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Blending Traditional Values with Contemporary Design

Houses are intrinsically tied to the cultural landscape of the region and in the olden times in Kinnaur, great value is placed on the following traditional uniformity in house designs. A stark resemblance between houses built in the valley and the overall architectural homogeneity creates a strong sense of belonging among community members. Kinnaur district in Himachal is known for its woodworking heritage and detailed ornamentation of traditional homes. Usage of Himalayan cedar tree is popular for building homes due to its termite resistant properties and it’s ability to accept meticulous carvings on the surface but very few of these structures exist today. In the lower Kinnaur villages like Kalpa, Sanghla, Pooh, and Baba Nagar, the Kath-Kuni technique that uses a combination of wood and stone is traditionally practiced while in the upper Kinnaur side covering Hangrang valley, building with mud - adobe, and rammed earth is more prominent.

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Traditional mud houses in Hangrang valley, Kinnaur  | Photo by Chemi Lhamo

Many changes are taking place in Kinnaur and growing access to the market, connectivity is certainly impacting how we build houses these days and RCC-based buildings are becoming more wide-spread. When I decided to build my house in Hango a few years back, I was very conscious of building it in a way that amalgamates traditional wisdom, and vernacular designing techniques with a modern sensibility. The traditional construction methods are easy, economical, ecologically sensitive, provides cultural utility and thermal functionality and I was determined to preserve that essence. Any changes in these designs should aim for aesthetic needs, comfort, and suitability to modern-day needs at the lowest possible ecological cost.

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Construction Phase | Photo by Gopal Negi 

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Gopal ji's mud house | Photo by Deepshikha Sharma 

The primary material used for the construction was stone, adobe bricks, and wood, and special focus was placed on the building structure given the hilly terrain of the village to ensure it takes into consideration the geographical peculiarities and is climate-responsive. Building with adobe is an ancient, low-cost technique that mixes clay, and sand with organic materials like husk, and sawdust. Adobe bricks are mud bricks that are sun-dried and take about a month to dry and are more durable than kiln-fired mud bricks. The advantages of these bricks are that they are fireproof, biodegradable, and also are great at insulation, which is an important factor when building in a place like Hango. These bricks are allowed to shrink beforehand which also ensures a strong structure. Building with adobe is easier and faster than the rammed earth technique, once sufficient stock of adobe bricks is made, wall construction progresses quickly. 


Stone layering is done for the foundation as it is moisture-resistant and helps preserve the structure from deteriorating over time. Adobe walls are load-bearing and thick hence there was no need for load-bearing beams. For the flooring, pine woods were brought from Solan and Chandigarh as the availability of local woods has shrunk and pine was a more cost-friendly option as compared to deodar. I was determined to ensure maximum usage of natural materials and hence the use of cement, iron, plywood, or other popular industrial materials was avoided. The house is built in the traditional Kinnauri style with multiple spaces to store fodder and firewood. Big, well-framed windows are installed to allow maximum sunlight, and double doors to retain the heat inside. The kitchen and living room are on the ground floor and are structurally joined like the traditional mud houses in Kinnaur. 

Co-designing spaces like this is a popular practice in most high Himalayan villages as it is warmer and I have given a slight tweak to the traditional heating system to make it aesthetically pleasing and more energy efficient. Hand-built mud fireplace with mud chimneys was made to suit the structure of the house and the walls draw heat from the mud-burning structure. The overall living room layout is in such a way that the family can have the space for cooking as well as a common space to sit, and have conversations and everyone can comfortably utilize the space. Unlike the traditional mud house designs in Kinnaur, the roof has a slanted design with stone slate layering which eases the burden of shoveling snow from the roof during winter as the slanting helps glide snow. A smaller structure of a dry toilet is also made outside the house which doesn’t require water. 

Gopal ji's mud house | Photo by Deepshikha Sharma 

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Gopal ji's mud house | Photo by Deepshikha Sharma 

It took about one and a half years to complete the double-story mud building and once it was completed, I was happy to receive many inquiries regarding the earthen building - the process, techniques, materials, and many other aspects that garnered curiosity from both locals and outsiders alike. I wanted to demonstrate that durable, aesthetic, eco-friendly houses can be built from natural materials and create a dialogue around a sustainable buildings practices. With every keen look and every curious engagement, I feel I am one step closer to my goal.

Interior construction  | Photo by Deepshikha Sharma 

About the Storyteller 

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Gopal Negi

Gopal Negi is from Chuling village in Hangrang valley in Kinnaur. His family belongs to a small nomadic household and has now shifted to apple cultivation. He is an engineer with a deep passion for natural farming, natural building techniques, and issues of ecological sustainability. Additionally, he nurtures curiosity for alternative forms of medicine and nature-based healing. His farm  Sahjivan Eco Farms - offers experiential learning opportunities on natural farming and sustainable living in Himachal Pradesh.  He consults individuals and institutions across India on sustainable architecture and spreads the message of sustainable living by practicing it in his daily life.

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