The Fired Mudbrick House Project
Jan de Rooden

 
Research 1985
 
 
Once returned from India at our Amsterdam base, Johnny and I scarcely allowed ourselves time to acclimatize.
Johnny at once continued her research and her quest of publications on mud building and mud building projects.
I set myself to write a report for the "Bilateral Relations Office", hoping that the report on the results of "Phase I"
would lead to a budget contribution for "Phase II".

To introduce the "Fired Mudbrick" concept and to invite reactions, I contacted places, where people interested in the idea might be found.
The departments of Architecture at the Technical Universities of Delft and Eindhoven were the most obvious.
The people at "CAT" (Centre for Adapted Technology) in Delft consider our test to build a house from mud bricks,
to fill this structure with mud bricks and then to fire it, a means to make mud building durable.
They themselves were trying to stabilize mud brick by mixing cement and / or lime with the clay and by pressing this mixture under extra pressure.
The blocs thus obtained were left to dry and cure.
They co-operated for this project with "Stichting TOOL", a foundation in Amsterdam with the aim: Transference of Technology to
Developing Countries. The moment that Johnny and I made contact with "TOOL", they were about to organize an open day in Artis,
the Amsterdam Zoo, where a.o. their latest model hand press was presented. With this improved version a larger, harder building-block could be
produced without extra effort from loose clay with or without additions.
Would not this press, or at any rate its blueprint, be a fantastic acquisition for Pondicherry!

On their home base "TOOL" turned out to run an extensive, practice-orientated library and bookshop. Exactly what Johnny had been looking for.
Amongst the "ILO" (International Labour Office) editions she found the beautiful publication "Small-Scale
Brickmaking"
(ISBN 92-2-103567-0). This book seemed grafted upon the Indian brickyards and on the types of kilns in use there.
In case our Fired Mudbrick concept should prove feasible, this book could well become a manual.
For the time being it answered many of our own questions.
We bought it at once together with the idealistic, typically French cahier: "Construire en Terre" - ISBN 2-88227-031-8 - published by the group "CRAterre" (Centre de Recherche et d'Application-Terre) from Grenoble.

In Rotterdam I contacted the "Bouwcentrum" (Building Centre).
The Fired Mudbrick Project fell outside the scope of the "IHS" (Institute for Housing Studies) established here, but as
IHS was associated with "CIB" (Conseil International du Bâtiment pour la Recherche, l'Etude et la Documentation) and functioned as Dutch
correspondent for the magazine "Bâtiment International/Building Research and Practice",
I was advised to send the editor in England a notice about our Pondicherry Project.
The Editor, we found, was eager to introduce the project to his readers. In the July/August 1986 issue he published
the article, that I had ready by autumn 1985, with the title "A Phoenix from the Flames" (postfiring a mudhouse in situ).

In Delft I was told that our project would certainly appeal to the director of "Stichting Technisch Centrum
Waalsteen"
. Indeed I was warmly welcomed by Dr. Ir. P.C.F. Bekker, or maybe I should say, he embraced the Fired Mudbrick Project
with open arms. With his experience in developing countries, with his architectural know how and brickkiln expertise he at once set to work
with our idea and process. His approach would advance our project by leaps.

The most important recommendations of Piet Bekker were:

a. Build first only the vault over the side walls. Before firing brick up the front- and back side with mere mud brick.
Thus the vault can expand and retract unimpeded.
After the firing the bricks of the temporary front- and back walls, which have been directly expose to the fire, will provide a good parcel
of well-fired bricks. Replenished with bricks from the kiln load they can then be used for the final front- and backside which must be built up with
lime mortar.

b. To utilize the heat of the fuel as well as the heat of the smoke gasses most efficiently, Piet Bekker, familiar with the
"Hoffmann" kiln in brickyards, comes up with the idea, that from the start had played around in my head, too, namely to build a series
of attached vaulted rooms. The rooms must be connected to each other by means of flues. Thus connected they can be fired one after the other.
The first room will have pre-heated the next by the time the desired temperature is reached. The second room in its turn brought to temperature,
will do the same with its adjacent room, until successively the whole series is fired.

When, before firing, the series of vaults could be covered with sand over which a layer of rammed earth, the building would have a fuel-saving
insulation and after firing a communal flat roof.

In the drawing-office Piet Bekker had a multi-chambered building drawn for us and for himself.
Becoming more and more immersed in the project, he toyed with the idea to also build and fire a vaulted building on a plot of land at his disposal,
once my consultant task in Pondicherry had ended.
Such a test would make clear how a fired mud brick house would behave itself in a climate like ours.
Alas, this never happened for various reasons.
 

Sketch from 1987.

In my imagination I saw a series of connected fired mud brick rooms develop into small housing estates.
Technically, on suitable locations, such projects could well be realised.
But would they fit in with local traditions and the housing desires of the people on the spot?

 
Visit to France
Because I am so craft-orientated and learn better from practice than from a book, Johnny and I decided in the early summer of this interim year
to visit the French Lyonnais once again.
Before, on tour through that area, we had stopped surprised at farmsteads, where one could read from the walls how
layer by layer they had been built up from mud. Only later did we learned that this was Pisé building.
Although, our first destination was Grenoble University, where at the Department of Architecture we would meet people of the CRAterre Group.
CRAterre researches and stimulates mud building, organizes workshops and co-manages projects in developing countries.
Because staff members were engaged elsewhere , our visit was confined to a short conducted tour through rooms, where students could practise
building vaults and domes from bricks and mud mortar and methods to connect these.

From Grenoble our journey continued to L'Isle d'Abeau.
In the quarter Bourgoin Jallieu of this new city a mud, or rather a clay-building project was in progress.
In 1981, by way of a contest, young architects were invited to design modern houses with clay as the bearing material.
The chosen projects would be realized under supervision of CRAterre and were by now at a far advanced stage.
With architect Jean-Jo Verdet from Grenoble, who had made vernacular building of the Alps region his specialty,
and Lison Guéry, his wife and our colleague, we had arranged to visit the project together.

In streets where groups of houses were already inhabited, we were amazed to find that neither at the outside nor at the inside any clay was visible. Architecturally a great diversity in design prevailed. A wide variety of building materials had been applied, from wood, glass and concrete to steel.
But nowhere did the houses show their reason of existence, namely to demonstrate that even to-day clay can be a perfect building material.
Did building regulations thwart ideals here?
Did the quality of the clay inspire insufficient confidence and therefore had to be shielded by wainscot and plaster board?
Did the insulation value of the mud walls remain beneath the prescribed minimum?
Alas, all these questions remained unanswered as only some work-people on machines were around.

In the streets however, where the construction of blocs of houses was still in progress, many mud walls could be seen. Some of the houses were
raised from stabilized mud blocks, others from pisé, rammed pneumatically. And all these houses counted several floors.
However also here boarding had already started and soon all clay walls would be covered with stained wood over an insulation layer of Styrofoam.
Perhaps, in the future, a guided tour could give the background information needed here.
For the moment we would do better to concentrate on the qualities of the traditional pisé, that for centuries had been exposed to the open air.
This time we could observe with a better trained eye.

Under wide eaves the high pisé walls of farm buildings radiated indestructibility.
Even neglect did not seem to disturb them.
Where the lime-mortar rendering had disappeared, the mud used came to light. Gravel and the many pebbles in the clay suggested that clay fresh
from the fields had been used.
The manner in which the outward forces of the mass had been met in the construction of the walls, was indicative of ingenuity and long experience.
Each layer of mud had been rammed in sections with slanted sides. With each following layer these slanted sides pointed in the opposite direction,
thus dividing and distributing the pressure.
The corners, build of sandstone or fired bricks, had been toothed into the layers and offered in their turn counterweight
to outward forces. Moreover, as corner columns, they gave the building a striking appearance.
This time we looked closely at the plinths of pebbles at the foot of the walls. Sometimes they were raised as high as one and a half meters and
often they showed decorative patterns. These plinths efficiently turned and led off splash water.
Back in our Amsterdam studio's we first of all concentrated on the ceramics exhibition in the Singer Museum in Laren, that had been arranged
two years ago. In between our mud building activities we had made work for this show, Johnny even in Pondicherry.
Also the exhibition in the Singer offered me the opportunity to show the first phase of our Pondicherry Project by means of a photo-series and text.

Hereafter it was time to map out how we could still broaden our mud building experience before the second phase of the project would begin in India.
I would like to test my ability to build with mud brick and mud mortar as well as my ideas on the composition and preparation of the mortar.
I would like, too, to observe from close-up the masonry in domes and if possible I would like to find a building site where a mason was at work
raising a dome.
I wanted to record the various methods that could be used when changing over from wall and corner to the round shape.
And Johnny and I would like to experience once more the atmosphere of an original mud built village and gauge the maintenance requirements.
We had realized that living in such rather vulnerable buildings could put a lasting burden on the inhabitants.
Possibly we could take this into account when designing mud houses.
I wondered, too, if apart from a vault or a dome alternatives could be found for a roof.
With fired mud brick we were, it seemed, almost compelled to apply a vault or a dome, but this fact could limit our process considerably.
To find answers to our technical questions as well as to supply more insight in the social sides of living in mud houses, a visit once more to Egypt
seemed quite meaningful.
Once more Egypt
The Nubian villages in Garb Aswan, the mud brick buildings and small towns in the Kharga and Dakhla oasis as well as the village New Gourna,
designed by Hassan Fathy, were on the program when end of October 1985 we once again landed in Egypt.
But first our path led to the mud brick country-house that economist / town planner David Sims in co-operation with the Libanese-French architect
Olivier Sednaoui had built across the Nile from Luxor.
David Sims and Olivier Sednaoui had planned a really spacious house, we noticed, when we approached it early in the morning.
From the distance we counted five domes and when we had passed through the high entrance arch, we stood in a courtyard that led into another.
This created an intriguing surroundings and provided privacy to the high vaulted rooms giving on to these courtyards.
David welcomed us and showed us around the ground-floor, before we moved to the second floor and the roof with its fantastic view.
The eye wandered from the barren mountain range in front of which the Valley of the Kings extended to the Medinet Habu temple at the edge
of the desert, then rested on palm trees that waved over irrigated green fields with vegetables and sugar cane.
David's house, began in 1978, was in 1980 sufficiently finished. But actually building still continued and at this moment repairs, too,
had to be carried out. During one of the rare, heavy rainfalls the plaster over the vaults and domes had to prove its quality.
Bonding and adherence turned out to be insufficient and especially on the domes large parts had to be plastered again.
Together we discussed at large the Achilles heel of mud building namely the treatment of outer walls to waterproof them.
Without cement a plaster hardly ever became more than water repellent.

In numerous places in the world people were therefore searching for supplements that could make a lime-mortar layer water proof.
David himself thought he had ameliorated some by adding plaster of Paris to the mortar, which normally consisted of just lime and mud.
But time still had to prove its durability.

The mud build house of David Sims across the Nile from Luxor. November1985

 
Paying a visit to Davids neighbor architect Naguib Y Amin, whom we met in the Dutch Institute in Cairo two days before, we spotted a mason
busy building a dome.

The dome was halfway up and the only thing the mason used as a guide was a sort of callipers-stick that hinged on a pole in the middle of the room.
This pole reached up to the squinch, the start of the dome from the corners. We took in everything closely and photographed the details with care.
Hereafter we walked to the village of New Gourna, the creation of Hassan Fathy, which after long struggles he finally could begin in 1940.
We knew that Fathy's dream to build this village from a material that people without means could afford, had fallen through because of government
policy and disinterest of the local population.
But that with the exception of the mosque all community buildings would be so in ruins and the appearance of the originally fine houses would be
so neglected, shocked us.
Numerous publications in many different forms on the architect Hassan Fathy and his New Gourna experiment exist and just as numerous are
the websites under both names, so I do not have to dwell on this subject any further.

The evening we spent talking with David about mud building as low cost housing.
The next morning we crossed the Nile again to find a bus for Aswan.

Nubian mud build village at Garb Aswan, November 1985

 
Garb Aswan revisited
We felt very happy, when we arrived again in Aswan to see the Nubian villages, our real destination, on the west bank of the Nile river.

In these villages we gathered a year ago the mud building information that laid the foundation of our pilot project in Pondicherry.
We had returned now to study this information in depth, freshly provided with a letter of recommendation by the Embassy of
the Netherlands in Cairo. The very evening of our arrival we met with Mr. Hassan Kakhr El Din, Director of the Palace of Culture of Aswan.
Honoured with the official letter he promised us an interpreter and his Public Relation Officer, too, offered his co-operation.

The first day, however, we kept to ourselves. We wanted to re-orientate ourselves and to compare the present impressions with those of last year.
We noticed more whitewashed houses, some done quite recently. There were lots of additions and new, lavish home-steads. Also houses had been
built of natural stone. The same we would find in the village of Abu El Riz, north of Aswan, that I visited a year ago.
As we were much interested in dome-building, a young teacher who enjoyed speaking english with us, gave us in arabic the name of a village where
building of a dome was at hand.
Early the following day, accompanied by our interpreter, we went to Shekh Al Diab to be informed that no dome was foreseen there, not even a vault.
Across high walls iron pipes were laid and corrugated iron. On top of this came an insulation layer of palm leaves and straw covered by a mixture of
mud and dung.
Of course a vault would be healthier and cooler, but that would be much more expensive, commented builder-mason Mohammed.
Mohammed eagerly took up our mud building questions.
In 1981, he told us afterwards, he had been to New Mexico with Hassan Fathy to introduce the Nubian vault and to train people who would then
build a mosque under the guidance of Fathy.
On our way back we passed some more building sites. We stopped at one hoping to see a dome under construction, but here also the mud rooms
around the courtyard would get the same corrugated iron roof.
As an entrance a beautiful high vault had still been built, but it was rather a short one.

For two more days we visited Garb Aswan. We compared old and recently built houses, had a close look at the plasterwork inside, tried the solidity
and the pressure-resistance of the mud bricks, watched builders at sites, followed the preparation of the mud mortar and listened to people's comments
on building in former days and now.
Meanwhile we diligently searched for a dome under construction. On one spot where we asked, the workers would gladly put one up for us in
three hours time, but only for a very high price.
We buttonholed Mohammed, would he maybe do it, but now we heard a really impressive sum.
I understood that I had to forget about a dome and we prepared to leave.
To be continued

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