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The magic of mud

There could be perfectly earthy reasons for going the mud way in building houses, Renu Ramanath finds out. Love it or hate it, mud has endured through the centuries across the globe.



CHIC-LOOK: Houses constructed out of plain earth are favoured by some.

Barely a decade ago, the mere reference to a house made of plain earth would have raised quite a few brows in Kerala. "But, only poor people live in mud huts," would have been the stock response.

But times have changed. Mud is becoming hip. Chic houses constructed out of plain earth have started appearing amidst the concrete jungles sprouting all over Kerala, marking the quest for a new aesthetical experience. At least a small, but growing group of enthusiastic architects and homeowners are voting in favour of mud as a medium.

Their reasons are many, but all have something in common - a growing concern about the depleting natural resources and an urge to live in a house that remains as close to nature as possible.

Inspiration

Providing inspiration was the legendary Laurie Baker who at first had started talking of using mud for building houses. Though Mr. Baker himself did not build too many mud structures, his ideas inspired many young architects.

Building with mud is nothing new. "Almost 50 per cent of the people all over the world live in houses made out of mud," says architect Eugene Pandala, who has played a major role in popularising the concept of mud construction.

Half the world's population - that means approximately three billion people in six continents - live or work in buildings constructed of earth.

Mud as a medium

In Kerala, mud was the major construction material till the beginning of 20th Century. Even today, it is the most accessible material for a large section of society. Tile factories and brick kilns began to dot Kerala's landscape much later. Even the tenets of the age-old Thachu Sastra, followed by the traditional carpenters of Kerala, held that any `burnt' material was unsuitable for building human dwellings. Many ancient houses that still remain majestically upright have walls made of mud. "The agraharams in the East Fort area in Thiruvananthapuram have mud walls," says Mr. Eugene.

Mud as a medium of construction began to fascinate Mr. Eugene during his student days in New Delhi. The works of the Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy, who had authored the book, `Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt,' had greatly attracted him.

Traditional technology


The traditional technology of mud construction was also a big inspiration. And in 1996, he constructed his first mud house in Kollam.

Mr. Eugene is not alone in pursuing this muddy path. Srinivasan, of Vasthukam, in Thrissur and Sunilkumar, based at Nedumangad near Thiruvananthapuram are young architects enamoured of the splendour and strength of mud.

And the Habitat Technology Group, a Thiruvananthpuram-based NGO that is involved with housing and founded by G. Sankar, has a four-storied office built of mud bricks. Habitat has been working on mud construction for the past 15 years.

Techniques

Mr. Eugene uses the cob technique, one of the many techniques of mud construction. Cobs, or globs of mud are used to craft the walls manually.

"Thiruvananthapuram district has a number of traditional workers who specialise in the local cob construction," says Mr. Sunilkumar. He had made use of the local know-how for constructing a house and hospital for M.R. Vijayan, an Ayurveda physician at Nedumangad in 1997.

"The traditional workers have a way with mud. They also have their own trade secrets in handling mud. People think that they do not know of any other construction method other than that of mud. But it is not true," says Mr. Sunilkumar.

The cob technique is one of the oldest methods of mud construction. Another common mud technique is that of adobe, or mud bricks. `Adobe' is the Arabic word brought by Spaniards to the Americas, where it became a part English vocabulary. It is the basic mud brick, made of a mixture of earth and water using moulds of metal or timber.

After moulding, it is allowed to dry in the open air, without direct sunlight. The earth should be made up of 80 per cent sand and 20 per cent clay. Too much of clay causes adobe to crack.

Setting example

The reluctance of people to adopt mud houses prompted Mr. Sreenivasan to build a house for himself, as an example. His new mud-home at Mulakunnathukavu near Thrissur, named `Anpu,' is an embodiment of Mr. Sreenivasan's ideas of mud construction.

He had also built a house of mud for Sreeja and Narayanan, a couple actively involved in theatre, at Arangottukara.

Mr. Sreenivasan uses the rammed earth technique in which the soil is rammed into wooden frames. This technique helps produce straight-lined walls while the cob technique helps to create flowing forms. If you want to have a sculptural home with the most unique shape, then this is your technique.

Mr. Eugene who prefers the cob technique says, "I do not prefer geometrical shapes." True, his buildings have flowing, curvaceous shapes that you will not find anywhere else.

The `wattle and daub' technique, though not commonly used in Kerala, is really suitable for earthquake prone areas. Habitat has been using this method for building thin walls in the quake-prone north-eastern States. Here, mud is spread over frames made of bamboo or reeds. This method is traditionally used by many tribal groups.

Cost-effective

Mud construction is really cost-effective, but it depends on the finish you want to give. While the material cost is drastically low, labour cost increases proportionately. This is a labour intensive mode unless you opt for self-construction, which is rather unknown in India. But in the West where people are not averse to physical labour, most owners who prefer to build their own homes choose mud.

"Common people often build houses with mud and timber at about Rs.10,000 to Rs.25,000 using their own labour," says Mr. Sunilkumar. "They only have to buy the roof tiles." Mr. Eugene vows that the cost could be cut down to almost 40 percent of conventional construction. "All cost for bricks, riversand and cement could be done away with and the cost will further fall if you use the local earth, preferably from the site itself."

Mr. Sreenivasan says that his own house cost only about Rs.430 per sq. feet. However, he has been lavish with the interiors, abundantly using granite and wood. The mud walls, made with adobe, cob or wattle and daub methods, are given a plastering of mud. A rough texture of mud plastering is the most commonly used.

Smooth finish

Mr. Sreenivasan specialises in giving the walls a mirror-smooth finish. The walls, as smooth as a polished floor, need no painting. Fine soil is used for giving this velvety finish. There are different types of roofing for these mud structures.

While Mr. Sreenivasan uses the conventional concrete roofing with the bottom layer made of tiles, Mr. Eugene uses more varied methods. He prefers to have lighter roofs that will not be a burden for the walls. He also uses the ferro cement technique and the rib and skin roof.

Building with mud could be a great way to conserve natural resources. And if applied judiciously and imaginatively, it could also help you avoid burning a hole in your pocket.

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