The ‘Chirath’ for a new path

During the last century, Kerala- the southern state of India has seen a significant rise in mass migration. Natives that crossed seas in pursuit of a brighter future ended up settling in various parts of the world.

Over due course, they were exposed to the ‘global’ architectural styles prevalent abroad. Inspired by it, the expats were determined to mimic the same back home.

The traditional and vernacular architecture of the region is world renowned for its sloping tiled roofs, extending eaves, intricate carvings and craftsmanship, shaped along the tides of time in tandem to the tropical climate of Kerala.

However, the modernist wave soon found many takers. The vernacular palette of wood, stone and clay gave way to concrete, steel and glass. The new perspective essayed a sense of progress and development often at the cost of climate responsiveness.

Now, Kerala is in the process of becoming a concrete jungle with its cities and metros growing exponentially. Is vernacular architecture being shown the door, or is there still a ray of hope?

Mr. Ramanujan Basha, brought up in a traditional Namboothiri family, is a torchbearer for change. Traditional residences in Kerala have a characteristic dusky setting.

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Owing to the climate responsive shading, thick walls and minimal fenestrations, the interiors are often dark and shady. With the onset of modernism, the residences have opened up with more natural light and ventilation.

Mr. Ramanujan thus wanted the best of both worlds- a home for his family that stayed true to its vernacular roots, yet redefined the spatial quality inside for a more airy and well-lit ambience.

He also intended to remove the existing patriarchal societal norms that restricted the circulation of women inside the house by facilitating a free-flowing gender-neutral spatial planning in the residence.

For the materialization of the above idea, he approached the unorthodox design firm, Wallmakers. Headed by Ar. Vinu Daniel, the practice devotes itself to creating structures out of mud and waste that are alluring and utilitarian.

Impressed by the idea, the team set out to design a path-breaking structure that symbolizes a new light, a new outlook to our age-old systems and beliefs. The residence was thus rightly coined the name ‘Chirath’- a traditional lamp in Malayalam.

The roof redefined

The issue of dark interiors was addressed by splitting the roof open thereby abolishing all existing roofing typologies. The criss-cross arrangement of the Ferrocement shell roof brought in ample natural light with changing shadow patterns with respect to the sun path, rendering a dynamic ambiance to the living spaces.

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Each of the Ferrocement shells was cast on-site separately respective of its span. A steel framework was fabricated with meticulous planning to house the shells at varying levels and angles.

The FC shells were then lifted by a hydraulic crane and placed one by one on the framework and fixed accordingly. The split roof system spreads over the entire living space and is further topped by a polycarbonate roof membrane to thwart of rainwater seepage while enabling clear passage for natural light.

The slope of the roof is worked out in a way that the rainwater runoff is directed towards the glass roof above the pond in the living space and subsequently flows into the rainwater harvesting tank designed as an extension of the pond.

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The shuttered debris walls, a patented technique of the architect Vinu Daniel, is a construction method involving the mixing of soil and waste materials/debris (in various sizes) along with cement, to erect a composite mud wall that gives a compressive strength of over 5.2MpA.

The Shobri wall (abbreviation for shuttered debris wall), facilitates the interior temperature to stay at least 2-3 degrees cooler than the exterior tropical weather, thereby promoting thermal comfort.

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The adaptive reuse of terracotta tiles that are used for roofing, as a jalli is also an innovative feature that functions as an airflow channeliser too. The furniture and window grills are all designed from waste materials (construction scrap), accentuating the sustainability model.

The flooring and a few selected walls have been finished in grey and white oxide reminiscent of the traditional ‘kavi’ –red oxide flooring in Kerala residences.

The mud path entryway lined by mud rendered retaining walls with natural green cover sweeping in from the side’s aids in ushering the visitors to a new perspective.

The pitched roof of ‘Chirath’ stands out amidst the other pitched roof houses due to its unique choice of materials, form, and design. An embodiment of a ‘new light’ indeed.

Fact File

  • Project name: CHIRATH RESIDENCE
  • Architect’s Firm: Wallmakers
  • Project location: Pala, Kerala, India

Other Participants

  • Masonry Contractors: P.S. Suresh (Shivranjini Constructions, Pondicherry)
  • Fabrication Team: Kunjumon James, J.K Steels
  • Carpenters: Sharath Prasad & Team
  • Oxide: Antony T. A.
  • Gross Built Area: 168.28 sqm
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