Localisation: The Essence Of Natural Building

This article explores how localization is a low environmental impact process in terms of carbon footprint as well as health hazards and hence is the perfect philosophy to inculcate in natural building. Click to understand what materials are available locally for those interested in sustainable construction.

Aside from the joy of sculpting with mud, the essence of natural building in my view lies in the use of local materials. The greater the degree of localisation, the better. Why? With local natural materials, the carbon cost of a structure is minimised. There is no fuel expended on transporting materials over great distances. No harmful or toxic ingredients produced that pollute the land. Local materials are largely biodegradable and the land reclaims the refuse from the site. By employing the right practices, one can build sizeable structures with hardly any impact to the surrounding; a veritable blessing in our time of ecological crisis. Then there is the visual aspect of it. The simple yet stunning aesthetic of earthen tones and textures coupled with quirky nature-inspired forms is nothing short of a feast for the eyes. And when local materials are used, natural structures blend into the environment, almost as if an extension of the land. When my partner and I set out to build this outdoor kitchen in Kusur gaon, Maharashtra, our objective was to make it an experiment in localisation. We wanted to determine for ourselves if it would be possible to sculpt functional, artistic spaces using only materials harvested from the land. In that regard the project has been largely successful. 

There was of course a non-negligible proportion of the material that went into the structure that was obtained from non-local sources. Approximately 35 sacks of sand for our custom made plasters and 20 sacks of lime were brought in from Bombay (150 kms away). Nuts, bolts, nails, lightbulb sockets, switches and other such hardware accessories including equipment like sieves and trowels were purchased from the nearby market in Talegaon (40 kms away). The waterproofing of our roof was achieved with the use of repurposed PVC sheets that previously served as canopy for the greenhouses and nurseries in the region (within a 30 km radius). But apart from these, the entire structure was sculpted out of natural materials harvested merely metres from the structure itself. The cob was made with local soil dug out of a mound adjacent to the kitchen. The straw used as fibre in the cob was cut from the vicinity and thrown straight into the mix. All the wood used in the construction of the kitchen roof was deadwood that lined the boundary of the property, a majority of which had already keeled over in the face of the region’s spirited monsoon. The stone used for the foundation too was gathered from within the 30 acre property. 

There were also a variety of materials that we discovered in the region that turned out to be highly useful, revealing their invaluable properties as we engaged with them more and more. I’ve prepared a library of them so that others too can make use of the same.

Library of Local Materials

Vitex Negundo

Also Known As: Nirgudi (Marathi), Nirkunnchi (Tamil), Bile-Nekki (Kannada), Indrani (Malayalam), Nirgandi (Hindi), Indian Privet (English).

Vitex Negundo growing wild

Native to the Indian subcontinent and widely dispersed throughout the Western Ghats, this woody shrub has been a component of indigenous medicinal and building practices for many years prior to common knowledge. Of course, I was not aware of any of this. The locals today at Kusur gaon too had no inkling of its many applications. They fashion their fences with Nirgudi and even use it in part for putting up small rudimentary structures such as shelter for their cattle and goats. It is quite ideal for its use in natural building from several facets. For one it is fast growing and invasive, renewing its foliage in no time so long as the root system is not disturbed. The woody stems and branches are supple and sturdy but do not weigh nearly as much as other wood of comparable tensile strength. Moreover, by some virtue of its chemical composition that modern knowledge has yet to identify, it repels termites, borers and other insects that typically feed on or take shelter within wood. My experiments with Nirgudi also indicate that a concoction of its leaves could potentially be a viable admixture in cob for repelling termites.

Nirgudi as a structure for the cob oven door
Nirgudi as wattle framework for the kitchen counter.

Carvia Callosa

Also Known As: Karvi (Marathi, Kannada), Maruadona (Hindi).

A close relative of the Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes Callosa) of Nilgiris fame, Karvi is a flowering shrub that is endemic to the Western Ghats of India. Having a seven year growth cycle, the shrub bursts into bloom with its purple-blue flowers in the 8th year of its life. It experiences rapid green growth in the monsoons and takes on a dry brown appearance in the dry seasons, much like the rest of Maharashtra. I have read of its role in folk medicine but witnessed its use solely as a building material in Kusur gaon. The stems of Karvi are lightweight and bendy and the locals weave a framework of wall panels with it that are subsequently plastered either with cow manure or mud. A bulk of the tribal huts in the neighbouring village were built in this manner before cement took over in the region. We utilised Karvi in a similar method to weave a lattice on the roof. It was then covered with a mud plaster to render a smooth finish, similar to a plasterboard ceiling.

Thin Karvi reeds lain across the reciprocal roof framework 
A blanket of Karvi on the roof as seen from above.
Roof prepared for plastering, bundle of Karvi on bottom right corner

Casuarina Equisetifolia

Also Known As: Australian Pine (English), Suru (Marathi), Saru (Hindi)

Casuarina Equisetifolia

Nicknamed ‘Ironwood’, this tall, slender pine is the bender of nails and the breaker of drill bits. Dense, heavy and sturdy, most of the twin-reciprocal roof structure was built out of Suru, as it is known in Maharashtra. Although not endemic to the region, this tree has been naturalised to several parts of India and is a great contender for planting in rows to serve as wind-breaks. 

 Twin Reciprocal roof framework using Casuarina Equisetifolia

Agave Americana

Also Known As: Century Plant, Gaipat(Marathi)

Agave as a border living fence plant 
Agave in bloom

This beautiful drought resistant perennial that is indigenous to Mexico has been introduced and naturalised around the world, including to the slopes of the Western Ghats. Although it is renowned today primarily for its value as an ornamental, it has a multitude of functions that the indigenous Mexican peoples had knowledge of. The fibres of its leaf and stem are suitable for rope making, thatching, matting etc. The heart of the plant produces a sweet nectar which can be used both as a sugar substitute and in the production of alcoholic beverages. Requiring to tending to at all, Gaipat is also a choice candidate as a boundary plant that forms a natural border with its long reaching thick leaves. It lives for only about 10-12 years. In the final year of its life cycle, a stem extends skywards from the heart of the Gaipat and it flowers once before it perishes. We preserved the buds of the flowers, which are edible, and use them as a substitute for artichokes on pizzas. The dried stems were utilised as rafter supports on the reciprocal roof frame.

Flower buds of Agave Americana fit for harvesting.

Quartz and Amethyst Geodes

Raw Quartz cluster in the centre flanked by two Amethyst geodes in the foreground and a decorative crystal inlay in the backdrop.

With quartz being one of the more profusely available minerals on the surface of the Earth, it came as no surprise that we are able to unearth numerous of raw quartz crystal shards and clusters from the land. One instance provided a massive geode embedded in the ground, so big that it took 3 able men to pry it out of the soil. What was more of a surprise were the Amethyst pieces we chanced upon. While it is classified a variant of quartz with its violet hue, Amethyst is considerably rarer to come by. Both were put to use in the cob kitchen, primarily for creating decorative inlays.

Better Local Than Global

The Cob Kitchen at Kusur Gaon in its finished form.

My laptop on which I type these words has probably seen more of the world than I have. While Apple proudly proclaims that its conception as an idea was in California, a state that I have never been to, it also concedes in guilty minuscule text that my computer was assembled in China, yet another part of the world that my feet have never touched. Where it is that each component of this laptop was born I cannot say, but I imagine that tracing their journeys would leave a web of crisscrossing trajectories on the globe. I value this laptop greatly. To me, it is emblematic of the near impossibility of being the social animals that we are in today’s world without casting our impact indirectly over the whole globe. And I do not believe that one should strive to be local in the absolute sense of the term. But certainly a decisive departure from rampant globalisation is imminent, and vitally so in the case of material. Localisation in healthy degrees isn’t an insurmountable utopian endeavour. Rather, it proves to be efficient in every way, including economically. The total material cost of this cob kitchen came to be no more than INR 35,000 (500 USD approx), a nominal sum for the utility it provides. The main expense borne by the owners was that of labour. It stands a durable, non-toxic testament to the many varied wonders that can be achieved with local natural materials. It is time we began that departure from our current apparatus, the prevalent order, and set our sights on a more localised mode of living.

Photo Credits: Sujay Iyer

This article was first published here: http://chroniclesofmud.com/2019/09/11/localisation-the-essence-of-natural-building/

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