Day by day, we see that the earth is changing due to the rising greenhouse gas emissions, which leads to an increase in the average temperature, melting of glaciers, rise in sea levels, poor air quality, ozone depletion, etc. The construction industry is one of the major polluters, as we humans want more of everything.
Ironically, we get materials from all over the country to build a beautiful home, while we are only jeopardizing our home earth. What we need are construction techniques that are sustainable and at the same time create soulful spaces.
About the architect
Ar. Vinu Daniel, the founder of Wallmakers, practices sustainable architecture integrated with art and innovation. He believes that sustainability is mandatory and not an added feature to designs, which, if not realized, will be forced on doomsday. The Gandhian architect Laurie Baker inspired him to continue architecture when he wanted to quit.
After graduation, Vinu Daniel worked with Auroville and UNDP for post-tsunami constructions, after which he then returned to Kerala to start the Wallmakers in 2007. His first project got called off, and so he ended up building its compound wall. That gave him some recognition and the name Wallmakers.
The motto of the firm is to use mud and waste materials to reduce the embodied energy in construction. Typically, the architect uses rammed earth foundation, Ferrocement shells for floors and roofs, CSEB or rammed earth for walls, adaptive reuse of scrap steel, and wood to make window grills and furniture. Country-fired bricks consume 4 times more energy than CSEB. Since Vinu started with this alternate practice as his regular practice, he could make innovations and changes in the existing methods to support his design ideas.
Vinu Daniel says that the moment we put the shovel into the ground to excavate, we violate nature’s boundary and change it. So it is very important to limit the changes and make sure that architecture is not haphazard to the environment. He believes that mud buildings should be adopted not only because they are sustainable but also beautiful, which is the architect’s role to curate.
Here are some of the remarkable projects by Wallmakers.
1. Iha (Residence), Mannanthala
The site of the Iha Residence in Mannanthala is a low-lying land with an existing small waterbody. Vinu derived ideas from this condition of the site and embraced it. The house incorporates the waterbody and a rainwater harvesting tank underneath the central space that creates a serene exterior view. The elegant Ferrocement staircase extends from the interiors to the exterior, creating a sit-out amidst the bamboo waves, which act as grills.
For the bamboo to be burglary-proof, the bamboo core has been scooped out, inserted with a steel rod, and pumped with concrete which stabilizes and reinforces the material. The bamboo facade shades the balcony and also supports the extending staircase. The masonry blocks used are different in the compound wall, exterior jaali walls, and interior walls according to the use.
As steel has the highest embodied energy, Vinu has used scrap Whirlpool washing machine wheels to make window grills, which shade the interiors from the tropical west sun and also form an interesting pattern.
2. Pirouette house, Trivandrum
The Pirouette house in Trivandrum was named so as the walls look like they are dancing and swirling. The conditions of this site are that it is a small site of approximately 300 sqm in a closely constructed area. The width of the road is also small, which is the only open space around the site. Though it is a west-facing site, the living spaces have been buffered by balcony spaces, and the winds have been taken advantage of and channeled inside the house for cross-ventilation.
As a tribute to architect Laurie Baker, the Pirouette house was constructed using country bricks, because the site soil was not suitable for making CSEB. The design intent was to offer more courtyard volume to make the house feel spacious.
In order to achieve the curves, the avant-garde architect had to make changes to the regular rat-trap bond. The cavity in between the bricks acts as conduits to carry electrical and plumbing lines. The concrete columns support these curves from within the masonry. MMT Ferrocement shells cover the building and are used as floor slabs. Innovatively, waste materials from scaffolding have been reused to make the staircase, flooring, and furniture. The grills have been made to look very light and have a weave of bamboo through them to act as shades and give privacy.
3. St. George Orthodox Church, Mattancherry
Due to the poor maintenance of the old church, it had to be pulled down to construct a new one. Vinu got his inspiration from the Loyola church by Laurie Baker and the Church of Light by Tadao Ando. The cross symbol of that church was the start of the design. The design of the arches and vaults was done using the catenary chain method formulated by Antonio Gaudi and many others.
The arches, vaults, and domes have been constructed using CSEB with the help of stringer beams to reach various heights and a maximum of 11m. Over the existing old foundation, the corbel arches have been constructed with concrete foundations at their base. The interlocking of these curve forms creates an interesting interior space. The architect has used catenary arches as they are the most stable and optimal shape. The Nubian method of construction serves the knowledge to construct such shapes using earth blocks and mud mortar.
4. Tease me café, Kottayam
This is an interior design project taken up by the firm, to renovate the cafe in Kottayam, and the challenge was that the available space was little and cramped already. This demanded very thin partitions without making the space feel claustrophobic. Vinu came up with a concept to use Clothcrete as a partition and seating that offered visual and physical lightness to the cafe such that the true nature of the material could be seen through the folds.
The seatings appear as though they are floating in space rather than being grounded. Exhaust pipes have been efficiently used as light tubes, to go well with the grey concrete background.
After several experiments, the firm came up with a process to construct Clothecrete. Waste kora cloth from construction sites had been hung from ceilings in such a way that the natural folds of the cloth were teasingly visible. It was then layered with Ferrocement and oxidized to give stiffness. Finally, they were all waxed and polished to give a smooth finish. The tables of the cafe are adaptive reuse of discarded wooden panels and windows, creatively modeled together.
5. Weekend home, Kakkathuruthu
After every renovation and demolition, large amounts of construction waste get dumped into the earth that remains the same for a very long time without getting disintegrated. As this is a polluter, Vinu has used this to make the entrance walls.
The debris wall innovated by the architect is patented by the National Council For Civil and Building materials after testing in laboratories. The wall is constructed by pouring the debris mix consisting of lump-sized debris, 10% gravel, 5% cement, 5% manufactured sand, and water into a wire mesh consisting of 6mm dia reinforcement bars at 2 feet intervals. The double-sided mesh is then plastered by a layer of mud.
The other walls of the contemporary house are made of rammed earth and coated with red oxide and water-proofing agent as it is surrounded by saline backwaters of Kakkathuruthu on three sides. A few joints have been made using concrete as rammed earth has few limitations. Keeping in mind the serene views from the roof, the roof access is given by the staircase within the vault.
The vault is cladded with old brown tiles that match the color palette of the house. The full potential of the site is utilized by harnessing energy on-site using solar panels and wind turbines on the roof. The Louvre windows at various places allow ventilation even when the house is not in use as it is a weekend home.
The architect’s take on Technology
The architect believes that technology is very important for the growth of sustainable architecture also, as for rammed earth foundation pneumatic rammers are used and not done manually. In the calculation of loads and optimum shape of arches, vaults, and domes software are of great use and save time.
Vinu Daniel teaches us the importance of visiting the site and solving problems instead of blaming the contractors in case something goes wrong. He says that the site is the god, and going to the office is just shunning yourself from work. His projects are already a school for the upcoming generation of architects, to experience, learn, and assimilate.