Although Stanzin Phuntsog (24), a self-taught eco-architect from the Ayee village in Ladakh’s Nubra valley, and his accomplished co-worker Samyuktha S (29) from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, are from the opposite ends of the country, what they share is a vision for architecture that is sustainable, natural, eco-friendly, community-driven and hands-on.
Together, in 2017, they set up Earth Building, a unique endeavour that is trying to re-introduce natural building as a method of construction. Through their work, they have explored many earthen techniques like cob, earthbag, adobe, stone masonry, rammed earth, cob oven and rocket stove, and their objective is to keep their designs eco-friendly, aesthetical, functional, unusual and thermally comfortable.
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How do they achieve these objectives? By reclaiming indigenous knowledge of building structures, putting their own spin on it and working to the best of their abilities.
From constructing an Earthbag Dome in Ladakh to a Adobe Farmhouse in Tamil Nadu interspersed with interior work for clients in places like Talavali village of Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra, Earth Building has spread the gospel of sustainable architecture through different parts of the country.
Finding Common Ground
Stanzin’s journey is far from what one would call ‘conventional.’ Unwilling to undergo the unimaginative rigours of formal education, he discovered his love for architecture, community building and natural materials at SECMOL, an alternative education centre started by educationist Sonam Wangchuk.
After school, he attended a two-year course (2015-17) at Swaraj University, Udaipur, where he received more hands-on training in architecture based on the principle of self-designed learning, which allow students to direct their own learning process
“If you want to learn alternative skills or explore something off the beaten path, this is the place to be. And you don’t even need any degrees or qualifications to apply. You just need to be of a certain age. Many in my batch were former working professionals who wanted to learn other skills (organic farming, community living, working with natural fabrics and workshops featuring basic entrepreneurial skills, etc.). I learnt about sustainable architecture and its concepts through workshops, travelling around India and working on different projects,” he says.
It’s also where he met Samyuktha, who already had a formal degree in architecture and had worked for a year.
“When I started studying architecture, I wanted to do something that was environment-friendly. During internships and even after college, I was doing projects with my professor to learn using natural techniques like lime plastering. But I wanted to learn more. One day, my professor told me about Swaraj University in Udaipur. After working for a year, I enrolled there,” she says.
Prior to Swaraj University and meeting people like Stanzin, sustainable architecture predominantly resided in the realm of ideas for Samyuktha.
“I had very minimal experience working hands on. At Swaraj, I was amazed to find out the kind of instinctual understanding Stanzin had about how to handle mud and natural materials. In many ways, he was a mentor who helped me transition from designing structures to actually putting my hand in the mud and making them. My understanding of natural materials and concepts of natural buildings was augmented by working with him. I doubt I would have progressed the way I did if it weren’t for Stanzin,” she recalls.
First Project Home
Their first major project was Samyuktha’s family home in Valukkuparai, a village 18 km away from Coimbatore. Starting work in October 2017, they went onto build a five-room earthbag (mud filled in cement bags) dome house by May 2018.
“Once my father retired, he decided that he wanted to build a house in my mother’s village in Valukkuparai, and live off the land. Initially, my extended family opposed my designs of making an earthbag dome house, but my parents supported our vision, following which Stanzin came down,” recalls Samyuktha.
Viewed aerially, the house is designed like a flower with the dome in the centre and two rooms on either side like petals. The entire structure was made at a cost of Rs 15 lakh, measuring 1,200 square feet. This is where Earth Building did a lot of their initial experiments in natural building, laying the foundation of their future projects.
“It’s an earthbag house shaped like a flower with a central circle and two petals on either side. Initially we wanted to do five separate domes for each room. Making these earthbag domes is a lot more economical than using timber or steel. But we spoke to several seasoned architects who said that their domes had failed because of exposure to rain. So, we left the dome on the centre, and we have sloping roofs to all the other four rooms,” he says.
How do you protect the dome and sloping roofs from rain?
Due to a tropical climate, the dome was protected with a roof over it. These sloping roofs consist of Mangalore tiles that are placed on top of earth bags and slide down, and protect the dome from the rain and all the other rooms as well.
“For the foundation, we dug the ground six feet until we arrived at a hard surface, following which we employed trained labour to do stone masonry work. When you dig through layers of mud in different areas, you reach a hard stone layer, and we generally stop there to establish a foundation. Once again, how deep you have to dig depends on the topography. Sometimes it’s just two feet, while other times we go upto six feet. This is how we have built foundations on all our projects till now. Here, we also did the plinth with stone masonry. The walls were made of earthbags, for which we conducted workshops for volunteers from places as far as Rajasthan, Mexico and France. With a total of five rooms, this project used over 3,500 cement bags. Even my parents got involved with the project. My mom came down to cook for all of us, which further added to the communal spirit,” she recalls.
However, the soil quality of the area needs to be suitable to go ahead with building earthbag structures, and Samyuktha was fortunate to find that in the village.
These cement bags are filled with soil, rammed to get rid of the excess moisture to make it more robust. The advantages are clear. Setting them up is not very labour intensive and practically anyone can pursue it. Compared to brick, it’s cheaper, while unlike cement, these houses offer far more what Samyuktha calls ‘thermal comfort.’ In tropical zones, the temperature inside such homes is often a lot cooler than outdoors. Although it’s hard to add modifications to the main structure, the walls become stronger over time.
Unlike nearly all the architectural firms one ever comes across, Earth Building does not have a base, headquarters or main office anywhere. They are not based out of any specific city of place. They go wherever the projects are happening.
“When we started, we wanted to establish a community building exercise. This wouldn’t happen if we are not on site. A lot of our projects are workshop oriented and volunteer based. We want to stay on site, and it doesn’t matter where the place is situated. Both of us also like to travel a lot. It’s a great experience to understand the place, its inhabitants and their traditional forms of architecture. While making structures for our clients, we conduct workshops as well. Both of us learnt through workshops and working on different projects, especially for Stanzin, and that’s why we have taken this approach,” says Samyuktha.
“Working with skilled labour and student volunteers are completely different experiences. With volunteers, including interns studying at architecture schools or anyone with a genuine interest in natural buildings, it’s like a community of people coming together and wanting to seriously learn something. This is a learning environment where cooperation is key. Since we have volunteers who want to learn, they keep questioning us and it offers a lot of scope for us to refresh our knowledge base as well,” notes Stanzin.
To obtain volunteers, Earth Building puts out notices for projects on their Facebook and Instagram pages and people sign up from all over. Most clients are fine with this approach, although a few aren’t.
“We had this project in Alibaug, where the clients didn’t want a workshop and wanted us to solely focus on completing the finishes properly. Nonetheless, most of our clients want us to post workshops. For example, when we worked with the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives (HIAL) in Leh to make an Earthbag Dome, they wanted us to make it a learning project for their students. It also depends on the scale of the project. If it’s a bigger project, working with volunteers isn’t optimal,” she adds.
Approach to Making Structures
“Wherever we go, our first challenge is to figure the kind of soil locally available. While the formula for cement is universal, in natural buildings, you have to figure out what kind of soil these places possess. Besides soil, Earth Buildings also look at the kind of skills found locally.
After sourcing material and labour, the next step is to figure out the budget. They give clients the option of conducting a workshop while making their structures. While this may seem all straightforward, the process is far from it.
“In mainstream construction for roofing, you can simply use RCC (reinforced cement concrete) and it’s easy to do. In natural buildings, we have to use material like mud and wood, and this requires a lot of work. We have to design our houses very carefully unlike cement structures. Outside of Ladakh, there are a lot of climatic factors that can affect your work like rain. With wood involved, we have to find innovative ways of preventing termite attacks. At no point should the wood be in contact with mud because that offers a passageway for termites,” mentions Stanzin.
Another common thread in the projects is the use of either mud or lime plaster. In Ladakh, using mud plaster is a very good idea because the quality is very fine and extremely good. There are no termite or water problems like heavy rains there. But the kind of plaster they use elsewhere, depends on the natural climate and weather conditions.
“In hotter parts of South India, for example, there is a lot of rain and termite activity. Using earthen plaster in the interiors of my home hasn’t been a very good experience, and we have to constantly oil our wood. This is a major inconvenience. So, for this kind of climate, we use a lime plaster—there is a variant called lime surkhi, which allows for fine finishes since both lime and surkhi (red brick powder) bond better, possess greater water holding capacity and it’s not very time consuming,” says Samyuktha.
She adds that they sometimes also use the more expensive Tadelakht lime plaster—a water-proof Moroccan technique combining lime and olive oil soap and burnishing with stone. It is water resistant and that’s why they use it particularly in bathrooms.
For the Adobe Farmhouse in Pollachi, the duo laid down Kadappa stone on top of the walls to bring it together and also act as a barrier between mud and wood for termite protection. The roof is a hipped roof made of palm wood rafters with reused Mangalore tiles.
For the internal and external plastering, they used a lime plaster, changed it up to Tadelakht plastering for the bathroom, and then used a lime surkhi plaster for the external walls.
The total built up area of this farmhouse is 840 sq ft with the foundation done with random rubble masonry and the plinth is dry stone masonry made with the assistance of local artisans. The walls were a mix of cob, adobe and stone masonry, while windows and doors were reclaimed from old houses and re-used.
“After the lockdown, we want to do projects and explore different parts of the country. It’s making an impact, but not enough. It would be useful if we could share our knowledge with others and vice versa so that more people start practicing sustainable architecture. We want to establish and set up a place where we can experiment and exchange ideas on using natural building materials. If more architects take interest in our kind work, the greater our impact will be,” concludes Samyuktha.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)