Using the ancient building technology of rammed earth walls, CAN architecture has created a weekend home in Surat which is entirely contemporary in its aesthetic.
“The client didn’t even want to build this house,” says Neil Parikh of CAN architecture. This is certainly not an oft heard disclosure. “He only wanted an electrical connection from the local Electricity Board, which wasn’t willing to comply till there was a structure on the site. “
With this starting point, it’s not surprising that this building has the footprint of a studio apartment rather than a sprawling bungalow, in spite of the large site. The structure is placed in one corner of the site, leaving a large private open lawn on one side. There is a gazebo with a vegetable garden on the other side and small private spill out spaces in other areas.
Constructed near Dumas Beach, Surat, the built area is quite small compared to the landscaped grounds. “We discovered that yellow soil was in abundance on the plot. Fine in texture – unlike black soil which is sticky and lumpy – this is ideal for rammed earth walls, as it gives uniform strength throughout,” says Neil. By the repetitive use of 24 modular rammed earth walls, the home is sustainable and has had little environmental impact.
“In fact, we dubbed the project ‘Mud24’,” says Neil. “Building the walls was a meticulous process – it was done piece by piece, allowed to settle over time and bake in the sun – for all 24 of those modular earthen rammed walls.” When finished, rammed earth is about as strong as concrete.
Houses built of this material are fireproof, rot resistant, and impervious to termites. By reducing temperature swings that normally occur on hot summer days or cold winter nights, they help to maintain a comfortable temperature within the house.
In this project, an ancient craft has been converted into an art; the inspiration came to Neil from the work of Nari Gandhi. Once the material was selected, the corresponding construction of the structure followed.
“Its low-lying linear form appears to emerge from the landscape, rather than sit on it,” says Neil. Incorporating generous glass walls which recall Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, the home has a feeling of being larger than its built mass would suggest. Some spaces appear to have so little by way of walls that they seem to emulate living in a fish tank.
In the bedroom, walls are strategically placed to shelter only the bed, while mimicking an outdoor feel in the rest of the room. Neil laughs, “Actually, the rammed earth walls take up 60% of the periphery of the structure, while the glass is restricted to 40%,” he says.
“The client loved the idea and the privacy wasn’t compromised because the trees on the site conceal the home from the high rise on the neighbouring plot. The projection of the roof of the structure also cuts off the view of the interiors from prying eyes.
The steel cantilevered roof not only acts as a shelter, but as an aesthetical structural element, which appears to float over the double height space. The central ridge of the inverted sloping roof acts as a natural waterfall during rainy seasons. An existing tree on the site was retained and goes through the roof.
It is an informal, relaxed, restful space that is not straining to be hip. The material palette consists of mud, steel, glass and stone, with cement sheets on the ceiling.
The cushions on the sofa and the shutters of the kitchen cabinets offer bursts of colour amidst the backdrop of neutrals and the parsimoniously furnished interiors. The flooring is a combination of Jaisalmer, Kota and granite, while the walls are covered in slate.
During the day, the spaces are flooded with natural light, the large cantilever of the floating roof ensuring that there is no thermal gain, ably assisted by the insulation offered by the mud walls.
After sunset, the illumination within the house comes mainly from LED strip lighting in the ceiling. Outside, the rammed earth walls glow in the warm light of uplighters, the house becoming like a beckoning beacon.
Areas for spill out activities with unfussy outdoor seating arrangements for small groups, add to the charm of the space – frequently used by the large family of the client for entertaining as many as 200 guests at a time. Evolved as a response to the context, the house is low maintenance, strongly rooted to the site and is very well connected to the surroundings.
Allowing sunlight to interact with the inside and animate the spaces during various times of the day as well as seasons, there is a series of dialogues between the built and the un-built.
One of the oldest building techniques known to mankind, rammed earth walls have recently acquired a new respectability after their liberal use by Chinese architect Wang Shu – winner of the Pritzker prize in 2012 – in several of his projects.
Here, CANarchitecture has attained an easy balance between time honoured vernacular architecture and a contemporary idiom. With a non-existent spec sheet, the architect has to satisfy needs which the client may not be aware of himself. “What we’ve achieved is a far stretch from the initial brief given by the client,” says Neil happily. And of course the client got the much awaited power supply from the Electricity Board.
Text By Devyani Jayakar
Photographs Puja Kedia