by people wherever possible, the nuts could also float along the water flow.
Coconut tree has less foliage compared to many other shorter trees, yet has to capture sun energy. As such, growing taller above other obstacles becomes mandatory. But then, the tree may fall against high winds commonly seen near water bodies, hence the highly fibrous swaying trunk and porous leaf. The height enables the nuts to fall farther away from the tree bottom, improving the possibility of propagation.
We can notice how a single design element caters to multiple needs like the husk ensuring safety, water retention, rolling on the ground and floating on water. The way nature can synthesise diverse criteria to evolve one singular and judicious species called coconut tree is simply amazing!
Can we compare architecture by nature with architecture by humans? Yes, it is possible to analyse how natural forms evolve with design logic, without even knowing of high theories like bio-mimicry. Students in schools of architecture at MES, Kuttipuram or KSSA, Bangalore have already proven it. It is time everyone involved in construction sector starts doing it.
We can learn a lot from nature which displays a design sense in every object it creates.
A new-born baby is a joyous welcome to any family, eagerly looked forward not only by the parents but by all. However for the baby it must be a strange new world to arrive into, initially with light, sounds and smells. Gradually, the baby observes objects all around her, a world filled with forms created by natural and human actions.
Most of tangible human productions can be seen as objects in 3 dimensions. As such, the making of every building and every city is also an act of making of forms. During the primitive days, humans would have learnt to do so by imitating nature, a stage long forgotten now thanks to the relentless march of our civilization.
However, nature continues with design sense in every object she creates by imbibing principles of ecological life, economical life and performance life. Unfortunately, our life has taken a different path from that of nature. It goes undebated that every object we see in nature has an ecological life, being part of a life cycle. Even though it sounds cruel to read Paul Rosolie who says every animal eats another animal in the jungle, except few like elephants and in turn is eaten up by another animal, we need to realise the fact that all are part of an ecological life. Objects begin and end with nature.
We humans take pride in using the term economy as if nature never knew it, but the economical life invented by nature is nowhere matched by people. There is nothing unwanted or extra in anything we see around us – be in the animated or the unanimated world. The judicious consumption of resources, minimalism of materials and the absence of wastes are much to learn from. We tend to place over-emphasis on the performance life of our products, but even here nature wins over us. Be it fruits and vegetables, foliage and forests, lakes and rocks or the world under sea, everything seems to be performing impeccably.
When nomadic humans settled down, every shelter they built was rooted in the nature around. As they advanced technologically, this connect got diluted. Is it possible to revive this nature-architecture connect? Yes, if only we attempt to apply the design principles of nature in our own creations.
If we realise that the performance of a building is more important than the perceived appearance, we may move closer to nature in building designs.
Let us ask any elderly citizen a simple query about what we learn from nature. With their lifelong wisdom, they may possibly list harmonious living, sense of continuity, resilience to changes, contextual adoption and such others. They may refer to the ecological equilibrium maintained by nature as a unique phenomenon, something we should emulate.
Now let us look at how we humans have been living. Without going into rhetoric, upon simple observations, we know how we live is antithesis to nature. In other words, by observing what we learn from nature we realise, we do not learn from nature.
Architecture today is among the few human activities which is in direct contrast to everything natural. Construction of buildings and destruction of nature are directly connected, with increased construction worldwide contributing to up to one-third of greenhouse emissions, which further on cause ozone hole, global warming and climate change. We have not only moved away from nature, but also have made natural equilibrium lose its balance. Even the word ‘balance’ has lost its meaning in the process.
Most children continue to draw, just like the elders did once, a round circle showing the lifecycle of a butterfly. The line ends where it began, suggesting how everything is connected. In the global sense, we humans are an integral part of such cycles of natural balance, yet we stand apart. We do not claim a life cycle, but a lifestyle.
The problem for nature starts with our lifestyle, which we preserve and enhance as if it’s a precious little gem of human civilization.
In urban India, we have moved from floor-based living to furniture based, from outdoor space uses to indoor enclosures and instead of doing tasks ourselves, we are outsourcing a whole lot of them.
Out of context
Our buildings do not emerge from the context, but from image, imagination, technology and trends. It’s time we realise the image of architecture is less important than the impact it has on nature. The performance of the building is more important than the perceived appearance. Given such theoretical premises, we need to learn how to locate a building in a given locality.
Despite such design approaches much needed today, design has become an anytime- anywhere-anyhow application on architecture and construction. The design by nature, which invariably is contextual and connected, is missing in our human constructions.
The dilemmas of the above kind cannot be resolved fully. The related questions cannot be fully answered, but can only be pondered over.
May be, a sincere pondering over, may lead us to live little closer to nature than what we are now. May be that act of introspection will lead to improve the nature-architecture connect.
Buildings and other infrastructure in hill stations should not mar the beauty and ambience of the locale.
If we ask people “Do you like hill stations like Ooty or Wayanad?” everyone will say yes. Then if we follow it up asking “Do you think hill stations like to have people coming over there?”, not everyone will be equally affirmative. After all, we have spoiled the terrain with roads, exploited the views with buildings, littered the landscape with garbage and contaminated the sources of water.
Could these be the only reasons why hill stations dislike humans? After all, aesthetics goes beyond facilities and services, getting expressed in every one of our individual and collective actions. Here lies the tragedy – we go outdoors to relax in the lap of nature and we spoil that very natural settings with our constructions. Most of the buildings in hill stations make neither green sense nor hill sense.
The reference to hills is only anecdotal, for the issue is with our design approaches which negates anything natural. After all, before humans became designers and builders, nature has been designing, building and creating forms. None of them appear to be out of context; there are no ugly rivers; no terrible looking trees; no stones which appear nonsense or no unattractive animals. What are the principles of beauty found in these elements of nature and have we studied them to adapt in any way in our modern human constructs?
Of course, there is a major difference – natural forms grow in their context, while human needs are built up out of context. Buildings do not grow that way to become big from a miniature model kept at the centre of the site. Act of one-time construction differentiates us from nature, which follows slow evolution.
However, can we find ideas towards sustainable architecture in nature? If so, can they be universal or do we need to search them out in every region? How does nature ensures minimalism in its objects where nothing appears unnecessary in any and every part of the object? Can there be design parameters to be learnt from all such phenomena?
There surely are specific criteria behind everything around us, but we have lost the impulse to read them. During the early civilizations, people lived with nature, hence understood and adapted them. Human constructions blended with natural creations, hence there was harmony of different kinds. Architecture of the locality evolved from the landscape of that locality, both complementing each other. Now, times have changed. Even if we were to discover how nature designs, we may find it difficult to follow them in our designs.
The fact that designing with nature is sustainable goes undebated, but are people and designers willing to seek that path in these days where modern architecture is ruling the world? We need to seek answers to such difficult questions
There are economical and ecological advantages, besides the aesthetic appeal.
Everyone talks about the need to revive the past wisdom and blend it with modern times. But who is going to bell the cat is the million dollar question, especially if there are business risks involved with it.
Among the time-tested construction materials, building with mud tops the list world over. Increased research has shown greater variety of possibilities with this wonderful material, as the French institute CRATerre has published or the well-documented book titled “Building with Mud” by Gernot Minke suggests. Within India, Indian Institute of Science, Auroville Earth Institute, Mrinmayee, Hunnarshala Foundation and such others have worked on it for many decades, besides scores of architects promoting this material.
Among the new trends catching up is the machine-pressed interlocking stabilised mud block, which became popular in Kerala.
Some of the early pioneers there and in Mysuru imported the machines, but now quality machines are made in Coimbatore. Started as a city-centred initiative, now it is catching up in rural areas, which is worth noting.
The family making Suraksha interlocking mud blocks in a village near Mangaluru actually lived in a mud house for generations.
They happen to demolish it, to get a new house with modern materials. Now, following a curious turn of events, the present younger generation returned to the village after studying in Bengaluru, to make mud blocks and despatch them widely, from Kerala in the south to Gulbarga in the north. Presently, they use mud from the uncultivable parts of their property, which has good clay and sand proportion.
After the first round of cleaning, sizing and sieving, it goes into a batch mixer where about 5% cement and stipulated quantity of plasticiser are added, maintaining the correct moisture level. The thoroughly mixed stabilized mud is poured into the moulds, compressed to half the poured volume to get the final block.
Every block has projected and recessed faces on four sides, which fit into each other, so the wall can be built without any mortar. Depending upon the mould, differently sized blocks are made, to suit specific construction demands.
What is interesting is not that another production unit has started.
The fact that a rural family is making them in an area where traditional buildings used mud is interesting.
Today, even villagers have lost faith in un-stabilised mud walls because they crack and disintegrate in rain, so the challenge also lies in re-educating them about the vastly improved versions.
The ecological advantages of minimising on cement, the financial advantages of faster construction, the life cycle advantages of low maintenance and the visual advantages of aesthetics of earthy construction need to be reached out to the masses.
Those who believe that modernity offers a wider choice are not aware of variations in indigenous architecture occurring virtually everywhere in the country. CVA in Bengaluru is committed to the cause of the latter.
A A curious phenomenon occurs as cities grow – as they evolve with a modern image, they also seek to showcase their traditional roots. If not all, a few converted people trace the design from the past and apply it fresh in the new contexts.
Bengaluru has specifically faced this trend; as such, possibly has a notable variety of traditional designs in a modern avatar. During the last two decades, many architects have attempted to promote culture and constructions whenever they get an opportunity, but very few have dared to stay only with the vernacular. Among them is the Centre for Vernacular Architecture (CVA) in Bengaluru, started by R.L. Kumar.
A Chartered Accountant before he gave it up to join the CIEDS (Centre for Informal Education and Development Studies) Collective in 1983, Kumar has been a philosopher activist. Inspired by a wide range of thinkers including Ivan Illich, Michel Foucault, Dharampal, Ashis Nandy and Jeet Singh Oberoi, Kumar’s passions are wide. Many modern architects have forayed into traditional architecture, but Kumar is specially worth mentioning, being neither an engineer nor an architect entering this difficult field.
The idea of starting CVA was not a sudden one, but followed the success of Shramik, a construction workers’ cooperative he found in the late Eighties with labourers from Khader Sharief Garden, where civic amenities for slum dwellers was a major concern.
CVA evolved in the early 90s not merely to build houses but to empower village labourers and bring them into the fold of financial equity. CVA continues to perform today on par with how it was, 4 years after Kumar’s demise, which proves how participatory and decentralised the initiative has been. Incidentally, hand crafts, social equality, natural materials, and such others are all part of vernacular values.
Those who believe that modernity offers a wider choice are not aware of variations in indigenous architecture occurring virtually every tenth mile across India, far beyond the modernity which looks alike everywhere. Kumar believed we need to live this vernacular again, for modernity could not solve problems of today.
Strangely but truly, one of the major reasons for the declining popularity of local tradition, including handcrafted skills, is our professional college education in English, structured by the British, largely ignoring all local wisdoms.
We are still walking the path they mapped, and ignore the gem in our backyards. No wonder, we see no glitter in exposed stone walls, brick patterns, perforated walls, internal courtyards, small windows, sloping roofs, local materials, rural aesthetics, clay tiles, human scale, rustic finish, folk themes and many such others which essentially are vernacular.
How much of Bengaluru do we find in buildings of the city today can be a debatable question, Bengaluru itself having morphed into an international city. Yet, culture, architecture and ecology connections cannot be easily negated. Values like perfection and continuation that the vernacular stands for, cannot be deleted from theories of architecture.