A movement to popularise cost-effective and environment-friendly construction has evolved into a new habitat technology that also brings in elegance. M. A. Siraj takes a look

Adversity has its own way of teaching people to devise ways of coping with circumstances. Innovative minds do it creatively and come up with ways that leave strong footprints on the sands of time.

Unprecedented floods in Kollam district of Kerala in 1985 had left hundreds of people shelterless.

C.V. Ananda Bose, a public-spirited IAS officer who then headed the district administration, came up with a housing scheme that would cost less and would be environment-friendly. It worked and prompted him to set up the first Nirmithi Kendra (Building Centre) in Kollam district four years later. This put in place the institutional mechanism for the propagation of a cost-effective, environment-friendly (CEEF) building technology. Nearly a quarter century later, Nirmithi Kendra has gained the contours of a movement with aspects of architecture, technology, environment and even administration conjoining. While the movement has been emulated in other States, in Kerala alone, according to Chief Engineer, R. Jayan, it is adding 2.5 lakh sq. ft of residential space annually. The Kerala State Nirmithi Kendra (KESNIK) has an annual turnover of Rs. 90 crore today.

Ananda Bose’s innovative technology spurred interest in diverse quarters. The Union Ministry of Urban Development took notice of it and decided to set up such centres in all the districts through a circular way back in 1988. But the movement has constantly evolved in Kerala with several administrative and innovative accretions.

Travel through God’s Own Country and you could spot boat houses, youth clubs, seaside and backwater homes, schools and even public buildings sporting latticed corridors, exposed brick walls, funicular roofs et al.

Use of local material

In the beginning, as is always the case, the Nirmithi Kendras implemented ideas on a trial-and-error basis. The overall emphasis was on bringing down the cost for even the poor to afford a house that could be called home. It was conceived that this objective would be best achieved by using the locally available materials.

Secondly, it was thought that the house should merge with the surrounding environment, allowing maximum use of natural light and air rather than necessitating excessive use of electricity and air-conditioners.

The KESNIK set up Nirmithi National Institute of Habitat Management (NIHAM) in Thiruvananthapuram to develop such techniques and conduct research. By 1994, NIHAM had documented a vast repertory of techniques such as filler slab roofs, scope for using flyash for bricks, mud press blocks, precast shell roofs, hourdis block roofing (hourdis are burnt clay hollow blocks having very good strength and thermal insulation), earthquake-resistant houses, addition of coir fibres to mud blocks, stabilisation of lateritic@ soil (laterite is the kind of mud blocks cut out of hills and employed as bricks for building homes) for building blocks, study of quarry waste on concrete etc. The summary of the dissertations on the concepts fills a tiny volume titled ‘Aspects of Nirmithi Technology’ published by NIHAM.

According to S. Radhakrishnan, Administrative Officer at KESNIK, Thiruvananthapuram, the Nirmithi concept popularised the use of hollow blocks, pre-cast doorframes, window panels, funicular shells, filler slabs, thin ribbed slabs etc. He says the Centre concluded that the roofing cost could be reduced by 30 per cent by several such techniques. It was found that rubble, available on hill ranges in plenty, could be used as filling material for pillar blocks. It even saved transporting cost on construction material from the plains to the heights.

It was soon evident that the movement would not gain momentum until such materials were made available off the shelf. Nirmithi Kendras, therefore, came up with production centres which have been set up in 14 districts of the State. They annually produce material worth Rs. 17 crore. The NIHAM even took up training of artisans, masons and architects. Meanwhile the fusion of elegance, efficiency and economics that Nirmithi introduced won it several allies as well as converts.

Ideal platform

One among such allies was Laurie Baker, the British-born architect who simplified the architecture through his profound insight into Kerala’s ancient architectural practices and acute awareness of the humid climate. The Kerala Government has also permitted KESNIK to start a concrete ready mix unit. For the first time the State has sanctioned funds for the same in the plan allocation for the public sector.

The Nirmithi is also planning introduction of carpentry products and has conceived use of wood from rubber trees for several such products.

Already handrails made out of coconut palm wood are finding use in such buildings. Rubber trees have a lifespan of 26-30 years after which they lose their rubber producing capacity and have to be cut and replaced with new saplings. “Timber from the cut trees could be used after chemical treatment,” says Aravind P.I., Deputy Chief Engineer, KESNIK, who has been with the movement for 22 years.

However, the movement had its own quota of hiccups and obstacles. In an environment where non-resident Keralites were going for luxury homes with expensive construction materials, the low-cost concept had few takers.

As Aravind says, it did take some time to transfer their taste to the CEEF ideology. Multi-storeyed structures too posed ticklish questions. But several public buildings such as the pedagogy block of M.G. University, Kottayam, and Kerala State Institute of Design at Chandanthope and KESNIK’s headquarters at T.P.T. Nagar in Thiruvananthapuram dispelled apprehensions regarding stability and strength.