Taking eco-friendly and green architecture to the next level, Wallmakers has created a bungalow in Kerala out of construction debris and waste material. However, the thoughtful design elevates the humble materials, imbuing the home with art and soul.
It doesn’t always pay to be helpful. But maybe it does, in an unexpected way. Biju Matthew had good-naturedly permitted his neighbours to dump their construction debris on his vacant plot, with the understanding that they would clear it once their homes were complete. “But you know how it is….” says Vinu Daniel, award winning architect and founder of Wallmakers.
“When Matthew came to me, there was a huge mound of debris on his plot, located in the Housing Board Colony in Pathanamthitta Town. Even the Public Works Department had refused to clear it, since it was not biodegradable. So we had a problem on our hands.”
But it’s not for nothing that Daniel has earned his reputation. “I asked myself what was the use of calling ourselves ‘eco-friendly’ architects, if we couldn’t deal with this.” As always for Daniel, the solution came out of necessity and then became the highlight of the project, instead of some feature that he tries hard to disguise or tuck away in some corner, hoping no one will notice.
Putting all the construction waste on the site to use, Daniel constructed a debris wall. With the raw material at hand, discarded though it may have been, the only resources needed were time and manual labour. Daniel learnt how to make mud buildings at Auroville Earth Institute at Puducherry. This kind of construction uses only a fraction of the energy required for firebricks. Which was exactly what Matthew was in search of, for his family of six.
An ardent environmentalist, his primary consideration while building his home was that it should not compromise nature’s ecological balance. “For four years, Matthew was not able to find an architect who would deliver what he wanted, till he saw a programme on television in which I was featured…that’s how he contacted me,” says Daniel.
The plot was just about seven cents (approx. 284 sq m) in size, sloping and raised five feet above the road level. There were homes in close proximity on both sides and a huge retaining wall at the rear. “It looked to me like the entire house would be a car porch,” says Daniel. Digging out just enough earth to accommodate the car, the rest of the house is built into the levels above.
“The retaining wall at the back ensured that there was going to be no light coming in from there. The only source of light and ventilation was the front, so it immediately became another big problem that I had to solve,” says Daniel. “Have you seen how people push and shove at a railway station during peak hours?” he asks, seemingly irrelevantly. “I decided to make my walls ‘wiggle’ in the same way, to extract three bedrooms and a courtyard out of this 13 m wide plot.”
Starting from the porch, this undulating wall passes through the house, leaving in its wake spaces which are transformed by the unconventional path it takes. To retain the feeling of continuity the walls are floating and a piece of sky is visible through the handkerchief-sized courtyard, all of 6ft x 3ft. Purchased from a scrapyard, discarded electricity meter boxes have been integrated into the aesthetic. “I didn’t want the look to be very eclectic. It had to be functional and yet art,” says Daniel, true to his avowed credo.
But using scrap without the structure looking tacky, may be rather like reconciling incompatibilities. Stylish scrap? Exactly that! Iron rods at the windows have old meter boxes welded onto them, creating a surprisingly sophisticated abstract scatter. Putting into practice his strongest beliefs, Daniel has created a home with dignity.
Within, the multi-functional furniture in plywood and mild steel has been designed by Daniel, with the dining table capable of being pulled down whenever required. Other furniture has been made from recycled wood, deriving its form from boxes to store Matthew’s books, since he is a school teacher. A traditional urli, ubiquitous to Kerala, functions as a wash basin.
“I didn’t want to add to global warming by using cement. Daniel used coconut shells in the roof in a filler slab method…and ferro-cement to reduce the use of cement and iron bars,” says Matthew. The coconut shells double as light fixtures and are connected to plastic bottles holding LED lights. “There is no paint…the natural colour of mud can be seen. I may add a couple of fans, although there’s enough air circulation.”
Daniel’s work has been featured in ‘Architecture in India’, a prestigious tome by architect Rahul Mehrotra, Professor of Urban Design and Planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Mehrotra is reported to have said of Daniel’s work, “You will rarely find art, function, sustainability and integrity all together in one design.” Reducing the use of resources is a constant refrain in Daniel’s work. With his idealistic views on architecture, sustainability is not a choice. It’s a necessity.
Text By Devyani Jayakar
Photographs Anand Jaju