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Au naturel: City folk are taking to natural materials, building own homes

Architects and sustainable builders are holding workshops for homeowners on how to plaster walls with mud, use jute bags in place of brick.
Uttarakhand-based social enterprise Geeli Mitti holds workshops to teach people to build homes using natural materials, such as earth-filled jute bags.
Published on Jun 02, 2018 09:25 PM IST
Hindustan Times | ByKrutika Behrawala

This month, Mumbai-based digital marketing executive Nidhi Rana, 32, spent a week in Manali building a home out of natural materials. She learnt to identify different types of soil, figured out how to use lime in a mud plaster and covered a wall with it.

Rana was among 22 participants, architects and non-architects, who attended a workshop organised by the sustainable architecture firm Put Your Hands Together.

“I realised that working with natural materials isn’t difficult. All it requires is knowledge and some practice,” says Rana, who plans to use these techniques at her 2BHK flat in Malad. “I plan to incorporate mud plaster in parts of my house. I would also like to explore how I can incorporate lime in the wall plasters.”

Writers, firefighters, government servants, marketing executives, senior citizens, housewives, teachers and even children are getting their hands (and feet) dirty as they explore new ways to build homes. They’re learning how to hand-sculpt elements of a home and, in certain cases, build and live in one too.

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From the earth, of the earth

“These homes generally belong to people who are moving from an urban lifestyle to a more rural or sustainable one. So you’ll find the structures in semi-urban and semi-rural areas,” says architect Malaksingh Gill, who has been practising eco-friendly architecture since 1999 and has worked on projects in Karjat, Palghar, Wardha and the outskirts of Pune where future owners helped build their living spaces.

Recently, Geeli Mitti erected a Hobbit-style mud home under the guidance of French sculptor Brice Mathey, known for his dome-shaped sustainable structures.

One such mud home on a farm in Sanaswadi on the outskirts of Pune was built by sisters Apoorva and Aditi Sancheti in 2012, on part of their organic farm. “Living on the farm helped us work more intensively,” says Apoorva, 28. “As city dwellers, we don’t create enough with our hands.”

They faced several challenges – from finding the right type of soil to getting rid of termites in the flooring (by laying stone). “Now, we re-plaster the house once annually. Living in a house you’ve built with your own hands is satisfying,” Apoorva says.

Many hands, clean work

Depending on the manpower you hire as help, building a 500-sq-ft house can take two to five months. Mud, terracotta (baked mud), stone, lime and plant and animal derivatives are preferred materials for a hand-sculpted home.

“They’re easy to work with. However, it’s important to use the material that is available locally, which is better suited for the region’s climate,” says Shagun Singh, who quit her decade-long marketing career in 2015 to start Geeli Mitti. The social enterprise in Uttarakhand runs a permaculture farm and organises natural building workshops.

To date, the participants have built a home using earth-filled jute bags as building blocks, a bamboo loft and a cottage with an upcycled car as a roof. More recently they erected a Hobbit-style mud home under the guidance of French sculptor Brice Mathey, known for building dome-shaped sustainable structures in France.

The workshops range in duration from 10 to 45 days, cost between 10,000 and 25,000 and the participants stay on site. “That helps them figure out if it’s something they’re ready for. Since each house is a combination of building techniques, you can also zero in on the one suitable to your needs,” says Singh.

Singh herself has been living in the earth-bag home for over a year. Called Earthbag Golghar, it is a roundhouse with a 19-ft diameter and a bamboo roof, divided into a bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom. “Earth-bag homes have proven to be more flood- and earthquake-resistant. Last year, Uttarakhand received brutal rainfall for three months but not a drop of water entered my house,” she says.

The price of a handmade home

Tamil Nadu-based natural builder and architect Biju Bhaskar says construction costs between 800 and 1,000 per sq ft. “It is more affordable than conventional building, which costs 2,500 to 3,000 per sq ft. That’s because the main material – mud - can be sourced on site. Lime is used as the binding material you need less of it than cement.”

You could put some techniques to work in Mumbai too. “Start with a small space or an extension of your home,” says Bhaskar. “Use natural plaster to feel how the space changes.”

Mumbai-based digital marketing executive Nidhi Rana (in blue) at a workshop in Manali on sustainable architecture. She learnt to identify different types of soil, use lime in a mud plaster and cover a wall with it. ‘I plan to use these techniques at my home in Malad,’ she says.

Bhaskar founded Thannal Hand Sculpted Homes with his wife Sindhu in 2011. It’s a platform focused on research, documentation and creating awareness about natural building. He has conducted 50 workshops and short courses on natural building. He says that 60% of his participants are from cities. They learn to lay the foundation, make plasters using natural gums and herbs, preserve wood and keep termites and pests away.

The workshops also aim to revive indigenous building techniques. In June, Bhaskar is conducting a two-day workshop on a technique that uses an indigenous wooden tool to apply lime plaster, in collaboration with a local mason in Sardarshaher, a small town in Rajasthan. “It’s a time-tested technique that has worked in water tanks,” he says. “Now, it’s a fading craft.”

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