Mud Houses: Natural habitats

Mud Houses: Natural habitats

Building a house means different things to different people. For Nishwath Hassan and Prakash Iyer, a Bangalore-based couple in their mid-30s, it has meant putting theoretical beliefs about an appropriate lifestyle into practice.

Last year, they moved into a mud house designed for them by Chitra Vishwanath and her colleagues Chandrakumari and Vickraman, whose work is synonymous with mud buildings in Bangalore. A short walk away, in the same colony, is another mud house, designed by the same firm for Pettachi Muthiah, a businessman, his wife Alagu, a software professional, and their four-year-old son Varun. These designs were executed by a young contractor, Manjunath, whose beliefs blended perfectly with that of the design team.

“It is not about mud per se," says Vishwanath. “Designing ecologically has always been the overriding concern for us. That means we also look at water in terms of harvesting as well as treatment of waste water." Mud is, of course, among the oldest building materials around and houses made from it last hundreds of years when correctly designed and built.

Most importantly, in a place such as Bangalore, good quality mud is often available directly on site. Dig a basement and you get mud for the walls nearly free.

So, this is a good deal, particularly for the environment, since, unlike brick and cement, mud is not an energy-intensive material. It is produced naturally without any energy-consuming process of manufacture. And it does not consume fuel in transport.

The only energy it consumes is that involved in excavation, which can be managed manually. The deal gets better once mud buildings are built, as these two houses testify. Few other materials give as much character to a space without additional “finishing" layers of plaster or toxic paint. What you see is what you get, and what you get has character.

The honesty of this wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) logic appealed to Hassan and Iyer, at a time when they were reformatting their lives to align closer with their beliefs.

Chitra Vishwanath with her team and family members

Both work in education. Iyer has recently quit a career in IT to handle community education initiatives for Wipro while Hassan works with a school. Meanwhile, Alagu and Pettachi, too, were already committed to the idea of an eco-friendly house before they approached Vishwanath.

Building with mud blocks and recycling woodwork bought from owners of dismantled old houses made great sense to them. Both clients, thus, were already oriented towards eco-friendly construction before they chose to build mud houses.

Though built from the same material (mud, stabilized with 6% cement), the two houses are completely different.

To begin with, they deploy mud in different ways. The external load-bearing walls of Hassan and Iyer’s house are built with “rammed earth", a method in which mud is literally rammed into the cavity between two wooden planks, which are the “formwork". When the planks are removed, a portion of the wall is ready and the process is repeated along the length and height of the wall to build it up completely. Each layer—about 2.5-3ft high—is clearly visible in the constructed wall, and gives it a slight but important tonal variation across the surface.

Alagu and Pettachi’s house, meanwhile, is built entirely of sun-dried mud blocks, which are like ordinary bricks minus the baking.

The flat roof has been built using a series of shallow arches in “waterproof covering tiles" that rest on steel and concrete ribs.

The bedrooms in the Iyer-Hassan house have dramatic vaulted roofs in mud blocks.

The design of each house, both encompassing a little more than 2,000 sq. ft of built-up area, hinges around the lifestyle and identity of its dwellers. Hassan and Iyer, for instance, wanted a house that was not imposing.

A spacious and well-lit basement, projected as a future resource centre for children, was the decisive requirement. A split-level design—half a floor up to a bedroom and half a floor down to the basement from the living room and kitchen—was the solution. There is a “dry toilet" (a simple but revolutionary sanitary arrangement that turns human waste into manure and does away with water for flushing) next to the master bedroom at the upper level.

The skylit staircase in the Hassan-Iyer home became pivot and partition, organizing the glowing, flowing interior space. Today, the burst of light in the centre of the house seeps into the basement, which also has its own top light to one side.

A niche in the wall becomes a bookshelf ringing the room, divided into sections by neatly stuck labels.

The evening sun toasts the mud walls while inside, a golden glow recedes into darkness. The recycled windows, such as those in the other house, have no glass. The solid wood shutters ensure that darkness can be trapped in the house. Though Vishwanath wishes they had provided larger windows in the living space, it is the darkness that makes the spaces restful. Skylights—Vishwanath’s favoured answer to the six to eight months of cloud cover in Bangalore—provide a dramatic counterpoint to that pleasant darkness trapped by closed windows in both houses.

It is partly because of the darkness (and as much because of the insulating property of mud) that in the other house, even at the height of summer, Pettachi can report that they did not use the ceiling fan for more than 10 days.

Alagu and Pettachi’s house wraps around an open courtyard, as they desired. The surprise of the courtyard is subtle but dramatic. One minute, you are standing in the covered porch, knocking at a typically ornate front door (from a dismantled traditional house), waiting to hear the echo of approaching footsteps. The next moment, the door is open and from the shade of the porch, you enter an open courtyard, not the living room you expected. Vishwanath reformatted the traditional Chettinad house by bringing the rear courtyard up front (but hidden behind an external wall) and putting the thinnai—a deep masonry platform—by its side.

Sitting on the thinnai, one looks through full-height windows at the courtyard. The opening and closing of the solid wooden window shutters probably never makes as much difference as in this house. When they are closed, the house glows with the light of the sky spreading meditatively from above. When they open, the house literally opens out to the courtyard, as if getting ready for action.

Both houses are energized by the fruitful tension between traditional and contemporary forms and values.

One reconfigures a traditional house-type to suit contemporary needs and possibilities. The other is almost dedicated to the glow of the mud wall. Mud is an old material recently rediscovered by the concrete-pouring building professional. At the same time, like organic food, it is an attractive option for a very small but growing band of house-builders who have taken a step back into the past.

Which, in a strange way, is the best step forward.

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