Public: It’s Not About Mud: Indigenous Building Systems Of India (1)

The Following article was published in the June 2015 Edition of Domus India, documenting the building traditions and systems of 5 different rural regions of the country. The full PDF of the same can be downloaded here. Also can be found at  http://www.domusweb.it/en/local-editions/2015/06/15/india.html


Introduction

 

The Subcontinent of India has a diverse history and tradition of building with indigenous materials especially mud. Mud has been the staple material of choice of the indigenous people for centuries owing to its abundance, simplicity and economics of use. Various techniques of using this material have been developed over the years. These techniques vary from region to region depending on the properties of mud, climatic considerations and socio-cultural patterns. One has to travel note more than a 100 km outside any major urban centre to experience the use of this material.

Not all mud is of building quality. The top soil is never used for building as it contains decaying organic matter which is ideal for farming. Thereafter, the four main constituents of mud are gravel, sand, silt and clay (descending order in terms of size) and these are found in all mud samples in varying proportions. This variation is often found in samples from the same site not more than 50’ apart! This scale of diversity and lack of standardization has led to the exclusion of this material from scientific and engineering studies and is referred to as a material of the poor or ‘vernacular’. Traditionally, mud has had limitations in terms of poor compressive strength dictating the height one could build to and excessive damage due to rain. But by ingeniously using it in conjunction with other indigenous materials, some of these limitations were overcome.

Unfortunately today, it’s easy to get stuck within the boundaries of these technicalities. Techniques of mud are being propagated with a standard boutique approach across various contexts without actually understanding its true essence. We need to try to move beyond the material and start absorbing its economic, socio-cultural and political implications apart from its ecological benefits alone.

Over the past one and half years, I have had the opportunity to travel across different geographic and cultural regions of India as an interdependent travelling architect. What I experienced, was a rich cultural legacy of building with different indigenous materials especially mud and its links with the rural economy, socio-political structure, climate and availability of materials. Although there were differences with climate, materials and culture, common thread connected all these regions together. This thread is the principle of building with common sense, of using what you have in the most economical and creative way possible in your climatic context to produce an aesthetic of scarcity, necessity and frugality.

These are important lessons to be imbibed in today’s day and age of base extravagance and excessive consumption. This generation of architects and designers could be at a unique precipice where we could lose these rich building traditions and systems to the marauding forces of globalization and capitalism. The need of the hour is carefully understand these systems and try to take them forward if necessary, into the new millennium. This article is a step in this direction.

  1. District Kasganj, Western Uttar Pradesh

 

Latitude: 27.48N; Longitude: 78.42E

Height Above Mean Sea Level: 177 m

Average Annual Rainfall: 694.9 mm

No. of Precipitation Days: 66

Max. Summer Temperature: 42-43 degree Celsius

Min. Winter Temperature: 3-4 degree Celsius

Primary Materials Used: Adobe (Sun Dried Mud Brick), Baked Brick, Mud Mortar, Slaked Lime, Red Sandstone Slabs, Sarkandi(Reed) Thatch, Neem Wood

Language of the Indigenous Builders: Hindi, Urdu

 

The vast fertile plains of the Ganges have harboured countless dynasties in history. The clayey fertile soil is ideal for the production and use of ‘adobe’ or sun dried bricks. Cheap, abundant and easy to make these have been the answer to the housing needs of the masses in this region for generations. The baked brick with its superior compressive strength and imperviousness to moisture is certainly a more refined material, but its costs are a hindrance being more than 4 times as expensive its unbaked cousin. It is used sparingly only in elements of building construction where you need their advantages- foundation and verandahs.

There are two advantages to this. Firstly, the baking of bricks involves the burning of huge amounts of non renewable fossil fuel like coal and firewood especially in large scale kilns, leading to environmental destruction and degradation. Secondly, adobe is poor compressively and hence one builds thicker walls to compensate for the same. These thick walls act like a heat battery, slowing absorbing the heat during the day and releasing it into the interiors during the night. This provides adequate relief from the peak summer and winter temperatures.

This region receives 694.9 mm of rainfall annually (Agricultural Contingency Plan for District Kasganj, 2014) compared to the National average of 1183 mm (GOI Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation). This is reflected in the indigenous architecture of the region with use of flat roofs made of Neem beams, joists and batons. It is topped with a mud-lime screed, gently sloped to handle the rain water runoff. Only verandahs have a lean to pitched roof made of sarkandi thatch which is grass that grows in water beds and lakes and is harvested every summer.

The size of the adobe is a standard 9”*4.5”*4.5” and wall thicknesses vary from 18” to 27”. As built space is at a premium, alcoves and niches created in the thick walls are used to store items and light diyas at night. Walls are plastered with a mud and cow dung mix or whitewashed with slaked lime slurry. This extra layer protects the external walls from the S-W monsoons rains.

UP1-Adobe wall with alcoves and niches to maximize spaceUP2-Adobe wall section showing 27 wall thicknessUP3-House with South Facing Lean to Verandah made of sarkandi reedUP4-Adobe walls with lime plasterUP5-Flat Roof of Neem wood beam, joists and batons

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