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Soil or cement?

Many building components from foundation to final finish can be built by using soil-based ideas.

24bgp-greensensG9A1V8J9R3jpgjpgThe last week has been a week of messages in WhatsApp and elsewhere, claiming the highest recorded temperature for any inhabited parts of Earth has touched 60 degree C in Kuwait. We may not get any officially verified version of this possible rumour; it could be a fact or a figment of imagination and could even be a prank message just to amuse us.

Official records claim highest recorded temperatures to be above 56 degrees, as such this figure further moving up is not an impossibility considering the damage and distress we are causing to nature. However, imagining such high temperatures is a frightening proposition. So, what are we doing about it?

Many nations and institutions are addressing climate crisis; yet at the global scale they are yet to make a noticeable dent. If so, should we wait for something to happen through these major players or do our bit individually?

One area to work upon is simply to minimise the use of steel and cement.

Though considered as a boon to the construction industry, these two materials contribute much to resource consumption, energy demands, waste generation and heat production. The indoor and outdoor temperatures around their production plants are virtually uninhabitable.

Why cement?

Most owners and builders cannot imagine building without cement today. RCC is inevitable today, so as a part of it cement too. Yet, should the whole building – foundation, column, walls, lintels, chajjas, beams, stairs, roofs, plastering, waterproofing – be with cement and concrete? At least where possible, can they be with non-cement based material?

Many soil-based options can replace cement fully or in parts during building construction. Soil lends itself to adobe block, rammed earth, stabilised mud block, table moulded or wire cut bricks, jaali units, hollow clay block, clay filler and hourdi roof blocks, Mangalore tiles, water proofing tiles, flooring tile and many such other products.

Unbelievable but true, majority of building components from foundation to final finish can be built by using these soil-based ideas. Brick foundations are possible; jaali blocks make reinforced columns; hollow clay blocks are apt for walls and lintels; mud walls are a proven idea; tiles make attractive chajjas; RCC would have minimal steel and cement in filler roofs; hourdis can create both flat and curved roofs; arch panel and jack arches need only precast beams and clay flooring is among the best for the foot.

This listing may appear like pitching the opposites for a competition. Our media is full of discussions on herbal vs chemical shampoos; traditional vs modern dresses; local vs continental cuisine; made in India vs imported goods and many such others. Likewise, soil vs cement may sound like being part of these debates. However, the intention is not to place them as opposites, but be able to observe the appropriate and make a studied choice.

Today we need to choose not only with a concern for today, but equally with a concern for tomorrow.

Tackling loose soil

A look at a simple, traditional practice which is not adopted nowadays.


When the British ruled India, among the many local practices they despised was that of the construction sector. To them, ideas of our past generations appeared unprofessional, hence introduced the European systems from their land. No doubt India benefitted in numerous ways by these new systems, but unfortunately, time-tested wisdom got lost in this process. Among these casualties, systems of foundation are notable.

Different regions of India followed different methods to solve the problem of transferring the building load to the ground. There were earth consolidations, wooden piles, boulders, stone slabs, deeper external wall foundations, sand packing and many more, which appeared flimsy to the British.

They introduced the method where dressed stone or masonry blocks are laid in layers, each upper layer narrower compared to the lower one, creating the stepped appearance, popularly believed to be stronger. It requires dressing the block into neat looking sizes, lime or cement mortar, back-filling the trench and needs to start from the hard strata of earth, hence could be many feet deep into the earth. In loose soil, such foundations demand much money and effort.

A simpler and traditional practice in this direction has been to drive down small poles 4 to 6 inch diameter into the soil at every one foot distance in both the directions. A normal 3 ft. wide and 3 ft. deep foundation trench is first dug out, with the top soil still loose.

Any locally available bamboo, casuarina, forest wood or such other poles which tend to grow narrow, straight and long are chosen with the desired length with the bottom tip left blunt or slightly tapered. The whole pole is given anti-termite treatment for durability and the top part wrapped with cloths or tied with ropes to avoid it splitting due to hammering.

Each one is steadily and slowly hammered down into the loose soil till it stops moving down. Technically, this method is nothing but a pile foundation, where modern concrete piles had their predecessor in wooden piles. This ensures the bottom strata of soil is made denser and tightly packed, hence is empowered to take greater load. Upon this layer of piles, masonry foundation was laid to the full width of trench, by packing stone boulders, quarried laterite, local bricks or any other local material.

The negatives

The flip side of this system is difficulty in gauging the increased load bearing capacity, which if needed can be found out by conducting on-site pile capacity testing. If the soil is excessively dry, intermittently water logged or termite infested, additional precautions need to be taken.

The driving down of the poles, mostly done manually, should be done honestly till they reach the layer of hard soil.

Soil types vary due to percentage contents of clay, sand, black cotton, gravel, laterite and such others, hence have varied expansion, water retention and shrinkage characteristics, which need to considered.

As modern science of construction is advancing, an occasional looking back may unearth forgotten knowledge systems that are resource saving and eco-friendly.