S01E13: The Frugal City

A picture of a mud home with light in the background. Under it, it says: Episode 13: The Frugal City.

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Deepika: So the episode we are airing this time is actually one that we were meant to air in April – but as things happened at a rapid pace and the Covid-19 lockdown was put into place, we here at The Curio-city Collective, felt that it would be more appropriate to speak to the times – to the immediate questions that came to us collectively. So of course we shifted our focus to discuss the topic of care and connection during Covid and then to lockdown and labour through the last few months. But 2020 really is turning out to be a bit of an epic year. It’s barely been half the year and as a country we’ve found ourselves facing not only covid but also other serious disasters like the two cyclones on our two coasts, the locust attacks which swept across the country, the humanitarian crisis surrounding the migrating labourers and the threat of quakes in the north of the country to say the least.

What’s interesting is that in many ways these all are, including this pandemic, the complex outcomes of human impact on the planet – as we’ve been discussing in our previous episodes. All of these situations combined are presenting a narrative of crisis which is telling us that our current way of doing things is not working. And this is why we decided to swoop back to this theme of ‘The Frugal City’ for this month. Because as the 4th month of crisis rolls out – many of us have started wondering – if not this, then what? And the two episodes within this theme are in our humble opinion – opening one such door into reflecting on and beginning to understand new ways of doing and being. We hope you find yourself nodding along – happy listening!

Arpita: I’m getting the feeling that a lot of our episodes are beginning with your traveling to some place or the other. This time it’s Himachal, in the summers and you’re in Himachal and I’m in Bangalore, sitting in this sweltering heat and I receive these beautiful beautiful gorgeous snaps of the Himalayan range and of course followed by that house you were in, in Bir, Right?

Deepika: Ya

Arpita: I mean that house was really really beautiful, it’s a mud house. And I think you sent me a cascade of snaps. There was the high ceiling, this angle of light, distant shot between deodars. Everything, right?

Deepika: Yes, so I’d gone up to visit an old family friend who’s built a mud house in Bir. And I’ve been hearing stories about this house for the last 6 years. It was constructed by this woman called Didi Contractor, who is an architect and she’s now 93 years old, but she did this when she was 86.

Arpita: Wow!

Deepika: Yes, it’s quite crazy! And I was listening to her interviews because I was curious about her life and she mentions someone called Chitra Vishwanath, who is an architect based in Bangalore. Chitra started Biome Environmental Solutions in the early 90s and now builds on the principles of sustainability in cities.

Arpita: Which we’ve been discussing forever, of course.

Deepika: Ya, and I was curious to know what that means and how does that actually happen. That’s what brought me to Chitra.

Chitra: Chitra Vishwanath here, I’m an architect, I practice from Bangalore. Part of a firm called Biome Environmental Solutions. which I was instrumental in starting in 1990 as Chitra Vishwananth Architects because of the lack of any imagination to give a name.

The beginning of my practice was more economical than ecological in nature. 1990 was a watershed year in terms of the Indian economy which opened up and there were loans available for the middle class and the middle class started making their own homes. At HUDCO, there was also great priority given for working with alternative materials and especially what Laurie Baker espoused, the architecture of frugality which is what I was much influenced by. Rather than just his way of construction, more of his ideas of frugality-build just as much as you need.

Deepika: You know, when she was talking about Laurie Baker, as soon as she mentioned his name, I thought of you because I know how much you love his work.

Arpita: I can’t remember when I first heard of him but I think I’ve been secretly nurturing the idea of…I don’t know, building something, anything by his principles.

So Laurie Baker was called the Gandhi of Architecture – this is partly because he was a Gandhian, and partly because of his Quaker roots, so simplicity was part of his life. This meant he was speaking of building as per need and not greed.

I love his story: he was this British man who walked into India one fine day and found his degree of architecture completely useless. Because he had grown up in a temperate region, right, and tropical India completely confounded him. It was just so, so different that he was humbled into learning from the locals. That’s how localisation happened. It wasn’t some principle he arrived at. It just happened, and these fanciful terms we use like cost-effectiveness and energy effective architecture, that just came naturally with that.

Deepika: Ya, and I think you know what you said about need versus greed. It’s something that Chitra says it’s also why she chooses to build with mud because it’s in line with Laurie Baker’s principles and philosophy of building. It allows for so much, going back to simpler forms, and necessity versus wanting to exploit and extract more and more.

Chitra: The essence of frugality is that you build what you need but you don’t do something extra at all. Build it beautifully, so the structures are beautiful, the mason feels good, we all feel good that its been built well and it’s also much more honest–you really see what you’re building and how it is built. Even if a block gets bad, you can replace it with another block which you can’t do in a plastered painted building. You don’t know what’s happening inside. So that’s how it’s a better choice.

I and most of us prefer to do most of the work in the cities to bring the city into ecological schema. So this has been our concern and we’re doing it in the smallest possible plot too. And we’re doing it for small families who might not be able to sit there and if a small crack develops, take a little mud and plaster it.

Deepika: She was describing to me what those mud blocks are, and they’re called CSEBs – which is short for compressed stabilised earth blocks. Largely a mud block but it has about 5-10% cement that is mixed in to act as a stabiliser.

Arpita: And where is this mud coming from? I’m guessing Laurie Baker so locally?

Deepika: Very locally, so from your own land, from the foundations of your house. If not, then as close to that as possible because the idea is not to, you know, traipse across half the country to get more and more soil.

Chitra: The first thing we try is that we will build with soil, if available and we explore that. And also different soil can be modified. Now this doesn’t happen with any other material so you have a soil and you start looking at, ok, there’s see there’s quarry dust available or fly-ash available, and lime available so if you mix what happens to that. So we’ve used in Bhopal mostly with fly-ash, lime and soil. The building is grey rather than brown like here. In Tadoba, you got soil of a different kind. What’s nice about it is that it’s not just intuitive. You don’t just pick up and say ‘I’ll make that’ which is what happens in traditional mud, because that comes from a long association of working with it. But here you require science. You have to get the soil tested, you have to do a lot of mixes in the lab.

Arpita: So this must really result in unique looking buildings – because obviously, the soil is unique to the landscape.

Deepika: Yeah and she’s built across the country, you know, and depending on where she is, the buildings looks different because of the soil and quality and colour is different and you can see that in the construction.

But she was talking about something which is even more interesting which is embodied energy costs and explaining what that is.

Chitra: Embodied energy is the amount of energy required to make a product. So let’s say an earth block. The maximum embodied energy comes from the cement which goes in. Otherwise it’s the soil which you have taken from your own basement. You have calorific value there which is about 6 people making the block. So that’s there. And the machine which you keep reusing. You make at least one lakh blocks and then you only service it. It can be used for 10-20 years.

Arpita: Ok, I’m not sure I got that.

Deepika: So how usually we look at costs in terms of money, right? So you look at how much a can of paint costs, how much that brick costs or what that bag of cement is going to mean and how many you need. Now imagine a parallel scale where you measuring as per energy and not money. So that same dabba of paint, that same brick, same cement, how much energy has gone into making it? Where is it coming from, what’s that transportation cost involved? So everything is built into that energy cost and that’s how you come up with a different and parallel way of looking at it.

Arpita: Okay, so it’s a different measure, I get that. But what do you achieve out of figuring out the energy cost?

Deepika: You lots of times money doesn’t often reveal the cost of something. I mean, its a transaction, but all those hidden costs that ecologically you’re looking at in terms of what that’s resulting in–none of that is factored in. By looking at the embodied energy cost of anything, every material we use in our lives, it’s not just construction material, all of that gives you that bigger picture that a simple money transaction loses. She was using the example of paint to talk about embodied energy and a mud brick to explain that.

Chitra: Whereas in paint, there are a lot of chemicals which go into it, which will be in a factory somewhere beyond and you’ll be transporting it to the place and that’s all the energy which is cumulative into a product. So that’s what’s embodied energy. So I’m just comparing leaving a wall unfinished, unplastered and unpainted compared to just a coat of paint. That will be the difference.

Deepika: In her conclusion, she was saying that the embodied energy of paint is actually a 102 times more than that of an earth block that you make from your own soil.

Arpita: I think that drives the point home. Then you understand the difference between how something is costed through money and through energy.

Deepika: Ya, and when she said paint, the first thing I thought of was my house in Mumbai where every year after the monsoon the walls will get mouldy and swell and the ceiling will drip. You’re already scheduling that annual paint and refurbishment because you have to. It’s money you plan for in the year because you know it has to be done but at no point have I said, ‘Why does this need so much investment in this way?’

Arpita: It is seriously odd that we haven’t thought of this before.

Deepika: Yes, and you’re going to love what she said next which is about frugality and how she defines that within her kind of architecture.

Chitra: The building should be built in a way that we know whether that development can provide for its water, can treat its own waste in the plot that they are, provide for most of its energy, provide for biodiversity, and provide for a little bit of food too. These are 5 elements that should be in the bylaws. Let’s put it in- show us this would happen in your plot, then you build as much as you want.

Not on the basis of the width of the road, the land size, or this is the FSI and then you build that much. Then you leave it for 5 or 10 years and the price just keeps going up and you make profit on something very invisible, economics. It’s exploitative economics which is why it’s not working.

Arpita: Ok, this I do understand, sustainability. So basically what she’s saying is we’re not building as individuals apart from the world we’re living in, but as creatures very much embedded within ecosystem, right?

Deepika: Yes, and I love that reminder that we’re part of the ecosystem. I know I forget, often. Especially when you’re sitting in your house you don’t think you’re connected to that larger world. I think the house reflects that.

She was talking about how you need to give back and look at yourself as part of that larger space and was explaining that in the context of her 800 sq foot basement.

Chitra: What it does, it tells you the carrying capacity. If you’ve done the foundation, the soil which you’ve got, say 100CFT of soil you got, that means there’s only a certain amount of walling you can do. That means your foundation or your basement is telling you, ‘only this much of construction should you do on this land’ because that’s the amount of soil you’ve got. More than that and you’re bringing material from elsewhere. That’s why we talk about carrying capacity.

Once you have the earth from your land, then you decide how big you’re building, decide how big a basement you make. Or you say, ya you’re ready to give the extra soil to somebody else. So let’s say you used all of it. From our basement of 800 sq feet, we made 1500 and another house of about 800 sq ft so let’s say 2000 sq feet you could make. So you decide on that. If you have 100 sq feet, you can do 200 sq feet of house. That may be a rule of thumb you could take.

Then you decide on how much water falls on your terrace and how much water will you be able to collect and stay within that parameter. And then do you have land to treat your waste water? Do you have land to recharge? If you start looking at this whole concept, then you decide how much you should be building on the land. Then it’s like any animal which builds its burrow. How big a nest can you make for 3 chicks growing, that’s all you make. You don’t make more than that.

Arpita: I really like the way she’s put that! Planning for a home, just like any little forest dwelling creature would.

Deepika: Yes, it’s a new way of looking at homes – and as you said, I love the idea of being a part of that ecosystem.

Arpita: Ya, but I think the question that’s sort of going to pop into everybody’s mind is -what is the cost? And I here mean obviously the money kind. Is it much much more expensive?

Deepika: It’s not, actually. It’s something Chitra said they had to actively work on because they didn’t want it to be this alternative construction. They wanted it to be competitive and comparable cost to a mainstream building. And that’s what they did then.

Chitra: Let’s take, Deepika, the cost. It’s not more expensive than a designed building. You can’t compare it with a building built by a mason. A designed building and this is an apple to apple comparison. That’s what it should be. A designed building will be a little more expensive than what a mason does because they wouldn’t bring in the kind of inputs that a designed building does. And the design brings in inputs that would be better for your life – in terms of light, ventilation, etc. Minimum of that. This is not more expensive, which is what we have always felt, Biome has always tried to do, that it cannot be more expensive. If at all, it should be cheaper. It’s cheaper in terms of maintenance. It’s the same cost as conventional buildings. If it becomes more expensive it is unecological.

Through 10 years of work where one had studied the materials which go in, the labour, how much it costs, we were able to come up with an item rate estimate. So we made our own estimates. We could give that to the client and give that after the design is done. It helped for the idea of this kind of construction spreading because it also provided an ethical base. Here, it was not only a design you’d get but a team to build, but also you’d know how much you would spend, where you’re spending and monitoring it. This was very important. To us it felt it was the only way that an alternative construction can become something possible for most to adopt because it follows something in the mainstream.

Arpita: So I think I’m now getting a hang of the kind of architecture Chitra is speaking of, but you know I’m really curious – how did she get there? how did she arrive at these principles?

Deepika: She’s had a really interesting story. She grew up literally all over the map, from Banaras to Nigeria to Ahmedabad to Bangalore.

Chitra: I was born in Banaras. My father was teaching in BHU. We were south Indians there, so we always had as young kids studying in BHU, from the south, coming home. It was an open house. In fact on Sundays or Saturdays, more people than the family would be eating. Then we went to Nigeria and the house was again very open for everybody to walk in. My mother was an extremely good cook so everyone would be eating.

Deepika: She was saying that the idea of having an open home, that came into was one thing. But CEPT which is the The Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, one of the best institutes of its kind in India – where she studied, that also formed and shaped her idea of how she looked at shared spaces.

Chitra: So the shared spaces, happened through the CEPT school of architecture where no classroom was a classroom where you couldn’t go. you walked to a classroom through another classrooms. We called it studio. You worked in a studio but you could look at a studio below. You could shout or juniors or seniors about the music being played or you could also see what they were doing. Their own class, if you were interested, you could just go sit. That has remained with us and you can see that as a common feature in our homes and stuff – that you could see anywhere. It was difficult for people to accept that our house is also very open. You could see anywhere from the living room, to our son’s room. If you went in our rooms, you had mezzanines. So this is the built aspect of it—from Ahmedabad and the studies there.. I liked moving and seeing everybody.

Arpita: But when did Biome actually come into being?

Deepika: Biome actually started in the early 1990s, and you know, she started it after she met her husband at CEPT. He was also a student there and they fell in love and got married and moved to Bangalore. At the time, none of her clients wanted to experiment with a mud-block house so they decided they’d do it themselves and they chose a plot of land, built a house and now live there together.

Chitra: We were lucky to build our own house and when we came to see the plot and we saw our neighbour constructing with this beautiful red earth, we decided to build with earth blocks. We were very keen to build with earth blocks but it was very difficult to convince clients to do it. We had no prior experience. So we decided to do our own house and make a basement because we realised that the earth required would not be enough coming out of the foundation.

So we did a basement, we call it the worst basement but the first one, so we learnt a lot from doing that. We got enough earth to not only build our own house but a small house nearby where we couldn’t do a basement.

I don’t know if I went about seriously that we have to do mud or something, but we got sucked into it. Happily sucked into it. The whole effect of it, the challenge that you have to get a soil that is right. Every time I go anywhere now I keep looking at soil that I like and get very thrilled at the kind of soil that is available. And again the versatility. It may not be the soil that looks like its Bangalore, but elsewhere and it’s a challenge. How do I use that?

Arpita: So you actually interviewed her in her office space and visited her home, right? So aesthetically and spatially, did it feel different and was it a lot like the Bir place?

Deepika: It’s very different from most places I’ve been in but it evoked the sensation I had when I was in the house in Bir which is of spaciousness. When your bare feet make contact with the mud floor, that grounding that comes with it and it’s also the interplay of light and the use of light and air. So it feels like there’s flow within the house. She was saying in her office also, and pointed that out to me, when you look at volumes and how volumes can create a sense of space. So while the plot might be 800 sq feet, the actual volume of it is much larger.

Chitra: A small plot cannot be seen as area, it should be seen as volume. That thing we were sure. You see, this room is an area. Now when you see our office, it’s a volume. If you see area is just about 1000 sq foot but the volume is much larger and the notion of space to be brought through volume rather than area. Everyone comes and says, we want a 14×14 bedroom but our house has 8×10 bedrooms but the volume is higher. At certain places the height is more. The sleeping space is only 8ft but other places is 14ft. The heights become more so you don’t feel claustrophobic. It’s experiential stuff. Light comes from different places. Modulation of light is essential in these places.

Arpita: I like the idea of exploring volume alongside area. Because a house is also about its empty space and not just the walls.

Deepika: And the effect is incredible! I mean, I went up to the upper level of her office and there’s this huge bank of windows on the left and it looks out onto trees. The space outside there is reflective of the space inside and there’s an intermingling of that outer and inner world.

Arpita: You know, as I was listening I was thinking of how Bangalore has changed a lot since the last decade or so and its gone from being this sleepy little small residential kind of space to increasingly having a lot of high rises. Did Chitra speak to this? How do we begin to deal with this sustainably?

Deepika: Yes, she did actually. The easy answer is that, it’s possible. But the question that she flipped back to me was – what is your reason for building that high rise? And that question of need versus greed, is it for your own need and your family or is it an investment or that money is being made of? And then looking at that and the context of whether it’s ecological and what that cost is.

Arpita: Yes, we do hear of how many of these apartments are really empty because these are houses made for investment.

My second thought was this – considering the city that already stands all around us, it’s largely made of concrete, right. So, now what?

Deepika: We talked about that and her response was encouraging because there are simple things we can do to transform even these concrete blocks to ecosystems.

Chitra: We’re so blessed we’re in tropical climate, so put plants, put trees. It’s the basic which requires the least amount of intervention, the least amount of financial problems. Plant trees, plant, plant anything. Don’t leave the terrace grey – make it green. That anybody can do it. It can reduce urban flooding because plants will take up and it creates great biodiversity for pollinators to grow. Don’t worry, put soil and let grass grow, let wildflowers grow. It requires that during construction you do a good job which allows for water to move away, which is very basic, good construction and you would make a huge difference in the city. I’m not asking that buildings should be looking fantastic but the buildings should be amenable for biodiversity and that would change the way people would feel. You see a bird, you see a monkey also, and it’s better than just seeing a brick wall or glass wall. So it’s important to bring in biodiversity, more trees and animals in our midst.

It’s like on our terrace. You just pick up a pot, a real ceramic WC, which is thrown everywhere. Put it there and you can grow anything you feel like. It’s important that we start doing that. We work with soil, you have to start creating soil. So composting, as well as putting plants. These two things are the future.

Deepika: When she was describing green spaces green roofs, I was thinking about how France in March 2015 had legislated this. So rooftops on new commercial buildings have to either be covered in solar panels, or plants. Green, basically. The idea is that a green roof is able to have that isolating effect, it can reduce the amount of energy you need to heat a building in winter and cool it in summer. It retains rainwater, encourages birds and butterflies.

Arpita: Yes absolutely, that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my terrace!

Deepika: And that’s what I love about your terrace. It feels like it’s thriving with different kinds of life forms. I was thinking of you when I was on her terrace because it’s completely green and she has these blue discarded water tanks and she’s got these mini trees growing. And she was saying that they grew rice on the roof for 2 years.

Arpita: Can you grow rice on your roof? I’ve never heard of it before! It needs standing water.

Deepika: I’d have thought so too but there are clearly different ways of doing it. And they had enough that they didn’t need to buy rice for 2 years.

Chitra: So looking at it as an ecosystem. and we don’t see humans as only parasitic. Could they be useful? One of it is the way we build. The future we are looking at is in fact going beyond the use of mud blocks alone and looking at the use of waste from the city, the city as a quarry rather than the city which is taking materials from the outlying areas to make itself. Because we need to and we do break buildings. Right now we look at it only as a waste but that could be a resource. It’s not something we have come up with, it’s a thought process going on everywhere and we need to incorporate waste into the building and the built itself should be something which always is available in the future as a quarry.

Break a building and then you make a new building from the same material. Or from some other building which is broken. It should be a space for itself. So the city should become a place where it holds its own waste and uses it for constructing itself.

Arpita: The idea of the city constructing itself from its own past – that’s very interesting and I think we’re in the absolute opposite direction right now. How do we begin to change that?

Deepika: It’s a direction Chitra said she wants to move to, ultimately even doing away with the title of an ‘architect’.

Chitra: What architecture gives you is a chance to converse and to me that’s becoming important, being able to talk to people. Through design you can talk and see what they are picking up and how they are going to respond and you can affect lives. That’s the most interesting part. That’s part of being with the earth. I don’t think it needs to be that you have to build with earth. The material you use plays a very small role. If you can make with any material an ecosystem, that is better. I’d rather be called an architect of an ecosystem —that would make me work harder. That’s better than just saying ‘earth architect’.

How does the insert of a building, is a positive part of the ecosystem, instead of taking everything fresh and throwing out waste. If we can do that more and more, as architects, in fact the whole profession of architecture should be slowly vanished and become part of the ethos of everybody—I can build a house, and this is what I have to do. It’s very simple things, and make spaces that I can share with others rather than just make for ourselves and put these locks and keys. Even if you have extra and you don’t share it, it’s not fair. So that’s the space I want to move to.

Arpita: I have to admit that while what she’s describing is so beautiful, I don’t know, don’t you feel it sounds slightly utopian because we’re sitting here surrounded by concrete, right?

Deepika: But there’s more to it than that. Things are changing. Some of the things she was telling me about Bangalore, I’d heard for the first time.

Chitra: There are about 7000 buildings in Bangalore which are built with earth, with stabilised earth. That’s the largest concentration of earth buildings in the world, in one city. And we don’t talk about it. It’s incredible, and there’s so many people building! And now, in this city, you have at least 10 entrepreneurs who are making blocks and selling. They have seen that as a possibility and now it satisfies me so much that you get into a lane and see one little house coming up with these blocks which they’ve bought off the shelf. Some of them are so good! They’re using all sorts of waste and making the block and selling it. This is what’s important – that it’s becoming a common lingo rather than saying ‘I need to see some 100,000 homes of mud blocks’. No, it’s more important that people start using it and seeing it as a ready alternative.

Arpita: Bangalore has 7000 buildings made of mud! By these Laurie Baker-Chitra principles. That is just amazing. I would never have guessed that, no!

Deepika: Yes, I wanted to stick little pins on them and do a walking tour and see what the city looks like from that angle. But you know, when I was sitting there, listening to Chitra talking about these ideas of frugality, I was thinking about a conversation we’ve had about that word. It evokes a sense of having less or there’s an association actually of poverty in some ways.

But when I was in that mud house, in her office and even in the one up in Bir, there’s a sense of abundance there. There’s something very generous about being in a space that uses light, material and greenery in that way. It’s strange because the aspiration is to have more and look posh and fancy but the sensation that these spaces evoke is actually that – that abundance we’re all seeking in many ways but if we could experience and connect with that, it makes so much more sense to me. That’s a city I would live in and proudly call frugal.

Chitra: I really want to see the city as an ecosystem. I think it’s a possibility. So city as a forest, and not by just planting trees but planting them sensitively. I want to see sparrows back, I want to see lot more butterflies and bees residing in the city. I want to see a lot more shared spaces, people sitting outside which is so good but we don’t see here. I want to see a lot more benches on the road and people are using it rather than cafes only. I want to see more equity. I like to think of it as going back to a stage where it’s more of an agora, so just snatches of philosophy but what Socrates said I really like that if possible, people are able to converse more and so if one-to-one conversation, I get to know what you’re thinking of what I’m saying instead of being in a room or writing a book.

If that’s possible, it’s so much better, if we can make more spaces. I want a city where young people and especially women are out even at 12 in the night alone. That will be the best city I would like to be in.

Outro: To know more about earth architecture and building with mud, visit http://www.biome-solutions.com. In our next episode, we chat with S. Vishwanath, Chitra’s partner and another member of the Biome family. Famously known by his online moniker, zenrainman, he speaks to us about how he got hooked onto issues of water and rainwater harvesting in particular. Don’t forget to listen in at http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org

This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and Deepika Khatri and was produced by The Bangalore Recording Company.