Muds, cobs and clay: The Joy of Building
There’s unalloyed joy in sculpting with mud; mixing soil with clay, straw; sun-drying the bricks before finishing the cob structure with cow dung clay. The essence of natural building is the hands-on experimentation, close engagement with the material and use of locally available resources – one that can be harnessed for building sustainable eco-friendly architectural designs. “It is the innate familiarity of the natural elements and the freedom to mould it into any design is what makes the process special” muses Stanzin Phuntsog, a self-taught eco-architect from Ayee village (Nubra, Ladakh). Phuntsog was a curious child and has always been fascinated by the natural world around him; the gigantic mountains, the glaciers sustaining village life, natural ways of farming and the wealth of indigenous knowledge people in rural communities possess.
He was particularly captivated by natural ways of building, the traditional architectural designs and their intricate details. “In Ladakh, everyone has some basic understanding of building structures and I was fascinated by those structures. The knowledge also sowed a desire within me to build something on my own '' he reminisces. He discovered his own love for architecture and natural material by observing communal mud house building activities in his hometown. With unconventional views on ‘education’ Phuntsog is a staunch believer of experiential learning. He believes as much learning happens outside four walls of the classroom than by immersing oneself in daily realities. “One can read how plants develop their branches, roots; soil develops their fertility; mountains develop glaciers from a textbook or actually be in the natural world around you and observe and learn first-hand”. His passion for immersive learning was further fuelled when he explored alternative learning in the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL, Ladakh) after deliberately walking out of the conventional school system.
Cob Car Cottage (Leh, Ladakh)
He then enrolled in a 2 year’s course at Swaraj University (Udaipur, Rajasthan) where he received hands-on training in architecture, self-designing, ecological sustainability and exposure to green entrepreneurship. The innate zeal for experiential learning also probably led to pursue his interests in sustainable architectural design and later start his venture Earth Building with Samyuktha whom he met at Swaraj. The venture focuses on reviving natural ways of construction which is aesthetic, functional and thermally comfortable. “We endeavour to do that by reclaiming indigenous knowledge and valuing vernacular architectural designs.” They have explored many earthen techniques like cob (soil mixed with clay and dry grasses), earthbag dome, adobe (dried mud bricks), stone masonry, rammed earth, lime clay plasters and traditional Ladakhi roofing. “The key is to use resources locally available to you and experiment with it. There’s less carbon footprint and one can focus on energy efficiency” he continues.
“To us, natural building is a process which connects people and brings in the confidence that everyone can build their own homes”. Growing up in a close-knitted community in Spiti and having seen my relatives build their own homes drew me to Phuntsog’s initiative. It is precisely that soulful building process, the collective sense of community and the sense of belongingness one feels while building a house makes it endearing. Many houses in high Himalayan landscapes are built that way and communal labour plays an intrinsic role. Phuntsog gained practical knowledge around sustainable architecture by exploring different places and by observing local architectural designs – the kind of soil available in that particular region, the stones they are using and the kind of roofing suited for that place.
Earthbag Dome (Leh, Ladakh)
He is also keen on passing his learning and engaging more people in reviving sustainable practice around architectural designs. With Earth Building, he has found that balance where he engages interested people and volunteers to learn about eco-friendly building techniques and explore natural elements through community building processes. Phuntsog has a craftsman-like approach to architecture and has an instinctual understanding of handling natural material. He also gives training on stone masonry and traditional architectural design implementation.
From building an Earthbag dome house and Adobe farmhouse in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu to cob based interior designing in Talavali, Maharashtra to cob car cottage in Leh, Ladakh, his work shows sensitivity towards regional variations and practicality of weather conditions to sustain those structures. In Leh, he built a unique low-cost cottage entirely with local resources and recycled materials like wood, glass, tyres, bottles and discarded Mahindra car body. They used cob based technique by mixing clay, sand, dried grasses with cow dung clay finishing. Phuntsog’s work is grounded in nature as his ideals and his work unites architecture with indigenous knowledge and conservation.
Cob Based Interior, (Maharashtra)
Adobe House - (Pollachi, Tamil Nadu)
About the Author
Stanzin is a self-explored architect who walked out of the conventional school system at a very young age and explored alternative education in SECMOL, Ladakh. His travels through India helped him gain practical knowledge of sustainable architecture which led him to co-found Earth Building. He is also very interested in photography and passionate about trekking. Every summer, he goes back to his village in Nubra valley (Ladakh) and helps his family in farming.