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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.

Shelter from waste

Human beings are capable of finding ways to turn discarded materials into designs.

25PP-greensense_25_2170773eThere is something interesting about how birds and flying insects create shelter. They rarely use living matter! Most birds make nests with dried twigs and fallen feathers; honey bees do not use any outside material; wasps build with mud; beetles live in holes dug into dried up trees and the story can go on.

Most animals neither use fresh materials for sheltering themselves nor do they produce waste during the making of the shelter. We of course continue to ignore the waste, instead produce waste during sheltering ourselves.

Even today, we see the economically weak people create city shelters using discarded materials such as film posters, wood from container boxes, coconut leaves, used tin sheets, tree branches and flex banners. It is not that everyone should build such slum-like houses, but realise that humans are still capable of finding ways to turn the discarded into designs, which we mostly ignore. Especially, in a professionally made structure with architects and engineers, it’s all formal architecture.

Good example

There are exceptions like the Manav Sadhana Centre in Ahmedabad by architect Yatin Pandya, a multiple award winning project evolved around and with waste materials such as plastic bottles filled with mud, glass bottles embedded into walls and ceilings, wooden crates resized and refitted, and broken ceramic brought together in varied patterns. It could be among the best examples in India for designing with the discarded.

Among the easier systems doable in any city is the wall with glass bottles. Collect bottles of preferably same type, choose the sides and build with rich mortar as a non-load bearing wall. Slippage due to bad bonding and cracks between the two materials are the only two major problems here that can be easily solved. A more advanced application is to cast the bottles as panels, by keeping them in a mold with required spacing and then concrete poured around to get the pre-cast element. Spacing can be deliberately varied to create interest, but verticality of the wall is important.

Electrical conduits cannot be embedded within the wall, so have to be outside the surface or better avoided on such walls. External waterproofing needs to be done with approved liquid applications, with plastering and painting costs saved upon. The bottle wall provides light without glare and heat.

Historically people built with locally available unwanted materials much more than today. Nowadays, manufacturing the new product is so dominating, even the idea of recycling waste into a house will not be to the liking of most people. The exception could be with antique doors, windows and pillars which are still accepted by the discerning when they get a building done.

Building with waste is surely an extreme approach towards sustainability and the ideas may not be best suited for all contexts. However, every such alternative idea will have some most suited contexts also. Then, we need to think of waste.