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Rethinking Sustainability

“A pioneer of architecture and design that is not only sensitive but also a blend of art and innovation that stands out through a distinct character of its own. We asked Vinu Daniel questions about his formative years, practice and how it has evolved over the years.” - Editor

Vinu Daniel, Founder & Principal Architect, Wallmakers

What were the challenges you faced with before Wallmakers was formed and during its initial days?

After my graduation in 2005, I worked with Auroville Earth Institute for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Post-Tsunami construction.

On returning from Pondicherry in 2007, I started 'Wallmakers' which was christened thus by others, as the first project was just a compound wall built utilizing mud bricks and beer bottles, which was lying waste.

By 2008 we received an award for a low cost, eco-friendly house from the 'Save Periyar' Pollution Control Committee for the house which was constructed for a cancer patient.

Thus far, Wallmakers has mostly constructed residential structures, while also working on different religious edifices, commercial buildings, public spaces and pavilions.

Rahul Mehrotra in his book – “Architecture in India since 1991”, opened new frontiers for us.

For any new firm, especially if the firm wants to do a particular style of sensitive architecture such as in your case, getting projects initially is always a struggle. One has to make do with what they get before being demanding. Was this true in your case too?

Of course, it was hard. I have designed and presented so many buildings in that gap, with most of them not getting executed. But I also stuck to my rule of not compromising and agreeing to do any half-baked projects.

Your practice today comprises of mud and waste as the chief building components as an effort to create not just sustainable but also durable products. Tell us about the journey that led to the use of these materials? How were you inspired during your formative years to be sensitive towards sustainability?

I was born and raised in the Middle East. I always aspired to become a musician.

However, my parents me to pursue a conventional profession, so, after passing out of school in Abu Dhabi, I moved back home to Kerala to study architecture at the College of Engineering, Trivandrum. I got into architecture thinking that it was a creative space, where I could express myself. I had no idea what was in store for me. Within a year or two, I was angered by the pedagogical framework within which conventional architecture was taught. Adjusting to it was difficult, and I felt that architecture had become all about satisfying one's ego. However, a chance meeting with legendary architect Laurie Baker in my fourth year played a critical role in making me fall in love with architecture.

Baker explained how buildings could completely co-exist with nature and avoid waste. He also told me something very profound about a chance meeting he had with Mahatma Gandhi.

One of the things he (Gandhi) said has influenced my thinking; that the ideal house in the ideal village will be built using material that is found within a five-mile radius of the home. But in today’s aspect, all around us is waste, so we build with it.

After my graduation in 2005, I worked with Auroville Earth Institute for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Post-Tsunami construction.

Do you find it difficult to sell the idea of sustainability or using recycled material to a client? Does using recycled material come with a compromise when it comes to using modern day technologies/amenities as part of the building? How do you tackle this?

Thankfully I have had the opportunity to work with some supportive clients who sometimes have a clearer picture of sustainability than us.

And No! There are no problems in incorporating modern day technologies or amenities into our buildings.

Not only do your projects cater to sustainability, but they also seem like a work of art. Is this something you consciously adopt in your projects?

Of course! Everything in nature is a work of art .So we are surrounded by art. So why shouldn’t the buildings we stay in, not be an extension of that?

Any modern day architects or projects that you look up to or draw your motivation from?

I get inspiration and motivation from nature and the sites and also from the people I meet every day.

Tell us more about the Debris wall. Its inception and formulation.

For me, necessity and innovation are significant facets of my projects.

In one of my projects, the location where my client wanted to construct a house was once a dump yard. So instead of shifting the waste to some other person’s property, I decided to build with it. That was when we first came up with the patented Debris Wall and Shuttered Debris Wall (SHOBRI). While all other walls of the house are built of rammed earth with mud sourced from the site itself added with barely 7 - 9% cement; this debris wall is built around a frame of 6 mm steel rods and plastered 22 gauge wire mesh which supports the layers of debris poured in with intermittent watering, finished with a final layer of plaster. This wall made of 80% building material remains, 15% gravel, 5% cement and 5% manufactured sand is not just resource and cost-efficient, but also surprisingly strong and of extremely pliable form.

This has been patented by us and hopes to be a major wall construction method in the 21st century.

What would your advice be for emerging architects? How can they take a similar initiative and pursue architecture through the lens of sustainability and recycled material?

Going green is no longer an option; it’s a compulsion for 21st-century humans. We cannot ‘consider’ the ‘option’ of eco-friendly construction while building structures. For our generation, it is a necessity. We aren’t left with any other options. Architecture is no longer a profession, but it has, in fact, become a hazard.

What projects are you currently working on?

As Wallmakers, we aim at building sustainable structures that are responsive to specific conditions in the site's context, thus maintaining a balance between innovative designs and functional deliverables.

Since the very beginning, we have been using recyclable waste. In one of Wallmakers' latest project, we are using pet bottles to build an entire house alongside material like mud and scrap wood. It's a composite creation. These pet bottles filled with mud serve a structural purpose as they act as compressors and thus are used as bricks to construct houses.


A: Vinu Daniel

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