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Rooted to earth

Mar 13, 2009

In the age of concrete housing, Vasant Futane, an organic farmer from western India, has dedicated his life towards promoting mud houses. As the construction industry gets a fillip due to growing urbanisation, this self-trained architect feels the need to revive traditional building skills for conservation of nature.

Amravati, Maharashtra: 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.

Vasant Phutane

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% of 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.

“Innovation and improvisation in house building are forgotten concepts now because of heavy dependence on cut-to-size, ready to use material”

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 hectares 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. The completed house was fitted with a tin roof. The semi-permanent structure still stands on his farmland.

Mud house.jpg

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.

“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.

Hard to popularise

Mud houses may have a niche following among urbanites. But in rural Amravati, Futane, Malak and Kolamkar find it difficult to convince other villagers to build mud houses. They are losing out to brick masonry and teak and plywood work.

“Innovation and improvisation in house building are forgotten concepts now because of heavy dependence on cut-to-size, ready to use material,” said Futane. He regrets that it is not possible to document this knowledge in detail. Much depends on local materials available and weather conditions that vary from place to place.

“These skills can be passed on only through hands-on training. But the guru-shishya parampara is collapsing under market pressure,” he said.

“Rural housing schemes and government agencies like Khadi Gramodyog can play a vital role in promoting mud buildings”

So far only one family from Yavatmal in Warud has come forward to get its house built in mud. Futane has helped six others add verandahs, balconies, courtyards and outhouses to their homes.

“It is no longer possible to make a living out of this work but I have realised the importance of conserving our art and my family is learning my skills,” says Malak. But Kolamkar’s sons prefer to run their furniture workshop and not spend time learning a “non-remunerative skill”.

Government support can go a long way in reviving traditional building skills, said Futane. “Rural housing schemes like Indira Awas Yojana and government agencies like Khadi Gramodyog can play a vital role in promoting mud buildings,” he added.

How did Futane manage to convince his family to live in a mud house? His family was always supportive and helped with the maintenance of the house. The fact that his wife is also a follower of Vinoba Bhave helps.

Karuna applies fresh plaster of cow-dung to the floor every fortnight. She said this is “easier than mopping the floor everyday”. Their sons see to it that the tiles used for roofing are cleaned and rearranged after every monsoon. The tiles allow air to circulate. The walls don’t need fresh plaster for many months. “It is very comfortable to live in this house,” said Karuna.

The family receives frequent inquiries from all over the country on building and maintaining a mud house but there are very few converts. Despite all evidence to the contrary, mud houses are still seen as fragile structures and a sign of poverty, rues Futane.

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