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Trying out the middle path, merging the professional with informal approaches. By Sathya Prakash Varanashi 

Trying out the middle path, merging the professional with informal approaches. By Sathya Prakash Varanashi 

Can we try imagining how the Harappan houses were built about 5,000 years ago? How a small architectural project or a house was possibly planned and managed few hundred years ago? Can we imagine a time with no professional architects, engineers, plumbers or electricians? Did the masons, or even the owners, designed and built all by themselves? 

For the surprise of most large city dwellers, the above may happen even today in small towns and villages. Constructions go on informally with few masons and hardly any drawings. It works out economical with same designs repeated, hence no improvements in functionality, stability, durability, beauty or any such qualitative measures. This is not to claim that only professionalism improves buildings, which also can be questioned.

Fixing a door

In a project at VAST Centre by DESHA, the middle path was tried out, merging the professional with informal approaches. A small dedicated team of architectural volunteers worked with one mason, one fabricator team and a few hand-drawn drawings. Designing was concurrent with constructing, systems were tried out along the project, details were sketched at site and materials were procured locally as required. Above all, most parts of the project were managed by students and architects working at site with the spirit of volunteering.    

Volunteers at the STEP cottage

Volunteers at the STEP cottage

The following could be listed as the lessons learnt. 

Evolving during constructing: Pre-conceived designs dictate how to build in the conventional modes of project management, which does not let ideas evolve. Fear of going wrong, need to fix the budget in advance, material supply chain or organising skilled human resources could be cited as the reasons. Fair enough, but once we let go of this procedure, wonders can be achieved to evolve a building unlike any other. Critics may see dozens of scopes for perfection and improvements, but let us remind ourselves, they also make the building sterile and predictable. As long as the final outcome of the project becomes one balanced fusion of ideas, it stands apart. 

Handmade cottages: The project stands out with the touch of hands, rustic and creative. It of course lacks the refinement of a tendered professional construction finished with machines and tools. Typical contractual systems would have demanded full set of drawings, quotation document called Bill of Quantities (BOQ), all materials specified in advance and construction system detailed out. All clarity and no confusion with skilled people repeating what they know, would have been good too, but the hand-made cottage has a different charm.    

Volunteer-driven process: The paid mason team and volunteering people’s team have different attitudes, which makes all the difference in the final outcome of the project. Of course, skill sets too vary, however not every construction task demands high skills. Traditionally, most village owners built their own houses with no prior experience at all, suggesting that expertise, skills and such others emerged with the professionalism rising in construction industry. De-professionalising is different from being unprofessional, where volunteering can play a role. 

Aesthetics of materiality: The visible shift from manufactured materials, clean cement plastering and chemical paints was made possible by wall surfaces looking like murals, mud plastering offering micro shading, hybrid looks by fusion of multiple materials and overall profile of the cottage lacking routine house form.  

Purpose-led project: Projects have functional expectations, but every expectation need not be pre-defined. We may start with the macro planning, get to next level and finally into micro planning at the end. There also could be some iterative mode where the micro may suggest macro modifications. However, evolving the needs as we go along with concurrent designing and building ensures every act at site has a purpose. Such purpose-led process ensures least of wastage, appropriate intervention, cost controls and effective management. 

Immersed in the present conventional systems, the design build approach will demand patience, perseverance and some practice. It may not suit all kinds of building types, but where it suits, it will lead to new architecture –  site specific, sensitive and sustainable.  

(The author is an architect working on eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at varanashi@gmail.com)

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