Alternative Building Materials: Timeless Mud

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Alternative Building Materials: Timeless Mud
Written by Laurie Baker   

I have been very fascinated with the whole process of development in the country since a considerable period before Independence when I first came to India on my way to China in 1940 where I had been involved in leprosy work. In 1944 I discovered that there was an international organization looking for an architect, engineer or builder to come to India because they had ninety-odd homes or asylums for leprosy patients, which had to he converted into something modern and new. I took on this job. Although I had passed my examinations several years before this, because of the War, I had not had the opportunity to practice very much as an architect. And here I was a starryeyed, young associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, with the whole of India to go at! So I set off on my travels around India to see all these buildings that I had to convert, and to my horror, I discovered they were miles away from anywhere, and most of the materials with which these buildings were built were totally unknown to me. I had brought my textbooks along and thought I knew everything, for after all, I was an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects! But here I was confronted with new materials like laterite, and construction techniques like Madras terracing. I found very primitive materials being used everywhere! I had a difficult first year, just trying to find out how to go about things and what to do. I found the answers slowly and steadily and strangely enough, not from my own profession but from the people themselves and from the ordinary craftsmen. Mud all the way The thing that hit me in the eye, right from the beginning, was that an enormous amount of use was made of mud! I knew a little about mud, but not very much. The first thing I discovered was that mud is one thing in one place and a different thing in another. It is used for different purposes and is used in different ways! There are different techniques of sticking it together and making it into a wall or whatever. This varied considerably, even sometimes in a matter of a few miles, from one district to another. I began to move around to find out how it had lasted so well, because many of these buildings that I saw were as much as or more than a hundred years old. How was this possible with a climate like India's with its intense heat, cold and the sery ;gong monsoon

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periods'? I discovered there were many materials that were mixed with mid; very rarely was it pure mud straight eat of the ground. It was mixed with grass. .straw, leaves and bhusa (chaff) I also found Ia very wide range of liquids being used with mud to make it stick together to prevent cracks. I had quite alarming experiences at times (and will continue to have them), throughout the forty-five years that I have been practicing here! I saw that these additional materials were changing as well. Nothing was static about this whole business of using simple materials. I was very impressed with the mud-work in a particular district that I used to travel through regularly. and as usual I tried to find out why it was so good. There were no cracks although the buildings were very old New ones were also being constructed in the same manner and all of them were very well kept. But these people would not tell me what it was they were mixing with the mannal to make it strong and stable. I thought it was some sort of professional jealousy. They didn't want me to find out the tricks of their trade! But after several years of persistence. I discovered that pig urine was being mixed. This hesitancy in telling me about it was just sheer embarrassment! But why pig's and why not cow’s urine? We got hold of pig's urine and on testing it in laboratories found that the urea content is very much higher than in any other form of urine including cows' and goats' and human beings’ urine. Urea is a binder and this is why they used it to make sure that the mud available (which was of a slightly sandy sort) held together very well and it performed all the functions that were required. Empirical basis I belong to the generation which didn't know what high technology was. Even reinforced concrete was in its infancy when I was a student and if anything new was being done in the area we would go about 200-300 miles to see it because it was such a remarkable affair! The other thing I found about mud was that it's used for all sorts of things — walls, floors, foundations and even for roofing even doors, wall plastering Over cane and bamboo and mat material. It was used extensively as a fire retardant. Though the CBRI has worked for the last twenty years on fire retardants for thatch, in actual fact, this was already in use by people using mud. In Africa and in several other areas, apparently they build their round mud walls for their murals and before putting on the conical wood or bamboo or grass or whatever form of roof, they pile grass stalks and leaves inside and around and set it on fire and produce a mild form of ceramic building. In the Plywood Institute in Bangalore extensive research has been carried out on compressed hardboards, sheets and coconut palm. The latter has some sort of substance in it, presumably a sort of resin that is released at a particular temperature, and by chopping it and hot-pressing it at a particular temperature, it produces a shiny golden green substance — hardboard — which is waterresistant, fire-resistant and acid-resistant. But of course, after the manner of our research institutes, they are not there to promote its use, or to make use of it. It is handed over to an entrepreneur who makes a little bit of it, sells it at about three times the cost of marine ply — no takers — and, of course, he has the right to it over a certain number of years. And there it lies, unused, not available for any one else. So there are other factors in this whole business of evolution, of growing, of developing our old original basic materials that sometimes pose problems that prevent our using them.

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Before we came along with our high technologies and our science, people over thousands of years were doing what we are now pleased to call research and development. Anywhere you go in India, any village, any rural area (and remember, there is still over 80 per cent of the population in rural areas and their needs are 80 per cent of the needs of the nation), there is this, `rural' design that is steadily going on, and this research is not something that was thought out suddenly. They did not have research institutes. It was a system of trial and error — an empirical form of development. People have used what is actually underneath them and around them: the earth, the things that they can pull out of the earth and so on. They used simple materials to protect themselves from the rain, sun, animals, insects and other human beings. They had very primitive forms of transport, and there was never any thought of importing materials, all of which has resulted in this very distinctive architecture. I insist on calling these 'rural indigenous designs' for building. I think they're very fine examples of pure architecture because they use materials honestly and straightforwardly in an enormous variety of ways, and find solutions to all the problems we human beings have, living in a somewhat hostile world. Stone The use of stone was also staggering. The methods of splitting a stone, breaking it up for use.... I don't find it very much now, but in several areas in the country, I found these huge granite boulders. Usually there were women and children who would just sit hammering away, making a row of holes all the way across a slab. Then they would hammer in dry wooden pegs. At the CBRI, a stone block has been developed to use up all the waste stone. Two or three lumps in the mould, fill it in with concrete all the way around, and you have a nice hardboard block with more or less waste material apart from the cement and the concrete that you put around the stone. This sort of system is still used and was used by our ancestors in different parts of the country in similar forms, laying two planks of wood alongside, filling the space between with stone and ramming it with mud which has some additive or some form of reinforcement. In the Himalaya there is a beautiful slaty sort of stone. Either it was used in dry form without any mortar, or with a mud mortar. In an earthquake zone in the Himalaya the whole system of building was with dry stone and mud — very thin mud in between the stone allowed the slaty stones to move one over the other. I saw no collapses of buildings at all due to the earthquakes. When the whole area started to be developed with a capital 'D', concrete and cement came into the district and these stones were neatly cemented together. This resulted in a lot of cracking and damage during the earthquakes. So inspite of our cleverness in getting higher and higher with our technology we weren't solving the actual basic problem of the district. The challenge of shelter We have between 20-30 million families who have next to nothing to live under, no form of shelter at all. We have another 50-70 million families living in conditions that are very deprived — so-called huts or houses which are unlikely to last very long. The questions which arise are: Why don't they use all these simple techniques? Why don't they use the mud? The number of architects, engineers, or contractors who build and design buildings in the country are altogether less than one per cent of the number of buildings that go up in the

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country. Who's doing all the rest of them? Multiply a number like 20,000 houses by the amount of money that you think could build the lowest possible cost house, and immediately you have vast astronomical figures that the government obviously has not got or is not prepared to use to meet the housing needs of the people. Can any form of technology that has been devised yet provide a shelter of say 150 or 200 sq feet for a family to live in? Are we just going to let ordinary people go 'mucking around with mud', in their own way doing what they can? (And of course they're losing these skills more and more). Do we, as a profession have any sense of responsibility towards them? What is an architect? Is he just there to design this 0.1 per cent of the buildings, these high-rise buildings? I'm not suggesting that there is no place for high-rise buildings and dams and five-star hotels which cost a lot of money. The fact remains that they are a very small percentage of the actual houses or building needs of the country. We can go looking for high technologies as much as we can, but meanwhile, we have to get these 20 million families under some sort of reasonable shelter. Do we know how to do it? I've just come here from Madras, where NASA, the architectural students association of India was having its annual convention, the theme of which was 'Shelter for the Homeless'. A very large number of students were crying out: "We don't know what to do!" "We've not been taught to cope with this sort of a problem! It is there; we are aware of it. It is true we hoped to do this, that or the other. We hoped to win competitions and we hoped to have big buildings, but we will feel very uncomfortable if we don't do anything about the shelter problem." Now, this is from young people whom we normally think of as being irresponsible towards civic and social responsibilities. But there they were repeatedly saying: "You are not giving us the education that we need. You take us to a slum, it's the same slum everytime. They (the slum dwellers) are tired of us going there and every time asking, 'How much money do you have? How many children? What about water?' We make these surveys and then we do nothing about them!" So I think it's not just futile to talk of mud and pig's urine and thatch, etc. I think it's still relevant as long as we have these terrible discrepancies from one end of the scale to the other. I think we are irresponsible, even criminally irresponsible if we do nothing about it. Viable alternatives to wonderful brick As regards alternative building materials in the country, we do have those alternatives in practice. We have mud and it's used in a hundred different ways over the country. Those are the alternatives. We think mud is primitive. We want reinforced concrete or something prefabricated or prestressed or whatever it is. And we're continually working for substitutes, not alternatives. All these materials had something in common. They were all almost totally energy-free, other than the human energy of picking them up, mixing them, cutting and chopping them, etc. Can there be anything more important than this understanding of energy? I think brick is one of the most wonderful building materials that has ever been invented. There are very good reasons that a brick is a brick — its size, its shape... it's the amount of mud you can pick up, the amount of mud you can pat into a little square, the amount of material you can catch in your hand when you arc working up on that wall and the workers throw up a brick to you. You can just catch it like a cricket ball! You can hold it in this, hand while you put your mortar on the wall that you're already building and then put it in place. You can't do that with a concrete block or a hollow

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block or any of the other blocks that we have devised. You have got to put your trough down. You've got to get down, lift the thing up, get it on, and put it into position especially when you're working at a height — in the second storey or the third storey. The block is a very difficult thing to use, but a brick? No! And you can use it for foundations, for walls, for roofs. I think the only thing I have not used a brick for is the door and I'm determined to do it before I die! I'll have. to find a client who is ready to let me do a brick door for him! I have to think twice when I have to build a house — an ordinary 2,000 ft for middle class/upper middle class persons, because I'm responsible for the death of four large trees! In Kerala, all bricks are burnt by wood; we don't get coal. It's too far away and transport is too difficult, so I have had to lay off wood. What are my alternatives to things that bricks normally do? One of them is stone, another of them is mud. The biggest problem that I have in using mud is not with the mud itself, (I have done two-storeyed buildings with quite heavy roof structures and so on, and intermediate floor structures with mud) but it is the client: "We don't want mud", or "Mud? You mean to say I should build my house with mud?"; "But you do understand, don't you, that in my position...." This is the usual reaction of so many of our clients and we just give in and say, "Yes, all right, if you don't want mud, we'll have brick." We don't tell a client that he is going to destroy four full-grown trees to have his bricks. Are we using our knowledge and our position and our professional status to suggest these things and even insist on them with a private client, and these private clients are probably only 0.01 per cent of the population? But the government? Do we do anything about trying to persuade the government about the use of mud? I'm not saying that mud is the the only possibility, but it is there. We have done an enormous amount of research in the last ten years and even our organizations are pushing the use of mud. But the prejudice against mud is there. Any client that I suggest mud to —"Well, it's a very nice idea Mr. Baker, very romantic, but no, I think we'll stick to something more solid!" and the thing is brushed aside. So should we architects assert ourselves some more and do we know anything about the material? The really pertinent thing is: of all the members of the various institutes of architects, how many of us actually have the knowledge? If anybody came to us and said he wants to build a big house or a school OF whatever it is in mud, would we be able to do it? Woqld we take on the job? I'm often told that I'm trying to take people back to the middle ages or even worse, but I think mud is still relevant. The usual question that is asked of me is, "It's all very well for this rural India that you are so romantically inclined about, but what about Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore?" I think it's still relevant there. I'm repeatedly asked, "You don't have mud on the spot in the middle of Bombay or Delhi, etc." But then neither do you have cement or steel on the spot. And that is another thing that all these traditional materials have in common. Not only are they energy-free, but they are also transport-free, or virtually so. They are dug out, prepared, manufactured, added or subtracted to on the spot, meaning a matter of a few kilometres over which you could carry them, either headloaded or by bullock cart. This is one of the very big inputs into the whole of our building materials system these days — transportation. We shouldn't forget our cultural heritage in architecture. We should not abandon the use of traditional materials. It's wonderful stuff. A lot of it does look decrepit; it gets worse and worse. But, on the other hand, you have got

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the answers to practically every problem of shelter we have in the country, in this indigenous architecture.

 

© Copyright: The Baker Family, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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