The Business of Bioarchitecture & Sustainable Development

A few weeks ago I went to Saguna Baug, an agro-tourism center located approximately 80 kilometers outside of Mumbai to see a mudhouse. Areen Attari, a bioarchitect, taught me about the home as we explore the grounds, noting “houses made of organic materials are durable, sustainable and very comfortable to live in if built the right way. For centuries people have been building houses from local mud and other natural materials and were well acquainted with the benefits of such construction before this art was lost to modern practices." He and his partners at ‘Put Your Hands Together’ (PYHT) are the chief designers and architects of the mudhouse, technically also known as Adobe cottage.

Adobes are high-strength sun-dried bricks made without conventional burning technique. This house overlooking a pond is made almost entirely of locally available mud with bare minimum usage of cement-primarily used in the foundation and on a west-side facing stone wall that receives maximum amount of rain during the monsoon. Around 90% of materials used in construction of the house are either natural, recycled or reused. Its clever design allows for a high level of thermal comfort for its occupants by keeping the interiors cooler in summers and warmer in winters.  The Mudhouse inspired by its local context is a fine example of Bioarchitecture. With a strong thrust towards sustainable economic growth by the Modi government, bringing about low-carbon development is the need of the hour and Bioarchitecture represents a great way of getting there.

Photography credit: Rohan Potdar

What's the Opportunity in Bioarchitecture?

Concrete is the most popular and efficient material for construction all over the world. However, the concrete industry is one of two largest producers of carbon dioxide (CO2), creating up to 5% of worldwide man-made emissions. The CO2 emission from the concrete production is directly proportional to the cement content used in the concrete mix: 900 kg of CO2 is emitted for the fabrication of every ton of cement. Clearly, ubiquitous use of concrete in contemporary construction cannot be sustained without adversely affecting our environment.

Bioarchitecture is a design philosophy that relies on using locally available natural materials like earth, bamboo, stone, timber and others for construction. Since the materials used are from the same climatic conditions, structures made from them are more adaptable, have longer lifespan and higher economic value than those made from conventional concrete. These structures harmoniously dissolve in nature upon demolition and since they are made from local materials, minimal amount of energy is consumed in processing and transportation. This significantly reduces their carbon footprint. According to a study titled ‘Sustainability of traditional rural mud houses in Tamilnadu, India: An analysis related to thermal comfort’ by A Madhumathi, J.Vishnupriya and S Vignesh of Department of Architecture, Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, the total mitigation of CO2 emissions due to savings in both heating and cooling energy of a Mudhouse (total surface area of 136 sq mts) is about 6 metric tons per year. Thus it’s easy to see that a community project of a few hundred houses would easily result in reduction of several metric tons of emissions.

Bioarchitecture particularly holds a promising potential for addressing sustainable development of rural housing and rural tourism in India. However, evolving an entrepreneurial model and a participating ecosystem will remain the key towards achieving this success.

Adopting Bio Architecture in Rural Housing

As per the 2011 census, 51.55 % of India’s total population lives in rural areas, with most of them having very low economic status. Due to this the quality of rural houses leaves much to be desired. More than half of the houses are semi-pucca (building materials used for the part of the construction of either the roof or the walls are mud or thatch) and kutcha (materials used for construction are mud and thatch). This strongly points to a huge need of developing appropriate design that considers local geo-climatic conditions and socio-cultural context to create functionally useful and environmentally sustainable homes. Easy & inexpensive maintenance coupled with comfort from improved internal air quality will be the key factors in such type of construction. A vast populace in myriad villages of India stands to benefit from the re-construction of their traditional houses using the tenets of Bioarchitecture.

The Ministry of Rural Development launched Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY) in 1996 to eradicate rural poverty through positive rural housing development interventions. It aims at reinventing people as builders and promoting a kind of "reverse participation," with the government participating in the indigenous process of the people building houses for themselves. In 2011 the Ministry allocated 100 billion rupees budget to cover the rural housing deficit and decided to go beyond supporting families below the poverty line and covering all households without decent shelter. Through this scheme, the government provides technical and financial assistance to poor households to build or repair their houses and even encourages building of mud and bamboo houses constructed with appropriate specifications. To conserve the special characteristics, priorities, and potential of life in rural India, the government of India proposed a National Rural Housing & Habitat Policy in 2007. This policy will provide Gram Panchayats (Village local governance bodies) the authority to mobilize financial resources for rural habitat development and offer a mix of financial options to families to build homes. It also proposes to encourage the use of locally available sustainable materials and offers financial incentives for the same.

Social entrepreneurs can play the role of aggregators by bringing together design & engineering expertise, field social workers and intended beneficiaries in the process of rural housing development. They need to work closely not only with implementation agencies like the Gram Panchayats and the state officials but also with masons & artisans to facilitate execution as per policy framework and disseminate knowledge on construction technologies and materials. Hunnarshala - a collaborative focused on promoting and demonstrating people centric, environment friendly, and artisan based technologies - represents one such effort.

Adopting Bioarchitecture in Rural Tourism

“People come here to experience rural life and to see how farmers live on their farms," says Chandan Bhadsavle, owner of Saguna Baug. He is a 3rd generation farmer-entrepreneur and promotes rural tourism on his family’s 55 acre farm by offering various rustic activities like farm tours, fish farming, buffalo rides, milking cows, rod fishing, and boating & swimming in the local river to his tourists. To further enhance their experience Chandan decided to construct a Mudhouse on his farm. “Tourists really love staying in the Mudhouse,” he says. It cost him 700,000 Rupees to build the Mudhouse - almost one and a half times a similar-sized concrete structure. Much of the time was due to initial trial and error involved in determining the right mix of local materials and higher amount of labor required to try out unconventional building techniques. Talking about his plans to build more Mudhouses on his farm, Chandan says “I expect the cost of future Mudhouse to be half of a concrete house.” He is one of the self-driven rural tourism entrepreneurs who have hit the sweet spot between offering authentic experience of a village milieu to his tourists and leveraging the high sustainability value of local resources of his farm.

With its several hundred thousand villages, India offers a humongous potential for the growth of rural tourism. According to Mr. Pandurang Taware, Father of Agri-tourism in India, “With every 12 miles we cross the water changes, the culture changes and the food habits change. So at every 12 miles there can be an Agri-tourism project.” Clearly, this type of tourism featuring local rural life, art, culture and heritage is suitably poised to adopt bio architecture as its principal policy of construction design. Since its inception in 2005, Agri Tourism Development Company (ATDC) headed by Mr. Taware has trained over 1500 farmer-entrepreneurs in the areas of small enterprise establishment and tourism product development. These farmers independently operate around 113 Agri Tourism Centers. Thus there exists a pool of participating stakeholders who can employ sustainable construction practices and local resources for rural tourism projects. This is a great opportunity for these farmers & social entrepreneurs to blend their in-depth local knowledge with the modern understanding of natural materials of designers to make a positive environmental & socio-cultural impact.

Commercially viable and well researched models on local materials usage and construction techniques will pave the way ahead for standardization and popular acceptance of bioarchitecture in rural tourism. Although the main impetus will come from the farmer-entrepreneurs, designers & architects need to act as catalysts in this process. Organizations like ATDC provide a suitable platform for bringing about awareness and dissemination of knowledge to a large number of farmers.  

Although not a new-found knowledge, what eludes most of us is that nature has all the solutions for our needs within its fold. A sustainable future lies in wisely using what Mother Nature offers and bioarchitecture is a design philosophy that will play a big role in enabling this objective.