‘Earth Architecture’ is yet to gain prominence in the present context, writes Nivedita Ganguly

In the quaint township of Auroville in Pondicherry, a green revolution has been taking shape. Replacing the concept of concrete constructions, with ‘Earth Architecture’, the Auroville Earth Institute (AEI) has been developing structures made with earth and advocating the concept of ‘Earth Architecture’. For French architect Satprem Maini, this is the process of rediscovering techniques that were used by our ancestors in the making of buildings.

Living in Auroville since 1989, Satprem is the director of AEI which was founded in 1989 by HUDCO, Government of India. “Across the world, there are numerous examples of earth construction. And there is a remarkable balance and harmony of these buildings with the landscape and the surrounding environment,” says Satprem. He was in Visakhapatnam to hold a seminar on ‘Earth Architecture’ for the students of Department of Architecture, Andhra University.

Satprem specialises in the use of raw earth as a building material and especially compressed stabilised earth blocks (CSEB). He has also specialised in the construction of arches, vaults and domes built with earth, disaster resistance with CSEB and earthen heritage conservation.

The CSEB, designed by Satprem, are made by mixing earth with sand and stabilised with 5 per cent cement. This mix is then compressed in a manual press. The blocks are energy effective as the process does not require burning. It is also cost effective since a plain block is 23.6 per cent cheaper than regular bricks. But the concept is yet to gain prominence in India. “In India, the main challenge is to change the mindset of people and make them to understand and accept the concept of Earth Architecture. People think that this type of architecture may not be long-lasting. But that is not true,” says Prem.

In Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley, such type of architecture has been existing for more than 1,000 years in temperatures ranging between minus 10 degrees in winters and 45 degrees in summers. One such building dates back to the year 996 AD. It is built with pure earth and is still strong, Satprem adds.

The AEI has been involved in the research, development and transferring of earth-based technologies, which are cost and energy effective. Today, such technologies the research and development of the Auroville Earth Institute on architecture and technologies based on earth are used worldwide and the institute conducts training courses and demonstration projects and offers consultancy.

Aim

The aim of the institute’s research and development is to minimise the use of steel, cement and reinforced cement concrete. The concept of ‘Earth Architecture’ revolves around the use of alternative stabilisers to cement and alternative waterproofing with stabilised earth, composed of soil, sand, cement, lime, alum and tannin.

Cost effective

“This is much more cost-effective than cement and cheaper than concrete buildings. Our experience of 24 years in building earth architecture has shown us that it is 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than concrete constructions,” Satprem adds.

While the process is more time-consuming, Satprem says that this is because the contractor has to do everything himself, right from creating the construction materials. “But proportionally, it is the same time. Because when you buy the construction material from others, you don’t count the time that goes into making the material,” he adds.

Building with earth has a great past, and also a promising future everywhere in the world. “But not by spoiling the natural resources. Proper management of natural resources is essential for sustainable development,” says Satprem.

The AEI has also developed eco-friendly technology to build earthquake-resistant houses, which is based on reinforced masonry built with compressed stabilised earth blocks.

Satprem says that private developers are not interested in this because they don’t know how to build with earth. Also, there is a strong lobby of cement factories that is working in the real estate sector and they advocate strongly for cement structures in modern constructions, he adds

“I have mostly helped NGOs and in special rehabilitation projects in Gujarat, where we developed 2,700 houses in one year,” says Satprem.

What about the investment to develop the machinery for CSEB? “It is quite simple. You first need to learn how to produce the blocks through the machinery. We have developed the machinery for it.

The investment cost for developing the manual machinery is about Rs 1.5 lakh. Developing motorised machinery will cost 10 times the cost. Even then, the total cost will be cheaper than cement,” he adds.