Eco-friendly Enchantment

This mystical mud home in Kerala, crafted by eminent architect Eugene Pandala, looks like a sculpture by Mother Nature.

Architect Eugene Pandala is full of stories… every single nuance of the project featured within these pages was explained with an interesting anecdote and an easy laugh. No wonder then, that this reclusive architect builds homes that seem straight out of a fairytale! Much like this quaint mud house located at Chatthanoor in Kerala, which looks like it has sprouted from the earth! To understand this project, I start with the most important question: how and when did Pandala’s romance with mud architecture begin? “It started at a very young age. My father, who was an artist, used to keep clay in his studio which I ended up playing with most of the time, making miniature anthills and snake holes. But it was during my student days in School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, when mud began to fascinate me as a medium of construction. A chance meeting with the eminent Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (who authored the book Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt), further cemented my love for it. Also, my own house in Kerala, a beautiful one with lime-plastered walls, and the hostel that I stayed in New Delhi, were both built with mud. They were still standing strong, so I was convinced that mud architecture is what I should practice,” says the architect.

Doesn’t this look like something right out of a fantasy? This house at Chathanoor has the appearance of a mushroom (well, almost) with its squat form, mud walls and the white ferro-cement roof.

Initially, it was not a cake walk to persuade clients to live in humble, traditional mud houses in this era of steel, glass and concrete. It was only in 1996 that an IAS officer and his wife were convinced about the material. Thus, a beautiful house, called Bodhi, was built in Kerala. It was only after the building was featured in various publications in 1999 and received many accolades for its distinct character, did this form of architecture receive some recognition. Using plain earth raised many an eyebrow then, but Pandala informs me that this construction technique has always been a part of our culture and civilization. More than 60 percent of homes are still made out of mud… but the mindset about it being a poor man’s house is still strong. Fortunately, Pandala and some of his contemporaries have dented this mental block in the last two decades. A testimony to this is the fact that the owners of the abode featured here came to Pandala in 2004 with a request for precisely this sort of a home.

The rib-and-skin roof of the house is clearly visible at the entrance.

“This humble, and very enterprising couple, runs an organic farm and wanted to have a mud house close to their work. Other than stating the number of bedrooms they wanted, they didn’t interfere in the design process. In fact, the man of the house also worked alongside the workers during the construction. Such was their dedication,” laughs Pandala. This haven was built after a thorough research into the wind and light conditions of the site, as its design looked to welcome the elements of nature with open arms. The architect is not a fan of straight lines and geometrical shapes — his work is characterized by organic forms and a free-flowing spirit. His buildings seem to be part of the earth… one with nature and completely non-pretentious.

The three courtyards are the crowning glory of this project. The one next to the seating alcove has, as its highlight, a perforated wall topped by a tiara of bougainvillea

This particular house has been built from mud dug out from the site itself, which takes it a notch higher on the eco-friendly scale. The resulting pit has been converted into a water harvesting zone. For the construction, the architect uses the cob technique, one of the many methods of employing mud. Traditionally, a cob structure contains a mixture of sand, clay and straw blended by water. Pandala strengthened this technique by using mud with 20 per cent clay, 5 per cent cement and water as the material for the walls. Though this mixture can be blended with a machine, the workers and the client decided to do it differently: they put on some music and danced away on the mud to compound it. Once the mixture was ready, the globs were thrown one on the other, and all the walls were crafted by hand. As for the roof, the architect had devised his own technique called the “rib-and-skin roof,” using the extremely malleable and light-weight ferro-cement topped by a layer of potter tiles to make it more durable. “The roof is so well thought out that none of the walls are exposed much to rainwater during monsoons,” says this award-winning architect, “much like the leaf-and-mud block story we tell kids in Kerala, in which the leaf shields the mud block from rains and the mud sits on the leaf when heavy winds blow.”

Every Eugene Pandala structure has curvaceous lines, like this wall which hides a courtyard beyond. The perforations on the walls, besides adding whimsy, also bring more light and air into the house.

This house at Chathanoor has four bedrooms, three courtyards, a kitchen, dining and a living space… all arranged in such a manner that it seems to be part of nature. The inside-outside connectivity is well-balanced and effected through open arches (with safety grills in mild steel) flanked by mud columns and large teakwood-clad windows. Spatial distribution has also been cleverly executed: public areas like the living area and the low-lying veranda, and one bedroom afford views of the waterlily pond. Situated on the northern side, the water pond along with the perforations on the exterior walls, keeps these public areas cooler. To the south lie two courtyards — one exclusively for the master bedroom and one shared between the remaining two bedrooms. Passive cooling and the ample amount of sunlight that enters this house negate the need for air conditioners and artificial lighting, thus bringing electricity bills down.

A man-made pond crusted with waterlilies.

There are several design details that are especially endearing, such as the snake hood-shaped wall exhibit crafted out of mud, and the ledges that sprout from the walls to serve as benches or handy places to stack provisions. The house humbles me and makes me applaud the genius called Eugene Pandala, his sensitivity to the needs of the owners and his concern for the environment. He tells me before signing off that his clients who live in such houses are happy people. Being close to nature does that, but I suspect the architect’s imagination and magic have something to do with it as well…

 

CONCEPT
To build a mud house, which would invite wind, air and other elements of nature. The structure needed to blend in with the topography of the region and be organic.
MATERIALS
Walls Mud, clay and cement Roof Ferro-cement and potter tiles Floor Terracotta tiles Windows Teakwood frames and mild steel grills

 

FACT FILE
Project Ravi’s House Location Chathanoor, Kerala Area 1 acre Principal architect Eugene Pandala

 

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