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Eco Construction

As the different areas of the project have grown, the need for various buildings has meant that design and construction have become an integral, often challenging and very rewarding part of our work. Beyond the individual design needs of each space, we have tried to make each of our buildings sit harmoniously within the landscape rather than imposing themselves upon it, and we have worked with a variety of construction methods to limit the ecological footprint of the construction and functioning of the building.

For the interpretation centre in the Forest Park we used a lime mortar for the stone walls. We used lime made locally in homemade charcoal kilns. This was then ground by our bullocks with a mix of Terminalia chebula seeds fermented with jaggery. This traditional recipe adds to the strength and elasticity of the lime. The stone for the walls was cut on site and the cooling effect of the thick stone walls is enhanced by the earth berms that add to the thermal mass. There will also be a full roof garden, further cooling the space.

For the various houses at Marudam farm we have played with a number of techniques. The volunteer accommodation and Govinda and Leela's house uses pole roof constructions sitting on granite pillars. The roofs are then thatched and the downstairs walls are made of that finest and most ancient of building materials-mud. We have played with different mixes, adding various proportions of clay, sand straw, cow-dung or just pure mud. Termites can be an issue, as they find the walls quite welcoming. This means that the walls must stop short of the tops of the pillars, so that the termites cannot access the eminently edible roofs. One could lift the mud walls up on a plinth beam to stop the termites entering, but ours are mud all the way. The floors are mud too, meaning that if we leave the house, in a few short years the roof will rot and collapse, the rain will wash away the walls and the place will be fertile soil once more. It's a nice thought.

Using mud in a different way is Ajay and Maitrey's house. The rammed earth walls there require a greater level of technical skill to complete, but the finished wall has an exquisite look and requires no maintenance. Soil is mixed with sand and a small amount of lime (about 5%) and then compressed manually inside a pre-made shuttering. So the house rises in sections of these earth panels rather than the walls coming up evenly.

We were very constrained in the school construction by unimaginative regulations on the part of the education department, who insisted on reinforced concrete roofs. We used cavity walls to keep the buildings naturally cool, and formulated a mud/cement mortar that reduced the cement content by half. All the wood used was old, salvaged wood, but overall the construction methods are fairly conventional.

We do not claim that any of the buildings are truly sustainable. We have used cement and steel in varying quantities in the different buildings, and these are in no way sustainable in any quantity. The poles used for the house roofs are grown as a plantation crop, with a lot of water. The bamboo used in Arun and Poornima's house is better, but requires treatment if it's not to be devoured by borers. Traditional village houses of mud and thatch are typically very small. The size is probably governed by how much thatch one family can cut every few years when it needs replacing, or how much roof poles are available locally when everyone builds in this way. There is more thatch grass available these days because the villagers are shifting to concrete roofs. It can be difficult to speak of sustainability living as we do in the midst of an utterly unsustainable culture. We may use materials (such as salvaged wood, discarded bottles, used tires) and tell ourselves that we have reduced our impact, but this matters little in the bigger picture. It has been good to familiarise ourselves with some of the possible techniques so that we may share them with others, but it is only a small step in the right direction.