Published: 17th July 2020
Mad about mud: These two travelling architects are building mud houses across India
Coimbatore's Samyuktha Saravanan and Ladakh's Stanzing Phuntsog are from completely different places and cultures, but they are united in their love for one thing — mud!
At a very young age, Stanzin Phuntsog realised that he had this intrinsic love for architecture. But like most other things in his life, he did not want to take the conventional route to building stuff — go to a school, learn the science behind it and build large skyscrapers. No, he wanted to explore the ancient and traditional methods of architecture. "I walked out of my school in Shimla when I was in 12th grade because I was fed up with the education system. There was no practical learning and I wanted to learn things hands-on and not from textbooks," Stanzin recalls.
He then went to complete his education at Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in Ladakh, a school of alternative learning founded by educationist Sonam Wangchuk. Going off the beaten track from a young age was probably what kept him away from conventional architecture as well. After finishing school in SECMOL, Stanzin went to Sambhaavnaa Institute in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh for a Rethinking 'Development' workshop. Here, for the first time, he met people who, like him, were exploring self-learning. "I met someone from Swaraj University, Udaipur and he told me that it is a place where I can do and learn anything," says the 24-year-old. And, it was here he was able to hone his craft and learn what he wanted about architecture. There, he met Samyuktha Saravanan from Coimbatore and they collaborated to create Earth Building, which specialises in constructing mud houses using traditional architectural methods from the days of yore.
Stanzin Phuntsog, Co-Founder, Earth Building
Mud is all we need
This was an idea that had been floating around in Stanzin's mind ever since he was a child. "In Ladakh, everyone has some basic understanding of building structures and I was always fascinated by these structures. I also wanted to build something by myself," says Stanzin, who hails from Nubra Valley in Ladakh. During his time at Swaraj University, he was not only able to explore different building techniques, but his various internships took him across the country. "I started travelling to different places to learn and also began taking up small projects," he says, "You can learn a lot about sustainable architecture by just travelling and exploring different places. We have learnt so much from just observing local architecture — what stone they have used, what the roofing is like and so on." But, Stanzin rues that there's no formal training for learning sustainable architecture. "I want to open a school in the future, where people can come and learn about sustainable architecture with a practical approach. But, right now I just want to keep travelling and learning more," he laughingly says.
Interns all the way
But, the duo did not initially start with the intention of developing Earth Building. "My parents wanted to move back from to the village after staying in the city for several years. So I began researching on mud houses and then Stanzin and I decided to build my home in Valukkuparai village, where my mother hails from, in Coimbatore district. We built it out of earth bags, a technique where mud is filled in cement bags that are then rammed together to construct the walls," recalls Samyuktha. "A layer of barbed wire, almost like applying mortar on bricks, is placed between every layer of bags to avoid friction." explains Stanzin.
Samyuktha (far left) with interns during a workshop-cum-build
And then word got around. "After we built my house, we received requests from other people who wanted us to replicate it for them," says Samyuktha. And that is how Earth Building was born. But what makes it more unique is that Stanzin and Samyuktha crowd-build their buildings. "We hire interns for our projects, people who are interested to learn about these building techniques and can contribute towards it. Before building my house, we had posted about it on Facebook, inviting people to learn the processes and also help us build it. Several people approached us and offered to work and learn and that's how we developed the crew for that build," says Samyuktha. The duo hires interns for every project and don't have a predetermined team of people with whom they work with. "We built Samyuktha's house during our second year at Swaraj," says Stanzin. The duo also trains masons to use stone masonry for the foundations of the houses they build.
Explaining the different methods and techniques of building with natural and sustainable materials, Samyuktha says, "Before building with natural materials, the condition of the area has to be assessed properly. Earthbags, for example, can be used to raise the structure very fast and don't require a lot of water. When we began building my house, Valukkuparai had gone through a four-year drought and water was scarce. We then decided to go with earthbags as that was the best option for that situation." Samyuktha feels that her bent towards sustainability comes from her father, who has always had had eco-friendly practices. "From a young age, he has been encouraging me to be sustainable," says Samyuktha.
Earth bag house in Valukkuparai, Tamil Nadu
All across the India-verse
The duo has now worked on several builds across various parts of the country, conducting workshops while they're building these special houses. "We meet and interact with a lot of people while conducting the workshops. It was through these workshops that we got the contract to create the interiors of a house in Alibag, Maharashtra. We had met the owner during one such workshop. He had already constructed an earthbag structure but couldn't figure out how to build the interiors. He approached us to help him figure it out," says Samyuktha. Stanzin and Samyuktha used a technique called cob for this project. "Cob is a technique where soil is softened and stamped with the feet. When the kneaded soil, mixed with straw, reaches a dough-like consistency, it can be made into small balls that are very pliant and can be used to build multiple things," explains Samyuktha. "Although it takes a lot of time to build with cob, it is a lot of fun to do during workshops. When you have a lot of people it feels like playing in the mud," rues the 29-year-old. "Cob can be used to build any structure, it is very forgiving and allows a lot of freedom while building," adds Stanzin.
Their close relationships with people that are formed during their builds carries them from one project to the next, feels Samyuktha. Stanzin's time in SECMOL helped them get their next project. "Sonam Wangchuk invited us to conduct an earthbag workshop for students in Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh (HIAL)," says Samyuktha. The duo built an earthbag dome inside the HIAL campus along with the students of the institute.
Adobe farmhouse in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu
Samyuktha and Stanzin recently built a farmhouse in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu. "We used a technique called Adobe for the farmhouse that we built for a person from my hometown. He had visited my earthbag house and really liked it," says Samyuktha. "Adobe is sun-dried mud bricks. The soil is soaked for a day or two, mixed with straw and the laid into bricks. It takes at least 10 days to dry, depending on the weather conditions," explains Samyuktha. "Straw is added to make it more resistant to rain. Moreover, adobe has less compressive strength compared to cement blocks and we increase the thickness of the walls. We make it around 18 inches whereas mainstream architecture only has 9-inch walls. This, however, increases the thermal comfort of the house," says Stanzin.
But one question that is frequently asked about mud houses is about their durability. But Samyuktha says, "Natural buildings have to be designed properly for it to be long-lasting. We have proof of buildings that have lasted over three or four centuries and the only aspect that makes it durable is proper design." Stanzin and Samyuktha ensure that they get to know the place before beginning their build. "Most of our building material can be found around the building site and we have to get familiarised with it beforehand," says Samyuktha, who graduated with a degree in architecture from School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University. "You can't build a natural building while it is raining. It is very important to understand the intricacies of weather," she adds.