An Ode to Living with Nature

Biju Bhaskar through his natural buildings has carved out a niche in Indian architecture. His traditional roots have helped him to keep himself close to Mother Nature and to spread his thoughts he founded ‘Thannal: Hand Sculpted Homes’ at Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu with his wife Sindhu Bhaskar in 2011.

An inspiring journey he undertook, after dropping out of his architecture course, learning the various traditional crafts and methods have gripped his sense of design. The indigenous wisdom imparted by him transforms the spaces to create a serene balance.

Architecture and Projects

In the conventional means of design, one of the biggest concerns is the cost of a building. People are struggling to get a house built by taking extensive amounts of loan.

Biju believes the trend is really shifting from what it was, as this natural architect has been receiving calls from various parts of the country and even from abroad expressing interest in his work.

The methods that he follow to construct the sustainable buildings are very cost-effective that it goes a long way in terms of habitation, sustainability and health of the residents.

He has recently done modifications to the roof of his own home – EarthBag Home in Tiruvannamalai. Also in its campus, he has set up a prototype for ‘free homes’ initiative called ‘Singing Dervish Studio’ which is built using Cob.

‘It’s not yet finished, we are slowly working on it in our leisure time. Also, it’s a platform for us to experiment with fresh ideas and use ancient techniques and systems’ says the architect.

He is also working on another project called ‘Seed Bank’ coming up in Karur, Tamil Nadu. A building designed to protect and store seeds, keeping the natural resources in the architectural spaces.

The construction of this building is very unique with carved in storage spaces and loft areas that respond to a natural way of protection.

EarthBag Home roof renovation

The thatched roof of the house made of dried palm and coconut leaves was able to sustain for three years after its construction. Thatching is a fading art and only a few who practices it remain in Tamil Nadu.

So as it was time to re-thatch the roof he decided to experiment by including natural building materials like bamboo and lime plaster-straw mixture. Thiruvannamalai soars to extreme temperatures during summers, so reducing the heat was one of the main reasons while selecting this method.

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Also to get the required lighting and ventilation in to the spaces, they incorporated an age-old technique using the (naatuoddu) country tiles. The renovation took around 45 days to complete.

The work was completed with the help of his family, including his kids, three shepherds and a few farmers. The whole process is divided into parts. Bamboo is one of the main elements used in the construction.

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Solid matured bamboo is laid iteratively adjacent in stacks along with another layer of bamboo placed with an inch of gap. On top of it a plantation leaf layer is added and lime plaster-straw mixture is applied over it.

Later a set of wooden frames are laid on the whole surface, before covering the habitation area with country tiles. These layers act as a thermal shield and helps in reducing the heat inside the house about 10 to 12 degrees compared to the out doors.

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Lime plaster helps to reduce the weight of the roof. The sunshades and eaves are tackled with a different method called Adobe Roof System.
In this process after the layer of matured bamboo, a mixture of lime plaster and surkhi (burnt clay) powder is applied.

This mixture generates a strong bond which in turn creates a pozzolanic action. Pozzolana is a natural material that is used as a substitute for cement in Italy. It was known to have been in great use during the Renaissance period.

Art historians claim that it dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, but it is said that surkhi has been in use even before that, as references about the same can be found in literature from the Vedic period.

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The work encompasses a wide range of ingredients from plants that come into the design materials. According to the architect, various kinds of leaves can be used in the process of roof construction, including plantation leaves, teak, lotus and Indian bay.

Rajasthan Plaster

‘When you start seeing your hands, you stop working’ Biju Bhaskar has been experimenting with various indigenous techniques of plastering prevalent in Rajasthan for the past three years.

The traditional method of plastering in Rajasthan is divided into Araish, Lohi and Thappi. Araish method is said to be more powerful than the Moroccan plaster known as Tadelakt which is widely used now a days for its impressive strength.

The bathrooms of Earthbag Home are done using Araish plaster. Even kitchen sinks can also be made using this method. ‘You can see your reflection in it’ says Biju.

Thappi is an indigenous tool used by the artisans of Rajasthan. A wooden stick is used to beat the lime and burnt clay so that both will blend to perfection. This iterative hammering is determined according to the sound it imparts.

The rhythmic ‘tha tha tha’ resonates to express the quality of the plaster. An upgraded version of Thappi is Lohi. Araish is again an advanced version of Lohi. According to the architect, these materials are much superior to the most popular materials that are used currently in the construction industry.

Learning Centre: Khiru Roof

The native method of Rajasthan known as Khiru roof is used in the construction of the Learning Centre at Tiruvannamalai. Bamboo forms the first layer which is stacked up to create the framework and is also used as supports.

The second layer is a set of branches of the calotropis (erukku), spread along the whole surface. Next the leaves of this plant are put on top which forms the third layer. This plant oozes a certain type of resin which helps in forming a hard bond with all the materials.

As the fourth layer, teak leaves are spread on top along with a carpet of straw. After that, a mixture of lime plaster and mud are blanketed over it. On top of this, brick peices are laid to create depth; afterwards one more layer of lime plaster and mud is applied. Finally, it is finished with Thappi lime plaster.

Seed Bank

Thannal is building a seed bank on Karur-Dindigal route in a place called Rangamalai for an IT employee, who has taken up his family tradition of farming. His idea was to start a reserve bank for seeds of local genetics, which will serve the villagers in a great way during the times of drought.

The seed collection of this bank can serve upto 10 villages. The traditional method includes storing seeds inside walls, hanging stores and loft spaces. Even the temples were also known to store rice seeds in their walls.

Cob method is used in the construction of walls in the Seed Bank with holes dug on site for mixing it. An extended verandah space is provided to dry the seeds. There is no electricity from the board instead they have installed solar panels to power the building.

Hopbush plant (dodonea viscosa) is used in the construction process. It is a termite resistant plant with many superior qualities normally used for fencing. This cost effective method is used by including it into the construction of walls.

The foundation is a mixture of mud and lime plaster. Afterwards a belt of bamboo reinforcement is knitted along. While the wall is being erected a layer of hopbush is laid horizontal and vertical, alternatively so that each layer doesn’t grow over and further.

Shelves are carved into the wall structure during this process. Kadappa stone is used for the lintels and shelves. Matured palm is used as the rafters and beams in the roof design.

For this about 100-year-old palms from the site were treated with three coats of cashew nut oil. The junctions where these rafters meet the wall are covered with banana leaves that keep the moisture away. Above the Cob they have used Wattle and Daub system with small sticks of bamboo and then topped with Mangalore tiled roofing.

Bamboo is treated with river salt using boric and borax method for the roof of the loft and wooden planks are used for the flooring. The front porch is made using old stone columns that support a green roof which consists of recycled tyre sheets and mud for plants to grow.

The methods and practices that Biju Bhaskar and his team do at Thannal by imbibing various ingenious methods that existed in India from the ancient times is really commendable.

They are also into sharing these techniques by conducting workshops for students and providing training to ordinary people to built their own home.