Rooted to earth

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Sunday 15 March 2009

Rooted to earth

Family life revolves around th (Credit: Photoghraphs: Aparna Pallavi<s) Organic farmer in Vidarbha turns mud into durable houses

He trained to be an engineer. He believes in Sarvodaya, the 'welfare for all' movement launched by Vinoba Bhave. And he has one mission in life--to promote mud houses. Meet Vasant Futane, 65, an organic farmer from Rawala village in Warud tehsil of Amravati district, Maharashtra, who says traditional building skills have to be revived to save the environment. He offers his consultancy services free to anyone who wants to build a mud house.

"A mud house stands for 200 years or more and all its debris can be recycled. A concrete house, on the other hand, has a life span of a little over 50 years. Disposing its debris costs more than building a new house. Think of the hills that are destroyed every year to make concrete," says Futane to anyone who is interested. In spite of the boom in the construction industry, 90 per cent houses in rural areas are still built with mud. "Imagine if all of these were to be converted into concrete houses! It would be a financial and ecological nightmare," he remarks.

Self-taught architect
Futane has had a life long interest in mud houses. He began experimenting three decades ago and has built different types of mud houses on his 14 ha farmland. He taught himself by reading books on mud house architecture by Auroville Earth Institute and Laurie Baker. He built the first complete mud house for his family in 1983. It was made using the rammed earth construction technique (see box Ramming earth). The completed house was fitted with a tin roof. The semi-permanent structure still stands on his farmland.

In 2000, Futane built his family a bigger and better mud house. He lives there with his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. The front of the house is a two-storey mud-plastered structure. Behind it is a central courtyard with rooms around it. Inside, coats of lime hide the mud plaster. This house too was constructed with rammed mud and then covered with mud plaster. Cow dung, straw, methi (fenugreek) and bel (Aegle marmelos) fruit were added to the mud as binding agents. Wherever needed, extra lime was added for waterproofing and adding strength. A tiled roof protected the structure from rain.

Down to Earth  
Vasant Futane My first house had many flaws; I ignored local factors
PhotographerAparna Pallavi

"The first house had many flaws; mainly because I ignored local factors-- selection of proper raw material for instance," said Futane. For building his new home, Futane roped in village artisans Dhondu Malak and Ramdas Kolamkar who have knowledge of traditional building skills. Kolamkar collected discarded wood from bullock carts, ploughs and furniture to make window shutters, cupboards and roof trusses. "He would sit and meditate over the pile of odd-shaped wood pieces. Then he would cut away the rotting parts and find innovative use for each piece, however odd its shape," reminisced Karuna, Futane's wife. Whenever she objected to the use of bad wood, Kolamkar would reply, "It works, doesn't it?" Kolamkar used nine different kinds of timber including mango, neem, beheda (Terminalia bellirica) and even eucalptus for the woodwork.

Dhondubhai introduced Futane to the finer points of mud masonry. He found chunkhdi-chi-maati or soil rich in lime in the farm. "In Vidarbha, this soil was used in construction as it gives strength and is water and termite resistant," said Futane. This soil was processed in different ways for uses in different parts of the house. More lime was used in bathrooms and kitchen where the surfaces get constantly exposed to water. In the end, what Futane and his friends managed to create was a house that breathes. The thick, rammed earth walls keep out extreme heat and cold.

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