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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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  1. cwhat is the combination of the floor materials

  2. Thanks

    In different regions different soils are available. Black soil or black cotton soil is not suitable as it cracks on drying. Muram or yellow soil, red soil, or soil taken from beds of tanks which is called puddle, soils from the fields are suitable. It should be kept wet for a week or so, pulverized feet. Sometimes sand is added in the wet soil, similar to gravel that is added to cement concrete.
    Sometimes paddy straw is added depending upon quality of soil.

    No other mixes are needed.

    I hope this enough.

  3. I am in Mumbai. And am interested in getting mud flooring done in my apartment. Would you know of anybody who could help me get it done.

  4. Hi, Anonymous,

    Thanks for your query.
    Perhaps the best place to find a person is the potters’ colony n Dharavi. The potters can advice you, 1. Where to get right clay, and, 2. Even the persons who could do that (including they themselves.

    Mud floor is not in vogue. However many people have started terrace gardens in Mumbai.

    In hot dry climate in India, e.g. Karnataka, Andhra etc. people use mud-slab (almost three feet thick) for their houses.


  5. Namaste Remi... adding straw or any fibre to the mud mix - I have had my concerns on this. The termites! How important is this ingredient in the mix? Without it a clayey mud floor mix is prone to cracks and with it, it just takes one days absence for the termites to build their canals around the wooden door.. Please share your views.. thank you for such a detailed article..

    1. Thanks Malvicaa. Straw mixed with clay should be pulverized and decayed, which gives plasticity to the clay.
      I was staying in Ahmadabad for a year, in a semidetached house near ATIRA and IIM-A complexes. Most of land nearby was vacant then. And marks of white ants were visible on surface everywhere. We had open space on three sides. My friends, Shankar Kanade and his brother Navnath were trying to keep lawn on one side. They had spent several cans of DDT and BCG to control white ants in the lawn.
      After coming here I added a tiny shallow canal with a gentle slope along the lawn, that carried water from municipal water tap for limited period. It automatically watered the lawn, and at the end Bhindi plants and White Gourd vine, that gave daily vegetables. There was no sign of white ants after that.
      Villagers use cow-dung wash for walls and floors. I have never come across research on cow-dung by any Indian scientist, other than for bio gas plant.

    2. You may also check this Link:

  6. Thank you Remi.. I would be willing to explore this possibility.. When I asked Didi Contractor about Termites due to the organic matter in adobe mix (she uses pine needles in the Himachal), she said have a good compost pile not very far from the house and they will be happy there.. Another thing I hear about the earth houses is they are 'dwelling' living spaces... when you live and have houses based on 'need'.. just enough for the purpose, you maintain them, take care and can see any visible termites if any.. I will be glad to talk more on this matter with you while I am working on a round cob or adobe house for my personal living space on the land... :-)

    1. Very valuable input; I am thankful! Please keep the dialogue open. Meanwhile I send you an illustration on compost pit on Fb, which I have used in one of my posts on Cow dung.

    2. Malvikaa, you will see the Illustration on the post 'Collecting Cow-dung for Energy' Link:
      There are at least ten post with Tag / Labels: Cow Dung.
      Please remember that my writing is not scholarly; it is rather holistic.