A House made of Earth – Part 1

This is Part 1 of a three part series of our story of the construction of our house using locally available sustainable materials and skills. I am not sharing too many technical details for I am not an expert. Those who are interested in the finer details of methods employed, please Comment below or write in to me at sudhakar2310@gmail.com

~ 5 minute read

Hi, We are a couple leading a sustainable lifestyle for the last couple of years near Papanasam, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. We have been growing our own food for the family’s needs using locally available inputs and traditional methods. We have constructed a mud house at the farm so that we can practice regenerative organic agriculture full time. Read more about who we are on this page.

Baked bricks, steel and cement are very recent additions to construction materials in rural India. But after economic liberalization in the 1990s, now, a house cannot be imagined without all the three anywhere you go, except maybe regions of the country inhabited by tribals / adivasis. The only reactions that we encountered when we started building a house made of mud, wood and lime were shock and surprise. While we were forewarned about this local response by fellow natural builders, we didn’t expect the extent of discouragement that was to follow. Now that the construction of the house has been completed successfully despite a few obstacles along the way, we are totally prepared to encounter words of caution once we start practicing natural organic regenerative forms of farming.

Material

The carbon footprint of manufacture and transportation of baked bricks, cement, steel, paint are enormous. The benefits they offer over material available in rural surroundings are not enormous when constructing houses for small families. In fact, in the long run, traditional houses have shown to exhibit greater resilience to weather and natural conditions, greater strength and lower cost to maintain. Mass production using massive machinery, processes and factories ensure that it is cheaper to buy these materials off the shelf rather than work with locally available material. But the damage they cause to soil, water and air are irreversible and persist for the long term.

So, we ensured that maximum effort and thought went into how to construct with local skills and procure materials only locally. We were sure we wanted to use baked bricks, steel and cement as little as possible, only if we couldn’t avoid it. We succeeded to source most of the material within 20 kms of the farm. The mud for the walls were from the farm itself. As a consequence, we now have a rain water harvesting pond at the farm. The wood for the roof was from a farm 10 kms away.

Why construct a house using mud? Because years later, when the house is demolished, the mud can be returned to mother earth. You can’t really grow food in baked earth, can you?

Layout and Wall Building technique

While we had seen vernacular layouts such as open courtyards, we chose to go for a simple squarish layout for our rooms and house overall. This was because, as city folks, this is what we were accustomed to and didn’t want to change drastically our accommodation style.

There are many wall building techniques to build with locally-available low-cost low-environmental-impact materials and skills / machinery. Some of them are :

  • Cob
  • Adobe (sun dried bricks)
  • Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks
  • Wattle and daub
  • Earthbag

We started by making Adobe bricks because given the fact that local Masons were used to building with bricks, it would have needed a shorter learning curve. But without employing people experienced in brick kilns, it was getting difficult to pick up pace and therefore it was proving to be expensive. It was summer, so it was difficult to find brick kiln workers; because that’s when brick kilns work at full steam.

After a month of making sun dried bricks, we shifted to Cob which is the most fun community-engaging technique of building walls. After building with Cob, it would seem so intuitive that I can’t imagine to build walls in any other way. If you think about it, a wall is just a lean perpendicular structure with two parallel surfaces and a filling in between. If you can figure out how to keep your wall perfectly upright while layering an ideal mud mix foot by foot till you reach the desired height, that is Cob for you. The critical thing to remember is to maintain an ideal mud mix, one which contains 10-30% clay so that it doesn’t crack.

People

There are three ways in which you can go about building a house made of mud :

  • Employ an architect or construction firm experienced in vernacular architecture and local material
  • Employ local contractors or Masons who aren’t experienced in mud houses but have experience in building conventional houses
  • Owner’s build : Engage family, friends and community around you in the entire process of building a house from scratch , from design to actual laying of brick and mortar

We didn’t want to choose the first option because we would have surrendered the opportunity to learn a lost art and style of architecture. We couldn’t choose the last option because we had almost zero experience and therefore low confidence of taking up a project of this scale. So, we chose the middle path. By choosing this option, masons who had never witnessed construction using traditional methods got the opportunity to learn a native technique.

Through a common friend, we met Deepak Nair, who had experience building with mud at Proto Village. I also attended a workshop by Thannal, where I learnt the basics of natural building techniques. So, armed with knowledge shared by the experienced folks at Thannal and with support from Deepak, we went about choosing people who will help us build the house.

For building the house, we employed a contractor Mr. Ramakrishna from a village nearby Agasthiyarpuram. The knowledge of the mortars used, the formula for the mud mix and skill building was shared by Deepak, and the supply of masons and labourers was ensured by Ramakrishna.

P.S. Before we could start building the 1300 sq ft house, we decided to build a 50 sq ft compost toilet to test all our decisions. We hosted volunteers to help us and without any external help, Deepak and Sohn built the walls of the compost toilet. More details on the toilet, I will publish in a separate blog post.

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Regards,

Sudhakar

7 Comments Add yours

  1. GURURAJ DODDIHAL says:

    Your consultancy needed.
    I am trying to construct a cob house.i have traced traditional walls inrural buildings,over the years they changed to the concrete roof, problems they encountered was rat menaces
    Congratulations to your consistent over abundantly available free advise

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sudhakar says:

      Happy to help you , to the extent possible and as far my knowledge goes. Please email me on sudhakar2310@gmail.com in case you have any specific doubts 🙂

      Like

  2. Arun Lakshmanan says:

    Interesting post, Sudhakar ji – Please share with me too – mud mix details etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sudhakar says:

      What is your email ID?

      Like

  3. hemantvavale@gmail.com
    Please share with me the details of making mud, ingredients and proportion of ingredients.
    Regards
    Hemant Vavale,
    http://www.nisargshala.in

    Liked by 1 person

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