Praxis: Earth House, Himachal Pradesh

Location: Village Chandpur, Block Baijnath, District Kangra, Himachal Pradesh

Building Type: Guest House

Architect: Siddharth Menon

Design Team: Pappu Kumar, Uddham Singh, Pratap Chand, Hansraj, Roshan Lal, Meher Chand, Om Prakash, Deepika Amonkar

Castes, Crafts & Communities: Gaddi stone cutters, Chamaar carpenters, Lohaar carpenters, Pandit slate cutters, Thakur-Rana labour, Chowdhury masons, Patiyaal painters, Masand labour

Commencement: June 2013

Completion Date: August 2014

Area (Built Up): 1500 square feet

Cost (per square foot): $17

 

Located in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh, the Earth House is a three room guest house for a travel company that wanted to promote responsible tourism in the Himalayan region. Set in the lower fields of Chandpur village, with the constant buzz of the Ava stream (khud) flowing close by, the site afforded a spectacular view of the northern Dhauldhar mountain range. With the nearest motorable road being a 20 minute trek uphill, the design called for the use of materials from the immediate vicinity as much as possible to reduce the cost of carriage and transportation. The tight budget also needed careful and compact planning which would maximize views from site. Since the site is also completely off the electric grid, the design would have to respond to local climatic conditions in order to be independent of fossil fuel energy. The above challenges called for the study and use of the indigenous building vocabulary of the region to build a contemporary space that would fit into the landscape and provide valuable jobs for local people without compromising on basic comforts of the urban guest.

The design encompassed a compact two storey building with a common room, kitchen, store room, stairs and guest room with attached toilet-bath on the ground floor. The first floor would have a covered verandah and two guest rooms with attached toilet-baths. Each of the guest rooms required to be able to house a family of four- two adults and two children. The challenge was to achieve this without increasing the area of rooms thereby preventing escalation of costs. This called for ingenious ways of providing bunks and lofts by using dead space above stairs and below pitched roofs. Furthermore space had to be provided for a water tank at sufficient altitude to provide the required water flow. A wrap around L-shaped south facing verandah was also incorporated on the ground floor so that occupants could bathe in the warm winter sun.

The site is a narrow undulating plot set between two thorny trees and is covered with a lush carpet of grass. The first task was to level the contours on site to so that earth could be used to make adobe or sun dried mud brick which is an indigenous building technology of the region. Before the earth was leveled, care was taken to remove top soil which contained rich organic matter or humus that is not fit for building purposes and can be used for gardening or farming. Load bearing foundation trenches were dug to a depth of roughly 3 feet. Round moulded river stone for the foundation was procured from the adjoining khud with the help of khacchars (donkeys). This was used in conjunction with mud mortar to form a strong strip foundation for the building. The site yielded good quality sandstone which was excavated using local Gaddi stone cutters. This was then dressed on site by skilled  Chowdhury masons to produce cuboids of roughly 1 foot by 6 inch by 6 inch in size. These stones were used in the plinth and external walls with stabilized mud mortar containing 1 part cement, 6 parts sand and 6 part mud. This reduces the amount of cement and sand used in building thereby decreasing the environmental pressure on rivers due to rampant dredging. A 3 inch thick reinforced cement concrete (RCC) band is cast at the plinth level running along length of all walls.

15_Covering adobe walls to protect from rains

Adobe is made on site with mud from the foundation and leveling of ground. This is mixed with tudi (wheat husk), river sand (reth) and water. This mix is then shaped into wet bricks by local Thakur-Rana labour using a wooden mould 12 inch by 6 inch by 3 inch in size which is then dried under the sun till it turns light brown to be stacked and stored. This process can take three to five days depending on the intensity of the sun and requires a brick yard and an impervious storage area. The amount of wheat husk and sand in the wet mix is worked out on site based on the cracking of mud brick and clay content in soil. This whole process of making adobe from mud excavated from site has a low ecological impact on the earth apart from providing valuable employment opportunities for the local village inhabitants without increasing overall cost of building.

Images Courtesy: Suyash Khanolkar

Since adobe is susceptible to damage by moisture, external walls are built in stone up to window cill level. Internal walls need only a single course of stone after which mud walls can start. Indigenous Gaddi masons build adobe walls. Since adobe is poor compressively, walls have to be at least 1.5 feet thick to take the load of the floor above. This thickness helps in increasing the thermal properties of the built space. The walls act as a heat battery absorbing heat during the day and releasing it into the interiors during cold winter nights. Hence there is a difference of 6-8 degree Celsius between indoor and outdoor winter night temperatures. Adobe is brittle and corners chip and break easily. Care is taken to make special chamfered bricks for corners and pillars. Local Himalayan Pine wood (cheer) is used for door and window frames. Although cheaper and inferior to Deodar wood, it grows back faster once harvested and is hence an ecologically more suitable material in this context. An RCC lintel band runs across above all doors and windows across all walls. This is connected to the lower plinth band by single 12 mm reinforcements at corners and junctions. Since Kangra is Zone 5 earthquake zone, this twin band system helps in mitigating and minimizing damage caused due lateral movements of the building during an earthquake.

17_Bamboo and split bamboo roof underbelly

Intermediary floor is made of a composite system of Pine wood sleeper, over which are 4 inch diameter bamboo rafters at 1 foot centre-centre spacing running orthogonally. This is topped by chachhra (split bamboo) which acts a permanent shuttering for a 2 inch ferro-cement layer above. This layer acts as an impervious layer over which is a 3 inch traditional mud floor. The mud floor is a warm underfoot material during cold winters. Upper floor walls are also made of adobe. They rise to a low height of about 6 feet after which the pitching of roof starts. Since pine wood sleepers are available in standard sizes of 9 foot length, care is taken to design spaces to conform to this traditional proportion and scale.

The roof is pitched at an angle of 22.5 degrees to provide sufficient slope so that there is no back flow of rain water. The main roof structure is made of Pine wood trusses and bamboo rafters. Pine wood is used for important members like the ridge and hipped beams. Bamboo rafters are nailed onto these. Over this, split bamboo is again used to act as a permanent reinforcement for the 2 inch ferro-cement layer above. Wooden batons are placed on the ferro-cement layer and thin slate or chakka tiles measuring 18 inch by 9 inch are nailed onto them with a slight overlap. The impervious ferro-cement layer ensures that there is no seepage of water in to the building incase tiles are moved out of position by wind or monkeys. It also provides an extra layer of insulation in the cold winter months. Local Chamaar carpenters work on this intricate roof system. These techniques give an incentive to the local craftsmen to continue to hone their skills and hence have a stake in the building process. Since these techniques are labour intensive, it ensures more work days for the skilled craftsman to produce better workmanship without increasing overall costs of building. The money invested into the skilled workers is used for the betterment of the local community and education of their children. This ensures a healthy village economy.

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Images Courtesy: Sumit Mahar

Doors and window shutters are made of the superior Deodar wood. Three coats of mud plasters are applied to the exterior and interior walls. Mud is sieved and mixed with sand and wheat husk and this is applied in successive layers, one above the other after drying. In the final coat, a modern chemical adhesive is added along with cow dung and mud to decrease the need for constant maintenance and increase its life. In this way small modern additions to indigenous building systems and technologies help in creating contemporary spaces for urban users which benefit the environment and the local indigenous community as a whole.

Images Courtesy: Sumit Mahar

5 comments

  1. HI Sidharth,GREAT GOING!………Have read most of your articles,and am very happy to see the way you are going about promoting “sustainable building” to students and architects alike………..
    KEEP IT UP
    MY BEST WISHES!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Savneet,
      Thank you for your kind appreciation. I will always remember the warmth and encouragement I received from Bhavneet and you during my initial days. My best regards to your family. Take care.

      Like

  2. Hema Vaishnavi · · Reply

    Hello Siddharth,

    How can I reach you? Could you please share your contact details?

    Thanks,

    Like

  3. clairezhuopang · · Reply

    HI Siddharth! I am an architecture student from Harvard and I am having my internship for Drishtee, an NGO in India this summer. I am working on research about mud bricks housing and I think your work are inspiring. Is there anyway we can get in touch?

    Like

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for your message.
      Pls get in touch with me at sidmen@gmail.com

      Like

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