This interview was published in October-November 2015 issue of Elle Decor India. Photographs courtesy Sumit Mahar. Details Eco Buzz – Oct-Nov’15.
- Walk us through the idea behind Earth Guest House.
The Earth House is a 1500 sft. Guest House in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh for a travel company called Linger (www.linger.in). They promote an ideology of travelling responsibly by respecting local cultures, customs and traditions, by supporting fair and ethical practices in the hospitality industry and by building a community of stake holders. The land on which they wanted to build was located in a beautiful virgin valley on the banks of the Ava khud or rivulet. It was a 20 minute trek down from the closest motor able road and was not serviced by power and lines and was completely off the grid. All these factors added to the charm of the site and the project.
The idea was to design an ecological guest house which would consist of 3 individual guest rooms with attached toilets that could accommodate a family of 4 each, a common living/ dining space where guests could eat their meals, a kitchen and store room, and common sheltered verandahs and spaces that would allow the urban traveler to experience the pristine outdoors. Since we were operating on a very tight budget, the design had to extract more out of every space with the help of loft and bunks for children to sleep in on the upper floor rooms. The Earth House is designed on a grid so that two separate spaces share a common wall and the cost of it. Guest rooms were oriented to face the snow capped Dhauladhar mountain range with a 5 foot span windows. South facing verandahs were planned to enable guests to enjoy the southern winter sun.
- What materials did you use for constructing the Earth Guest House?
For the Earth House, we decided to use only natural materials from the immediate vicinity of the site. Stone for the load bearing foundation and plinth was excavated from the site itself. Traditional stone cutters were called to tunnel into the rock to place small explosives and break the large boulders. Mud for the walls was obtained from excavated foundation trench. This was then churned into adobe or sun dried mud brick on sight by local labour. Bamboo for the roof rafters were procured from an adjoining farm. These were treated organically in the adjoining rivulet. Cheer or Pine wood for the roof structure and frames were procured from a government auction house. Slate tiles for the final roof were brought from the slate quarry of Khanyara, around 30 km from the site. Since district Kangra is an active earthquake zone, care was taken to provide horizontal reinforced cement concrete (RCC) at the lintel and plinth levels to tackle earthquakes. Cement and steel for these procured from the local market.
- What are some of the challenges you faced when building with only locally sourced materials?
The main challenge of building with sun dried mud brick was to protect them from moisture and rain. This was done in the planning stage where north walls were given extra protection with an overhang or a chajja since locally rains lashed from the north side. There after care had to be taken during construction stage to cover the building after every day’s work. The Kangra valley receives torrential rainfall and any rain on the mud walls during the construction could spell danger for wall. Unprotected mud bricks will dissolve in water. But once the building is roofed and external mud plaster applied there are no problems. Also care should be taken to have an impervious foundation and plinth as this will always be wet and mud brick cannot be used for the same. Also locally available bamboo has to be cut in the right season of winter when the sap activity this versatile grass is the least. This prevents the attack of borer insects who are attracted to the same. Thereafter the cut bamboo needs to be submerged in water for 3 weeks and then smoked in a rudimentary kiln to cure and then dry it. All these processes are very important and it was a challenge to ensure that they followed systematically.
- What made you zero in on the eco-friendly materials?
The Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh has a wonderful tradition of building with sun dried mud brick, stone, wood and bamboo. Even today the indigenous people of this region continue to build this way. They do because these materials are easily available and hence are economically feasible. Moreover the 1.5 foot thickness of the mud wall provide ample insulation during cold winters. Since our site was located more 20 minutes away from a motor able road, it mode most sense for us to use local material. This helped us to save on the cost of the building which would have escalated owing to transportation of market materials from road to site via human and animal porters. Additionally, these local materials also had the least ecological impact on the earth. Since they are natural, hardly any fossil fuel energy is used in its production. Since they are local, no fuel is used in its transportation. Hence the embodied energy of all materials was very low. The materials also helped to make the local indigenous community invested stake holders in the building process as the money invested would circulate and strengthen the local village community.
- How do you compromise your design goals with the simplicity of the medium?
No design goals were compromised on. The idea was to build an ecological and simple guest house in the countryside which the urban dweller could retreat into. When building with local materials, it is important to understand and follow the process involved in the production of the space. The final space and aesthetic is a mere by product of the process. We wanted to create contemporary space in a rural setting which would blend into the landscape and context. While designing one just needed to respect the properties of the materials and design keeping them in mind. For example, the economical length of pine wood sleepers do not exceed 10 feet. Hence all rooms had to be design keeping this limitation in mind.
- Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I am currently working on 2 rural community centres both made of local materials primarily mud. One is in rural Uttar Pradesh for an organization called Anubhuti Seva Samiti (http://www.anubhutisewa.org/) and is made of adobe, eucalyptus beams, baked bricks arches and vaults. The other is in rural Telangana for an organization called Yakshi (http://yakshi.org.in/) made of a mud technique called cob, need wood roofs and hollow clay tiles. Both spaces are built using indigenous craftsmen from the region and blend into their respective contexts beautifully.