Standards and Ratings….

FAQ: are there any standards that we follow for earthen buildings… And what about the environmental impact rating such as LEED or GRIHA?

First, we need to understand where the need for standardization comes from.
It started with the introduction of industrial materials in building trade. Materials like cement and steel are made with the controlled parameters of factories and used in a diversity of conditions. To make sure they are easy for an educated architect/ engineer to design with, came standards. If one uses cement of certain type in a specific kind of concrete mixture, they are ensured to get a certain strength. Works perfectly!
With a natural material harvested from the surroundings, (not MADE by humans) there are too many factors influencing the structural behaviour. And we have control over almost none… So you can attempt to roughly standardise a natural material such as soil.. But applying those standards on site will be a big hassle, not to mention, it will still be ‘rough’, not precise.

To avoid that, in some countries, people came up with companies that sell soil, standardized and refined by machines, packed in plastic bags. An earthen building constructed only with the purchased soil form an authorised company has the permits to be erected.

Still don’t see any problem?!!
It is an earthen building, sure, but is no more natural… And definitely no good for the environment or people either.
And guess what, it still is the big corporation making money out of it…
The psychology of fear, used on masses works perfectly to make people believe that if you buy soil from ‘ABC soil manufacturers’ to build your dream home, you will be doing a favor to the environment and getting a ‘standardized and safe’ house for a bargain price!
Standards is mankind’s way of seeking safety in things we have made too complicated for a common man (yes with all his social privileges) to understand and make an informed decision on. So he asks, have you followed the standards?! Yes?! Then I’m safe!
Same goes for the environmental ratings. These rating systems are made and enforced to ensure that the massive footprint of industrial building trade is – at the least- taken responsibility of. More the recovery of the environmental impact, higher is the rating awarded.

These systems do not take into the consideration, buildings that cause minimal ecological impact, not just while being built but through their life and upkeep.

It becomes irrelevant to grade a handmade earthen building on the basis of an environmental rating system designed for industrially made steel or cement buildings.

Again, our judgment of whether the building is synchronous with nature or is an environmental disaster cannot depend solely on the rating systems.

We could not have killed our instincts any better than with these slow and thorough methods and systems of dependence.

But, we fail to realize is that the scene is not all that bleak. Our instincts are very much functioning and not destroyed but often merely suppressed!

It takes little time for people to reconnect with the earth…. to learn how the material “feels” in our hands. We can learn to allow the smell, touch and colour of the soil tell us about its behaviour, structural and otherwise.

Building with soil is indeed a lot like cooking. Everyone has a specific way of making daal, just the way they remember their grandmother making….

Each kitchen, each hand making daal, has its own flavour to it. Can you standardise the recipe for daal and expect everyone to comply with the “safe daal standards”?!

Sounds ridiculous, does it not? Once upon a time every village, every master mason had their own recipe of earthen building. They made structural decisions by the “feel” of the material… And built homes that were lived in for generations….

They trained young builders, to not just build, but understand the materials and refined their structural and aesthetical judgment…

We lost this independence of building in our strive for standardization. We created a building profession that essentially functions around “not taking responsibility of our decisions”. We, as builders are not to have an independent judgment of any kind. We hold an unknown entity – governments, councils, standard codes and such- responsible for giving us a judgment, a decision.

Most of the urban communities cannot do without these legal protection systems. There is too much money and resource at stake.

But there is no reason for the rural communities to fall into the trap of a building trade owned by the big corporations and rating systems that are quite literally controlled by them. It is possible to have and protect our independence of building…. By relearning to hold an informed, experienced, and wise judgment.

Just as, those who learn to cook with their grandmothers, do not need to depend solely on cookbooks…. Those who learn to build with village elders, do not need to depend on the standards either…

What we, the earthen builders stand for is not just a material…. We stand for our freedom to build…. We stand for our diversity and individuality….

We stand for those who have continued to build with their judgement… We stand for those who have been called “unskilled” and “vernacular”.

We stand by those who were not respected and have lost faith in their incredible hand-skills…

We stand for ‘ Redefining the vernacular‘ once again….

Doors And Windows….

shutters

Bare naked hollows of doors and windows come to life soon as ‘shutters’ come into the picture….
Designing shutters for this project has been a great delight for me and my team of carpenters….
The geometry of door-window shutters gives building a character. It is a rhythm flowing through all the spaces, binding them together…
They frame the views outside… Lead our vision to see the world outside, as if they are pretty pictures strung together!

It leaves just enough for our imagination…

Just like ‘reading’ a story encourages us to create personalized visuals in our minds, as against ‘watching’ the same story, which leaves nothing to imagine, numbing our minds slowly while we are at it.

Most modern homes, with their ready to install, sleek glass windows and flush doors, are like sensory overload… it has made us forget the joy of handcrafted, personalized openings…

And I’m afraid I cannot give you a monetary valuation for that…
Warmly,

Staircase….

It could be just a transition space, a necessary provision to be crammed in a corner and forgotten about….
Or, a staircase can be the life of a house, looking at everything from its own curious (and literally lofty!) perspective, throwing light and breeze all around…
It could invite us to sit around with our coffee mugs and chat with our loved ones…. It’s a place to find a book, forget where you were headed and get lost in the pages…
A place to step up to something wonderful or fly down restfully if you wish!

Here, old (फडताळ) cabinet door planks are reused as treads, raised very gradually on Adobe walls. These steps, wide and low are truly a child’s play to climb up and down. Throughout the day, there is bright, cheery daylight streaming down from a clear storey in the roof…. Treated bamboo poles are embedded in the Adobe supports, as handrails…
Didn’t take any extraordinary materials or technology to build it… 🙂

PC Abhijit Gandhi

Mud house in the woods…

I am planning to post pictures and descriptions of the recently finished projects on the blog from now… And in reference to that discuss various aspects of natural building. Watching how this works in coordination with th picture posts on the Instagram handle anujnadn

***

People often look at the drawings of an earthen house and think that it looks too small…

1. Load bering earthen walls are much thicker than lean walls of a framed structure. Human eyes read the interior space in proportion to the walls and are not used to walls as thick as mud walls. That tricks the mind into assuming that the space is too small.

2. Most of the generic house designs involve a boxed space of standard dimensions without any considerations for the furniture, people and movement within that space. There is a lot of waste of space that ends up neither being of any physical use nor of any intentional aesthetic appeal….

If we look beyond these two common misunderstandings, we see that quality of space is not Directly proportional to the dimensions of the room!

Speaking of dimensions, this is indeed a small bedroom. 10’6″X16’6″ in size. All the furniture is built in and sculpted into its earthen walls, leaving plenty of space to walk around.
Spaces such as this one are designed inside out. First comes the space, movements in it and then the walls and furniture, merely a cocoon to embrace them all, snug and perfectly fit…. With wide windows giving glipses of the beautiful forest by the doorstep… and a roof incline, throwing sunlight just where you might need it next…

Hungry, Dirty, Cold and Loved….

Usually the conversation starts with, “where are you from?”

“Pune”

“..Meaning Mumbai, right?”

My imagination zooms back to the two monster-cities that are growing cancerously, almost into each other, Sigh, “Uh, yeah, close enough…”

“Are you here for a holiday?”

I definitely do not look like a jolly tourist, not with frizzed hair and smears of gober on my ragged cloths, “No. I work here.”

“What work?”

“I build”

“What is there in the hills to build?!” accompanied with laughter.

I silently look out for the direly awaited, late night bus to show up.

“Who are you travelling with?”

I feel like saying, “With myself” but I am not hungry or nasty today, so I say “Nobody.”

“How much do you get paid?”

“Nothing, so far… But with time, there will be something.” now really trying to sound polite.

“Are you from an NGO?”

“No.”

“…then?”

“I work for an Architect.”

A long awkward pause, while I do my best to ignore that top to toe scrutiny….

“…married?!”

“No.”

“How old are you?”

“Um… 27…”

I can almost catch them sigh this time, oh…there is no hope after all…

Mostly by end of this question they classify me solidly into some category and start feeling comfortable….almost sympathetic! Then the rapid fire round takes a turn into checking my ancestry up….

Often my skills at shamelessly sleeping through any bus journey save me from this endless interview. And with time I have learned that albeit strangers, most of them are simply good natured and curious about this strange woman travelling alone at night. Their questions, too probing and unnecessarily personal, actually harm me in no way, but might open a new world of possibilities that they have never even considered…. I have seen some of these random interviewers drift into a silent musing, trying to relate with me… mostly, they shrug the thought out with an anxious jerk and fall back into their comfortable, sympathetic zone!

But yes, I admit, there was a time when I used to fire up and fume inside, being judged by strangers like that… Once an over-smart, ten-year old looking me up and down, had asked his mother, “Is this how a spinster looks like?!” I had felt a jumble of emotions varying from violent rage to careless laughter and then, squirmy pity….

This is not about questioning the conventions… or rebelling for or against anything… that activist in me knows that there are far graver things than facebook relationship status, to fight against.

Relationships and their social contexts have become far too controversial and debatable issues lately, for poor me to even dare writing upon.

Do I wish to be in a relationship with anyone or not? If yes, then with whom and why?

To start with, does a relationship (let us call it matrimony, if it comforts) truly complete my life?

For those who bother to raise such questions, these are too personal choices to generalize broadly into socially acceptable frameworks that we live within…. This is about those who silently choose to live their lives by their own rules, without preaching others to do the same… without setting out to destroy the very fabric of our faiths and subsequent comforts.

With time, now I have come to a point where life has started weaving into a beautiful, melodic rhythm of its own. Although delightfully unpredictable like a dance sequence, life has continued to gift me with moments of grace, beauty, warm affection and lasting friendships…. It has brought me to believe that any day that has not been driven by the utmost love for life, is not lived at all.

Life of this 27, single woman, travelling architect is full and satisfying…. Filled with immense questions and challenges sometimes beyond her strength! There is color, glamour, beauty and humor along with mistakes, blunders, failures and massive goof ups!

They have said that I am wasting my life, that I am taking all the wrong decisions…. They have said that this path that I am choosing goes nowhere…. And I promise, this nowhere is so much more beautiful than anywhere! Through this chaotic, rattling bus journey of life, my closest ones have always stood by my silly decisions….

My exceptionally cool-headed father with his flawlessly practical advice, offered only when asked for…expecting me to make truthful and honest choices in life, and nothing more, in return of all the emotional and financial investments he has continued to make…

Friends of family and families of my friends, who have unexpectedly risen to help, guide and shelter me in the worst hours of life….

Teachers who have patiently watched me fumble over the easiest of lessons!

My best buddies who have watched me fall and get back to my feet… taught me to use phones and tracked my crazy travel itineraries… laughed at me and lightened up my gloomy moods!

Silent admirers who have defended and protected me, from a distance, without hurting my independent spirit….

I have always known how much courage it has cost them all to watch me struggle. I know how uncomfortable they have felt late at night, in their comfortable beds, when they knew I traveled, hungry, dirty and cold out there….

For me, they represent love like nothing and no one else…. They give me strength and hope for the great times…. many beautiful futures that we will be building together….

Along with women of exceptional courage and character, many of them are men of varying backgrounds and age groups. They have loved me in their own ways…. Accepted my fussing, hangry, eccentric way of loving them! And they have never offered me a humiliating choice that most women are often offered, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, between being an object and being everything else. And at every moment, if there was such a choice, they have laughed and nodded, as I chose wholeheartedly and in complete consciousness, to remain hungry, dirty, cold and loved as I am!

From the Radio Station III

I never imagined myself building a radio station and I am certain the radio people never thought they would have a cranky architect working with them, sometimes shoulder to shoulder and sometimes almost nose to nose!

It is, indeed, a curious mix of professions and cultures that they have conjured up here! Also the very concept of a community radio station, broadcasting from a remote Himalayan village, attracts a range of visitors.

Sushila Bhandari from Raidu village, near agastyamuni is one such intriguing lady. This gadhwali woman of immense courage, is fighting for her “jal, jungle aur jameen”, against not just the corporate, but the very government of Uttarakhand. Two months of imprisonment, paid murder attacks or bribes have failed to muffle her voice. Instead, she has learned to write hindi, during her two months imprisonment! Now she also writes poetry and sings the songs of hills and rivers, in her high pitched, pahadi voice….

***

C P Joshi from dwarhat is another frequent visitor and a valued advisor for the MKA trust. A good looking kumaoni poet, he is also a sensitive social worker allied with “Axay”, a TB eradication initiative.

In the day time, he would quietly smile and walk towards me, while I stand surrounded by my construction gang. And he would very defensively, but with pure curiosity, ask questions about earth construction. For a while I wondered why the defensiveness… and I did admit it to myself that I must look like a daunting warrior on a construction site that resembles a bustling warzone!

But in fact, I do love to answer his questions about various forms of earth construction. At the same time I keep it clear that the views we express are our own inferences and learning, and none is a universal law to be enforced on another… He smiles his mild, enigmatic smile and jumps to another question!

Once, after dinner, we all grownups and kids plopped on Joshi ji’s bed, listening to his kumaoni poetry. An informal “mehfil” Somehow descended upon us!

With him, I have started recollecting old Marathi poetry, after quite awhile… on the other hand, Joshi ji, very soon plans to build a house in dwarhat, a rammed earth structure that he will design for himself!

***

My lovely brick maker team of women has been saving up their payments with Vincent. They plan to take the payment right in the end, and invest that into building a new house in stone. They are going to hire my team of masons for the job!

The masons thoroughly enjoy their work. There is significant change in their expressions and body language. The awkward stress and constant suspicion has evaporated long ago, replaced with natural easy grace and a hint of pride…

There is often a faint smile on Jeetpal ji’s face, as he chisels the stone, with his tongue held out, in utter concentration, so much like a small kid! He laughs and cracks jokes… hums along, old pahadi jungle geet (forest song) playing on the radio, and all the time I watch him with great respect and love… feeling like a mother, who has managed to evoke and protect the child within him…

***

Winter rains in the hills are indeed a special thing. There is a vague distinction between rain, sleet and snow as we climb up, but that entire downpour is essential for the forests, rivers, humans and beasts to thrive.

But for the adobe spread out in the field, drying in sun, this rain was very unfriendly. After a week or two of bright dazzling sunshine, suddenly one morning, we have an overcast sky, rumbling and threatening to wash away all our hard work. The whole team of workers rushes to the site early in the morning, moving dry bricks in shelter and covering the rest with massive plastic sheets. Then we all just sit sheltered by the tent, warming our bruised, frozen hands on an open fire of cheed pine twigs. Stories of man-eaters, bears and ghosts taste far better with rounds of chai.

It usually takes a couple of days for the weather to clear and for all of us to get back to the sunny outdoor work. But the chilly winter rains by then, have brought us all close together…. Bonded irreversibly now, we are a construction gang, driven by a special sense of comradeship.

***

The stone masonry in gadhwal, has such a robust and distinct character that we wish to expose it and flaunt it to the world! The crudeness of partially dressed stone and sleek lines of slate pieces, together create a rhythmic symphony of shapes and shades… no two stones in the masonry look alike and yet they all belong to the same astute composition.

Most people, who prefer the formal, strict masonry of fine dressed stone, fail to see the poetry in gadhwali masonry. I had a fair bit of problem, trying to see, what makes gadhwali masonry, so wrong in their perspective. Our visual senses are enslaved by now. We like all things to look alike… we want all kids to be dressed in uniforms and all women to look like movie stars. We want all roads to look the same and all places to become cities…. Just like that, we want all stones to look strictly alike. Every time someone asks why I refuse to use neat dressed stone, I ask them, why they want all the stone to look alike… and I am still waiting for an answer.

***

While I am pouring my blood, brain and sweat into the construction work, instead of making me feeble and desensitized, it is making me, more alive, lot more sensitive and aware…. In spite of all the brain boggling problems and surprising solutions… yet, there are moments that allow me to trace a beautiful Himalayan vulture soaring over my head, in graceful, lazy circles…. At times I stay back at the construction site, just to witness the sky that looks blue fading into orange, so much like a flycatcher’s belly, preceded by a sunset bathed in gold and copper glitter of stone dust around me….
Sometimes, long after those dramatic sunsets, I sit there, planning the next phases of construction. Hungry and tired, I step out from the studio, to find my construction site, drenched in melting silver moonlight…  Fresh, wet adobe glisten softly, and the stone masonry glows as if lit from within … It is irresistible to keep my hands off the rhythmic rough and smooth texture of the stone wall…. On a biting cold winter night, I let my fingertips trace the crevices of ice-like stones… like some magical self-lit objects!

At any time of the day or night, these hills never fail to take my breath away…

***

Although I am sure, my mum never planned it deliberately, I wonder sometimes, if she hoped, growing up in a house with Sanskrit plays and poetry scattered around, along with Hemmingway, will leave its imprint on me…. Before arriving in gadhwal, I carried a strange image of this land… for me it was the land of Kalidas’ poetry… the land where I presumed, Kumarsambhavam must have taken a verbal form. And with that bias, I keep stumbling upon places that, in my mind, match exactly to the setting of various events in the Shiva-Parvati story. It feels as if the gods and goddesses would simply drift in front of me, from behind that ancient banjh (oak) tree, if I truly willed them to appear…

But they do not, nor does the famous man-eater of gadhwal. I hear stories of men and women right from our neighboring villages, mauled by wild bears and snatched away by the panthers… but those beautiful beasts somehow never cross my paths. Although I know these wise ones must be prowling in the dark, quite too close by, camouflaged more by my absence of mind than their stealth… So I keep my curiosity reigned in and usually abide by the rules of village life, that forbid me to walk home, after dark, unaccompanied by a man. I religiously believe that a hungry beast would definitely be distracted by the more flavorsome option of devouring a man, and would spare this inconsequential woman to go home!

One day I will also write about the ghosts of gadhwal, but right now, it is indeed too late at night to think of bodiless voices following us along treacherous forest paths! But I promise, if someday the said feminine forest spirit truly chooses to confront me, I will sincerely ask her forgiveness on behalf of the mankind and promise to protect her beautiful green veil, for as long as I live…. I think she will be a smart forest spirit who will bless me genially.

***

There is something about half done earth masonry that looks like a warm promise of future… For some reason or the other, I keep walking and leaping over its dusty ledges, watching the walls risen and complete in my mind.

My gang once warned me not to do that too often, for it might offend the spirit of this building. They were anyway certain that just like the masons, who work too closely with the masonry, I too am possessed by the “devtaa”. There is indeed a tiny “deoli” temple, topped with brightly colored flags, next to the construction site. Every time we start a fresh phase of construction, our masons offer flowers, sweets and some incense to the deity staying in there….

I think the “devtaa” knows that I totally love being possessed by him! He is not a scary one, who gets offended so easily. I wonder if he laughs at me, if he likes me too…

Homes That Die

A home should be capable of death just like those who live in it…..
Like a faithful pet or rather like a soul brother, the house should die with us, for we do not wish to litter this earth with too many monuments of the dead.
Death is a beautiful companion herself…. I wish I could learn to not fear her…. to befriend her instead….
Then the homes too will become fearless and benign…..