Wallmakers is an architecture firm based in Kerala, India. led by Vinu Daniel, the studio has devoted itself to the cause of using mud and waste to make structures that are both utilitarian and alluring. Join me in discovering some of their most spectacular designs!
As humans, all of our earlier settlements have always been made of natural materials. But the sad fact is that, today less than thirty percent of the world’s population live in buildings made of earth, even though it is a more sustainable and durable material ; the blame of which may be solely placed on the advent of industrialisation and a widespread demand for “cement” houses’. At Wallmakers, they have devoted themselves to the cause of using mud and waste as the chief components, to make structures that are absolutely beautiful, sustainable, and functional.
Vinu Daniel completed his B. Arch in 2005 from The College of Engineering, Trivandrum, following which he worked with Auroville Earth Institute for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Post-Tsunami construction. On returning from Pondicherry in 2007 he started ‘Wallmakers’ which was christened thus by others, as the first project was just a compound wall. Many eye-openers in the course of his practice prompted him to resolve to devote his energies towards the cause of sustainable and cost-effective architecture.
Amidst the current Global climate crisis, it becomes all the more important to question the direction in which we humans, as a race, are headed. In the place of questions like “What should we build?”, queries like “Should we build?” should become more relevant. And in facing the inevitable situation where we must build, the need to use materials that has already become an environmental hazard in the place of fresh material has become the need of the hour. We believe in understanding and using materials easily available from a site or in building with waste, which led us to research and develop techniques such as the Debris Wall and the Shuttered Debris Wall. At Wallmakers, the aim is to build sustainable spaces that are responsive to specific site contexts and conditions, while maintaining a balance between innovative, utilitarian designs and creating contextual dream-like spaces. I just love Wallmakers approach to building, which results in some of the most elegant, beautiful and environmentally integrated buildings.
Vinu Daniel completed his B. Arch in 2005 from The College of Engineering, Trivandrum, following which he worked with Auroville Earth Institute for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Post-Tsunami construction. On returning from Pondicherry in 2007 he started ‘Wallmakers’ which was christened thus by others, as the first project was just a compound wall. By 2008 he had received an award for a low cost, eco-friendly house from the ‘Save Periyar’ Pollution Control Committee for the house which was constructed for a cancer patient. Many such eye-openers in the course of his practice prompted him to resolve to devote his energies towards the cause of sustainable and cost-effective architecture.
He was sent to write the entrance examinations for admission to both medical and engineering degree courses by his parents who lived in Abu Dhabi, where he had grown up. They felt that their academically-sound son, who also had a steady hand, would have a bright future as a doctor. “But I had other plans: to become a full-time musician. I enrolled myself as a student of Omanakutty Teacher (K. Omanakutty) and began learning from her,” recalls Vinu for an interview with the Hindu. That was around the time he got admission to the architecture course in CET. Although he did join the course, his heart was in music and he threw himself into participating in as many music events at temple festivals in the district.
It was a chance meeting with Laurie Baker, the father of eco-friendly, low-cost, sustainable architecture in India, that gave him a new perspective and sustainable architecture became his design credo. Architecture became more than just blueprints and brick and mortar: “Here was a master architect right here in the city and we students, in those days, were taken to different places in the country to get acquainted with architects building skyscrapers and concrete blocks,” recalls an indignant Vinu. Baker believed that, as much as possible, one must use materials available within a five-mile radius to build houses. That became the foundation of Vinu’s career.
Mud bricks, recycled materials, eco-friendly methods of construction and apt utilisation of natural resources shaped Vinu’s design philosophy. He went on to do his training in sustainable architecture from Auroville Earth Institute and launched himself as an independent architect soon after.
His next projects became the cynosure of all eyes and Valsala Cottage, a residence he built for his uncle in Mavelikara, where Vinu hails from, went on to win the India Today eco-friendly house of the year (South Zone) in 2009. “It was featured in architect Rahul Mehrotra’s book “Architecture in India”. The IHA, a residence in Mannanthala in Kerala, is one of their outstanding projects. Just the exterior of the structure is something not many would expect, and the interior goes even beyond that. The low-lying site was giving way to environmental-imbalance, and so, their primary concern was to find a way to circumvent this issue. The solution? To raise the building from the ground which formed a pond at its lowest point, and build a dangling staircase concealed in a bamboo facade! Using mud blocks, scrap wood, and other eco-friendly materials, the residence remains minimalist, quiet, and ever-so-magnificent. Another awe-worthy construction is a residence in Pathanamthitta, where the debris from the previous building was smartly integrated into the primary focus of this one. In this building, half-cut coconut shells and discarded metre-box cases seamlessly mingle with the rest of the edifice, whilst contributing to functionality. It is the textbook definition of the kind of house you would never want to leave.
Vinu’s sensibly-built, minimal-scrap-generating spaces closely reflect the inspiration he derives from late architect Laurie Baker’s impeccable work. Integrating nature with something that is most likely to be a predator of nature, is not an easy task. However, this is something that Vinu and his team at Wallmakers strive to do in every project of theirs. Again, to allow human establishments to be set up in ways that do not disrupt the ecological balance, in more ways than one may be a heavy task, but is definitely the need of the hour. Reclaiming the mud that has been dug for the structure as a building material, letting the nuances of the surrounding nature enter the building, and finding the beauty in so-called ‘scrap’, are all ‘must-haves’ on the sustainable architecture list, an Vinu’s work checks all the boxes.
Vinu has two patents in his name for Debris Wall and Shuttered Debris Wall, which he shares it with architect Shobhita Jacob. He won the award for low-cost eco-friendly house from ‘Save Periyar’ Pollution Control Committee. It was constructed for Lakshmikuttyamma, a cancer patient, and was sponsored by K J Yesudas. St. George Orthodox Church at Mattancherry won him the NDTV award in 2015 and the IIA National award in 2016. He won several awards in different categories for Biju Mathew’s house in Pathanamthitta, where he experimented with the debris wall for the first time. Won the competition to build the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Pavilion (2014), the largest Conoid built using ferrocrete. He had also built the pavilion for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale at Aspinwall House at Fort Kochi in 2016.
Wallmakers 10 Most Incredible Buildings
1.The Ledge, Peeremedu
Perched on the edge of a mountain, ‘The Ledge’ is a residence in Peeremedu that is designed based on a dream sequence. The inquisition that leads one to walk till the edge of a ridge or a child-like whim to jump from the top of a cliff can be attributed to a human desire to walk ahead into the clouds even after the mountain is over. Hence the building has been designed as a shard that seems to be protruding as an extension of the mountain into the air. Camouflaged within the natural landscape the roof and the external walls are made out of treated Casuarina poles which is a fast-growing tree whose wood is considered as waste and used only for scaffolding and fencing. Here the long span Casuarina-ferrocement composite roof is further supported in between with the help of Casuarina trees planted at the onset of construction in the central courtyard of the house. Finding huge quantities of small loose stones during the excavation process for the foundation led to an improvisation in the SHOBRI wall (Shuttered Debris Wall). These stones were utilised in the walls by inserting them into the Debris mix in the shutters as alternating bands.
2. Pirouette House, Trivandrum
The Pirouette House features the “Last of the Mohicans” fired bricks as an ode to the stellar practice of Laurie Baker with spaces that are made beautiful by the pure geometry and patterns created by the walls that seem to be coming alive and pirouetting around.The Rat trap bond is a brick masonry method of wall construction in which bricks are placed in vertical position instead of conventional horizontal position and thus creating a cavity within the wall that increases thermal efficiency, cuts down on the total volume of bricks used and is ideal for concealing structural members and service ducts. The idea of this residence was to have an inward facing house with all its spaces opening into a funneling central courtyard. The house is aligned in the East-West direction with openings facilitating for maximum cross-ventilation.The idea was further developed to form a series of slanting walls that danced left and right, converging only to support the ferrocement shell roof. Each staggered wall has been tailor-made to suit the issue of deficiency in space that this residence posed, aiming to create larger volumes and a feeling of privacy. Cane has been acquired from the neighbourhood, treated and wound around the grillwork to create subtle screens for privacy and for various furniture.
3. St. George Orthodox Church
Built on the foundation of a historic monument, this church resurrects the original church which is the first church of the Christians in Kerala, built in 1615 AD and was left in shambles after years of neglect and encroachment. Designed using stabilized earth blocks to form Nubian arches, the alter and the aisles of the church are supported by flying buttresses that were built without shuttering. Being a religious building for a small community, the church would have demanded substantial negotiation from the architect and a trusting client to realize this dream. . The exploratory spirit combined with pressing demands is from where the design is born; which is further evolved through a series of dialogues between the site, the masons, the architect and the clients.The architecture of the church builds on the imagery of historic monuments but the transparent use of the material in its potential forms gives this building its fascinating edifice. The domes, vaults and arches envelop a sublime central space with light filtering through the cross (an inspiration from Tadao Ando) framing the sanctuary. The masons were trained to create these structures using a chain-study method first formulated by Antoni Gaudi in forms that were mastered by Hassan Fathy. Nonetheless, with all its influences the church borrows, the result is an original work of contemporary architecture that exploits the unique opportunity to build for a challenging programme. By re-interpreting a historic construction technique and responding to the footprint of the structure on the site, the attempt is to create a building made with earth that inspires awe and a sense Of wonderment with its rich spatial quality.
With increasing demand over resources, it is the responsibility of architects to use materials with very less embodied energy. Mud as a material can be expressed in its true form through various methods like earth blocks, rammed earth, wattle and daub and many more. The exploratory spirit combined with pressing demands is where our designs are born; which are evolved through a series of dialogues between the masons, architects, clients and an immediate understanding of the site and the surrounding. An age-old construction technique involving masonry with earth blocks and mud mortar without shuttering to create a wide range of arches , domes and vaults. The was reintroduced to 20th century by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy.The basis of this technique is that the blocks adhere to each other with earth glue. The principle is that the dry block suck by capillarity the water along with the clay of the glue which will bind the blocks. It is essential that the blocks are very thin, so as to have a high ratio “sticking area/weight”. Chain study method helps to stabilize the right shape of the arch before the execution begins. Antonio Gaudi, the Spanish architect of the early 20th century, developed and used extensively this method which aims to define the shape assumed by a freely suspended chain.The catenary method gives the exact and ideal curve of the line of thrust, which represents the line of compressive stress in the arch.
4. Shikhara House
Set against one of the silent hilltops of Trivandrum, the site was located at the highest point in that particular part of the woods. The client was somebody who loved to travel and planned frequent escapades to distant lands, all over the country. The Himalayas had always caught his attention and intrigued him the most and he was lucky that his abode too would be just as reclusive, set into the lovely hilltop. However, being a west facing site one would have to hold up a hand to shield their eyes from the harsh west sun. That ‘hand’ was re-imagined as a slanting wall along the site giving birth to the concept of conceiving the residence as – Shikhara ( Peak).
The wall, brutal but a shade from the harsh heat and direct sunlight was to be made from the materials procured from the land itself, this being a prerogative of Wallmakers as we exclusively indulge in sustainable building practices. The soil procured by excavating the rainwater harvesting tank and the basement floor however presented an opportunity in the guise of a problem. The rocky terrain soil was filled with pebbles and debris which was deemed unsuitable for making mud bricks. Therefore, the patented technique of Shuttered Debris Wall was used here. Thus the slanting waste material wall and a view to withhold was born. Since the major length of the building ran along the West side as a solid wall with small openings, lack of cross ventilation posed a new problem. After foraging in the market the answer rose in the form of Aluminium coin sheets that were perforated to let in light and air. A rhythmic undulating pattern was worked out on it so that this facade doubled up to become the staircase and answer the security concerns. The overall experience of living in this residence can indeed be compared to that of being in the mountains- Brimming with nature but also formidable, welcoming but reclusive and above all – a quiet viewpoint to view the countryside from.
5. Jackfruit Garden Residence
The Jackfruit Garden Residence as the name suggests is a house for Mr. Riaz, whose very design arose from trying to retain the huge jackfruit tree growing in one corner of the site. Another consideration to keep in mind was that designing for a large family also meant that privacy was of utmost importance if we wanted the common spaces to be inclusive. This gave form to the idea of a compound wall that revolves around the tree and twists upwards to join the ferro-cement shell roof of the house, seamlessly. This in turn created a small intimate space landscaped like a Japanese Zen garden providing ample shade, privacy and is also easily accessible from the kitchen. The staircase that floats over the naturally lit atrium is like a fallen cloth spreading over a series of crisscrossing pipes. With the large sizes of the openings in question , the grillwork was designed by piecing together discarded pipes from the scrapyard. These pipes then come alive and fold in and out to become chandeliers in all the rooms propagating the idea of using such scrap instead of gorging into fresh material.
6. Chirath, Pala
In today’s world, it is a prevalent trend to add the prefix of sustainability to most things. However, there seems to be very little that is done to represent the concept. As a firm practicing sustainable architecture exclusively for a decade, Wallmakers’ knows about the aspirations of a “modern” client, where his house is a symbol of his status and prominence in society instead of being a statement for the future. The traditional houses in Kerala are typically sloped roof structures with heavy overhangs. Although the roof prevented rain and the cooling was phenomenal, the client was deterred by the atmosphere of darkness which stayed prevalent or was associated with the ambience inside the house. The second altercation was that many of the architectural systems that were in place promoted gender inequality in the olden days since women were restricted to the courtyard. Thus during the early days of the project, the client had made a point that the house should be a symbol of a new light, or a new outlook to our age old systems and beliefs.“Chirath” which denotes a traditional lamp in Malayalam is the name given by Mr. Ramanujan Basha for his house at Pala, Kerala. A pond with a fixed glass window right behind, entwine the interior with the exterior. While the window ensures a visual connect with the outside, the pond gives a feel of nature ushered inside. Dining Table made from the root of a tree and chairs made from scrap available at site.
7. Kurien Phillip Residence
Home is a partnership between the creator and provider. The creator being the architect and provider, the client. Nothing was more important to make a building like Kurien’s residence than this divine and sturdy partnership. The technology of sinusoidal walls consists of constructing wave like walls with or without reinforcement. This was pioneered by architect Eladio Dieste in Iglesia de Atlantida, Uruguay. The Wallmakers have tried to emulate the essence of Dieste by using Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks without reinforcing the vault structure. This small technique allowed wind to enter creating beautiful triangular openings (windows) and yet avoiding trespassers viewing into the home. Nearby traditional homes were being replaced by modern concrete homes resembling match boxes in a unfitting environment. This prompted the client to ask for something new with emphasis was laid on climatic response and eco-friendliness . His only request further was to save his antique furniture. Keeping all the above in mind, they were inspired to create a ‘Vault’ which was an umbrella to protect the shelter from the indomitable tropical sun. Thus the long catenary vault blocking the South-West sun made from more than 9000 CSEB bricks. Age old construction technique involving masonry with earth blocks and mud mortar without shuttering to create a wide range of arches and domes and vaults. The was reintroduced to the 20th century by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy.
8. Weekend Home, Kakkathuruth
This residence was made as a weekend home for Mr. Asif Ahmed. It is located at the picturesque backwaters of Kakkaturuthu, which is accessible only by a ferry boat from across the river. The water being saline in nature would have an adverse effect on the mud walls so a mixture of red oxide with waterproofing agent has been applied on the rammed earth walls. Visually, the combination of sharp triangular lines with circular ones creates a beautiful harmony. A staircase made of polished granite on the interior curves down into the kitchen where one stair juts out and becomes a table, surrounded by
9. Biju Mathew’s Residence
Mr. Biju Mathew’s residence site was at a slope with remnants of a demolished building. Maximizing the given area, the building is set in multiple levels to accommodate the family and to meet the client’s dreams in the most feasible way. Considering the local nuances and the economic constraints, the materials were responsibly chosen; the walls rose out from the earth that was dug out within the site, the debris from the earlier building is turned to a curvilinear wall that forms the central courtyard and becomes the central focus of the house. A technology widely used by Late Ar. Laurie Baker involves filling concrete slabs with terracotta tiles aimed at reducing both concrete and conducting heat. This is a similar filler slab concrete using Half cut coconut shells. The windows protected with meter boxes from a local scrapyard create a mural on the rammed earth walls as the day goes by.
10. IHA residence, Mananthala
The design of this residence breaks the shackles of a lot of generic ideas. The main concern while designing was to avoid creating an environmental imbalance in the area as it was a low-lying region. The living area provides a serene atmosphere and absolute solitude created by the bamboo and rustic furniture made with scrap wood. The idea was to raise the building from the ground , consequently forming a pond at the lowest point in the site which edges into the house with a staircase dangling over it. The focal point here is the cantilevered staircase hanging from the bamboo facade, that captures the wild side of this residence. Tiny , cozy places are not restrained to the interiors of the residence. Semi-private interstitial areas like these that connect the outside and the inside is the soul of this project. The intricately worked out rotating CSEB jali creates a congruous circulation of air and a beautiful pattern on the walls as light beams through it. The grills made of discarded Whirlpool Washing machine wheels creates an unseen and elaborate pattern and contributes towards the cause of reusing scrap material to create a unique piece of art. The simplistic design of an open kitchen with cabinets made from scrap wood. The minimalistic interior and decor of the residence fits right in without creating much noise , keeping in mind the space and vibe the house projects.
Wallmakers approach to design is focused on sustainability, which in a place like India where their projects are built, requires adaptation to environmental conditions. Houses need to create coolness and shade