Last week I had the privilege of working with a couple of architects in India who have given up a substantial portion of their professional lives to work voluntarily for an NGO, the Sri Aurobindo Society, on a new centre for village development and education.
Jateen Lad and his assistant, Trupti Doshi, have constructed a building of great beauty and power which will act as a focus for education and enabling activities by the Society, but they have done so much more than simply designing a building. Sharanam, as the building is known, is a village development project in its own right. Over the last seven years Jateen and the team from the Society have used the construction project as a vehicle to train and empower local villagers.
Men that would previously have only been able to get work on building sites as unskilled labourers have become masons with valuable skills to sell. They have used hand made, compressed earth bricks to create an expression of architecture far removed from the vernacular from which the brick making evolved. The bricks manufactured at Sharanam actually exceed the strength of conventional kiln fired bricks in India (which admittedly are of very poor quality). Jateen has also taught the masons how to design and make pre-cast concrete elements which, being hand finished have a quality we cannot find in the UK.
I was in India as I had been commissioned to work with Jateen and his team on a sustainable masterplan for a residential management training centre, to be located on a farm far from conventional services and facilities, and so would need to be virtually self sufficient in energy, water and waste management. However, whilst I was there, I was also able to make the next step in revitalising indigenous construction skills and prepare the Sharanam masons to contribute to future construction projects. With a design for a precast T section beam I demonstrated what we in the UK know as a beam and block floor and the local masons totally got it. This method of construction is unknown in modern India where all construction is now in-situ concrete and therefore dominated by large contractors.
However, a beam and block floor of this design can be manufactured and installed largely using manual labour, not machines. This gives the underemployed villagers of Southern India a method of constructing high quality buildings for themselves with local skills and materials as well as a new found self esteem and employment opportunities.