Earth Architecture – sustainable construction materials and practices
In olden days, buildings were born out of the materials and skill available nearby. However, globalization and advancements in technology made it possible for materials and construction techniques to spread. The result was similar looking architecture worldwide, without a thought to context and environment. With the ongoing discussion over climate crisis and man’s impact on nature, earth architecture is making a comeback. Designers are going back to the roots to underline how locally sourced materials and labor can inform low carbon footprint buildings thereby reducing the stress on the environment.
Earth as a sustainable building material
Earth (mud) is a cheap, low energy and easily available material. Used by the poor in olden times, without proper construction methodology or skill, the material’s image was tarnished as the poor man’s material. With better quality planning and construction, earth can be used to its full potential. 3-4 storey houses or office buildings can be designed using rammed earth. This effective construction method reduces carbon footprint and decreases use of energy and chemicals in architecture.
Cement, which is one of the most commonly used building materials, has a lot of embedded energy. However, the material is sold cheap, increasing its usage. Prefabricated rammed earth blocks which can be mass manufactured might ensure easy access to this material, increase its utility and thus encourage more people to use it. The rammed earth walls act as a natural air conditioner in the summer and rammed earth construction is stable during earthquakes, provided necessary load and thickness calculations are done. Cement can be mixed when necessary, as a binding agent to form the earth blocks. Curved walls using the same material can be constructed on site. Requirement of skilled labor and time taken for construction are the only downside of this material.
Earth architecture in Kerala
Kerala based Architect Eugene Pandala is a staunch believer in climate conscious and green building practices. While studying at SPA New Delhi, he got inspired by Master architect Hassan Fathy and his work with mud architecture. This peaked Pandala’s interest in earthen and vernacular architecture. Hospitality, residential and conservation architecture are his forte for which he’s been awarded several awards ever since. The ‘Bodhi residence’, located in Chathanoor is one of his first projects of mud architecture. This residence expresses Pandala’s conservationist ideology. Climate responsive design and the blend of nature inside and around the home, later became his signature style. Natural light, passive cooling techniques and curved mud walls are other elements of his design.
Ar. Eugene Pandala won the ‘Architect of the Year Award’ by J.K. Foundations for Bodhi House in 1999. He later won the ‘Laurie Baker Award’ in 2011 by Lalith Kala Academy. In an interview with Scale Magazine (2019), Ar. Pandala stated “Nature is my greatest inspiration. I don’t wish to create magnificent structures that stand out in the location they are placed in. I love building structures that embrace the surrounding so that the balance of nature is not forfeited. That is why I like curved walls and organic shapes and materials that mimic nature.”
Bodhi House, Chathanoor – Kerala
The house is located amidst a coconut plantation, designed in the Kerala courtyard style, with organic spaces and curved mud walls. It comprises 4 bedrooms with adjoining living spaces interconnected with courtyards and looking outside to the coconut groves. The roof is constructed of light ferro cement and curves downward to protect from the heavy Kerala monsoons. The mud walls are built using the cob technique i.e. a mixture of sand, clay and straw blended with water. The design strives to preserve the culture and traditional building methodologies of Kerala. The landscape is an important tool which compliments the design.
The cob technique mud walls are completely load bearing. Arches and timber reinforced openings have been carved out to support the structure. Shelves, credenzas, wardrobes and even beds are built in with mud, greatly reducing the cost of interiors. It took two years to construct this low cost house at a rate of Rs. 300/sqft. 42 truckloads of mud used in its construction was sourced from a nearby excavation of an irrigation canal. Warm earthy shades, niches and wall punctures to diffuse the light, let in breeze and creepers growing over the facade are other features of the home.
Sustainability – the new World order
It is important to discuss our approach towards sustainability in order to reduce the burden on Planet Earth. This collective endeavor of our species has posed new challenges, which architects everywhere are facing head on. A few points are recurring, like unconventional energy usage, reducing carbon emissions, low-waste societies. Other ideas like natural materials, new technologies to combat energy bills, cost reducing construction practices, bio-mimicry also need to be raised. Climate responsive design with architectural interventions to reduce dependency on artificial lighting, heating, cooling can cause a positive effect not only in building time but also in the entire life cycle of the structure. It will also instill in people, the moral duty to reduce energy use. This is a small but compulsory step as designers to create a ripple effect.
We also need to think how COVID19 caused the World to slow down and take notice of nature. This raises the question – do we slow down or do we go back to the beginnings or do we completely change? Maybe its time we do all three. Government and international cooperation, changes in building bylaws and land-use regulations, impetus to sustainable builders and designers as well as easy financing is needed – maybe more so in the post COVID world.
Better Interiors. (2013, July). Eco-friendly Enchantment. Retrieved from http://www.betterinteriors.in/projects/ residential/eco-friendlyenchantment/9052/
Kumar, R. (2019, September). Building Low-Cost Green Houses Since 1996: Architect Brings Back Mud Homes In India!. Retrieved from https://greenstories.co.in/building- low-cost-green-houses-since-1996-architect-bringsback-mud-homes-in-india/
Pandala, E. (2018). Bodhi. Retrieved from https://eugenepandala. com/residential/bodhi.html
Scale Magazine. (2019, August). On the sustainable path. Retrieved from https://www.scalemag.online/onthe-sustainable-path/
Jamila is one part artist, two parts foodie, and all parts traveler. She is a patron of good art and design and loves to immerse herself in books and music. Simplicity and minimalism is her motto as an architect. A writing enthusiast, she surrounds herself with all things creative. She actively shuns all “ists” and “isms” and firmly believes in a “no – label” world! She isn’t afraid to take risks, speak her mind, push forward and challenge preconceptions. She is currently pursuing Masters in Architecture at the University of Liechtenstein.