Knowing the material

Every other builder or designer claims that he can work with all materials, when actually, the facts are otherwise

Working with a material is not as easy as it appears. We need to know the characteristics, how best to use it, common problems and possible mistakes that we may commit. It’s like a chess champion knowing the opening game, a cook negotiating with a vegetable or a potter working with the type of clay.

The master works with ease, where the novice still struggles. Unfortunately, in the construction field, everyone poses as a master with every second builder or designer claiming they can work with all materials! In all of my 16 years of consultancy, I am yet to meet a contractor claiming inability to build with stone, even when they accept not having ever built a stone wall earlier.

This long introduction became necessary, in the light of occasional discussions the professionals have been having about disseminating information in public.

We still remember what happened to the image of soil cement blocks during its early years, when it was made and built without proper care.


Often, we see exposed brick walls so badly done, and I want to say, “Someone please plaster it off immediately!” This happens mainly when a helper is assigned to build a wall and a brick layer becomes a stone mason overnight.

All material technologies demand certain lead time to understand how to use them, before a builder can start with them.

Real picture: Architects, masons and others need some time to understand material technologies before starting the building work

As such, while writing about construction is useful, it may also lead to creating overconfidence among the practitioners, who may try their hand on field without adequate preparation.

Composite walls that we discussed last week face this danger more than any other wall type. Most masons get no chance of visiting a building under construction with the said technology, so end up re-discovering the wheel of learning all over again, making the same old mistakes in the process and killing the great new idea for ever. Unfortunately, while people have gained expertise during their practice, no major attempts have happened to record their knowledge as a code of practice or builders notes to help others learn.

Even if we have such texts, it can only compliment the hands-on work. Design, however cerebral it may be, finally ends up as a visible and tangible act.


Architects and owners observing a finished building during day light, builders learning about the experience of others and masons actually building sample walls under expert supervision are all among the mandatory preparations a project should undergo before embarking on the alternative path.

Working with a material is not as difficult as it may appear, if we can prepare well.

People working with clay crafts can tell us the finishing like glazing and pattern-making makes the pottery better, but costly as well. It is true in building construction too where the finishing costs are double of basic superstructure, hence our emphasis on leaving the material exposed.

The technique

In a composite wall, the outer and inner layers need to be tied to each other by a single stone going through the thickness of wall or a small piece of reinforcement rod or there should be adequate randomness in the wall core such that two layers do not fall apart. The course height would vary between stone and bricks, so only occasionally both would be at same level, which is acceptable.

However, when they reach lintel or roof bottom, both the materials need to reach together. It demands pre-checking the course height and the mortar joint thickness, adjusting it to match with levels as needed.

Periodic check

Periodic checking of levels with water tube levels is a simple measure to ensure quality of finish. To maintain uniform joint thickness, a piece of wood of desired thickness could be used as a standard reference.

If both sides are to be exposed, the electric conduit pipe should be laid within the wall during construction itself!

Composite walls in stone and bricks have all the potential we need, but one precaution: once done, there is no changing; hence the first time itself, we need to get it right.


Posted on August 21, 2010, in designs, fundamentals and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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