stepping stones Society

Hunnarshala’s eco-friendly homes across the world

A bunga made of tree branches, brick and mud.

A bunga made of tree branches, brick and mud.  

Born after the Bhuj earthquake, Hunnarshala today helps regions across the world build sustainable homes in the wake of natural and manmade disasters

Its birth was the result of a disaster. Six months after a devastating earthquake shook Gujarat in January 2001— the brunt of which was borne by Bhuj and its surrounding areas — a group of engineers, architects, and master artisans from the region came together to rebuild villages and lives. Hunnarshala, as this effort was called, was clear in its focus: to rebuild sustainable habitats using traditional knowledge in contemporary architecture.

Hunnarshala’s eco-friendly homes across the world

Its first sample of 220 earthquake-resistant, eco-friendly houses impressed the villagers of the devastated Khavda village, and ultimately led to the building of 2,200 houses in different villages in Kutch. And, over the years, Hunnarshala’s home-grown knowledge has travelled to various places — in India and beyond — wherever disaster has struck, encouraging a trend of sustainable living spaces built using traditional methods. One example of how Hunnarshala employs an earth-based technique is the use of the stabilised rammed earth technique. Stabilised rammed earth is an in-situ wall built using natural soil, or earth, with only 8–10 % cement for added strength. Experts say that rammed earth is non-polluting and makes for houses that are safer and can “breathe”, resulting in spaces that are cool and comfortable.

Hunnarshala’s office, with its rammed earth walls and tall wooden ceiling, was an immediate example for this writer — even without air-conditioning, the space was cool in the sweltering summer heat of Bhuj.

The interiors.

The interiors.  

Cement and sun-dried bricks

Sitting in their common work space, Prajesh Jethwa, senior manager, said that cement is so “all-pervading” in most modern-day construction that it’s difficult to think of construction without it. “Yet we have 400-year-old structures made of sun-dried bricks, bricks made of earth, that have stood the test of time. The government doesn’t approve this for permanent structures,” he said, “but the stabilised, rammed earth technology has been approved.” Jethwa’s home is built the traditional way, with sun-dried bricks, wooden roof, tiled ceiling, “and no concrete”.

Kutch’s traditional knowledge repository in construction is huge. Bungas, the houses seen in most villages, are perfect examples of earthquake-resistant structures made of mud-brick or a matrix of tree branches packed with mud. The roof is supported by a vertical post that rests on a wooden beam held by the walls. This circular plan helps dissipate force, so when the 2001 earthquake struck, the bungas fared better than the concrete structures that turned into rubble.

Circular bunga

A bunga under construction.

A bunga under construction.  

But losses were still huge, and when Hunnarshala approached the villagers of Khavda to rebuild their houses, their first response was that they wanted ‘pucca’ houses. “But later they said they wanted mitti ka ghar (mud house) with less maintenance,” said master artisan Hemant Dudhaiya, who has been with Hunnarshala since its inception. Then, after some deliberation, they said they wanted something akin to the circular bunga that had protected their ancestors from different natural disasters. Around that time, on one of their visits to the Hunnarshala office, a villager took home a sample rammed-earth brick, which he then soaked in a pot of water. When the brick didn’t give way even after three days in the water, the community was convinced about the durability of this “new kind” of brick. Said Dudhaiya, “The houses were circular in shape, the roofs were kept high, and thatch was replaced with wood and tiles. We first presented 220 houses as a sample.” Ultimately, over the next eight-nine months, 2,200 houses were built.

In Kosi too

Houses like this one were built after the 2008 Kosi floods in Bihar.

Houses like this one were built after the 2008 Kosi floods in Bihar.  

As the word spread, Hunnarshala began to be sought out after many disasters — some natural, some man-made. For instance, in the aftermath of the devastating Kosi floods of 2008, Hunnarshala helped the Bihar government frame a policy that aided in the construction of one lakh cost-effective houses. For this, the NGO’s experts and artisans studied the traditional structures of the region and came up with design options with different combinations of bamboo and brick. Ultimately, they introduced chemical treatment of bamboo to increase longevity, a more robust bamboo joining technique, and rat-trap bond masonry, among other techniques, and local masons were trained in these.

In Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, Hunnarshala provided technical support to the uprooted victims of the 2013 communal riot to rebuild their houses and their lives.

Different strokes

What has set Hunnarshala apart is its ability to look for local solutions and innovate on these. It undertook post-disaster reconstruction work in Kashmir after the 2005 floods, as it did in Uttarakhand, Iran, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. After the 2005 tsunami that flattened out swathes of land in Indonesia’s Banda Aceh region, Hunnarshala collaborated with a second organisation and used local material and techniques to rebuild 2,400 houses.

In Indonesia, 2,400 earthquake-resistant houses were rebuilt after the 2005 tsunami.

In Indonesia, 2,400 earthquake-resistant houses were rebuilt after the 2005 tsunami.  

“The innovations were ours,” said Kotak. For example, the idea of keeping steel to a minimum to reduce rusting fears and thickening the walls.“Every place is different,” says Kotak. “Different soil, pH, salinity... So the base material to build the house and the composition of the brick changes with the place.”

Extending its green ethos, Hunnarshala has been recycling industrial waste into construction material early on in its journey. “Why should we keep digging fertile soil when there is so much wastage around? We now modify the wastage of mines, like clay and silica, and add cement to make bricks as well,” Kotak said.

Karigarshala

At a training session in Karigarshala.

At a training session in Karigarshala.  

For a decade now, Hunnarshala has been running Karigarshala, a residential school that teaches carpentry and masonry to 16- and 17-year-old school dropouts. The one-year course is free. Said Atul Vyas, school coordinator, “We needed to polish their skills — from basic maths for measurements to communication skills to put forth their opinions to clients, architects and engineers.

Hunnarshala’s eco-friendly homes across the world

Vasant Maheshwari, whose father is a mason, is a product of this school. Now he teaches carpentry and has 16 students, all young boys from villages in Kutch, learning from him. Elsewhere, Pangu bhai, the masonry teacher, is teaching another group of students to build a wall. “We take the wall down at the end of the year, ready to be rebuilt by a new batch of students,” he said.

The wooden chairs the students sit on have been made by them, as also a room divider made of scrap wood from the carpentry class. Like the idea it propagates, Karigarshala stands out, different and beautiful.

The author is a Gujarat-based freelance journalist.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 1:00:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/hunnarshala-going-back-to-earth/article29799738.ece

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