The Auroville home of Regina and Robi is a
charming mud house, built using the age-old wattle and daub technology.
The rotating blades of a windmill, towering
over the numerous trees of a man-made forest, mark the entrance
to the house of Regina. Thereafter a narrow path leads one to a
cluster of sloping roofs that blend into their natural surroundings.
Warmth and lightness
Regina's house stands on stilts in a shallow
pond. A bridge takes one over into the outdoor space that is the
heart of the home, the nucleus, held on each side by the three structures
that surround it. I find myself a seat under the shade of a tree,
and while Regina is looking for photographs of her house in the
making I have a moment to myself to notice the features of this
building language and recognise the elements that contribute to
the overall feeling of warmth and lightness. Natural materials are
thoughtfully and delicately used, revealing the inherent beauty.
The main house, the kitchen and the bathroom, that are separate
structures, are all connected through this outdoor space, enabling
the activities of the kitchen and living area to spill over as needed.
The landscape, that is rich in texture, is adjacent to the pond:
rough and smooth granite, pebbles, water, earth, wood, water lilies,
reeds, trees, orchids and fish are all bathed in the morning light.
It can breathe..
The three mud structures are so light in their
presence that one would hesitate to call them buildings, the word
suggesting massive and solid images. The structures are pucca, but
light and Japanese in their character. "The nice thing about
the house is that it feels so light, and it can breathe and doesn't
'capture' you like conventional walls that have a rigid and dense
sensation," says Regina. "When I was studying architecture,
and when I came across Japanese architecture, I got hooked on to
this kind of spirit. And it's not like we are in a desert where
thick walls are needed for climatic comfort."
The ground floor has a living room with a chimney,
a dark room, and their bedroom, while upstairs is another living
room with a terrace and their daughter's room.
Wattle and daub technique
The principle of the wattle and daub technique
is an age-old one. It consists of a load-bearing structure, which
is usually wooden, between which is woven a lattice netting from
vegetable matter and then plastered on their side with earth which
is mixed with straw or other vegetable fibre to prevent shrinkage
upon drying. Wattle and daub construction is not one of the main
techniques to build in mud.
Nowadays the adobe rammed earth and compressed
block techniques are most widespread, and have reached extremely
high scientific and technological levels. It is perhaps regrettable
that these three techniques now dominate the field to the detriment
of the others, which are still of interest.
Earth & sand & straw
Regina had earlier seen the wattle and daub
mud house of Meike, a German resident of Auroville, and immediately
found it a fitting technology, best satisfying her own criteria
for a home. Regina had also seen the home of Roy and Daniel, who
had lived in Auroville some years ago, which was the first one of
its kind in Auroville. But though she had seen these houses, there
was no ready-made formula for the ideal mud mixture. Regina had
to experiment a lot to find the ideal proportion of earth to sand
and straw. Meanwhile she also came across an army handbook of building
containing many useful recipes for mixes. "Although building
with mud involves a lot of feeling and experimentation, if the army
is recommending something it definitely gives some additional confidence,"
asserts Regina in appreciation. "But it's like baking a cake:
you have to feel the mixture!"
Addition of fibres
In spite of the mud being very good for building
in this area, on the recommendation of a professional German oven-maker
who had been to Japan, a bit of sand was added to reduce cracking.
Into this earth-sand mixture were added fibres, such as chopped
rice straw, shredded into 2cm lengths. Then the earth had to mature
a bit before application. In the first trial case, the kitchen,
rice straw and common grass were used.
But Regina knew that such options were not something
everybody could procure, and she wanted to experiment further in
her main house, to test coconut fibre as an alternative. To avoid
the powdery matter that comes with coconut fibre, it is better to
use the best quality. You then don't need so much, recommends Regina,
now that this solution has worked wonderfully. There is no chopping
and shredding involved, but initially it takes a long time to mix.
The fibres that stick out after flaming can
be simply flamed off. I wondered if she had arrived at an ideal
mixture that she could recommend for this soil? Regina recalls her
mixture as a three-quarter bathtub full of mud, two chrysies of
sand, and half a bag of coconut fibre or a three-quarter bag of
grass. Unprecise as this mix may sound to technicians, I remind
myself and the reader of Regina's main tip: But its like baking
a cake! You have to feel the mixture!
Natural as the house looks, full of improvisations
and spontaneity, many imagine that there had been no real architectural
plans, or at least no detailed drawings. But on the contrary, Regina
had foreseen and thought of everything well in advance. All details
were worked out beforehand. "We prepared everything carefully.
We had plans to the millimetre; we had foreseen and drawn everything."
No wonder the preparation took as long as the execution: six months
each. Carpenters started work long before. Doors and windows were
all ready before beginning the foundation. The foundation itself
was started only after all the stones for the floor had arrived.
Being irregular in size, all the beams were adjusted accordingly.
Every side elevation of the main wooden frame of the house was created
and assembled on the ground and had to be numbered and dismantled.
A crane simply had to put parts in place with the assistance of
two labourers, so in three weeks the whole house frame was standing
up. Then came the basket-weavers who put in the split bamboo in
a weave, leaving the structure now ready for mud plastering by masons.
The plaster was applied in three layers, allowing an interval of
4-7 days for drying. Cracks form in the first layer, the surface
of which is then wet again. The next layer will have less cracks
and the final layer none. Build both sides simultaneously to avoid
warping of each panel, warns Regina.
Easy to maintain
The structure is very easy to maintain. It only
needs to be protected from water from the top, by an overhang or
coping, and can easily withstand the two monsoons of Tamil Nadu.
From the bottom it needs to be protected from termites and standing
water. The kitchen, now 11 years old, still looks as good as new.
The roof of the kitchen and bathroom are unique too for this region.
A chimney, that goes through the living room to the dark room and
continues through the bedrooms upstairs, ensures that the humidity
that tends to accumulate in a house is driven out. Yet even without
the help of a chimney the mud walls do not get mouldy, unlike other
The use of wood
The sloping roofs are finished with wooden shingles
as in other tropical countries. Small pieces of wooden planks are
used in three layers above each other. Regina has tried this out
with acacia auriculiformis, a very widely grown species in Auroville,
but thinks that eucalyptus would also be ideal. The wood was soaked
for a few hours in hot cashew oil, and is varnished every year before
the winter monsoon. Although a lot of wood is required, even the
very small pieces are used. Also, wood is still a renewable resource,
and this option is only feasible in areas where such trees are grown
widely in the vicinity. A visiting friend from Germany, who is experienced
in this technique, said that the roof slope would decide the life
of the house - if the slope was 30 degrees, the life expected was
30 years, for 45 degrees slope the life expected was 45 years, and
so on. A windmill pumps water out of the ground and supplies the
needs of the whole community. Shower wastewater is led into the
pond that surrounds the house through water plants that clean the
used water sufficiently, and the water then sustains plants and
fish life. Photovoltaic panels that collect the sun's energy, that
is then transformed through an inverter into the regular 220 volts
to run normal electrical appliances, meet the energy demands of
the house. Even a washing machine is being run by solar power.
I can't stand cement
Regina had studied architecture in Kassel, Germany,
but did not submit her final work. She had already been to Auroville,
where she then settled down almost 15 years ago. I wondered why
she didn't complete the final submission for her architecture degree,
especially as she had completed all the work? "I didn't want
to stay another year and a half in Germany. I wasn't interested
in architecture in that sense any more. I wanted instead to plant
trees," she laughs. "I think that's much more important."
It's a pity that she has not been involved in the making of more
houses for other people too, I remarked. To which Regina had a very
clear stand. She does not like to build conventional houses: "I
can't stand cement; it should be really limited to the minimum."
Book on climatically appropriate buildings
Regina has also written a colourful book on
how to approach climatically appropriate buildings. Robi is engaged
in the Auroville metal workshop, and since many years has specialised
in windmill technology for water pumping. Aureka, where he works,
is already quite well known for their latest model of windmill AV
55 and stabilised soil block making machines.