Architecture student Jeyashri Chandrasekaran works with Afshan Mariam Image Credit: Anuradha Sengupta

“We need a 30ft wall before we can build the roof, which means we have to aim at building about 5ft every day. Let’s do it, guys. It will be nice to have the roof when we leave — it will be a huge achievement. And we can do it with our bare hands. A hand-sculpted school that we built without using any industrial materials.”

That’s architect Varun Thautam egging on a motley group of young architecture students, artists, photographers, and software engineers from all over India who have congregated at the base of Javadi Hills in Tamil Nadu — to build a school for rural children.

The school is part of the Cuckoo Movement, which aims to establish an alternative way of learning in rural Tamil Nadu (www.cuckoochildren.blogspot.in). Most people came to know about the project through a flyer on Facebook that asked for volunteers to help build a school made of adobes and earth mortar. That flyer was shared, posted and re-posted with the result that Cuckoo was flooded with people clamouring to be a part of the project. About 34 — ages between 12 and 35 — were chosen.

At the end of the workshop, they had picked up basic skills on building a structure made of mud, learnt to identify soil types and make domes with free-spanning technique (without any centring or formwork) and create natural, water-proof plasters. They camped out for 15-20 days working under the guidance of architects Thautam and Jeremie Gaudin.

Thautam, whose thesis at McGill University (Canada) was awarded the Maureen Anderson Prize in Architecture, has worked with Auroville Earth Institute and is currently teaching history of modern architecture, sustainable architecture, building construction at Tec de Monterry, Mexico (www.vtarchitect.wix.com/home).

Gaudin has trained as an urban systems engineer in France, Denmark and Spain, specialising in climate sensitive design and natural building techniques. He is one of the founders of Made In Earth (www.madeinearth.in), an architecture studio and construction practice promoting earth-friendly architecture.

Mud has a solid reputation in the annals of history. Some of the world’s most enduring and extraordinary structures are made of from it — the 1,000-year-old ksars (forts) in Morocco, New Mexico’s pueblos, sections of the Great Wall of China, most of the Indus Valley civilisation, the 6,000-year-old arches, vaults and domes in the Nile Valley to the great Djinguereber mosque in Mali. Latin America is full of multi-storeyed adobe houses.

Scotland’s Central Research Unit undertook a study in 2001 which estimated that there were 500,000 inhabited earth buildings in the UK. Many of the world’s best-known architects have experimented with it. But building with earth has only recently entered the curricula of architecture and engineering schools. Ask urban dwellers, and chances are they will turn their noses up at the idea.

However, looking at the number of enthusiastic architecture students from across India who turned up at Cuckoo, it seems as if all that may be changing. Mud may be making a comeback as the choice for modern buildings.

No straight lines in nature

When I arrive at the school site near Puliaynur village, it is pitch dark, the time’s going on 9.30-10pm. I can barely make out the silhouette of the hills that form the backdrop to the site. The forest surrounds us.

A meeting is taking place inside a thatched roof hut. People with streaks of mud on their faces, arms, feet and clothes are grouped in a circle around Thautam. They are going over the day’s work and planning the next one. From the conversation, it seems that progress has been a bit slower than expected. “It’s OK. We are here to learn,” assures Thautam in his soft-spoken voice.

The two-storey structure at Cuckoo is expected to accommodate about 50 people on each floor. “The volunteers are essentially learning to make low cost shelters with all natural materials and leaving a carbon footprint that is almost zero,” said Thautam.

Mud construction doesn’t use much carbon energy, but plenty of the human kind. The days are spent shovelling earth, packing mortar between the bricks. A relay-style line is formed to transport finished bricks to the building site. A group of people are waist-deep in a mud pit, going round and round, mixing sand, mud and water for the mortar. The finished mixture — looking much like a cake mix — is then transported in a wheelbarrow to the building site accompanied by shouts of “incoming!”

Construction doesn’t always flow as smoothly as the mud. Sometimes the mix needed for the mortar is wetter than required, sometimes grainier. Thautam keeps a check, testing the consistency, and adding more gravel, sand or water as needed. “It will need more sand or it will sink to the bottom,” he says as he tests the latest batch. Some small stones are chucked into the pit. “This whole area has a silty base,” says Thautam. “It is hard to build with silty soil, it cracks a lot. To control the cracking, we have to add sand.”

He has decided on a ratio after several tries — roughly three parts soil to one part sand. It is not accurate, but an educated guess. “We did some trials and tests – 2:1, 3:1, 4:1. It seemed like the cracking started reducing with the 3:1 mix,” he says.

How does one know the mix is OK? “Keep testing with your fingers.”

Among the volunteers is Swetha Ramesh, an architecture student who has worked in Kerala on bamboo and mud construction in a tribal village, likes what she is hearing. “Earth construction is the need of the hour considering the amount of carbon footprint of the real estate industry today. If we have to sustain and survive on this earth, earth-friendly materials are the solution, otherwise get ready to choke on some interesting deadly oxides,” she says.

Volunteer Mezhu Volie Usou, a civil engineer-cum-environmental planner, says the idea of buildings and sustainability had always fascinated him. “My only dream is to implement this idea on a bigger scale — say an urban settlement. Then I feel justice will be done to the word ‘sustainability’, which every city is trying to achieve,” he says.

Friends Santosh Prabhu and Santhosh Shyamsundar have been working together since 2013. After a study in rural India, they found that villages were rapidly urbanising and decided that architectural development needed some rethinking. And earth construction was the way to begin. “The value that we both look for in architecture is that of the spirit, and this mode of construction has plenty. Earth is the insurgent: it commands respect when one needs to work with it, not like the other materials — slaves of the designer.”

A refreshment break is announced as the day is getting quite warm. The kitchen, located in a hut and manned by Cuckoo volunteers, rustles up delicious infusions of mint, lemon, coriander, jaggery, starch water and cumin to combat thirst and dehydration.

Why are we building a round shape, asks a volunteer. Isn’t a square, or rectangle easier? “There are no straight lines in nature,” says Thautam. “A circle is more stable. And if we know we can create any shape, why should we settle for a square?”

I learn that they had an introduction to mud bricks on the first day which I missed. “The bricks are similar to those used in the Indus Valley,” says Thautam. Most of Indus Valley Civilisation’s large cities — such as Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Kot Diji, Ganweriwala, Rakhigarhi and Lothal — have been constructed from both mud and baked bricks.

Night falls and a brilliantly silver moon rises over Javadi Hills.

Architecture is all about community

The next day, work begins early to avoid the strong mid-day Sun. “We need scaffolding, the higher we go. Some more stools please.”

Gradually over the next few sun-baked days and cool nights, I get to know the volunteers who are here to build the school. There is Kadambari who works in a US-based big data company in Chennai with her 12-year-old daughter Anahita; 16-year-old Abhimanyu, a home-schooler; Kunal Gaidhankar who has worked with Billion Bricks, a non-profit that works with homeless and displaced communities in Asia, providing good-quality shelter; Damini from School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi; documentary photographer Kaveer Rai; software engineer Vasant from CISCO; Medha Bankhwal from Going To School, a not-for-profit trust that creates design-driven stories to empower children with skills needed to participate in the world; theatre artist Sugeetha, Ghana Nb, an artist who has trained trainers for special Olympics, designed costumes for films, works with special children and documents textile techniques through illustrations, and a host of architecture students.

As the pink of dusk envelops the area, children arrive from Puliyanur village. They help out with the mortar mixing. And try to get the volunteers to pick up the rules of a game called “fallangulli” played with tamarind seeds. “There’s no English word for this,” says a Cuckoo member when asked what it means.

“Working with earth reactivates links in the community — it is accessible to all, even to children as you see at Cuckoo,” says Gaudin. “Earth construction techniques are more labour intensive but use a minimal quantity of fossil energy in comparison. And it has a big scope to create employment. It uses a community-based approach to construction.”

Co-founder of the Made In Earth Collective, Gaudin holds regular workshops on natural plasters, teaching how to prepare, test and apply earth plasters, carving and embossing, using colour oxides and pigments and exploring the traditional Moroccan tadelakt technique. He illustrates the point about community with Baraka, an organic restaurant he has worked on in France.

“The main idea behind Baraka was an organic food restaurant. But the building is also used for social activities in the area. It acts as a community hall. We looked at how the restaurant can create employment, how to make the building more energy efficient, keep the source of materials local and customisable. We used local wood, straw bale for insulation. And on top of that earth and lime plaster. All materials were available locally.”

But, Gaudin says, architects will need to look at how to reinvent the material, and come up with new methods of construction so it can compete against modern materials.

“In some ways, we can think of industrialisation perhaps but not at the cost of using a lot of energy or destroying the environment. We can take some good ideas from the industry and see how it can be incorporated — such as making earth bricks with a machine, perhaps. Maybe we can have production units that are portable and can be moved from site to site. This could help scaling up while still keeping it local. That’s just one idea.”

As the mud dries on the school structure, it turns a luscious brown, with streaks of rust and beige. Textured and craggy, the material looks alive. I am reminded of the beautiful mud houses I have come across on my travels in Afghanistan, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

It is remarkable that this school structure will be held up with no support save the careful stacking of mud bricks. It is cheap, environmentally sound and durable. It will be climate-proof — insulating against heat and cold. It will create additional jobs as maintenance will be needed. And when it gets broken down (if it does), it will be biodegradable.

“We’ve learnt that architecture cannot function without the community that is going to embrace it,” says architecture student Jeyashri Chandrasekaran. “It is an integrated process that brings out a holistic outcome. This project was the perfect blend of everything — the site, the people, the children, the earth. The structure that rose high up at the end was a physical manifestation of the emotion of every single soul out there who drove and made this initiative a successful one.”

Anuradha Sengupta is a writer based in Mumbai.