“Of Three little pigs, one built a house of straw, another of sticks and the last built his house of bricks, Soon came the days of the big bad wolf, who huffed and puffed and blew the straw house down! He huffed and puffed and blew the stick house down, but try as he might, he couldn’t blow the brick house down. The other two piglets resented not having built a brick house and did so soon after, and they lived happily ever after.”
There are two blatant lies in this story, that is impressed on to the minds of many a children. One, that brick houses are better than straw houses and stick houses. Two, that a wolf (Canis Lupus) can ‘Huff and puff and blow the house down. Of these which we choose to overlook is completely left to us. Statistically speaking, the Straw houses and the wattle and daub constructions of many countries have been providing shelter in human settlements for centuries. However, the instance of a wolf blowing down a house has rarely (if not ever) been reported.
In a manner of speaking it was this metaphysical wolf that needed to be tackled when we took up the Sheegehalli Project.
Sheegehalli is a small village located about 60 kms from the northern tip of Bangalore. A kilometer further away from the village, on a long strip of land is where our clients decided to do some organic farming as well as build themselves a small cottage. Suma and Shuba both work in the city and are looking forward to a quite retreat where they can both look forward to a little organic farm. Being organic farmers at heart, the two wanted a natural home to live in, where cement, paint and other man made chemical use is pushed to a minimum. This is where the project starts in all earnest, for it begins far from the city as we know it, in the outskirts of a village that is tangled in its customs, beliefs, work cultures, building practices, farming, cultural knowledge and what not.
The Brick Makers
Munshamappa was a swarthy fellow, the kind of person who you wouldn’t come in the way of. Yet as his personality unfolded, he seemed more and more a sensitive and sensible person. Hesitance prevailed over our first meeting as we explained to him that we needed him to produce around 11 thousand sun dried bricks. The hesitance did not stem from the quantity of bricks or the one week deadline, but from our choice of un burnt or un cooked bricks itself. Now Munshamappa has been making bricks for over 40 years since the tender age of 16. For a man whose memory of adobe production is overshadowed by the demand for fired bricks, it seemed as If we were mis-informed. He even tried to convince us to set fire to the pile of adobes to give it ‘some strength at least’. It was only after Jeremie got into the mixing pit and cast a few bricks that Munshamappa’s eyes widened with realization. We seemed to know what we were asking for, and what’s more, we spoke the same language of earth. The way Jeremie stacked the earth and checked the consistency of the mix was exactly how Munshamappa would do it himself. It was a bonding like no other, between a man from the mountains of France and another from the semi-arid dry lands of Karnataka. Neither spoke a common language apart from earth. It had taken only one gesture to turn the tables, he knew perfectly well how to cast adobes, he would spread sand on the flat land before he cast the mud into the molds, he explained in detail as to how he would cover the bricks lest they dry too fast. Of how he would work from 5 in the morning till 9 and again 5 in the evening till 10. Of how he would flip the bricks to the side in two days, or the rows and columns he would make on the ‘kana´ the flat ground on which one casts the adobe.
Rice husk, Quarry dust and Soil we told him, as he ruminated over how light the bricks were. ‘Olagade thamp aag irutthe’ he said (it will be cool inside the house) as we smiled at his understanding of the material.
The Master Mason (Mestri)
Shrewdness was probably just his professional trait. But it is most noticeable one when we first met Lakshmana, our local contractor. Lakshmana nodded at all the drawings presented to him and with a casual flick of head committed to wall sections that were detailed to the last brick. It took only three days for us to realize that he did not know how to read drawings, let alone drawings, he couldn’t read at all! Now, every site visit was marked by us creating demo structures be it the lost formwork to a beam or even the brick masonry. He was soon famed in the office for calling us and asking about “this wall” and “that wall” while frantically pointing at a spot roughly 70 kilometers away from us on the other side of the phone.
Though Lakshmana comes off as completely ignorant to natural building techniques, he is not. He is hesitant and unsure of building the way his forefathers taught him. This becomes glaringly obvious every time we explain the next step of the construction. If one were to explain to him the idea of mud mortar, he would complete the explanation by remarking that it would be better to leave the mix overnight, lest the clay doesn’t fully dissolve! Coming from a background where he cannot afford any financial risks, it is his trust in us and his enthusiasm to build that keeps him going on a path that he hasn’t walked before.
Visits to the nearby village, casual chats with familiar faces revealed that Suma’s dream of having a stone roof might actually be possible. A few enquiries and Suma driving to nearby stone quarys made it evident that there was an abundance of this material too! Stone roofs are the roofs of choice for ‘hulu-mane’ or vast rooms in the house used for silk worm rearing. On entering one of these spaces we were mesmerized by stones that spanned 16 – 18 feet! Another rendezvous bought us to Ullurappa- A man whose words were as strong as his material. We learnt that the span of a stone he could cut was limited only by the size of his vehicle. He was willing to cut stones of 20 feet length, and yet as the walls began to rise and we gave him detailed drawings of the stones and their measurements, so did his insecurities about the drawings. “Just tell me your overhangs and leave the rest to me”. Whether he dint trust the drawings or he dint trust Lakshmana’s wall conforming to the drawings we will never know. But what we will remember is that the house has no metal girders in its Stone roof, it is just stone all the way. A lime and Rice husk layer to insulate and local surkhi to waterproof, and we should have an al weather roof!
Several Cooks and a Wonderful Broth
This building experience has taught us one thing. There is more to the craft of building than a drawing and execution. Not one of our belief / theory/ know how was left unchallenged. Everything from the way a brick is laid, to the roof, to how the foundation is dug, nothing was left the way we wanted it. The work wouldn’t begin because the plan had fundamental vaastu issues that we had never thought of. The local priest refused to even do the puja for the marking. This would send ripples down the whole village if we were to continue. The plan was revised, rather drastically. The foundation sections changed to how it is locally done. The porch detail changed to lower it rather than heighten it as the roofers refused to work on a roof that elevated towards the east. If this was the cultural facet to the project then there was the money aspect. Lakshmana wanted to hire an extra labor just to remove small stones stuck to the adobes, while we learnt that Munshamappa, our brick maker had asked labor for a man with an injured leg to sit between the wet bricks, on a chair, through the day to chase the dogs away!! As we would raise our eyebrows, Suma would calmly say “We shouldn’t be surprised, money is hard to come by, and at least they are doing something about it”. The quarrels between the teams, the haggling, Suma and Shuba running the show and communicating the designs to the mason week after week, hundreds of phone calls, all form a chaotic background while the building steadily rises, seemingly of its own accord.
So, why so much hassle for a small cottage? A cottage that would have otherwise taken fewer than a few site visits. Home is familiarity. Familiarity of not just a place or a space, but of what it is made of. Very little of that house is made of a mystery material that was procured at a shop. Every ounce of energy that went into that house came from the breakfast the team had that morning and not from hidden machinery that run on un-thought of fuel from unseen forest. The bricks from earth, the water from the nearby well, the stones of the nearby quarry, the hands of the neighbor, the care of the farmers, the beliefs that shaped the house, Suma and Shuba know them all, and that is the closest truth to making your own home.