In our urban world of cement and steel, the knowledge of building traditional houses is fast dwindling. However, Sharanya Iyer, founder and principal architect, Studio Verge, will teach children between the age of eight and 12 the ancient form of earth construction — hand moulded raw earth lumps stabilised with straw and lime to create walls, known as cobb. In an interview, Sharanya explains what the workshop entails.
Why did you decide to host this workshop?
We have a site which is under construction at Jawalagiri. I had once taken my eight-year-old son there and he had many questions, such as why is the wall so thick? How do you keep termites away? Based on his experience, I thought it would be nice to organise a workshop for children on building cobb houses. Concrete buildings sites are invariably not child-friendly; chemicals, dust, and sharp steel rods make it unsafe for children to be on site. But with mud houses, children can touch them, get hands-on building experience with the workers, and participate in the making.
Could you tell us what cobb stands for?
Like the fast disappearing cow-dung washed mud huts that used to line our countryside, cobb is a traditional mud construction technique. Raw earth combined with straw and paddy husk for reinforcement stabilised with lime is used to build load-bearing walls. We did multiple samples of cobb with varying proportions to establish the right mix, soil testing is recommended to establish optimal sand and clay content to reduce cracks and ensuring strength. Many institutions have been promoting earth construction, such as Auroville Earth Institute, Mrinmayee-Gramavidya and IISC in Bengaluru and architects like Chitra Vishwanath. As part of Studio Verge, I have designed and built CSEB (Compressed Stablised Earth Blocks), Rammed Earth and now cobb buildings as and when we see a client is willing.
The children will build walls with their bare hands. The masons at site are from Madurai who have built traditional cobb houses for themselves back in their villages. It has been a learning process, working with the masons and improvising to add contemporary relevance to this traditional material through design.
What are the benefits of such houses?
Cobb is the earth-friendly use of raw/un-burnt soil. It reduces carbon and energy footprint of the structure. It is also shelters effectively, due to its thermal mass, with interior temperatures being a few degrees cooler in summers and a few degrees warmer in winters. The first image that comes to mind when one talks of a cobb home is a hut, with low ceilings, dark and damp with very few openings. This image doesn’t align with contemporary notions of liveability in terms of volume, daylight, and cross ventilation. We are striving to strike a balance between environmentally sound and liveability, creating contemporary spaces and conveniences using traditional materials.
This project is for a land developer called Seedtree; it is for a community of eight owners and all of them want to construct using earth-friendly. This is the first one, the prototype which is a community cottage of about 1000 square-feet with two bedrooms. The floor plan, that is a combination of straight lines and curves, is also possible due to the use cobb, given its mouldability.
What will be the takeaway for the children?
We would like to expose children to sustainability, taking them away from the urban to see there is a possibility to build with their own hands, to use material available at a place and in doing so, understand what is most natural and environmentally friendly. We also want them to see the science and maths that goes behind traditional construction. They will understand composition of soils and mixes, work with masons using their tools like the plumb bob and level tube. They also understand that traditional materials and houses are also as scientific and as exciting as the robots, aeroplanes and high tech cara that grab their attention and interest.
The workshop will be held on July 13 at Jawalagiri, 30 kilometres from Hosur, 9.30 am to 3.30 pm. The fee is ₹1,000 per person. Limited seats. Call: 9790286412.