The central table at the dining hall in Iyal Farms in Sethumadai is strewn with sand, marble powder and lime. “These are the basic ingredients for lime plastering, a traditional method followed around the world,” says Coimbatore-based architect Srinath Gowtham. Thirty three students from Rathinam School of Architecture are busy following his instructions. They are part of an Earthen Architecture Workshop organised by Pollachi Papyrus. Srinath and his partner Vinoth Kumar focus on sustainable architecture. “Different regions have developed methods based on the resources easily available there. But, with time, people moved on to use cement loaded with chemicals. Once used, the cement loses its binding properties, unlike mud and lime that can be reused,” explains Srinath.
Vinoth now takes a tile and demonstrates a plastering technique practised around Puducherry and Cuddalore. Lime, river sand and marble powder is spread roughly on the tile before the next layer of lime, marble powder, egg white and coconut oil is added. “The egg white and oil gives it a natural shine. Colours can also be added,” Vinoth says. He uses natural colour powders made out of mud and stones that he sourced from Rajasthan. Once the layer dries, it is polished with a flat stone. “It takes a lot of time for beginners but, with practice, one gets better,” Vinoth is reassuring. By the end of the session, the central table is laid with freshly plastered tiles.
The next task is to make a mud wall. Students mix soil, sand, and straw with water and roll them into balls. “The straw adds strength,” explains Srinath. These mud balls are flattened and laid on top of one other over the stone foundation till they reach the desired height. “The most important thing in constructing mud houses is the technique. It can last for generations but, if not done properly, it can affect the structure’s life.”
Srinath and Vinoth met when they were both at SVS School of Architecture, Coimbatore. “After college, we visited Auroville where we met architect Manu Gopalan, who focuses on sustainable buildings. We worked under him for four years and that experience changed our lives. We learnt about sustainability and its importance. We felt that we should share this knowledge with others and came back to Coimbatore. We now hold workshops on sustainable architecture and also take up projects under the name Bhutha Earthen Architecture Studio. In the past six months, we have done five sessions,” says Vinoth.
Srinath says that one of the biggest misconception about mud houses is that “they will look like little huts”. He refutes this by saying, “We have even built three-storeyed structures using this method. The roofing is done with tiles and wood.” The duo say that the knowledge of sustainable architecture has increased over the years. “There are many people who are interested in going back to the old ways. It is a positive sign.” But it has limitations too. “It is labour intensive and time consuming. It will take at least one year to build one house. But, in the end, we are not harming Nature,” says Vinod.
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