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Going back to wattle and daub homes

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The wattle and daub method of building homes, our old-fashioned way of construction has come into limelight once again. At a recent press briefing by the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects held as a prelude to Architect 2009 exhibition, it was stated that this method costs very little and is also environmental-friendly.

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For me, there is something very stimulating about the process of rediscovering the building materials of our ancestors.

I often feel that in Sri Lanka, we have an earth-building gene deep inside ourselves, and once we start handling these materials, we feel at home with them. The first time I made a wattle and daub panel was in the ‘50s when we were supposed to do a bit of vocational training as a school activity.

We did not have great clay; we put the wattles too close together and did not use enough pebbles and coir strings in the mix. It worked, but only just. With practice, we actually got quite good at it later, and I have come to see wattle and daub panels as a thing of both great beauty and great simplicity.


Wattle and daub homes becoming popular because they are economical and environment friendly

Yet despite its simplicity, different parts of the country developed slightly differing versions and techniques, and it has proven to be an extremely durable and resilient building technique. Today, the technique is becoming popular again in many countries in the world as a sustainable building technique.

For centuries in the past wattle and daub houses were popular in villages and semi-urbanised areas in the island. The technique survives to date only in deep rural areas in Sri Lanka. The brick and cement combination has now taken over what sticks and mud did to construct traditional Sri Lankan shelter.

Advantages

Wattle and daub may not be the most rigid material, but therein we find its strength. It is able to accommodate even the most severe structural movement because it embeds tightly into the timber frame, which moves with the structure offering support to weakening timbers.

This does not happen with quick-fix modern alternatives such as hard bricks and cements mixes. Sand and cement composition forms an impermeable skin that will not allow movement without cracking and when there is rain, water can enter these cracks and cannot escape by means of natural venting and breathing.

The water then becomes trapped inside the structure causing damp patches internally which can sometimes be seen, and also rapid disintegration of the timber frame itself will take place.

One may argue that daub is porous and, therefore, moisture is absorbed when it rains. This is partially right. However, daub acts like blotting paper to disperse the moisture. It also has capacity to evaporate moisture at a high rate. These two facts will help to maintain moisture at low levels.

Place in 21st Century

What is its place now in the 21st Century? Will we see a wattle and daub building boom across the land? I suspect not.

One wonders. If earth as building material is quite within the average Sri Lankans grasp, in both technology and cost, and if there are many advantages of using earth for its superb insulation capacity and minimal environmental impact, why isn’t the technique picking up?

Contractors say there are two major disadvantages. First, the process of making the mud is quite messy and younger generation is reluctant to engage in this process. Second, it is hard to get the walls to a finish where it could be white washed and painted, so that the house looks no different from a brick or cement-block house. In addition, the porous walls tend to allow insect (centipedes etc.) to breed.

Yet, they do agree that the system is economical, environmental friendly, financially affordable and innovatively attractive.

Solutions

This is where the Industrial Development Board, Industrial Technology Institute and other research bodies can step in. They must carry out demand-driven research into the existing system of wattle and daub construction and should introduce new technology to improve it.

The specified problems have to be resolved: how construction be done to give the same look of finish as those built with bricks and cement; how could the tensile strength of a multi-storey building be augmented; how could the insects be prevented creeping through; how could the process of making mud be simplified etc.

Perhaps, until technology improves, we might not build homes with wattle and daub. However, I would argue that it has an important role in internal walls. The amount of clay in the panels is a significant addition of thermal mass to a house, and they are very good for internal air quality. So next time you need to create an internal wall, think wattle and daub.

You will be delighted with the results. Building with unprocessed materials is an empowering experience. You can take pride in building, at least, part of your home to minimise the impact on our environment and maximise their sustainability.

We have ignored enough the environmental devastation to pave way for ‘modern development.’ Now it is filtering into the rural areas, too. Our villages would go into environmentally oblivion before long if the present scale of brick manufacture continues. It is time the authorities sit back and take a quick sane decision.

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