The morning after Cyclone Amphan tore through the southern part of West Bengal, a curious crowd lined up in front of Linus Kendall and Rupsa Nath’s house in Baruipur. Much to the surprise of their neighbours, the house built with mud and bamboo had sustained minimal damage in the devastating storm. While the concrete houses in the vicinity suffered broken window panes or missing tin sheds, Linus and Rupsa’s unique home stood tall amid the battering winds and thunderstorms.
Fondly christened ‘Kancha-Paka’ (Raw and Ripe), the Swedish-Bengali couple’s beautiful home comprises a balanced amalgamation of conventional elements like a Reinforced Concrete Frame (RCC) and cemented floors, as well as sustainable materials like bamboo, thatch and mud. The entire structure is a work of art that sustainable architect Laurent Fournier designed and traditional artisans from all over India constructed.
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Speaking to The Better India (TBI), Linus Kendall, a sustainability and climate change researcher shared details about their house, built in 2017.
A Unique House With A Blend of Vernacular & Modern Architecture
“I am originally from Stockholm, Sweden but I have been working in the sustainability domain in India for the past 10 years. I and my wife Rupsa, who is an artist, have always dreamt of owning a house made of sustainable, locally-sourced, eco-friendly materials to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible,” says Linus.
Constructed on an area of 1800 sq ft, the architects planned to build the two-and-a-half storey house 10 feet off the ground. “These areas are quite prone to flooding and waterlogging in monsoon, hence we decided to elevate the foundation,” Linus explains. “It is a house built on stilts,” expresses lead architect Laurent Fournier.
The ground floor of the house constitutes the RCC framework, while the top floor predominantly comprises an internal mud-supported bamboo frame. They have adopted curtain walls — a structure that bulges out slantingly atop the concrete frame below.
“We used ropes to join the bamboo frame. We neither used iron nor steel to weld them together. We borrowed this technique from vernacular architecture in the Sunderbans from where the artisans came to perfect the structure. Plastered with mud, the bamboo-mud walls help maintain a fairly constant temperature inside the house,” shares Laurent.
“We faced quite a lot of questions and concerns from our own family when they heard we are opting for a mud house. Traditionally, mud is not considered a very ‘high-end’ material. While we weighed the sustainability and comfort factor, others reminded us about the ‘luxury’ aspect,” Linus reveals.
Eventually, their adaptation of a ‘mud-house’ managed to impress their stern critics.
“Never Built a House Like This”
Another indigenous aspect incorporated in the ‘Kancha-Paka’ house is shallow brick domes in flooring and roofing.
“This technique has been largely adopted by masons in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the past few decades. The cost of building this shallow, unreinforced domes out of bricks and mud is around 10-20 per cent cheaper than conventional concrete. It is more resilient and also quicker to build. The cost of raw materials is quite low,” explains Laurent.
Barring the bathroom and the kitchen, which demand more water usage, most of the rooms in the house have these floors. All of the sewage water is filtered through sand, gravel and a planted bed, before being redirected towards the garden and other purposes, except direct consumption.
One of the toilets is a dry composting eco-san toilet, designed by eminent environmentalist Dr Debal Deb. The toilet needs zero water, and the accumulated waste is turned into compost fit for farming purposes. The eco-san toilet does not emit any foul odour, contrary to common belief.
The thick thatched roof is another curious feature of the house. Inspired from the huts in Bali, Indonesia, this thick thatch can last more than 10 years, withstanding rain, storms and summer heat. Compared to conventional Bengali thatched roofs that last two years at the most, the Balinese thatch has to be strewn on the ground, with nearly 1.5 ft thick straw reinforcements.
“The positive side is that most of the work needs to be done on the ground, so the masons stand less risk of working on high ladders,” Laurent says. The roof also forms overhangs that help protect the mud walls from rain water trickling down.
Paritosh, a veteran artisan from Basanti, Sunderbans who worked on the house says that this is the first time he has worked on a house like this. “I have been working with Laurent Saheb (Sir) for many years now. I have worked on many sustainable projects, but I have never worked on any project where there is such a poised blend of traditional and modern architecture.”
Temperature Control, Earthquake-Proof
No artificial emulsions laden with lead and other chemicals have been used in painting the exterior of the house. “We have used a simple lime wash on all sides. Not only does this protect the walls from weathering, but it also allows air to travel in and out of the house. It helps regulate the humidity indoors. Especially in a hot and humid city like Kolkata, such a breathable material is highly recommended to coat the walls,” remarks Linus, adding that limewash is also said to possess antifungal benefits.
Unlike their concrete counterparts, the air temperature inside the building does not soar high during the infamous sultry summers of West Bengal. Since the structure does not store heat, it stays bearably hot during the daytime and cooler during the night.
During the cold winters, the warm air that enters during the day is trapped inside, which keeps the rooms comfortably warm at night. The south-facing house has been built in such a way that most of the doors, windows and a large verandah open up to welcome the southern winds.
“We have a solar power set-up that supplies nearly 50 per cent of the electricity. From around 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., the house can run fully on solar power, including the operation of high-power appliances like the water pump,” informs Linus.
Another characteristic of the ‘Kancha-Paka’ house is that it is earthquake-proof. With strong beams made of locally procured materials that support the pillars, the house can withstand major tremors.
Linus charts the total expense of the house at around Rs 50 lakh, along with some additional elements that the couple introduced later. Most of the money was spent on labour and the material cost was quite minimal.
“If you increase the percentage of the money spent on labour than on materials, you automatically make a greener building,” Fournier remarks. The large house was built expansively to keep it as a vacation destination for both Linus and Rupsa’s families. While Rupsa’s family keep visiting their home often, Linus’s family makes sure to make an annual visit every winter from Sweden.
The couple grow a little organic garden in front of the house beside a small pond. They grow many fruits, vegetables and herbs in the garden, using 100 per cent organic compost.
“We would not claim to be paragons of sustainability, but what we are trying to do is to value our environmental resources as much as possible. Living in such a house has made us aware of energy and water conservation as well as waste management. We are trying to do our best to lead a more sustainable life with each passing day,” Linus says.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)