Monday, December 24, 2018

Rammed earth farm house - Structure

The structure

I started construction of my house in the farm (farm house) this year (2017-2018). Building will use eco-friendly materials - rammed earth walls and Mangalore tile roof. As famous Indian mud architect Laurie Baker says, house should go back to the earth after we stop living in them (rather ... after we stop maintaining them). Today's fancy concrete buildings remain on earth for thousands of years after people stop living in them. Nature cannot destroy and recycle concrete. Concrete buildings will stand for ever like ghost structures. Unlike the concrete buildings, soil buildings will go back to earth if people stop maintaining them. Almost all the parts of the building (mainly walls and roofing) will weather and go into the soil in few decades if the building is abandoned. Also, another very important feature of soil buildings is - they use very little energy and resources when compared to concrete monsters.

Therefore my home is going to be a soil structure. Different techniques like cob, adobe, rammed earth, and stabilized earth blocks can be used for building soil structure. I decided to use rammed earth because of some advantages with rammed earth. More about advantages of rammed earth will be provided in a future blog article.

Apart from lot of information available on the internet, good reference books for rammed earth structures are:

1. Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings. Design and Construction. - Paul Graham McHenry, Jr.


    "Keable & Keable" book is the bible of rammed earth. This book is the standard for rammed earth buildings in Zimbabwe (and other African countries I believe). This is expensive book (more you feel so when you see the thickness of the book), but very well worth the price tag because it covers minutest subject areas of rammed earth technique.

    By the way - fact that I am a qualified structural engineer helped a lot. My engineering background made it easy to understand the technical terms and techniques mentioned in the books, reference materials, and WWW.

    Also, I was the engineer, designer, and contractor for the project. I used Google SketchUp for 3D layout of the building. Basic version is free for personal use. Only catch is - for the reason best known to Google, it is available only for Windows and Mac (no luck Linux users like me). I had to struggle a lot to run it under Wine. Under Linux/Wine it crashes few times in a day. I had to bear it because I don't want to pay for Windows OS or buy a Mac just for using SketchUp.

    Foundation trench outlines.
    I printed SketchUp drawing layout on paper for the use of building workers. I then used 2 ft long 10mm steel bar (rebar) pieces as stakes to mark the center line on the ground. 18 inch wide foundation trench outlines were marked with lime powder. Stakes and string line tied to the stakes for marking the layout are visible in the picture (click to view full size). Blue/yellow plastic sheets are for covering soil procured for rammed earth walls. White pile of stone pieces on the remote corner is for laying concrete bed for the foundation.

    Monday, May 28, 2018

    Rammed earth farm house - Intro

    Low foot print living

    This year (2017-2018) I started construction of my farm house. Laterite stone blocks, portland cement and reinforced cement concrete (RCC) are popular building materials in this place now. All of them are playing havoc with the environment in different ways.

    However, the picture was different few decades back. Traveling in the villages shows us the true picture of how the people built their homes. People were using locally available natural building materials. Buildings older than few decades are either cob or sun dried mud blocks (adobe bricks) with thatched roof or Mangalore tile (clay roofing tile) roof.

    I am deeply committed to eco-friendly and sustainable life style. Therefore I wanted to build my home with locally available natural materials. I decided to make it a rammed earth structure. Load bearing rammed earth walls and clay roofing using Mangalore roofing tiles.

    As famous Indian mud architect Laurie Baker says, house should go back to the earth after we stop living in them (meaning - after we stop maintaining them). Today's modern and fancy concrete buildings remain on earth for thousands of years after people stop living in them. Nature cannot easily destroy and recycle concrete. Unlike the concrete buildings, soil buildings will go back to earth if people stop maintaining them. Almost all the parts of the building will weather and go into the soil in few decades once the building is abandoned.

    One important feature of soil buildings is - they use very little embodied energy and resources when compared to conventional structures (like wood, stone, or concrete). Bulk of the material used for the building (which is soil) is taken from the site or transported from nearby area if the soil in the site is not suitable for construction. Compared to this, a conventional structure fetches building material from distant quarries/forests causing large scale environmental destruction in the process and burns precious fossil fuel for transportation adding to the ecological destruction.

    Thanks to my farm helpers, lot of heavy physical work has gone into the building. This is how the building looks now. It is not yet complete. I have lot of work to do. I will explain each part of the building in the coming days in a series of articles.

    Rammed earth building under construction.

    Sunday, August 27, 2017

    Monsoon season vegetables

    Farmer should be self-sufficient. Food is a very important department of self-sufficiency. We are growing our staple food - paddy. Next in the list are vegetables. These are the vegetable crops we planted so far in this monsoon.

    A female pumpkin flower
    (a bee is busy pollinating the flower - click to see full size image)

    Pumpkin (ಕುಂಬಳ/ಚೀನಿ ಕಾಯಿ) creeper
    (a colocasia plant and a coconut
    plant are seen in the background) 

    Growing pumpkin with a smaller one in the background and buds
    Colored cucumber creeper (ಮಗ್ಗೆ/ಮೊಗೆ/ಮಂಗಳೂರು ಸೌತೆ ಕಾಯಿ ) 

    Large cucumber creeper (ದೊಡ್ಡ ಸೌತೆ/ಮುಳ್ಳು ಸೌತೆ)

    Red pumpkin creeper (ಕೆಂಪು/ಗೋವೆ ಕುಂಬಳ)

    Bitter gourd creeper (ಹಾಗಲ)

    Flame flower/Purslane/Talinum (ನೆಲಬಸಳೆ)

    Wednesday, July 19, 2017

    Paddy cultivation

    Last year I had written a detailed post about paddy cultivation. This year also we did almost the same - with one change. Decided to bring some old technologies. Brought in Bangarappa's (our farm neighbour and farm helper) traditional skills and his animals for ploughing the field. It is lot of hard work both for human and the animals. But it is far less destructive compared to machines - they burn so much fossil fuel, throw lot of carbon into the air and also over-till the ground damaging the soil biology.

    Last year I had borrowed seeds from Bangarappa. I did completely natural farming - I did not use chemicals and fertilisers of any kind. My crop had got some diseases. Plants resisted diseases and grew well. I got one generation of seeds grown without chemicals. Hopefully this year they will improve further in disease resistance and adaptation to local environment.

    I should have treated seeds with biological agents like pseudomonas. My bad - I missed it because of my bad planning. I will for sure do it in the next season. I have to wait for one more year for that though :-(

    We sowed seeds on 30-Jun. Saplings were transplanted on 16-Jun. We ran out of saplings though because of a minor mistake. Our saplings were little younger than the usual age transplanting. Transplanting workers did not consider that. They planted usual thickness of plants - ending up planting one or two extra samplings in each group. Because of that we ran out of saplings when one small terrace was still to be planted. Thanks to Bangarappa - he borrowed some saplings from another farmer who had some excess saplings and completed the job.

    Will keep you posted about how it goes this year.

    Monsoon time

    It is the time of the year everybody in India is eagerly looking forward to - monsoon time. Monsoon not only brings lot of water; it also brings lot of interesting things (see below). It is the single biggest event of the year for farmers like me because it makes or breaks the plans for the next whole year. Everything gets delayed if monsoon is delayed. Year is ruined because of lack of water if monsoon is short. Lives and property lost if monsoon is in excess. Therefore, our lives hang in fine balance setup by monsoon!

    So far (June-2017) monsoon had been disappointing for South India this year. Government statistics say our district (Shimoga district in Karnataka state) had 40% less rain this year compared to long term average. However, it has started raining well in last few days. Hopefully it will pick up now and cover up the shortage in rest of this monsoon season.

    Some pictures of this monsoon:

    One day came out of the house and found this beautiful orchid on a tree in front of the house. Such a beautiful creation of nature it is. See the close-up for more details of the compound flower. Pictures are not as good as I wanted them to be - continuous rain and less than satisfactory light conditions because of heavy cloud cover interfered with my efforts of taking better pictures.

    Orchid in front of the house

    Very wet conditions created by the monsoon bring up lot of hidden life to visibility. See some amazing fungi found in our farm and around house.

    Near our home
    White fungi on dead coconut tree in the farm
    Red fungi on dead coconut tree in the farm
    Monsoon brings in its share of misery too. Here is one example of it - a tree fell on a 11,000 V electricity line bringing down the poles and wires to the ground. Luckily nobody was hurt. Electric equipment in the nearby homes were burnt to charcoal when the 11,000 V line touched 230 V domestic supply lines. Building behind the fallen tree is a school. Kids were inside the school when the incident took place. You can imagine what kind of disaster it would have been if this happened when the kids were walking out of school.

    Tree fallen on electric line

    Sunday, October 16, 2016

    Bhoomi Hunnime - day of earth worship

    Bhoomi Hunnime is a festival for worshiping mother earth, say sorry for the digging and troubling her all round the year, offer delicacies to her and pray for a good harvest. For western people and people in cities it may look like a meaningless celebration. It is a natural thing and their own extension for people connected with the soil. Mother earth gives birth to us and supports our life in every way. That is why Indian farmers in our villages treat her as mother. This is the time when the crops are about to start flowering and producing grain. Therefore people treat earth as a pregnant lady. They worship her and offer many delicacies to her like we do in case of a pregnant lady. Some of these delicacies are buried in the soil and spread in the soil with the belief that it will satisfy pregnant mother earth's food craving. Even today many Indians don't look at earth as a 50x60 plot or a commodity to sell and buy. Earth is treated with greatest respect as a living being - which it is and it deserves that respect and royal treatment. No wonder, this festival is celebrated in India, the land where every living thing is treated as God. We are not at war with the nature like today's industrial farming, we are one with the nature and treat nature as God.

    Mr. Satyanarayana Bhat (foreground) and his wife (background)
    This year I got an opportunity to attend some of these celebrations. Some pictures of earth worship are here. See how environment friendly they are - everything is bio-degradable or becomes food for some animal. Even the lamp is made up of coconut shell. This is how we all were few years back. Plastics and chemicals have invaded our lives only in recent years. There is urgent need to reverse the clock and go back few decades. Only then can we live happy and fulfilling life like our ancestors did.

    Mr. Kiran (foreground) and his son Tejas (background)

    After the worship we ate in the farm and came back. This experience will remain in our memory for a long time.

    Environment friendly lamp made from coconut shell

    An example of environment conscience our ancestors had. Even the lamp is made from used coconut shell. People use lot of coconut to cook the delicacies for the celebration. One of those shells becomes the lamp :-)

    Sunday, June 19, 2016

    Car shelter

    My friend Rajesh recently moved to a village near our farm. Being a village there are not many rented homes available here. Therefore he had to take a small house vacant at the time he moved here. Covered car parking is not available in that house.

    It rains around 2000 mm here during monsoon. As per normal rain pattern here it rains heavily between June and August. Car remains wet for approximately 3 months in that time. It is a recipe for rust to invade the metal body of the car! Therefore he needed a car shelter to keep the pouring rain water away from the car and allow it to dry up. It was not wise to spend lot of money for the planned car shelter to be constructed in the rented premises; he will have to leave it there whenever he decides to move out of the rented house.

    Minimum cost of conventional car shelter is above 20,000 Rupees. Our search for lowering the cost did not lead to any major cost reduction. Solution was elsewhere - it was there in a plant nursery. I noticed a low cost poly tunnel in a nursery. It is in the form of a tunnel with polythene sheet covering on PVC pipe skeleton. We decided to replicate that poly tunnel and use it as car shelter.

    Poly tunnel skeleton - notice bent PVC pipes.
    A car and a scooter are parked inside for testing.
    My friend's poly house car shelter consists of 20 ft. long PVC pipes bent in semi-circular or parabolic shape. Two ends of the pipe are buried in the ground to a depth of 1 ft. and secured there using cement concrete. We used 6 such bent pipes at 3 ft. distance making the total length of poly tunnel 15 ft. We ensured width of the tunnel is enough (around 11 ft.) to comfortably open the car door when the car is inside the shelter so that the driver can get in/out of the car when the car is in the shelter.

    Completed poly tunnel car shelter
    Heavy wind can cause strong lifting force on the pipes buried in the cement concrete footings poured into the pits dug in the soil. Smooth PVC pipe secured using cement concrete can pull out of the concrete holding it to the ground. To be on the safer side we decided to glue PVC T joints at the end of the pipes buried in cement concrete to make it difficult for the wind force to pull the pipe out.

    After this we draped UV stabilized polythene sheet on the skeleton. It is important to use UV stabilized sheet to avoid the sheet crumbling to powder because of UV component in sun light. Oh yes, we tied one pipe at the top center line to ensure skeleton pipes don't move away from their position. This is how it looks after completion.

    Cost? Approximately 5,500 Rupees (+ some elbow grease - we did not put a value to that as it was fun doing it). That translates to 82 USD @ 67 Rs. conversion rate as of today. Probably a car shelter can't get any cheaper than that!