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A revival of natural building in Ladakh

written by Alex Jensen & Kunzang Deachen

In Ladakh and elsewhere in India, the built environment is increasingly dominated by structures that required unsustainable construction methods and non-renewable materials. Meanwhile, older traditional buildings are usually marginalized and neglected. A primary feature of this shift involves the use of concrete, “the most destructive material on Earth”, rather than locally-sourced wood, straw, and earthen materials like clay, sand, and stone. How destructive is concrete? The global cement industry produces 4 billion tons of concrete every year, resulting in 4-8% of global CO2 emissions. Concrete production is responsible for 10% of the world’s industrial water use, most of this occurring in water-stressed regions. Concrete factories are also a major source of deadly air pollution – including up to 10% of the particulate matter pollution that chokes Delhi.

In Ladakh, add to all this the tremendous energy and pollution costs associated with transporting thousands and thousands of heavy bags of cement over the Himalayas every year, all accelerating an ongoing hotel construction boom that, among other impacts, is consuming once-fertile agricultural fields, thus reducing local food production and self-reliance. At the same time, traditional houses are falling into disuse and disrepair, and many are simply abandoned. Despite the widespread belief in the environmental superiority of new buildings, lifecycle assessments based on total embodied energy show clearly that “The greenest building is the one that already exists,” as one architecture magazine editor put it.

While the beauty that traditional structures contribute to the built environment is often recognized, they are unfortunately thought to be structurally “weak” – even though they can withstand a variety of environmental changes while providing a much more comfortable and temperature-regulated living space. Unfortunately, policymakers struggle to comprehend the benefits of traditional buildings and natural materials, and too often neglect how our collective actions and their effects are related. While proclaiming their concern about climate change, for instance, policymakers have done little to discourage the use of imported, emissions-laden building materials, to mandate the use of natural, local materials in new construction, or to encourage the preservation and restoration of old traditional buildings. Another problem that has yet to be addressed is the construction debris that will be left behind in Ladakh in 40 to 50 years, when all the concrete will have reached the end of its useful life. By contrast, the materials used to build traditional homes can still be utilized for centuries afterwards, or they can return safely to the soil.

Within Local Futures’ broad focus on promoting economic localization – shifting our economies towards place-based, ecological, human-scale activity – we promote vernacular and traditional knowledge, skills, practices and cultures, including in the built environment. Hence this summer we partnered with local Ladakhi enterprise Earth Building to organize a workshop to restore a historic house in the village of Chuchot, using only natural local materials, principally earth. Earth Building, led by skilled young natural builders Stanzin Phuntsog and Samyuktha, has been working to reinstill respect for earthen building within Ladakh and elsewhere in India, against the trend towards unsustainable construction methods and materials.

Asked why Earth Building was formed and what its objectives are, Stanzin Phuntsog said, “Mainly because it’s environmentally friendly, planet friendly, and it’s people friendly in terms of health – it’s non-toxic. It’s obviously better for the planet because we’re using local materials that are not sourced from far, so it has a lower carbon footprint. Another reason is because of hands-on work. Today a lot of people are looking for hands-on experiences since they have lost touch with nature. A final reason is community: people coming together to build something can have fun and build community.”

Stanzin observed that these days, people in Ladakh are shifting to concrete construction because it is a novelty, whereas in places like south India, where the shift happened decades ago, people are waking up to the downsides of concrete and starting – literally – to come back to earth. He is hopeful that a similar shift – a similar ‘homecoming’ – will take place in Ladakh as well, before too much more destruction from reckless concrete building occurs.

Samyuktha added that Earth Building was started from a concern for sustainable values, the wish to provide natural building as an option for people who had similar concerns, and to inspire people who haven’t previously considered natural building as viable. Despite the worrisome trends towards excessive concrete building, she points out that Ladakh is still a source of inspiration for natural builders because it retains a lot of traditional buildings and techniques, and there is a great opportunity to revive and practice natural building.

Samyuktha also believes that the practice of natural building is important as a way for us to get our hands dirty, to stay connected to natural materials and to the Earth. Because natural building is not given the place and importance in the architecture education system in India that it deserves, she wants to bring this kind of experience and knowledge to students and young emerging architects so they are at least aware of such possibilities. Even if one or two of them are inspired to embrace natural building, it will be successful.

For the Chuchot house restoration workshop, some 20 participants from all over India attended, the majority of them architecture students yearning for hands-on experience and for alternatives to conventional materials and design. Under the expert guidance of Stanzin and Samyuktha, they rebuilt and replastered a number of walls, repaired the traditional compost toilet room, did structural repair to ceilings/roof, and reconstructed an adobe brick roof parapet, among other things.

One of the few non-architecture students who participated was Pranav from Indore, who said: “I’ve come here to quench my curiosity … and contribute something and do something new in my life as well.” Asked why he was keen on learning natural building, he said, “Because it’s energy efficient and better for nature. Especially in times of climate change, I think this is something we should adopt and make more people aware of.” He said that the problem is that people aren’t aware of natural building as an option, and they are just following what everyone around them is doing. If he builds a home in the future, these are the sorts of techniques and materials he will use, and he will also encourage acquaintances to do likewise.

The family who last lived in the house was also excited to see the restoration. When family members visited on one of the workshop days to go through old belongings, we observed them sharing stories and memories from the several generations that had lived there. This only serves to strengthen our resolve to persuade others to rethink their new-found preference for the materialistic world instead of the interpersonal relationships that were a central feature of the old way of life in Ladakh.

The restored historic house in Chuchot will eventually serve as a vibrant workshop space and office for Local Futures Ladakh, and will become a hub of culture, activism, healthy local food systems and young farmers. It will be a refuge for critical thought, traditional knowledge and timeless beauty in a rapidly modernizing Ladakh. A follow-up workshop is currently being planned for later this summer to pick up where the last one left off, and to get a number of rooms into finished, usable shape.

The workshop has fostered new skills and knowledge for both organizers and participants, built community and conviviality, generated interest in restoring old houses and returning to natural materials amongst local villagers, and reconnected participants with their bodies and with the local environment. A lot of laughter and satisfied tiredness accompanied the seven days of mixing, hauling, throwing, smearing, plastering, and burnishing mud! In other words, besides making great strides towards restoring the house, the workshop has helped restore us.

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