A Mud House In A Concrete City

by | Aug 10, 2020

Detached and indifferent, she walked from the cold icy floors of her office into the metallic lift. Deep in contemplation about dinner and the pending work made her oblivious to the change of scenery and soon enough, she scurried on to the busy roads. One bud in each ear, she shut out the sounds of a noisy night and shut herself inside her thoughts. She had crossed the road and reached the pavement when she looked up to see the grey sky. As she rushed to the metro, rain poured down to bring her thoughts back to the present – it made her search for all that the rain brought. Opaque surfaces become mirrors and the skies seem to be in puddles but what she looked and longed for was the scent of the rain touching the earth. However, it was in vain.

Concrete homes, concrete roads, concrete pavements and tiled flooring have played a role in our path to detachment from the earth itself. In cities, all surfaces have a coating of an alien material, including our streets, lanes, homes, offices, sometimes even playgrounds. Urban planning and street designs are based on reducing traffic capacity by making flyovers and wider roads; the issue of density in cities is dealt with, by the stacking up of buildings. The change in lifestyle and architecture has had a profound influence on each other.

What have been the effects of these detachments and change?
Have we lost our habitat to the artificial world or have we created a fortress that hides away the ecological and environmental effects of our choice in lifestyle?
Or is it both?

More pavement than space for the trees to grow

Is the use of conventional building materials really that bad?

There is a never-ending list of modern-conventional materials that contribute to global issues of environment and pollution. However, I would like to shine some light on the material that is globally used and is considered to be sustainable – Concrete. It is a safe and resilient material that is used for its long life, properties, lower maintenance and reasonable cost.

Concrete has a life span of 75-100 years although on an average, it lasts for 50-60 years. With the ever-changing requirements, we see a change in the landscape on a daily basis, often much before the materials’ life span ends. We have all walked across a demolition of a building as the walls are broken down into rubble and the rubble is collected. However, many of us often follow the same principle we use for waste, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’.

Construction and Demolition (C&D) waste and reclamation

According to the guidelines on environmental management of C&D waste, it is an open secret that the construction and demolition waste is not taken care of and often, debris is off-loaded on wetlands to flatten the land. It is then used as a potential real-estate property by registering it as a C&D waste disposal site. Many assume that dumping waste on wetlands helps reclaim it. However, improper disposal leads to grounds that are vulnerable to collapse. Moreover, it leads to the destruction of an entire ecosystem dependent on wetlands.

Construction of buildings is responsible for a large part of the global emissions. As per this article, 36% of global energy is devoted to buildings and 8% of global emissions are caused by cement (an ingredient of concrete) alone. With no visible reduction in the use of conventional materials in the ever-increasing demand for infrastructure, it is feared that by 2050, emissions from buildings will have doubled since 2017. Cement manufacturing contributes greenhouse gases both directly through the CO2 produced (50%) and also through the combustion of fossil fuels (40%), that is 900 kg of CO2 are emitted for producing every ton of cement.

It goes without saying that the conventional material that is used in buildings these days is to maintain the fast pace and the versatility. This helps us understand how we are towered by these materials everywhere we go, especially in the cities. Are we giving enough thought to the long term consequences of this growth in construction and the waste created from it?

Many architects and environmentalists have been looking for alternative materials and methods of construction by being sensitive to the complete process, from the production of the material to finishing and maintenance of the building (entire life span). Similar to plastic, the issue we face with C&D waste is the disposal, due to its large scale production and short life span.

The rapid development, expectations of immediate results and globalization – all this has led to us replicating designs irrespective of the context. Our roots are drying up under the concrete surfaces we have created. Then, why do we not look a little closer to what nature has to offer as well?

Revisiting our roots

Soil is the foundation of the growth of all flora and fauna, source of food, source of life and source of accommodation. From burrows to anthills to honeycombs and shells, we see the marvels of earthen habitats that have been mastered by nature’s inhabitants. If we look back at the history of our architecture, we often find that homes were made in imitation of these natural structures with the raw materials that earth has to provide.

Read more: The city of Shibam

Cob away with your feet

(Left to right): Pottery, making of cob, random rubble foundation, mud plastering by local children in Andhra Pradesh.

With time, the use of Earthen construction diminished due to various factors including the introduction of new industrial materials such as metal, glass, plastic and the discovery of concrete during a time period when there was no perception of the limitations of resources.

Read more: Arts & Crafts movement during the industrial revolution in Britain

Slowly, soil disappeared from our buildings, our utensils and even from under our feet. It got replaced by synthetic and manmade materials that created a false pretence on the advantages of durability. We are disconnected from soil to the extent of preventing children playing in mud in the fear of them falling ill.

Many have consciously moved to natural materials and methods of construction including the structure, finish, and furniture. Even surrounding their abode with life and connectivity to one another as well as nature. What if we all learned how to build our own homes and learned how to connect with it as we built them one step at a time. In case of many of us who do not have the luxury to dwell in such activities, what if we moved to natural materials that took the place of the conventional materials that we used.

Wattle and daub walls, Lime and bamboo flooring, Prototype at sacred groves interiors, Roman Arches, Partition walls made out of rice husk, Random rubble retaining walls.
Learning to construct your own home

There are many methodologies used in earthen construction. From the moulding of structures with cob to laying sun-dried adobe bricks one by one, from filling up cement bags with soil to creating earth-bag domes and making flexible homes with bamboo and reclaimed wood. Earthen construction ranges from mud-plastered interiors to the lime-plastered exteriors, from wooden and stone flooring to tiled and wooden roofs. These are all familiar local methods used for centuries across the country.

Know more: Mud Architecture – Construction Details And Techniques

However, don’t get me wrong, earthen construction alone is not a sustainable construction method.

Soil that is dug out of the ground for the foundation of a house is a potential material that can be used for the construction of the building. Many a times, the amount of soil that is dug out might not meet the requirements of the inhabitants and therefore, will require the use of other alternative materials, especially in case of small plots in dense city areas. However, it is a good practice to ensure that the material that is used is locally procured. There is also the issue of mass consumption of natural materials that can have a reverse effect on the environment.

The key to sustainability is to ensure minimal negative environmental impact of buildings by using the material efficiently, and in moderation (including the energy required for procurement), being mindful of energy consumption and the ecosystem at large. There is also an immediate need for sustainable buildings to be economically viable, but lately building solutions given by the architects demand high investment, especially with earthen construction methodologies.

Mud used to be a poor man’s material and was used by many people in the villages to build homes that have lasted over 200 years. However, now the villages are influenced by materials used in cities and are moving towards houses built with concrete and metal, changing the scene of the village. Cities are slowly getting inclined towards natural materials and villages have only begun their venture into conventional materials.

Some Myths about earthen construction

  • Myth 1: It’s expensive to make the earthen buildings

The cost-effectiveness of the material comes from the procurement of material from local sources or from the site and methodologies used to construct. Even though there is a large amount of manual labour involved in earthen construction, there is a significant reduction in the price of material such as using mud blocks instead of burnt bricks considering the amount of fuel (wood) required to burn bricks.

Earthen buildings breathe (not figuratively, but literally) and create a naturally ventilated space for its inhabitants. Soil absorbs humidity which keeps the interiors cool in summers and warm in winters. Therefore, removing the need for any form of artificial ventilation. With proper maintenance and mindful choices of materials and methodologies, we can reduce the overall cost of the building for its entire life span.

  • Myth 2: Earthen buildings do not last long

Contrary to what most people think, mud structures do not deteriorate rapidly provided they are maintained properly. The reason for mud’s poor reputation is the long-established mud building techniques being forgotten or ignored. Earthen buildings are prone to get damaged in harsh weathers but with a sturdy and resistant foundation and roof, the building can last forever.

The use of mud in construction does not relate much to its properties but to the perception of its lasting abilities. Houses are more than just a shelter. Many of us consider a house to be an asset and a long-lasting investment. Therefore, even the poor dream of a ‘Pakka‘ house made of conventional materials.

Reduce and Recycle

Like any other waste system, we often see that the issue is tackled at the management of waste rather than the root of the issue which is reduction. In the case of plastic, many countries have tackled the problem by promoting new waste management programmes and recycling which are all necessary actions but reduces the attention given to production and therefore consumption of waste. ‘Reduce’ should be the motto rather than segregate and recycle.

Similarly, even in the use of conventional industrial materials, it is important to divert our attention to the use of natural materials and sustainable practices along with finding ways to reuse the C&D waste (yes, construction waste can be reused in construction). It is time to start thinking about the consequences of our choices.

And then, she stepped into her garden and watched as the rain dripped from the tips of the leaves on to the soil. She touched the breathing walls of her home as she walked inside and onto the smooth mud floors. All her thoughts of the day went away as her body and mind relaxed from the smell of the soil and the comfort of her home.

An ounce of water,
A splash of mud,
A bucket full of dreams
for a house of love
-Sakshi Vashisht

Suggested readings:

Natural building materials
Laurie Baker’s low-cost earthen construction
Mud and its use in construction

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