Monthly Archives: October 2015

NEW-AGE MUD HOUSE

The interlocking, electric machine-produced, stabilised mud block rises above many other new materials in its advantages.

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Are our traditions dead practices? Is there no future for the ideas with which our forefathers lived? Should we believe that continuous innovation and constant change are the only paths towards a better future?

The above questions may lead to many debates, both favouring and countering, due to the mixed and confused state we are now in. While cultural studies may debunk the theories of innovation, technically loaded subjects like modern communication may like to drop the past. However, the construction industry may find itself at the crossroads, it being a synthesis of traditional culture and modern creativity.

Stabilised mud block, also called as soil cement block, is an apt illustration. It is a new technology developed from the age-old mud houses and well established in many areas, yet it has been criticised by many people for not belonging to the modern age of fast production, industrialisation, standardised qualities, ease of operation or skill-sets required. Now, the interlocking, electric machine-produced, stabilised mud block not only answers these critics, but rises above many other new materials in its advantages.

It has been few years since the pre-casting of soil cement blocks started in India, with technology imported from the African company Hydraform, hence has a proven track record. Unlike the manual pressed ones, they are compacted to the set density and strength in an electrically operated machine and cured thereafter. The blocks have grooves and projections on all surfaces, hence can fit one to another without any mortar joints. The interlocking arrangement which needs no pointing of joints is waterproof, besides easy to be fitted even by a semi-skilled mason. Alignments are, by default, guaranteed ensuring faster construction.

Sandy soil is preferred over high clay contents, and the mud needs to be mixed with tested and specified quantity of quarry dust and cement to give it additional strength, surface density and anti-corrosive characteristics. The blocks are pre-cured and construction has no mortar, hence no water curing is required, saving water and labour time. These walls can be load bearing with 9” walls or fill walls with 6” thick or thin walls with 4.5” thick ones.

More than 1,000 blocks can be made at site every working day with a single machine and team of workers. The machine can be fixed in one factory and can be transported where needed without much difficulty. In principle, these walls are made to be left exposed without plastering. However, pigmented blocks can be made or mud and lime mixed with oxides can be painted in case the natural block looks are not appreciated. With the block size of 9×9.5×4.5 inches, they are larger than normal stabilised mud blocks, hence have increased passive cooling capacities.

The house in Mysore by architects Dhyan Belliappa and Rajesh Jain is evolving in this right direction.

There are enough opportunities to make our past practices futuristic, only we need to be willing.

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WISDOM OF CENTURIES

Time-tested ideas from the past can be imbibed while constructing houses.

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Where can we see variety of house forms today? In the modern parts of our cities such as Chennai, Mumbai or Bengaluru? Not really, because the way we use RCC pillars, concrete slabs, cement blocks and painted mortar surfaces connotes commonality, despite the seemingly different looks. Curiously variety is still found in villages, urban slums and the dwellings poor people build for themselves on the outskirts of a city.

We have ushered in uniformity not only at the cost of cultural variety, but also at the cost of exploring judicious alternative design ideas. We have packed construction knowledge into codified textbooks, created professionals, ironed out the differences, possibly not realising that differences are both cultural expressions and local wisdoms. We have ignored and relegated our knowledge systems to the dustbins, adopting many novelties at the cost of familiarities. As such, it is getting difficult to see the range of design ideas practiced hitherto.

In other words, the tragedy of our technologically advancing time is not realising how valid are these design ideas evolved over centuries, which we have termed as katchha, temporary or of economically weaker sections. The modern we all are embracing on, surely has many advantages; however it could do better if time-tested ideas from the past are imbibed.

The thatch hut in the picture, built by its poverty stricken owners and found in a squatter settlement at Gokak, can be ignored by all, but it teaches much to us. To that end, it is an exemplary case study of judicious designs.

The vertical bamboo poles with beams on top support the roof. The horizontal weave of the split bamboo between the verticals provides the horizontal tie, beside holding the wall. Dried twigs of a local shrub, known for long life in the dried form, become the core of the wall, just like steel in concrete.

Fermented sticky mud becomes the external skin on both sides of the wall, applied with hand with rough texture wherein the stone pebbles add strength to the mix and reduce possible erosion of the wall due to lashing rains.

Sound logic

The logic behind every aspect of the hut, built with local materials and knowledge, is astounding, putting many of our modern homes to shame. This concept has found continuity in techniques like that of ferrocement.

Despite the fact that architects and engineers have been introducing attractive house forms, the basic expectations from a house have not changed — enclose space, enable activities, ensure utilities and achieve happiness. Just the way we fulfil these needs, it is a learning experience to study how our ancestors and forefathers successfully faced such challenges.

The idea is not to blindly return to the old methods, which is not feasible anyway; so, exploring the alternative has to continue. While being on this explorative path, we should also look back and rediscover the wisdom of centuries.

Grassroot shelter

We cannot reverse the clock and return to the medieval era, but we can re-look at the architecture of the rural past and learn lessons.

10PP-greensense_17_2587766eNone of us know exactly when humans started protecting themselves by constructing houses, after being cave dwellers for long. Surely, this saga of sheltering the self is as exciting as the story of civilisation it self, with shelters of a million types across the globe. These stories can showcase wide possibilities of manipulation of land; extended use of resources; and human potential to modify the contexts and enrich the idea of living.

We may assume that the act of shelter-making must have started to seek safety from wild animals, then adding the idea of protection from the vagaries of nature. As the nomadic life gave way for the settled, need for storage and areas for specific activities must have emerged. These four — safety, storage, activity and protection — might have defined the basic home which continue to be the essence even today, enabled through design, materials and construction.

Today we have deviated from the original, contextual, vernacular approaches to shelter making. We build comfortable, complex and luxurious homes, appearing different from the hut- like historic houses.

Unfortunately, today we claim more embodied energy, spend more money and consume more resources than in the past. Given this shift and the context of construction industry being among the major contributors for greenhouse gas emissions, it becomes relevant to re-examine our approaches from the criteria of climate change.

Wonder material

We cannot reverse the clock and return to the medieval era, but can we re-look at the architecture of the rural past and learn lessons? Of course we can. Among them, building with grass and straw appears to be a universal practice, still relevant in India. Modern architects have been rediscovering this wonder material, even it is more for resorts, roadside facilities and temporary structures.

Grass or straw, as an individual strand, has neither the strength nor the durability to shape a shelter, but together in hundreds twisted like a rope becomes a linear fibrous material that acts like a beam. In a thick form, it becomes a mat-like surface to roof a space or become the wall for a room. If dense enough, grass surface becomes a water-proof layer to withstand rains at least for a decade. Being porous in nature, grass roofs breathe out hot air. They keep the indoors warm during winter and cool during summer. And finally, when old and rotten, grass joins the mother earth again!

Of course, all these will not make it a wonder material. Across long spans, they may sag and eventually crack in dried condition. Fire hazard is always a risk. Local availability, both of materials and skilled workers, is also a challenge which if not met with, will negate any grass structures.

We may list the problems of a local and traditional material and rule it out. Alternatively, we can also solve those problems, look at the positive qualities and build on that strength. It is the latter we need to follow today.

In harmony with nature

Minimal energy consumption and carbon footprint, use of biogas and solar panels, decentralised water treatment… a look at life in Auroville.

03PP-greensense_03_2569934gWhen we discuss alternatives to the mainstream development of today, the often-heard scepticism is about the applicability of such ideas. The majority, who stick on to the existing modes, tend to opine that eco-friendly ideas are lofty and are not achievable. Of course, no new idea can be right away implementable everywhere, but the fact that alternative ideas are gaining ground is a visible phenomenon.

Auroville, located near Pondicherry, is a shining example of how the alternatives can be explored, developed and applied. The township, officially started in 1968, has about 2,500 people from 50 nations living in harmony with nature, with minimal wastage, energy consumption and carbon footprint.

Following the early explorations of form, shape and materiality, Aurovilleans soon started working with earthy materials, construction options, bio-gas, water pumps, solar panels, ammonia filters, decentralised water treatment and such others. These explorations were not limited to professionals, but everyone with a passion for them collaborated and developed them. The ‘let’s try’ attitude ensured many of these ideas becoming a success.

The challenge was not just to discover or invent, but be able to change the mindsets. To that end, exploring for the future meant the architecture had to be innovative both in modern materials like ferro-cement and in reviving traditional ideas such as stabilised mud blocks, oxide floors, arches, domes, rammed earth walls, and thatch roofs. To that end, Anupama, Dharmesh, Mona, Poppo, Roger, Satprem, Suhasini, and many others have contributed greatly.

A city plan comprising peace area, industrial area, international area, residential area, cultural area and green belt was developed based on the 1967 master plan. Houses are grouped around small clusters called communities, nearly self-contained which do not grow beyond a small number. They are so located that high densities are avoided and long travel needs are reduced. Many of them have common facilities like furnished kitchen, solar collectors, water pumps, wind mills and such others, which make better use of resources by the act of sharing.

The township itself boasts of the Solar Kitchen powered by one of the largest of solar collectors that collects heat from the Sun to enable cooking. Rain water is harvested, grey water is recycled and sewage water is treated by varied alternates including dewats and root zone.

Much can be written about Auroville, both in positive praise and in negative criticism. The latter revolves around it being a small community of people educated and converted to an alternative, hence Auroville ideas may not work in the competitive marketplace. However, in no other human settlement across the globe can we see a phenomenon like it. Auroville truly makes green sense.