Requiring no special equipment and no special expertise, and very economical to boot, earthbagging is famous as an ‘idiot-proof’ technique, popular with first-and-only-time owner-builders the world over. Venetia Kotamraju, who moved from busy Bangalore to a farm on the Western Ghats, writes on her experiment with earthbagging. The first installment in a series of four.
Mud building is all the rage in green circles. It is sustainable because it uses copious amounts of a material we have yet to run short of: the earth beneath us. It is local because by and large you use the soil your building will stand on. And it is cheap because most of the time mud is free.
Mud houses also have a long history all over the world, and India is no exception. There are many traditional techniques using mud, sometimes on its own, sometimes with a bamboo frame, or mixed with jaggery or cow dung. And while the structures made using these techniques still stand, their longevity testifying to their strength in a country that considers a block of flats built ten years ago old and almost ready to tear down, the artisans that built them seem to have vanished.
So when we decided to go the mud way for round two* of our amateur building antics, we soon realised we would have to turn to modern professionals for ideas and techniques; there was no village mud-builder available. (Had we wanted to build a regular brick and cement structure, of course, there would have been plenty of local options.) Despite the lack of traditional expertise, there are nevertheless a multitude of options for mud building in India, thanks to institutions like Mrinmayee in Bangalore (who are working principally on stabilised mud blocks so strong they can be used for several-storied buildings such as hospitals). In the end though, we felt most comfortable with the earthbag method, which is famous as an idiot-proof technique, and used by first-and-only-time owner-builders the world over.
It turns out, though, that earthbagging has not really reached India yet. With no construction experience whatsoever, common sense that is often found lacking and an inability to use my hands (after decades of using only my head), I searched high and low for someone, anyone, who could guide us. We were extremely lucky to find Manbha, who had assisted in an earthbag building in Nepal and who came for a flying visit to give us some advice. That, though, was it.
For the rest, we had to rely on the few PDFs I had printed out while I still had internet access and one book someone had sent me. And of course the innate practicality and good sense of Mr Basavaraj and Bharath who are our right and left hand here on the farm. I would read up on a concept, explain it to them in my broken Kannada, and they would think of some way to do it with the materials and skills we had. And then with luck the jugaad would work. Thus we managed to build a very wavy three-foot high round wall and a bathroom with walls (see pics below) which alternately leant in then out. It was for me at least nevertheless a massive accomplishment and by far the most enjoyable month of the year.
After promising ourselves we would do NO MORE construction this year, we are now well into our latest project – a one-room cottage built, of course, with earthbags. We have learnt, a little, from our mistakes last year and are trying out some different methods in an attempt to build something a little less slapdash, and dare I say it, a little more professional.
What will follow over the next few articles in this series is an attempt to lay out the procedure for earthbag building in the Indian context and a description of our many mistakes, problems, successes and lessons learnt, as well as estimated costings.
Earthbagging requires no special equipment and no special expertise, and is very economical; you really can do it yourself on a shoestring budget. It is also immensely enjoyable. I thus hope that this might encourage more people to try it for themselves, and hopefully to do a better job than we have.
*We initially experimented with some shipping containers (see below), another trending housing solution. Containers are great in that they provide a ready-made complete structure. No worrying about how to do the floor or the roof, or how to make it secure or waterproof, or how to keep the creepy crawlies out. They are also incredibly portable – provided you have a crane handy. What we have struggled with though is how to transform them from metal boxes into liveable spaces. You need special tools, a generator if you have no electricity, and a welder who has some idea what he’s doing so that you don’t compromise the structural integrity of the container, nor end up with an ugly cut-up box. And there just aren’t many such welders in India, nor do we have the knowledge or experience to attempt a DIY job. We have managed to create three rooms out of the containers we have, where we and any guests currently sleep. They are not things of beauty, and they can get very hot and very cold, but they are eminently functional and serve the purpose well.