Homes with soul

Biju Bhaskar, of Thannal, on teaching people how to design and build their own abodes, and a new music album about bricks

Updated - May 12, 2017 05:26 pm IST

Published - May 12, 2017 03:16 pm IST

Nineteen years after dropping out of his architecture course, builder and architect Biju Bhaskar’s exploration of out-of-the-box learning methodologies led to the creation of Thannal, a natural building awareness group based in Tiruvannamalai. From composing a song about bricks to teaching people how to design and build their houses, his unique methods have translated into beautiful, earthy homes across the country.

After discontinuing his education, Bhaskar travelled to Khajuraho and learnt wood sculpting from the tribal community there, and also worked under sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri. During those years, he learnt the importance of natural building solutions and how they were being practised in the villages. “There, people still build their homes using locally available resources, whereas people in cities are taking the concrete route,” says the 42-year-old architect, who lives in an Earthbag home that he built himself. Bhaskar finally completed his architecture degree in 2009 and moved to Tiruvannamalai in the same year. He then started Thannal with his wife, Sindhu Bhaskar, in 2011.

Excerpts from an interview:

What is Thannal’s philosophy?

A third of the world’s population continues to live in structures constructed using earth. Our core ideology is to bring back these indigenous techniques and materials into the limelight and develop smarter, resilient designs. The basic concept is to make people realise that they can design and even build their own home. We focus on villages and visit places that are architecturally intriguing and enticing to our building palette. Our ‘Ageless Villages’ series is a compilation of such villages, streets and homes that respond to the local climate, geography and the cultural identity of the settlement. The research eventually culminates in experiments of our own.

What do your workshops and research projects comprise?

We experiment with low embodied energy materials and low-tech appropriate technologies. We seek to bring back the indigenous wisdom of ancient practices in a modern approach. Presently, we are concentrating on four sections – the Thannal School of Natural Building, research and documentation, gifting a natural home to a village, and Earth Station, a segment that combines art and natural buildings. From students to housewives, we have a diverse set of people who attend our workshops, and a few choose to stay back and pursue apprenticeship. This led to starting Natural Builders of India, the student-run wing of Thannal.

You have intertwined music and architecture in an interesting fashion.

I believe song and music is a great way to connect with youngsters. Our songs are all about students who take the alternative route to architecture. Our latest track, ‘Adobe Girl’, is based on the adobe brick which is made using mud, and is also known as the ‘sunrise’ brick. While the idea is mine, Prashanth, a Bengaluru-based designer, put my thoughts into words and music. We are now working on other songs to create an album.

Can such techniques be replicated in our cities?

Yes. A great example would be architect Devan Priyan’s two-storey Cobb House at Kudangalur, Kerala. Built using compressed mud blocks stabilised using lime, the 1,200 sq.ft. house was built at a cost of ₹10 lakh, much lesser than a conventional home. Concrete was introduced in India only 100 years ago – before that homes were built using mud, bamboo, etc. We need to bring these materials back.

Your Earthbag home is very popular.

It was built along with my family, four farmers, and two shepherds. It took us just two months to build the 550 sq ft Earthbag home and a 630 sq ft, two-story loft home using a flat mud roof. We moved into it in August 2016. The house has been constructed by integrating various techniques and ingredients. I believe architecture is closely linked to farming, and I have brought in this natural connect. We have used only locally available materials such as jute sacks, lime, bark, tamarind seeds, cactus juice with aloe vera, starch of tapioca, etc.

Materials people should opt for?

Stone, bamboo, lime, terracotta, and mud – a lot can be done with these five materials. We need to reduce the use of energy-intensive materials such as aluminium, concrete, and steel rods.

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