The global building floor area is estimated to double by 2060, and the four decades until then are estimated to bring the largest wave of building and infrastructure growth in human history so far. Accounting for about 40 percent of global CO2 emissions, the construction sector has naturally come under scrutiny. Architects across the world are being asked to drastically reinvent and innovate building practices to match global goals of net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, as well as to craft climate-resilient homes that can withstand extreme weather events associated with climate change – such as heatwaves and flash floods. Swapping concrete, which has a high carbon footprint, for less polluting and energy efficient materials such as mud, is among the key proposed solutions.
Despite its rich history in Indian architecture, mud often fails to be associated as a conventional building material suited for contemporary and urban homes. Even as it is sustainable, easily available, exceptionally malleable and versatile, mud remains subject to several misconceptions about its cost, durability and efficacy in the design and homeowner community. However, several architectural practitioners are recognising the material’s immense potential in crafting sophisticated, cost and energy efficient structures that engage with vernacular architectural traditions.
Here are five architectural studios from across India that are innovating with mud and expanding its boundaries as a building material – crafting exquisite urban homes, luxury weekend retreats and more.
1. Sketch Design Studio
Founded in January 2014 by Shipra Singhania, Sketch Design Studio is known for its natural building practice, specialising in utilising materials such as mud, lime and stone to create environmentally conscious living spaces. The firm has also done considerable work in experimenting with and reviving architectural crafts, blending traditional methods with contemporary ideas.
Sketch’s journey with mud construction began by chance. The firm first explored using earth as a material in response to a client’s requirement for a simple and unpretentious structure in Rajasthan. The firm soon recognized that the material came with exciting possibilities. “It’s not just a construction material; it’s like a blank canvas for us to be creative. Mud is versatile in architecture, which means there are many different ways we can use it once we get the hang of it” notes Singhania.
Eco-friendliness was an additional motivation to build with mud. The firm has since experimented immensely with eco-conscious material, creating structures such as Gol Ghar, a circular 300 square feet studio that’s been crafted with mud, along with a thatched roof, or Mud House, a farmhouse in Rajasthan built from rammed earth.
“There’s a perception that mud structures lack durability, yet when constructed and maintained properly, they exhibit impressive longevity. The Great Wall of China, for instance, employs mud as a primary material and has endured for centuries, emphasising the significance of sound construction practices and protective measures in ensuring durability.” adds Singhania.
Wallmakers has been at the forefront of eco-conscious construction techniques in India since its inception in 2007. Founded by architect Vinu Daniel, the firm has gained international acclaim for upcycling debris and waste into building material to create masterful built structures.
“A statement by Gandhi, that an ideal house in an ideal village will be built using material that is found within a five-mile radius of the home, has influenced my perspective tremendously,” notes Daniel. Mud, being so easily available, as well as climate-responsive, naturally appealed to Daniel as a building material.
Wallmakers has continually pushed the boundaries of mud construction by finding ways to combine it with debris and other waste materials found on each site. The firm’s body of work includes innovative projects such as a 2,000 square foot luxury residence built on the edge of a cliff in the hill station of Peeremedu in Kerala, which is masterfully camouflaged into its surroundings. “At first glimpse, the house seems like a shard that seems to be protruding as an extension of the mountain into the air but blends seamlessly into its natural landscape. This project incorporates mud, soil, and Casuarina poles, a rapidly growing tree species whose wood is typically deemed as waste and reserved exclusively for scaffolding and fencing purposes,” says Daniel.
Another project in Tamil Nadu, which the firm calls ‘Chuzhi’ is a subterranean luxury residence with a swirling design, built from mud and debris. “Chuzhi as the meaning suggests in Malayalam, ”whirlpool”, ” are swirls of precast poured debris earth composite bottle beams, fashioned from 4000 discarded plastic bottles designed around the three large Tamarind trees on site,” explains Daniel.
3. Masons Ink
Bangalore-based Masons Ink specialises along 3 verticals – sustainability, heritage conservation and social architecture. Founded by architects Rosie Paul and Sridevi Changali, the firm is particularly dedicated to reaching a zero-carbon footprint in their projects and focuses on R&D in the use and innovation of natural materials in construction.
Working with hyper local materials has always been a key priority for the firm. They were first prompted to learn to build with mud at the Auroville Earth Institute in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, where the two started their careers under the mentorship of its director, Serge Maini. “It seemed so practical, so local and so rooted to work with this material that we never looked back since,” notes Changali and Paul.
The firm’s recent mud projects include a farmhouse in Bangalore where two different kinds of soil from the site were incorporated into rammed earth walls, creating a distinct pattern on the walls.
At another farmhouse in Anchetty, Tamil Nadu combines stabilised mud blocks with local stone sourced from within the site, creating an interesting play of mud and stone.
Changali and Paul reiterate the many misunderstandings that exist around the use of mud in architecture.“The biggest problem in the design and homeowner community is the lack of awareness around the benefits of using natural materials in construction – be it mud, bamboo, stone etc. The second is skill, since mass produced products have become so common, the skillset of making something handmade and customised has greatly come down, making these finishes a bit expensive (less economical) however one must understand that the money spent goes into improving livelihoods rather than to large multi national companies – which would be our go-to choice any day,” they say.
4. Bhoomija Creations
Bhoomija Creations was founded in 2011 by architects Manasi Puliyapatta and Guruprasad Rane as an architectural practice which is site specific, people friendly and environmentally friendly. The firm was also a response to their interests in exploring sustainable architectural, agricultural and living alternatives.
While the founders had started researching construction with earth and bamboo as early as in 2008, they started practising these techniques in 2013 building a residence in Trivandrum, Kerala where abundant sandy soil on site prompted the firm to work with rammed earth. “Why choose anything else to shelter you for your life but the very thing, which molds you from nothing and shelters you for eternity?” Bhoomija notes on their philosophy with these projects.
“Rammed Earth is a method which dates back to Neolithic age but has been long forgotten among modern techniques. Recent demand for sustainable construction has led to renewed interest in this technique which is more labour intensive and contains less embodied energy. This project was our small contribution in reviving this ancient technique” note Puliyapatta and Rane.
The firm went on to expand their research, while undertaking cob construction techniques in 2016 for a project located besides paddy fields, with plenty of clayey soil on site. “This led us to new research in indigenous stabilisers for soil, lime plasters, etc. These methods allowed us to explore organic planning which made the cob house – called ‘Gaea’ – all the more exciting because we could hand-sculpt the spaces,” adds Puliyapatta and Rane.
5. Make in Mitti
Make in Mitti was founded in 2019 by Fawaz Thengilan, who has had a keen interest in sustainable architecture and conducted research and workshops in earthen architecture since the start of his career. The firm’s journey with mud construction began with a residential project in Shoolagiri, Tamil Nadu during the COVID-19 pandemic where restrictions in transportation and materiality prompted the firm to innovate with mud and various forms of waste.
Using a construction method called Poured Earth Debris Wall technique, Thengilan’s team built a two bedroom residence from debris such as quarry waste and mud. The luxury residence also features minimal interiors that make use of waste and reclaimed materials – such as bed in the master bedroom that has been fashioned from reclaimed quarry waste from a nearby abandoned quarry, basins carved out of granite boulders sourced from landfills, and furniture made from reclaimed wood.
“Though people are aware that technologies like Earth, bamboo etc have less carbon footprint, people’s general concern is the life, strength and maintenance of these techniques,” says Thengilan about common misapprehensions regarding mud architecture. “Another common misconception is that alternative techniques are cheap and maintenance intensive. But in fact it is more or less the same with conventional buildings. Cost varies with a lot of factors like craftsmanship, volume of building etc. Any building needs periodic maintenance,” he adds.
Story by Sridevi Nambiar.