It is hard to describe K Madhavan Namboodiri in one word. From being an assistant engineer in the Maharashtra Minor Irrigation Department to being a builder who constructs unique homes in Kerala, this 75-year-old has donned several hats, all with an ultimate focus – sustainability.
Madhavan is a native of a rural village called Kuttippuram in Kerala and a civil engineering graduate who received advanced training in hydrological modelling and groundwater management. With 50 years of experience in the field of water management, this septuagenarian has given shape to a non-profit organisation called Susthira Bhavanam Foundation in 2019 with an objective to introduce and promote alternative sustainable habitat systems.
“In 2000, my wife Uma and I returned [from Coimbatore] to our home district in Kerala and settled down in a village to take up the challenge of living in harmony with nature. A 350-year-old traditional house, indigenously farmed land and associated rural ambience offered the ideal opportunity for this. But soon I realised that most of the basic elements of traditional life are rapidly deteriorating which is evident in the concrete buildings coming up at an alarming speed. This leads to indiscriminate mining of stones, earth and river sand as a result of which, frequent natural disasters happen in the state,” says Madhavan.
This was the core reason why he grew interested in constructing sustainable houses and started researching the same.
Mortarless Walls & Bamboo Ply
In 2019, Jose Master, who wanted to build another floor to his existing concrete house, came to know about the builder through his son. Thus, Madhavan kickstarted his first project in Perinthalmanna. He made use of the unwanted laterite soil from Jose’s neighbourhood and turned it into compressed stabilised interlocking blocks.
“Using an imported block making machine, we made about 7,000 bricks, enough to meet the requirements of Jose’s 700-sq-ft first floor. Instead of reinforced cement concrete, we decided to use coconut timber for truss work and bamboo ply for false ceiling,” reminisces the builder.
But the challenge had only begun. Madhavan was not an experienced builder with neither manpower nor infrastructure. “I had to learn the art of mortarless wall construction first, train local artisans and then take up the wall construction. But it all went well and the construction was completed for a lesser cost,” he adds.
Simultaneously, Madhavan, being a water management specialist, was approached by Hamza Kakkadavath to solve the water scarcity issue in his land before building his dream house. “I decided to go for rainwater harvesting. We dug up a pit, the sides and bottom were hard red laterite. We dressed the side to a perfect cylinder and made a ferro-cement lined tank of 50,000-litre capacity buried underground. The water from the roof of the house would be filtered and stored. We also incorporated other features such as greywater recycling and passive cooling,” gushes Madhavan.
Hamza also allowed him to experiment with the excavated laterite soil. It was tested and found ideal for making interlocking blocks. Thus formed another aesthetically pleasing and sustainable house. The best part is that the total cost was much lesser than a conventional concrete house.
Shyny Hamza shares, “Covering an area of more than 3000 square feet, our house was constructed at a cost of Rs 1500/square feet. We were not interested in a concrete house where switching on an air conditioner is a must to get a comfortable sleep. Today, in our home we hardly use fans. The peaceful and cool ambience inside is what makes our house a home.”
“We heard about Madhavan chettan (brother) from a few friends. His total approach towards work is interesting. Before beginning construction, he made sure that he explained his idea to every possible resident of this house and took notes of their concepts as well,” Hamza says.
Unique Attributes of Susthira Bhavanam
As a first iteration, a one-hand operated interlocking stabilised compressed soil block machine was imported from China and tested for ease and speed. Another low capacity single phase motor driven portable crushing and mixing machine has been fabricated and procured locally.
The machine can crush and mix laterite soils for making two bricks within three minutes. More than 15,000 bricks have been made so far. The brick size is 300 x 150 x 100 mm and has two vertical circular holes with a top circular projection that fits pretty well into the circular groove in the bottom of the top brick.
Walls made of these bricks have every advantage of a mud wall. It is breathable which helps the interior remain cool. Also, all materials used are renewable and biodegradable.
According to Madhavan, using local earth in building construction is an ancient technology, which is proven to be cheap, durable and eco-friendly. “In ancient times, when the population density was very low, mining of soil did not cause any major problems. But in semi-urban areas like Kerala, one has to derive methods of mining the earth without causing any environmental damage. The best method is to extract earth from the building site itself and convert the mined pits into useful purposes such as a well, underground rainwater tanks, a pond/swimming pool or even underground parking,” suggests this passionate builder.
Madhavan’s Susthira Bhavanam aims at introducing and propagating sustainable habitats, which is possible only when people are willing to adopt sustainable values just like how Jose and Hamza did.
As a way of promoting and popularising these values, Madhavan wishes to conduct state/district level seminars, village/panchayat level exhibitions, school/college-level education programmes and building houses for the homeless under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding.
Even after 20 years of being retired, this dynamic individual has no plans to retire from his journey towards popularising sustainability.
If you have plans to construct a similar house or provide institutional/financial support for this non-profit organisation, contact Madhavan Namboodiri on +91 9447084578 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)