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.
None 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.
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.