Monthly Archives: April 2018

THE ANYWHERE COB WALL

What was the original material of Bangalore fort? Not all can respond to this quizzical question, but the answer is mud.

Cob Walls by Thannal, ThiruvannamalaiThe local chieftain Kempegowda moved his capital from Yelahanka to Bangalore in 1537, with a fort surrounding the market area called Pete. As was normal in those days, it was built with mud, possibly a thick solid wall. Increased threats by enemies made Chikkadeva Raya Wodeyar enlarge and strength it around 1700, still power moved to the hands of Maratha ruler Shahaji. When Hyder Ali claimed the territories around Bangalore, he got the mud fort replaced by stones in 1761, considering the changing technology of warfare.

This fascinating piece of history is also a part of history of mud. Mud walls have much to tell about how we lived in the past, for they sheltered the history of human civilizations. Incidentally, mud walls have a future too, in these days of climate change and ecological challenges.

Most of traditional mud walls were not built with sized bricks, but lumps of clay mixed with straw and lime, what we have today termed as cob construction – simply piling up lumps of local clay. Thick walls were the first human impulses towards shelter making to gain strength by thickness, stability by wider base, durability by multiple surface layers and passive cooling by thermal mass.

Though the walls are thick, they breathe being porous, hence can control indoor environment. The thickness also helps as moisture barrier, hence average indoor humidity can be maintained. Of course, we need to protect the base of the wall where rain water can splash back and protect the top of the wall with good overhangs, otherwise they tend to erode as can be seen in many village homes built carelessly. Lack of proper cleaning of clay may also lead to plant growth on wall from the roots left in the mud mix or if raw fertile soil is used, it may result sprouting of seeds settled on the wall during rains. Either of them is not a technology problem, but an operational one.

The wider and more compact the wall is, the greater load it can take. This system is called load bearing by compression, a cheaper and long lasting method.  Contrastingly, the RCC framed construction transfers load by tension members, which is costlier and has lesser life span.

The roof weight normally go vertically down, called axial loads, which can be well handled by cob. In case of sloping roofs and other lateral loads, proper wall plate beams are required. Many rural structures were not aware of this, where we can notice cracking of wall tops due to lateral loads. Of course, many of them were made thicker at the lower levels, to partially counter the lateral forces and also be able to transfer larger loads. People have also tried stone wall at the base, which actually works very well, often finished with mud plastering to blend with the wall.

In many ways, a cob house is like an anthill. Termites dig out small balls of earth and build atop, with porosity. It may appear primitive, but the way it is being done now scientifically with studied inputs makes it the most green.

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The original mud wall

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.

14bgp-greensensGLH3Q0D813jpgjpgAll 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.

Minimal demands

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.

‘Pancha sutras’ of architecture

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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