The first time I saw Rajesh sloshing in the mud, his face was lit up with joy. He was building his future home at Sristi, in Thazhuthali village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A few months later, the 160-square-foot handcrafted house was ready, built completely by the men at Sristi — a nonprofit organization that helps intellectually challenged people lead self-reliant lives — using local materials.
They worked with sun-dried bricks made of mud dug from their well and cow dung from their farm, topped with some straw and recycled wood found in their neighborhood. It’s the kind of hand-built house that for centuries was the norm in India, before cement became the dominant construction material in the second half of the last century, in keeping with global trends. Now, such handcrafted homes are making a comeback, their nascent revival sparked by growing awareness of climate change in a nation that in recent years frequently has been battered by extreme weather events.
If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world — it released 2.8 billion tons of CO2 in 2016, according to the Chatham House think tank. That’s something 25-year-old Chennai-based architect Krithika Venkatesh wants no part in. Her first construction used 50 percent less cement than regular buildings. She has since built two more homes without using any cement, and at a cost — $30 per square foot — that’s no higher than regular buildings that do.
IF WE KEEP USING CONCRETE, WHERE WILL WE DUMP ALL THE WASTE?
BIJU BHASKAR, ARCHITECT
Stanzin Phutsog, 23, is from Ladakh in India’s extreme north, where modern construction and what he calls the “lure of commercialization and cement” are just beginning to take root. Inspired by the ancient earthen architecture he has seen across the country, which has withstood disasters for centuries, he wants his people to continue to rely on good old mud buildings.
Dhruvang Hingmire, a 27-year-old architect from Pune in India’s west, says most of his clients are younger urban women and men under the age of 40 who are looking to get away from corporate stress with a weekend home close to nature. And Kerala-based eco architect Vinu Daniel, 37, is finding clients ranging from schoolteachers and businessmen to police officers opting for sustainable architecture.
Meanwhile Biju Bhaskar, a veteran viewed as a pioneer in reviving mud architecture, is documenting native knowledge from different Indian communities about construction using natural materials. And with no formal training, individuals like Bangalore-based former IT consultant Smitha Kamath are building DIY versions of mud homes. Kamath’s construction, on her farm 40 miles from Bangalore, sourced everything from the neighborhood: her own coconut trees for pillars, mud from a dry toilet pit and silver oak trees as beams. She used cow dung to polish the mud walls. She now spends two days a week there.
“This space feels so close to Earth,” she says, smiling.
Individual experiences have shaped this move to mud housing for different architects. For Venkatesh, it was a chance encounter at a cement factory in the Cauvery river basin that sealed the deal. “I saw close to 20–22 liters of water wasted in producing one bag of cement while people back home were struggling through drought,” she says. Her buildings incorporate innovative techniques: One involved using burnt mud bricks for the external wall and mere sun-dried mud bricks for the inside. She applies lime to bind and brings in reclaimed wood from old buildings in the neighborhood, keeping the impact on the environment minimal.
Daniel returned to Kerala from Dubai — where he used to work — to find his homeland had turned into a concrete jungle even as floods lash it with growing ferocity each passing year. He decided he couldn’t add to the problem and has patented what’s called the “shuttered debris technique” wherein he uses construction debris (from older or razed buildings) to build truly eco homes.
Different geographies need different natural materials, based on what’s locally available, these architects say. For instance, while cob houses made of lumps of soil, sand and straw are ideal for deserts, bricks made of sun-dried mud make more sense in other places. Hingmire says he uses laterite stones for coastal buildings, whereas near Pune, he has built a farmhouse using local black stone. Irrespective of the materials used, he says merely skipping cement saves water — and that’s critical in a country where large parts are prone to drought.
To be sure, these architects know that changing mainstream construction habits in a country of 1.3 billion people won’t be easy. “We still need more awareness. People have a misconception that mud houses are kaccha [improper] and have low strength,” says Hingmire. Regulations, including a specialized code for natural buildings, are needed to maintain standards. And nature itself can play villain: Termite infestation can prove a drawback, though Hingmire points out that “if the wood is properly treated even this can be avoided.”
But ultimately, Bhaskar argues, India — and eventually other parts of the world — might not have an option but to return to traditional architecture. “If we keep using concrete, where will we dump all the waste?” he asks. Since mass-scale use of cement in India is only a few decades old, the country’s communities still “have a rich treasure of native knowledge in natural buildings,” he says. By documenting native techniques from traditional masons, he’s hoping to preserve that knowledge. Because it’s not about the past — it’s very much about the future.