Building in rural Uttar Pradesh is always a massive challenge. With its feudal backdrop where caste and politics share a powerful relationship, people’s issues and concerns become only buzz word that are whipped up by guileful politicians to drive the plebeians into frenzy come election season. The ground realities are completely different with deep socio-economic inequality, degradation of the traditional socio-cultural fabric, rising population and destitution, crime and violence borne out of religious intolerance, and a pathetic state infrastructure that provides negligent youth employment and retainment opportunities.
In this context, using an indigenous building material like sun dried mud brick (adobe) or kacchi inth to build a rural community centre for the organisation Anubhuti Seva Samiti has multiple effects. Apart from its obvious ecological benefits, its production requires the use of intensive labour to churn and mix mud and water together in huge quantities to be shaped into 9 by 4.5 by 3 inch sized bricks that are then dried under the sun. Adobe walls being 18 inch thick require huge amounts of mud bricks to be produced. By intelligently converting the problem of burgeoning population into an asset, one can easily engage the local village community and youth in the building process for a longer period of time without increasing overall costs of building. This also gives the community and equitable stake in the process.
The proliferation of cement concrete in our rural hinterland in connivance with industry and the state has sounded the death knell for the skill of the human hand. The loss of pride and dignity in one’s work and a lack of incentive to produce good workmanship are followed subsequently by loss of skill of the craftsman. At this moment, there are thousands of such indigenously refined knowledge and skills slowing dying a pain full death in different parts of the countryside.
Here in Uttar Pradesh, a rich legacy of building with arches and vaults due to a dearth of natural tensile elements is following the same fate. Care had to be taken and time spent on site working with local masons to relearn, imbibe and adopt basic principles of building with compressive masonry forces over spans and distances.
As compared to the now ubiquitous reinforced cement concrete (RCC); these masonry techniques help in simply redistributing resources spent on building elements from the material side to the labour side without increasing the overall economic cost of the building. Time is the only casualty here with the increase in man days required to produce excellent workmanship using brick and cement-lime mortar. In this way, an architect can easily ensure that the limited resource and funding available is justifiably spent on local masons and craftsmen as an incentive to produce better workmanship rather than it being siphoned away into the global economy through the procurement of subsidised cement bags and expensive steel in a resource scarce India.
The gains for the local village economy are easy to notice as small changes here have amplified impacts in terms of education, health and better basic amenities. Moreover this helps in preventing the shepherding of labour, like cattle in overcrowded tractors from one RCC building site to the other at the mercy of fly by night upper caste building contractors or thekedaar. The decrease in scare fossil fuel energy use and carbon emissions is one of the other important benefits of using these techniques.
An example of the above can be seen in the use of masonry 9 inch thick brick arches to span lengths up to 7.5 feet long. Brick work is left un-plastered to emphasise on the need for better workmanship on behalf of the skilled masons and to decrease the conventional use of economically and ecologically expensive cement plaster to cover poor and shoddy brick work. In this way the economic cost of cement plaster is transferred directly to the masons who now have a stake in the building process to use their skills to produce fine brick work in which each individual brick will weather differently over time to produce a unique and pleasing aesthetic. The process delivers the product and not the other way around.
Similarly the use of a 12-foot span brick masonry vault to carry built-up stair treads above and nine-foot span Nubian vaults to roof spans and spaces without the use of expensive formwork for the latter act as a catalyst to gently shift the balance from market material to local labour thereby producing fantastic results both socio-economically and aesthetically.
Lastly, after carefully studying and identifying local crafts of the region, the skills of the local village potter, or kumhaar, and local baan craftsmen who produce khats and khatiyas have been incorporated into the built environment. Clay pots or kulhads are used as filler material for RCC filler slabs to decrease the dead weight of cement concrete and baan, a local hemp that grows in waterbeds and harvested in the months of May, is used to produce indoor screens and lattices. Both craftsmen are socio-economically invested in the building process, the intangible benefits of which will bear fruit over a period of time through the goodwill of the local indigenous community.
Siddharth Menon is an independent travelling architect who builds in different parts of rural India using local materials like mud and bamboo, traditional building techniques and indigenous craftsmen.