I pursued my studies from 1984 to 1987 outside Kerala, in Mysore to be exact, and used to make monthly trips home because of nostalgic feelings. Observing my periodic visits, the local residents would remark that they did not know Mysore was located so close by! During those days, it was not customary for people to go on pleasure trips frequently. Today travel has become so easy that one can go to Bengaluru or Tamil Nadu, have a cup of tea, and return in one’s own car.

During my travel home in the KSRTC bus, whenever there was a breakdown, it was my hobby to remain in the company of the driver and the conductor. There used to be only two buses along the Nilambur route every day. I never took another bus but rather waited till the bus was repaired. During that interval, I enjoyed the surrounding sights. One day, the bus I had taken broke down at Gudallur. As usual, I decided to wait till it was repaired. I would even sleep inside the bus in the mean time! On that particular occasion, I happened to notice a tea shop on the wayside. On enquiring whether the land had been taken on lease, the tea shop owner, a Malayali, informed me that he was an immigrant.

The technology he had employed to put up his shop there looked very interesting. This species of bamboo you see in front of me is elephant grass that is grown to hold the soil together on the banks of rivers. I have planted them here as a substitute for a compound wall. It is not too thick, perhaps only as thick as a regular flute. In order to make walls, this bamboo is cut into uniform pieces, stacked tightly in a line as if to make a fence, like the bamboo curtains we hang in our verandas to block strong wafts of wind, and soil is plastered on both sides. These walls are like the ones we make using metal rods and concrete mixture.

The immigrants needed to make their houses quickly lest others should confiscate their plots. And so this method helped. You could begin this construction process in the morning, and the structure would be ready by evening. Evictions that used to take place in those days were always noisy affairs. This is perhaps the easiest construction technique I have ever seen.

Later, in 1987 as a Journalism student at Kariyavattom, I saw Laurie Baker, the renowned architect, when he came there to take a class. He was famous for his low-cost housing techniques. Baker shared some of the experiences he had and the sights he saw while being employed in the Himalayan regions. He had come to India during the Second World War, and stayed in the Himalayan region in order to build houses for people. Later he married a Malayli woman Dr Elizabeth and settled in Kerala. In the Himalayan region, he saw people using urine to make the soil mix needed for construction. Maybe the soil has some special property which makes it sticky when mixed with urine. Thus each region has its own technique. When we talk of Nature-friendly houses, we mean using soil to make walls, putting up thatched roofs and so on.

When I showed my small house last time and described is as Nature-friendly, many people either telephoned or messaged me to enquire how it could be labelled so because I had used concrete, steel, fibre, cement and so on for its construction. This video is to give an answer to such queries. Perhaps in the earlier video, my explanation regarding what I tried to propagate was not clear enough.

When we decide to construct a house, we cannot take an individual decision all the time. That is because it is a shared space. Maybe five or six or perhaps even 10 people will stay in it, and each may have his/her own dreams and ideas. If there is no common consensus, it may not be possible to reduce the construction cost or build a low-cost house. So there is a need to gather everybody’s ideas, however small. For instance, ideas like not filling the entire plot with the house, setting aside some space for a garden, and so on. If everyone agrees to a low-cost house, it is possible to bring down expenditure considerably.

What never ceases to shock me is that people who are ready to spend Rs 1,500 on paving garden tiles are reluctant to set aside Rs 400 per sq. ft. for putting up a Miyawaki forest. They are even willing to pay Rs 20,000 to buy a big palm tree and plant it in front of their house! The yellow bamboo you see here costs Rs 1,500 per stump if you buy it from a plant nursery. It costs anywhere between Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 to plant them along the length of 10 to 15 feet. But if we talk about planting a fruit garden in one cent of land, people worry about the cost involved. That is because they have no idea about the cost component of such projects.

When we speak about putting up a small house while retaining the existing environment or setting aside a piece of plot for Nature to thrive, what we mean is allowing some space for other creatures also to live. If there is wild growth, we may have to clear the place and keep it clean. But it will be more enjoyable if we leave some space for insects, glow worms, butterflies and other tiny creatures to live in.
Regarding the point about using cement, fibre and other things, let me say that they are used in considerably smaller quantities. Generally speaking, fibre coating is unnecessary for a house. But I resorted to it because the walls of the house I built are only two inches thick, as against the conventional thickness of four inches. The protection quotient of the roof is thus compromised but that is all that is required. If something heavy falls on it or some natural calamity happens, like a lightning strike, nothing can be done about it. But a two-inch roof offers fairly good protection against smaller problems. Our land gets incessant rains. As a result, the possibility of leakage is strong. That is the reason why I opted for the arching roof.  Water will quickly flow down. I have trained some climbers up the house and they will soon spread their roots on the roof. The fibre coating is to ensure that no water is retained between them. You may argue that fibre is artificial because it does not grow in Nature. That is indeed true but it helps me reduce on the quantities of concrete, cement and steel, by half. In a like manner, it is possible to go for alternate systems.

We cannot avoid concreting our floor or choosing any good material for it. But the trend nowadays is to have granite floors. When we cross 60, we develop arthritis and will have to wear socks to withstand the cold floor. This also causes us to lose our footing and slip, even over anti-skid tiles in the bathrooms. In Kerala, it had been our practice to pave our floor with earthen tiles. These tiles absorb water. I admit good earthen floor tiles are hard to get. But if we use them, it reduces the labour involved in scrubbing the floor. These days people switch on the fans after moping the floor so that the tiles dry quickly. But earthen tiles do not have such a problem. When my dog lies on the earthen tiles for some time, that spot remains warm for a long while because the tiles absorb the heat of its body. Earthen tiles retain heat. Humans too will experience the same phenomenon. The tiles will prevent our feet from getting cold.

Another alternative is to reuse wooden furniture. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and lock carbon inside themselves. As long as wood is not burnt, the carbon will remain in it. This kind of carbon locking or sequestration is important during these times of climate change. So we can reuse old doors and windows. Earlier they used to be really thick. That is not the case now, but we don’t need them to be so thick either. By reusing them, we can reduce the use of new material. That will be a Nature-friendly decision. Besides, we need to reconsider our concept of the life span of our houses. We usually build houses with a desire to keep them standing for 100 years.

I came to this city 35 years back. In those days, there were plenty of houses – with wooden walls and tiled roofs – on both sides of the Vellayambalam-Shastamangalam road. It presented a fabulous sight because they were done in typical Kerala architectural style. Now, only three or four of them remain. I don’t know how long they will stand there intact. A few people have maintained their houses but the rest have become concrete structures with no distinctive identity. All of them are skyscrapers. Will these apartment complexes survive 100 years? I don’t think so. After some time, like dams, they too will have to be decommissioned, brought down and rebuilt. So these have only a lifetime of 30-40 years, and need to be strong enough to last only that long. Of course, the regional peculiarities will have to be taken into consideration.

I won’t be able to make a mud house in this plot. I am sitting on top of a water tank that we built three or four years back. Stone-quarrying is a big business on the other side of the river, and the shocks are felt here too through the soil. So this huge tank split into two pieces. As a result, we were compelled to use another technology to put up another water tank that will not develop fissures. I say this to underscore that each region has its special features. I will not be able to stop the stone-quarrying even if I wish to do it. That business gives employment to 100 or more individuals, and has been going on for nearly 30 years. People are purchasing stones from there. If there were no buyers, surely that quarry wouldn’t exist! So there is no point in finding fault with it.

However, we can do a lot of things even within these circumstances. Most of the time, we adopt very radical approaches in many matters, and argue that if this is done in this manner, it will be environment-friendly; otherwise, it will be not, and so on. We can reduce our use of resources in many projects. If we go for miniature models, they will have their share of small problems. A bigger model will impact the environment in a serious way but that can be sorted out if we opt for smaller blocks.

For instance, rather than make a single 5,000 or 6,000 sq. ft house in 20 cents of land, think of making two or three 2,000 sq. ft. houses at various parts of the plots. If plants and trees are grown in the in-between spaces, a different ambience will emerge there. I’m merely sharing a few of my ideas, not forcing you to accept them. Many of you may share my views but may not have the courage to voice them or may not be inclined to do it. But if we follow some of them, we will be able to maintain our environment, our plants and our birds for a longer period of time.

Even as I sit here, I can hear the sound of crickets. I don’t know whether you can. Earlier, we used to hear only the sound of stones being crushed. This change came about after a long time. If we desire to bring back the sounds of crickets and frogs in our garden plots, we should adopt at least a few, if not all, environment-friendly measures. We will be able to do a lot of things, protecting the interests of the members of our family and staying within our own limits.