When merchant navy professional Guru Dutt Goswami takes time off from work he comes to stay in his ancestral home in Palampur in North India. The mud structure, built decades back along Himalayan slopes, stays warm in winter and cool in summer.
“I think the mud houses, just like the body, they have some pores, they breathe,” says Goswami, relaxing in a veranda. “They are so cozy, they have beautiful ventilation. It is all because of the mud, the thatches, the material that is used.”
While brick and concrete homes have become the norm in recent decades, a centuries-old tradition of making houses with mud and other local material is undergoing a resurgence in the northern Himachal Pradesh state, tucked in the Himalayan mountains.
Environmentalists have hailed the trend, saying that reviving old building traditions is one of the many answers to addressing modern day challenges such as climate change.
The Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics, a non-profit that promotes sustainability, is setting an example – the sprawling campus in Palampur is a mud structure. The small hill town is located in the midst of tea estates.
“Reviving vernacular architecture is important,” says Mohammad Chappalwala, programs coordinator at the institute. “The idea is to build with local material, build with natural material, that is the direction we should be taking.”
Made with mud dug out of the site where the building stands, stones, slate and bamboo from the hillsides, he says these houses reduce the carbon footprint – modern-day building materials such as steel and cement are created through carbon-intensive industrial processes and also must be transported across hundreds of miles. Equally important, the mud walls serve as natural insulation, reducing the energy needed for air conditioning and heating.
There are many other advantages – the lighter, lower structures are more earthquake resistant compared to concrete buildings being built in recent decades. “That has been proven by the houses which were left standing after the major earthquakes in the Himalayan region,” says Chappalwala.
The centuries-old tradition has been adapted to modern times. Wider doors and windows with glass let in more light into homes, the plastering is done with natural materials that last much longer, while kitchens and bathrooms partly use concrete and tiles to ensure modern conveniences.
Goswami, for example, has built a conventional structure around the old mud house with a modern modular kitchen and bathrooms. But the mud house serves as his main living area, while the old kitchen with a fireplace is used for some slow cooked meals in winter.
Architects say countries like India need to rethink emulating standardized international styles of concrete houses and glass and chrome skyscrapers and take a closer look at incorporating old traditions that evolved in the pre-electricity era. A growing number are reviving them in other parts of the country — they vary according to the region.
“These were simple, common-sense strategies that were especially important in India, where you need to keep the heat out, contrary to colder places where they need to keep warmth within,” says Yatin Pandya, an architect in the western state of Gujarat who promotes sustainable architecture.
“For example, houses in Gujarat used to have overhanging roofs to shade buildings from heat and courtyards inside for ventilation. The simple wisdom of putting a one-meter awning also can reduce the heat intake by 25 percent. But now we make box-type structures with no projections,” points out Pandya.
India is increasingly suffering from intense heat waves – the problem is compounded by glitzy glass and concrete buildings that trap heat.
Under a project to build 18 villages in Gujarat, Pandya’ firm, Footprints E.A.R.T.H, used local materials that included mud houses in desert regions. “It is thermally efficient, and even if it is over 50 degrees centigrade outside, it is about 34 degrees inside,” says Pandya. “Just in the name of modernism and aping we cannot ignore these traditions.”
Such structures have also proven to be durable, withstanding rains, floods and earthquakes, say architects.
However wider acceptance of traditional architectures remains a challenge — most residents in Himachal Pradesh and other places still opt to build concrete homes that have become associated with development and status. But some, like Goswami, who was inspired by his travels, are setting an example.
“I have been to Morocco, I have been to Latin America, and trust me they have maintained and retained their old heritage, their structures. Why not us? Why not Indians? We have such beautiful heritage,” he says.
Some erstwhile city dwellers find that staying in a mud structure deepens their connection with the earth. “Yes, sometimes we get the creepy, crawlies coming in, but there are also possibilities where birds can also build nests which they can never do in city homes,” says Chappalwala’s wife, Fatema, who works in Sambhaavnaa Institute’s programs team. The erstwhile Mumbai resident has been living on the campus for several years with her son. “Because it is mud it is very cooling, it is soothing to mind and body.”