Vinu Daniel is changing the rules of building living spaces, brick by brick. The award-winning architect is taking green architecture and sustainable construction to another level with his use of mud, bamboo, and recycled material of all kinds: used bottles, scrap metal, jute sacks, coconut shells, broken bricks and more.
Numerous phone calls later, I meet him at a residence he’s built, in a quiet lane off Mannanthala, on the outskirts of the city. The earthen-coloured, long, rectangular building has a façade of bamboo that resembles the frame of a huge boat. Entering the house through a makeshift bridge over a water body, I encounter an airy, naturally-lit living room with a high ceiling. The entire structure conveys a sense of space and openness.
Sitting cross-legged on a rosewood chair that he fashioned out of discarded rosewood, the avant-garde architect asks where he should begin the story of his adventures. With the chair he’s sitting on perhaps – designed as it is by him? He decides college is a good place to start: with his admission to the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, in 2002. And then, like a film, he journeys to and fro, to tell me how a wannabe singer came to be synonymous with green architecture in the country.
He was sent to the capital city to write the entrance examinations for admission to both medical and engineering degree courses. His parents in Abu Dhabi, where he had grown up, felt that their academically-sound son, who also had a steady hand, would have a bright future as a doctor. “But I had other plans: to become a full-time musician. I enrolled myself as a student of Omanakutty Teacher [K. Omanakutty] and began learning from her,” he recalls. That was around the time he got admission to the architecture course in CET. Although he did join the course, his heart was in music and he threw himself into participating in as many music events at temple festivals in the district.
It was a chance meeting with Laurie Baker, the father of eco-friendly, low-cost, sustainable architecture in India, that gave him a new perspective and sustainable architecture became his design credo. Architecture became more than just blueprints and brick and mortar: “Here was a master architect right here in the city and we students, in those days, were taken to different places in the country to get acquainted with architects building skyscrapers and concrete blocks,” recalls an indignant Vinu. Baker believed that, as much as possible, one must use materials available within a five-mile radius to build houses. That became the foundation of Vinu’s career.
Mud bricks, recycled materials, eco-friendly methods of construction and apt utilisation of natural resources shaped Vinu’s design philosophy. He went on to do his training in sustainable architecture from Auroville Earth Institute and launched himself as an independent architect soon after.
“After I had finished the plans and recruited manpower to begin my first project, my client developed cold feet and asked me to build just the compound wall of his house,” says Vinu, laughing. He refused to be beaten and worked alongside his workers to make the mud bricks for the walls. That helped him gain hands-on experience in making the mud bricks and the pros and cons of the raw material.
“Thus was my firm Wallmakers born in 2007 when I was 26. As a result of that work, I can confidently guide my team when it comes to making bricks. I understand their concerns and their difficulties and can work to find solutions,” he says.
His next projects became the cynosure of all eyes and Valsala Cottage, a residence he built for his uncle in Mavelikara, where Vinu hails from, went on to win the India Today eco-friendly house of the year (South Zone) in 2009. “It was featured in architect Rahul Mehrotra’s book Architecture in India. That was a boost for me and a mark of recognition. Gradually, people came to have confidence in my buildings. Until then, once their project was over, my clients were happy to see my back!” says Vinu with self-deprecating humour.
He adds that from being ecologically conscious, he graduated to recycling waste in the most innovative ways. Necessity and innovation are significant aspects of Vinu’s projects. Depending on the land and the need of the client, Vinu comes up with imaginative solutions. “When a client’s plot was used as a dump yard, we were forced to think of ways to cope with the trash. That is when I came up with the debris wall. We used it along with the mud to build the bricks and solved the problem,” he says. In the same house, Vinu used frames of defunct electric meters.
For Vinu, each house is a work of art, a place with a soul of its own and no two houses of his are the same. He adds with a smile that over the years, he insists that clients trust him with their residences or he does not take up a project at all. “So, when I say, I build a house according to the lay of the land, it is exactly that. I do not do landfills or randomly cut down all the trees in a plot,” he says. His current project in Thiruvananthapuram is at Pothencode and Maruthankuzhy, where he is building a residence. “My houses are meant to be lived in and are for the regular person,” he asserts.
And the music? “Each brick resonates with music. These are my compositions in brick and mud!”
HOUSE OF BAMBOO
When Delhi-settled Tara Pillai wanted to build an eco-friendly house in the caital city, she chose Vinu for her dream house. It is an impressive work that brings in Vinu’s talent as an artist and architect. Filled with natural light, the airy building with polished cement floors has provisions for rain water harvesting.
Entire walls have been made of spare parts that were sourced from discarded washing machines. There is hardly any glass but for some shelves in the living room. Scrap wood has been used ingeniously to make wardrobes and cupboards. While the fittings are modern and convenient, almost all the materials used are sustainable. “PB Sajan of Costford suggested that green architects should try and incorporate bamboo in their project. That is how we used bamboo extensively for the house. Treated bamboo was hollowed and reinforced with iron and concrete to make it strong. That is what holds the staircase,”explains Vinu about the signature feature of the project.
Vinu has two patents in his name for Debris Wall and Shuttered Debris Wall, which he shares it with architect Shobhita Jacob.
He won the award for low-cost eco-friendly house from ‘Save Periyar’ Pollution Control Committee. It was constructed for Lakshmikuttyamma, a cancer patient, and was sponsored by K J Yesudas.
St. George Orthodox Church at Mattancherry won him the NDTV award in 2015 and the IIA National award in 2016.
He won several awards in different categories for Biju Mathew’s house in Pathanamthitta, where he experimented with the debris wall for the first time.
Won the competition to build the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Pavilion (2014), the largest Conoid built using ferrocrete. He had also built the pavilion for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale at Aspinwall House at Fort Kochi in 2016.
International Sustainability Award 2018 for Chirath Residence in Pala.