HOUSE WITHOUT STEEL AND CEMENT
It has taken us only a few decades to wipe out traditional methods of building houses, but the clock can be reversed.
When we look around our homes today, can we imagine that less than a hundred years ago we used to build without steel and cement, but today that appears impossible? Does it surprise us to realise it has taken us only a few decades to wipe out thousands-of-years-old methods of building houses? Strange but true, the rate at which we are shifting is both astonishing and alarming too.
In the wake of such a transformation, we also see scattered attempts to counter the change. The house of architect Dhruv Bhasker at Auroville is an apt example to prove how we can successfully reverse the clock, living in our times. At Auroville, for many decades alternative ideas have been explored and experimented; as such Dhruv’s house draws lessons from past experiences.
The foundation is built not with stones with cement mortar but using lime-stabilized mud rammed into the trench in layers. It is simple, practical and very economical, but if not done properly may lead to settlement cracks; hence should follow prescribed technicalities. Termites could be an issue, which is mitigated by using lime in critical areas.
Walls are made of local burnt bricks, plastered with hand-finished lime and sand mortar. Likewise, joints too use the same lime mortar, replacing the conventional cement mortar. However, larger part of the wall is made of rammed earth, left exposed or partly mud plastered. There are not too many lintels as per the design; the few that appear are done with single piece stone slab. Modern paints based on chemical pigments are totally avoided.
Locally available old doors and windows from demolished houses were re-used as they were and if not, by resizing them. Old wood needs to be carefully handled to take away the decomposed top layer and re-polished with durable finishes. Athangudi tiles, also called as Chettinad tiles, adorn the floors in vivid colours and hues, adding a rich pattern at places.
The roof is made with reused wood rafters and purlins, topped with country clay tiles, and the ceiling covered by wood boards.
Electricity power comes from solar photovoltaic panels, adequate for lighting, water pump and refrigerator, with a good quality inverter. Most of the roof rain water is harvested, diverted into an underground sump, filtered and then taken to the overhead tank.
Septic tanks and soak pits take care of the sewage.
Incidentally, it is not only a house without steel and cement, but also without any dependency on outside the site for water, sewage, and power. Presently, it is not a house for a large family, hence succeeds immensely as an alternative idea. Of course, there have been millions of such independent houses in our traditional villages, but majority do not support modern lifestyle.
The importance of such fresh thinking as seen in Auroville in general and Dhruv’s house in specific lies in finding ways to adapt local approaches for sustainable futuristic architecture.