Tucked away in Shenbaganur, a small, quaint town 6 kms from Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, two young friends from the developmental sector, Priyashri and Nishita, decided to experiment with building a do-it-yourself (DIY), low-cost, low tech, sustainable home. The location is a picturesque piece of land on a slope, facing the misty Palani Hills in Shenbaganur. Shenbaganur when translated is the town of the ‘Shenbagam’ flower which the delicately fragrant Magnolia Champaca that is commonly known in English as Champak, a large evergreen tree found in this region.
After spending a considerable amount of time researching, Priyashri and Nishita zeroed in on building an earth bag or cement bag roundhouse. Cement bags found in India are usually made of woven plastic material that is non-biodegradable and typically ends up in a landfill.
To build such a home, used cement bags are filled with earth to form rectangular slabs that are stacked together to form walls and even arches. Barbed wire is placed between each layer of bags to hold them together. They do not require any binding material between them and once stacked they can be plastered with mud or clay to reinforce and hold up the entire structure. A quick search on google took me to a page on ‘How to Build an Earthbag Roundhouse’, with a detailed 18 steps instruction.
The only structure that is made of cement in their simple but exquisite home is the floor, with its finishing touches set with the age-old, traditional and beautiful red oxide and yellow oxide. Such flooring has been customarily used in homes in South India, especially in Kerala, coastal Karnataka and interior Tamil Nadu, with the oxide in hues of crimson, scarlet or mustard.
The little stairway in their roundhouse studio that divides the living area into two levels is aesthetically tiled with the famed handmade ‘athangudi’ tiles. Traditional athangudi tiles are from a place called Athangudi in the Chettinadu region in the Shivagangai district of Tamil Nadu. Athangudi tiles come in myriad designs that are made as a part of a unique process using local soil and deft craftsmanship. The right composition of the soil used in this region is the key to the crafting of these charming tiles.
Their roof is perhaps the only structure that isn’t DIY. It’s a thatched style roof with wooden poles crisscrossed for support that the town residents helped them put together. The bathroom is a lovely sunshine yellow with some quirky used bottle art on the walls and more athangudi tiles on the floor. The shower area has a large window with a picture postcard view.
The window frames are unusual and round in shape, and I christened them the submarine windows just like the underwater see through windows in a submarine, except that here the view is the misty and picturesque Palani Hills.
The ethnic wooden front door was flanked by two young banana tree stalks, with an unusual flower design ‘kolam’ (traditional rice flour drawing) at the entrance, that looked festive to mark their simple housewarming function on June 15th. Their guest list was small with just a few friends and family, and we all had interesting conversations over some sumptuous biryani and potluck home food.
They plan to move in soon and perhaps do some composting and grow their own veggies in their little front yard. I am looking forward to visiting them again once they move in and help with some composting and urban agriculture ideas.
First published on The Alternative