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Saturday, 29 March 2008

Building with Earth: a notable Textbook

Building with Earth: a notable Textbook (Book Review)
by Remigius de Souza 

Authors: P. Doat, A. Hyys, H. Houben, S. Matuk & F. Vitoux (CRATerre, France),
Translators: Asha Puri with Manu Bhatnagar, Publishers: The Mud Village Society 24, Chitra Vihar (FF), New Delhi 110092Price not mentioned. (PB). 

TO MY QUERY, which was directed to CRAterre [in 1990], when I received an answer, I had sighed with relief. My question was if I could use compressed mud block for building in the region where there is saline soil. The answer was negative. The cause of my relief was in this part of the world the “machine” – even the manually operated one – will not help to build with mud, and that there shall be little less intervention by the elite class, of architects at least, in the people’s initiative to build their own houses; perhaps temporarily for the present.

For I cannot foresee what may befall upon people – peasants in future, save annihilation, at the hands of more powerful societies with weapons of market economy, information technology, mass media, intellectual property rights, etc. at their disposal.

Because in the food – farming – sector already the hybrid seeds which require more and more water, chemical fertilizers and pesticides and deep ploughing mechanized farm implements have found their way in this region. It is not without causing death of the earth and indigenous seeds which helped the sustainable ecology until now. CRATerre’s answer had described that the only possible method was to build by hands and the manner, which in fact the people of the region had developed and practiced over generations.

THE EARTH TOUCHES every facet of Indian life, from humble lamp burnt with vegetable oil to housing, and from ‘Chulha’ – hearth – and utensils to farm and water management. The universal building material ‘earth’ is now being termed as ‘non – conventional’, thanks to the environmental revolution which started in the modern times in the industrial civilization of the West, and is slowly being accepted by the advanced societies.

CRATerre – International Centre for Research and Application of Earth Construction – is an NGO, works in research, training and implementation. It was established in 1979 by the co–authors of this book. The present work is the historical and technical research, standardization of tests, analysis and trials. CRATerre Peru researches on earthquake – resistant building systems and has a specialized documentation center

‘Building with Earth’ gives sufficient ‘scientific base’ and also ‘industrial footing’ to the subject, which the educated look for. About 300 pages of the book are abundant with tables, graphs, illustrations in diagrams, drawings, details and photographs, and cover several case studies, traditional practices, use of machines, soils and modification of soil characteristics, construction methods, binders and stabilizers, renderings and finishes with much sophistication. It is attached with bibliography, a list of organizations and new research in the field. It is indeed a comprehensive treatise on building with earth and an excellent textbook.

Now that this up–to–date manual on earth technology, imported from the West, is made available in India, it should give enough credibility to “earth” as a building material. The earth, not merely a matter but Mother Earth, is used by the majority of Indians to build a house.

It could now safely be recognized by and introduced in the organized sector of technical education of the architects, engineers and technicians/artisans by the Indian universities, IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes), polytechnics, boards of technical education at the state and national level, Council of Architecture, Indian Institute of Architects, Institute of Engineers, SSCE and HSCE Boards, Shramik Vidyapiths and other autonomous organizations engaged in housing, education and funding etc. besides NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) active in the rural and urban areas in development work.

Though earth as building material remained outside the educational curriculum in India, it was, however, given a due place in the famous “P.W.D. Handbook (1950, Rs. 7.62, First Edition 1876) of former Bombay Presidency during the British Rule.

There are other building materials, namely thatch and Bamboo, which are also ignored in the technical education in India. Thatch certainly has a place in the materials, specifications and practices in the West. Bamboo grows abundantly in India. It is absent in the western textbooks because it does not grow in that region.

What are the possibilities of applications of this treatise on earth in the Indian Context? Cities have their own constraints where earth to build upon and to build with is under great pressure. Nearly 50% population of Bombay (now Mumbai) lives in the slums and squatters. In these settlements, however, earth is a major component in spite of variety of rags being used. At the countryside the majority people continue to use earth in spite of urban influence to use high fossil energy consuming materials such as reinforced cement concrete (RCC).

The Indian countryside is full of diversity of land characteristics, climate, languages, food, dresses… which is beyond generalizations. It is obvious that soils and their characteristics change with localities. Various regions have their indigenous ways of using earth for building: plains of river Ganga, Jamuna, Brahmaputra etc. (flood-prone); desert areas of Gujarat – Rajasthan (scanty rain fall – now earthquake-prone); Deccan plateau (now earthquake-prone); tropical rain forest region of coast (cyclone-prone) and many other regions.

One must not expect to find all the answers to all the conditions in this book. The professionals, therefore, could trust a little more the traditions – the traditions of the so-called illiterates, uneducated, and ignorant rural folks, their wisdom and skills – and do not depend fully on such manuals while practicing at local levels.

Ironically folks from various parts of the country also could be found in the cities and towns after the massive migration that has been taking place during the last few decades. What is more? A major part of the labour force – unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled – in the building construction industry could be found in the slums and squatters, for example, in Bombay (now Mumbai).

As has been said earlier, the book has educative value as a textbook. Traditionally, however, science and technology were available free of cost to the people and learning has been experiential and holistic. It was not the department of education, but the people had autonomy in education. So also Epics and Puranas, which were passed on by mnemonic method from generation to generation over centuries and have become intrinsic part of life of people. When teaching became authoritative and totalitarian, Sant Jnaneshwar (saint-poet of Maharashtra state) had to ask a buffalo to recite Vedas to put the pundits in their right context. Sant Tukaram (saint-poet of Maharashtra state) challenged, “Only we understand meaning of Vedas; other carry burden on their heads.” We need to understand the mindset of the people. Today with printing technology and mass production, the education has gone into the safe custody of the privileged few and has become inaccessible to the ‘masses’.

The publisher’s note mentions that the book shall be available at 50% discount to the students of architecture and engineering. But the price is not mentioned – a popular gimmick. Taking into account the aids, supports and the price of the forest at the cost of people (not merely price of paper) the book should not cost more than Rupees 30/- to 40/- to make it truly global! Besides, the publicity given in the book to the commercially available machinery in the West should further bring down the price. Taking into account the huge demand for housing the price could be further slashed down to make it truly utilitarian book. Better still if the book is translated in the regional languages. All those who advocate sustainability, alternative – appropriate – intermediate etc. technologies should begin to apply energy costs rather than the currency costs while pricing any work – a book or a mud house.

We cannot, perhaps, ignore more than two hundred million people are living below poverty line, and as many are without shelter in India. In Indian sense, environmental concerns encompass matter, mind and Soul.
Remigius de Souza
21-10-1995 (28-03-2008)
[This review was published in the Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, Dec.95/Jan.96.]
© Remigius de Souza., all rights reserved.
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Friday, 28 March 2008

Traditional Mud Floor Technology

Traditional Mud Floors Technology
by Remigius de Souza

In India – a so called third world country – most people still continue to use mud as a conventional building material. It has en an important material in rural housing for millennia. The major part of rural house consists of mud plinth, floor, walls, plaster roof, roofing, silos, utensils, bed, seats, hearth etc. and the statues of deities, mud is either used as it comes or is used with other materials – stone, bamboo, Karavi (Strbilanthes callosus Nees) or as burnt bricks. Roofs in some places are made of a meter thick mud slabs (e.g. parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra etc.).
Mud is processed or treated with compounds such as cow dung, horse dung, ash, anthills, chopped straw of paddy or wheat, chopped organic fibres such as sisal or coir, lime or in baked form. Mud, as a building material, at one time was also compounded with extracts from plants, either to stabilise it or to make it waterproof: gum of banyan or papal trees, powder made from barks of Khair (Acacia catechu Wild) Arjuna (Terminalie Arjuna W.); tea made from three famous plants, known for their great medicinal value, known as Trifala (three fruits) Hirada (Terminalia Chebula Retz.), Behada (Terminalia Roxb.) and Amala (Embelic Mirobalan) besides many other materials such as iron powder for different uses.

The ancient forests, with advent of modern development, are now diminished and many species of trees have nearly vanished from the forests; Khiar, which is also useful for Tusser silkworms, for example, for making railway sleepers.

For centuries rural people have managed the construction of their houses with their own hands and with the resources available closed by. People with different trades, farmers, landless labourers, women, children… all participate in the construction of the house. Community Participation goes far beyond just to build a house – to build temples, mosques, bunds, roads, wells, in farming actions and many other community works. In modern India the governments and the elite of the First World India do not recognise this immense human energy.

The Community Participation also eliminates any need to employ commission agents such as contractors, public works departments, agencies, with government grants, engaged in construction of houses for the masses in rural areas.

The layer for the mud floor should be 12–15 cm thick. It should be spread over hard core of stone / rubble of 15 to 25 cm thickness. The hard core protects the floor from dampness rising from the ground, from rodents and to prevent it from deterioration due to underground settlement of the soil.

The mud selected should be fine grained, free from course sand or gravel, other organic or inorganic materials. The mud should be kept soaked in water for a week, thoroughly pulverised before spreading over the hard core.

The layer is then compacted by ramming with wooden tools. The floor must not dry quickly as it tends to develop cracks. Water should be sprinkled from time to time. This helps to keep moisture uniform throughout its depth. It should be compacted by ramming; once or twice a day for a week or till required finish is achieved. (While tamping the floor, water should b sprinkled lightly to avoid the mud sticking to the implements.)

With each course of tamping the floor becomes more and more impervious and homogeneous, smooth, hard and durable. With every temping, effort should be made to remove marks, and impressions of the instrument and unevenness of the surface. In the process meanwhile the floor goes on setting and slowly drying.

It is advisable to complete the whole floor without joints and without dividing it into panels. The joints or panels as used in cement concrete floors will cause deterioration in a mud floor.
Traditionally the surface is finished with cow dung wash. The floor thus prepared is suitable for many types of building except for industrial purposes. Contrary to popular opinion the mud floor is also suitable for high rainfall areas – even where it exceeds 3000 mm per year. Where floods occur often the mud floor gets damaged or remains damp for a long time.

Housing is not the end Product

A point to note is that in a traditional Indian house the mud floor does not end here. It goes beyond its construction: collection of appropriate materials, preparation, ramming, watering, tamping, levelling... The surface of the floor is finished with cow dung wash mixed with water applied by either hand or broom. This leaves a beautiful texture with a curvilinear pattern of dark grey-green shades. Cow dung wash is applied regularly once in a fortnight or two.

Daily dusting of floor sends back some quantity of loose particles to nature. The floor at the entrance is adorned with Rangoli (Marathi) or Alpana (Bengali); these are symbols such as Swastika painted / drawn with rice flour or pumis stone powder on floor, every morning by the women in the household. Similarly, during meals Rangoli is inscribed around the plate. These are not merely decorations; they are invocations to primal cosmic energy. In Indian culture Vastu – abode – is sacred; during construction from the foundation to the roof people carry ritual worships. Even biotic and abiotic nature is personified and worshiped.

In front of the entrance a Tulasi plant (Ocimum sanctum L.) placed on a platform where people lit oil or butter oil lamp every evening at dusk. Tulasi is considered holy; it is also medicinal plant as well as natural insecticide.
By Indian tradition, housing is not a finished product to buy in the commodity market of price inflation. It is a process of living with the house, not off the house, an association with environment of the house and homestead – an awareness of living organ.

Housing is a process of continuous maintenance, additions, alterations, attention through generations, and when one needs change, the elements used in the house either could be reused or sent back to the biomass – to the Earth.
(This paper was published in the “Common Ground”, Ireland, Oct-Nov 1990, p 10)
© Remigius de Souza., all rights reserved.
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Thursday, 13 March 2008

Water Parks in Wanting

1: Floods in Mumbai is a recurring feature

2. Water reservoir in the traditional city centre

SURSAGAR, the lake at the city centre of Vadodara, Gujarat, is an example of reservoirs as a typical element of Indian cities, towns and villages, before the British Raj, or of pre-industrial era. Vadodara City has many reservoirs besides the tanks attached to the villages that are added after the expansion of city limits. It should be a surprise if some of them are now in a neglected state. Yet they remain and function as vital public and community places. All the tanks of the villages could be turned into natural water parks with little planning action.

3. Traditional water tanks in tamilnadu villages

The extraordinary number of tanks (reservoirs) in Tamilnadu, India, is one of the most heavily modified environments in the per-industrial world. This, of course, must have been possible by ‘community participation, and not merely by the feudal powers.( Source: Spate O. H. K. 1967: “India, Pakistan and Ceylon: The Region” 3rd ed. London)

4. Rivers are mothers to Indic People
Children at play at River Narmada near Bharuch City. There are many dimesions to this play.

5. Paddy farmsare nearest good example of Natural Water Park

Rice paddy fields, though seasonal, are nearest to a good example of ‘water parks’. They are rich with flora and fauna, and are generally breeding places for fish. Some peasants dig ponds in the fields to conserve fish where they are assured of water even after the harvest.

Water Parks in Wanting
Remigius de Souza

“Sujalam. Sufalam.” (Plentiful water! Plentiful fruits!)
– Bankim Chandra Chatarjee

[Preamble: Civilizations have been following a number of Yoga practices, from Jnan Yoga – Vijnan Yoga to Karma Yoga – Bhakti Yoaga to Hatha Yoga – Tantra Yoga. People in the Vedic times, in the Garden of Eden were perhaps blessed with plentiful of water and fruits. It is only our wishful thinking that we sing “Sujalam, Sufalam”, which falls short of action. It is time now for ‘SRISHTI YOGA’ – union with Nature.]

Water: Elixir of Life

Water gives sustenance to life, and culture to man. It is precious and sacred. In this magnificent land there are innumerable rivers and lakes, a great coast, great volume of frozen water on the Himalayas. There is plenty of rain, but there are also draughts, famines and floods recurrently happening. There is pollution of waters, and of the land; both are synonymous. Are we managing water well?

Let us take, for example, City of Bombay (now Mumbai), said to be the financial capital of the country. Mumbai city was founded by the British. They also developed excellent natural harbour. They reclaimed the creeks around the original natural islands.

The land grabbing continued unabated since then by reclaiming the sea, lakes, and water bodies in the city and by expanding the jurisdiction of the city government by extending the boundaries beyond the island city. There are now one million people.

They continued to exclude water by paving the land with tar – concrete – stone to make it watertight and free of soil (spoil!), not only the roads, but also the open spaces around the building and estates. Most of the city’s open space is taken over by the car for roads and ‘Car Park’. There are no ‘Water Parks’ in the city.

Water is imprisoned in the pipelines, and in the concrete – iron – plastic water tanks, and on the top of the Malabar Hill. Even the rainwater is imprisoned. To compensate the loss of water absorbing soil and loss of water bodies due to reclamation, Mumbai now gets regularly flooded during monsoon (Ill. 1).

Let us take an example in contrast. Thirty kilometers away there is more ancient town of Panvel. In the old Panvel of 25,000 people there are seven built water tanks. Some of them are now in a derelict condition. The great Wadala Tank is partly bulldozed by the modern town planners while planning for the extended area of Panvel. The remaining part of the lake is now getting silted and infested by weeds. Perhaps the planning manuals do not write about ‘maintenance planning’!

Let us visualized for a while! Mumbai could have been the Oriental Venice, if the creeks were not bulldozed, and if the traditional waterways were not sealed by the British.

Following their footsteps the planners of Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority [MMRDA] have twice prepared 20-year plans for the Mumbai region. But they ignored or failed to notice that the people in the coastal area of Raigad and Thane Districts use the natural-inland watercourses as waterways for transport. Neither could they see the pollution of waters and land and the salt pans as an after effect of planning for development. The British, of course, had their goal/s, which is known, and for them the goals justified the means. Planning is not to coerce the people [Patrick Geddes] but demands vision with insight into that which is.

Our ancestors acknowledged the presence of water in life by sanctifying it and associating with it in the rituals from birth to death, and in the religious places. They built lakes and tanks within and around cities (Ill. 2) and tanks for the villages (Ill. 3). They built great Ghats along the rivers, and the rivers were sacred and mothers (Ill. 4) to the people. Rivers became places of pilgrimages. They brought people together, including those from the far away dry places in contact with water. People regularly took holy dip in the sea. It was a national policy for health, education and national integration, which no amount of preaching, coaching and slogans can ever achieve.

Modern developments of concrete jungles in the cities have created heat islands. The modern Indian City planner continued to ape western models and manuals instead of studying and learning from indigenous Indian habitat planning. Indigenous cities have city centers with lakes. The modern city centre displays ‘Car Parks’ The planners perhaps do not recognize water beyond its use for plumbing, sanitation, construction and aesthetics of hedonism.

But the worst of all draughts is that what is ‘known’ of the environment from virtual reality of books and multi-media, is hardly ‘witnessed’ and rarely ‘experienced’ in the daily personal and social life. The coming generations are successively and progressively draught- stricken, not only in urban areas but also in rural areas, waiting for some white angel to come with magic wand to solve their problems. We perhaps ‘know’ intellectually the worth of water, but are we intrinsically ‘aware’ of water beyond H2O? We have taken water too much for granted.

Water Parks as Public Open Places

The Indian society is caught up in the web of vertical and horizontal divisions. The vertical divisions of caste, which brought the society to the decadent state, once denied the access to the untouchables to water on community wells. The horizontal division is of the class and status, which was successfully grafted by the British Metropolitan Imperialism [David Canndine, ‘Ornamentalism’, Penguin] on the fertile soil of the feudal society. Now the class, the upper division is colonizing even the water in the name of common good.

Water – one of the five elements, instead of becoming unifying element for the society is a cause for conflict between class and the underclass. The sayings, such as, ‘One cannot draw a line on the water’; ‘River is afire’ [Kabir]; ‘Water goes to sleep. Water gets (wakes) up” [Indian farmers] can only be learnt from the water itself, not by discourses and treatises. In the cyber age of animated virtual reality it is not even a remote possibility to learn the lesson. It will only lead to aggravate the conflict, perhaps leading to annihilation of the underclass. To learn from water, however, there is no bar of gender, age, caste, creed, class and status.

We therefore need ‘Water Parks’ alike ‘Public Parks’ and ‘Play Grounds’. Perhaps they may be combined. Water Parks need to be developed as public open places in the cities and rural areas, both, in all regions.

Water Parks, perhaps, are not written in any known treatise or manual, ancient or modern, on architecture and planning. Every society, however, has to prepare its own treatise as expression of its own time. We may learn from the past, but cannot imitate it.

Water Park has three primary conditions

It must have water – sweet or salt water; it must have aquatic life – fishes, amphibians and plants; it must be accessible to any citizen to work with hands, basic tools and equipment and to develop, maintain and enjoy the fruits – the products of it.

What is Water Park?

We must clearly understand what is Water Park. Water Park is not a water–conditioned nightmare created by the corporate sector [or the class] in the metropolitan cities fashioned after Disney Land, Water Kingdom, for entertainment and profiteering, or rickety fountains peeing around artificial rookeries and statuaries, imprisoned by fencings, gating and ticketing. Water Park is not glass–conditioned aquarium. Water Park is not a water sports centre; though both could co-exist. Water Park is not a swimming pool, but both could be neighbours on strict conditions. For example, ‘Chlorine’ and such other poisons consumed by humans is the enemy of Water Park.

Rice paddy fields (Ill. 5), though seasonal, are nearest to a good example of ‘water parks’. They are rich with flora and fauna, and are generally breeding places for fish. Some peasants dig ponds in the fields to conserve fish where they are assured of water even after the harvest.

We can derive a broad outline about what should be Water Park?

1. Water Park must have a water body – sweet water or salt water, which is built with organic materials, where aquatic life – fishes, amphibians and plants – could live and grow in the natural and appropriate conditions. It should be designed for breeding, conserving and cultivation of all kinds of aquatic life forms, particularly the species that are on the verge of extinction

2. Water Park should have infrastructure according to its increasing complexity, such as, water testing equipment, laboratory, water recycling plants, water conservation models, various irrigation systems etc. in working conditions.

3. It should be provided by various working models of ‘water machines’, such as pumps, windmills, desalination plants, mini-turbines, even one where Archimedes exclaimed “Eureka! Eureka!”

4. Design, content and context should be appropriate to the region, land characteristics, climate etc. Local cultures and traditions should find appropriate place and featured at the water parks without the taboo of secularism.

5. Area of Water Park as a public open place could be of any size above one half acre.

6. Water Park as a public open place should be owned, developed, managed and maintained on participatory basis by the members of the local community who actually work with their own hands and should enjoy income from its proceeds.

7. It is anticipated that the Water Park has the educative as well as leisure value through creative efforts of the participants.

How Water Parks?

Industrialization destroyed the community and created ‘mass society’. It also created institutions, which take control of almost every aspect of life of individual and the collective, which has resulted in loosing their autonomy of decision and action. Thus there is want of identity, or the identity crisis.

Water Park is likely to get caught up in the spider’s web of natty-gritty of institutionalisation, i.e. ownership, funding, MoU, constitution, rules and regulations, office bearers, trustees, and many imaginable or unimaginable issues raised by the officialdom, and may even see the last drop of water lost in the heat…before it actually materializes.

It is time to counter the forces of the Class and the Status by the Community and Water as basic need. Therefore now in the changing times we need to change the mindset. We can learn a lot from the ethnic communities and their institutions, which still prevail. In Orissa and Bengal, for example, in the villages, almost every household has a pond. This practice must have been there for many thousand years. No building bye-laws, development control rules,, or no Indian Standards [IS], or National Building Code {NBC] are needed here. (The author regrets the mention here for fear of the zombies in the bureaucracy may come up with their axe to destroy this tradition.)

In the cities the cars and the ‘Car Parks’ are given thousand of acres of land for the moving and stationary cars by legal instrument. What is a big deal for the law making and law-abiding elite citizens to give equivalent of that area for the ‘Water Parks’ in the urban areas under the instrument of law?

Water Parks should be attached to, beginning from primary schools to colleges and universities to all educational institutions, along with playgrounds, as an instrument of non-formal education; to the public parks in the urban areas. Water Parks should be attached to all the government, judicial and legislative institutions, beginning from the President’s Palace, the Supreme Court, and the Parliament at New Delhi to the offices of Gram Panchayat, Talathi and Tahasildar at village and the Taluka levels, as an instrument of non-formal adult education; all the estates of corporate sector and NGO sector, and local self–government sector in proportion of their ‘land–buildings–cars’ holdings. In urban areas water parks should be part of the Compulsory Common Open Spaces or Recreation Grounds to all housing – mass housing – Real Estate Housing – development. If the Revenue Act could be implemented, why not the Water Park Act?

All the environmental activists and pundits can join in the building the Water Parks all over the country. The land required, 3,287,000 square kilometres is there. All that is needed is to “catch a drop”. Water Parks could at least provide work and livelihood to the under-privileged of the underclass, provided these are not hijacked by the class, or the elite class, or the corporate society under different garbs, such as ‘privatisation.

After all why do people build temples – with or without images – in the name of Creator? Water Park is the celebration of Life.

Remigius de Souza
(9-4-1997, Revised 30-8-2001)

© Remigius de Souza., all rights reserved.

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