The journey of a Mud Mansion: Reminiscing learnings from Didi Contractor

On Didi Contractor’s first death anniversary, architect Kriti Dhingra remembers the journey of working with her and her luminous stance on reviving traditional adobe construction.

by Kriti DhingraPublished on : Jul 04, 2022

During an internship at the Dharmalaya institute in Bir in June 2013, I was introduced to Delia 'Didi' Contractor, a self-taught architect based in Sidhbari in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India. I along with other interns visited and worked on her ongoing projects which gave us a glimpse of the prevalent construction techniques in the region. I was so inspired during this internship that I decided to do my postgraduate thesis on her architectural works. She was so generous to guide me through the whole journey of documenting her projects and understanding her design philosophy and construction techniques. There are many fond memories and I am grateful that those have embraced my architectural and life journey.

- Kriti Dhingra
Principal Architect, Sanshraya Design Studio

While looking for architectural prospects in this beautiful valley of Kangra in Himachal Pradesh, India, Delia 'Didi' Contractor (October 11, 1929-July 05, 2021) gave us an opportunity to collaborate. Our intentions resonated towards reviving and innovating traditional adobe construction in the region. This was the perfect moment for me to reciprocate my post-graduate research thesis on her architectural works into practice.

Over the years, with changing lifestyles and societal pressures, the character of the region has been losing its essence due to haphazard development in the hills. Locals are adapting to insensitive modern methods in building design and construction activity instead of improvising on the traditional wisdom of adobe-style which is low-cost and climate-responsive.

Mud homes are considered Kuchha (unbaked) houses and are more often associated with the poor section of the society. On the contrary, Didi felt that one should limit utilising materials that cannot be replaced or re-grown easily.

A traditional village setting in the Kangra Region, Himachal Pradesh, India | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
A traditional village setting in the Kangra Region, Himachal Pradesh, India Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

"So, there is a connotation, if you look within it, you are not objecting to the technical fact that the materials are burnt and they are dead. So-called pakka (baked) buildings are dead. Kuchha (unbaked) buildings still can grow into something. You can break a mud house down and rebuild it very easily using the same material.[1]

Locals are unaware of the judicious use of industrialised materials and techniques, which is not only disrupting the visual integrity of villages but also disturbing the sensitive ecosystem and climate of the hilly state.

South facade of the residence with the backdrop of Dhauladhar range | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
South facade of the residence with the backdrop of Dhauladhar range Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

Through the medium of her work, Didi captured the essence of the region by generating consciousness towards the local practices and evolved a style to adapt and sustain for the future.

Her practice brought a conscious and passionate approach to understand underlying principles of vernacular building traditions, that are deemed outdated to suit modern needs and requirements. – Kriti Dhingra

Like every project, Didi’s approach to design was from a humanitarian and ecological perspective. Her interest was to build a beautiful project while mentoring us through her meticulous methods of execution. This journey under her guidance allowed us to translate her refreshing concepts into reality.

The project site lies amidst tea gardens offering mesmerising views of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas in the North. The client, born Himachali (a native of Himachal Pradesh) had nostalgic memories of his childhood mud home. He briefed us to have a home which could help him stay connected to his roots, and on the same hand accommodate his family's needs who are accustomed to the contemporary lifestyle of a city.

  • Integrated landscape - southern patio overlooking the east garden | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Integrated landscape - southern patio overlooking the east garden Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio
  • Wheelchair-friendly ramp-stair transition with a fish-scale pattern slate work on the roof | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Wheelchair-friendly ramp-stair transition with a fish-scale pattern slate work on the roof Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

The residence is designed as a four-bedroom load-bearing adobe structure comprising formal and informal living areas which open up to the outdoor areas bringing nature indoors. These spaces are oriented in the southeast direction to get maximum sunlight considering the cold climate of the region. The main entrance has a wheelchair-friendly ramp-stair transition offering the experience of a grandeur hybrid façade, which is a composition of different materials like stone, mud and baked bricks.

The staggering effect of the walls is adding drama and grandeur to the main entrance of the residence | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
The staggering effect of the walls is adding drama and grandeur to the main entrance of the residence Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

Considering the client’s requirements, two entrances were designed for the house, as Didi conceptualised:

"The drama of entering a house can vary. In one drama, you are welcomed into a lower cosy sheltered space, where you take off your coat, and your raincoat, and store your umbrella in monsoons, and it should be a mudroom which then opens up and out as you move into the actual area of the home. This drama happens at the east entry that leads to the staircase as well as the puja room. Hence, the ceiling height here is 7 feet with 8 feet 6 inches floor to floor height to the intermediate landing. The intermediate landing, on the way to the upper floor, can be used as a study.

The main sheltered entry, from the west, moving towards the east, is designed dramatically by staggering and opening up through several spaces that can include walls crafted with a mosaic of broken tiles and plates which then opens out into the very large living space.[2]

  • East entry that leads to the staircase lobby area; this mud room is designed with peek windows to enjoy outdoor views while climbing upstairs | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    East entry that leads to the staircase lobby area; this mud room is designed with peek windows to enjoy outdoor views while climbing upstairs Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio
  • A family living area designed with a cob sofa and mud floor for a cosy feeling | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    A family living area designed with a cob sofa and mud floor for a cosy feeling Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio
  • Main entry door is intricately carved and the flooring pattern is designed with a combination of local ‘chakka’ stone and heritage tiles | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Main entry door is intricately carved and the flooring pattern is designed with a combination of local ‘chakka’ stone and heritage tiles Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

Every corner of the residence offers amusing details which elevate the experience of being in that space. These features are in the form of tangible elements like carefully proportioned door designs, intricate bamboo railing details and crafted niches.

Intangible offerings like the daylight entering through the skylight and the window panes that frame seasonal nature views were integrated during the design process.

The most important factor in creating the mood in the house is lighting. The very first thing is marking the skylights, because where skylights are, you have ample daylight. Lighting requires maximum use of the imagination: the ability to take an image and think about how the light is going to fall there and what will its effect be. That’s during the daytime. Then at night, you may have to work out lighting which goes with where the light source is slightly indirect. Indirect lighting is more dramatic than direct lighting. Use the lighting as a dynamic within the static to lead the person through it.[3]

  • Light-well provides ample daylight in the living-dining area | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Light-well provides ample daylight in the living-dining area Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio
  • With slightly indirect sources, the lighting is used to create a dynamicity | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    With slightly indirect sources, the lighting is used to create a dynamicity Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio
  • Staircase detail | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Staircase detail Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

Mud, bamboo, stone and wood, the key natural materials used for construction were sourced from the vicinity of the project site. The procurement, storage and usage of these materials were done methodically keeping in mind the natural cycles of the seasons.

Locally available stone in and around the site was used for foundations and external walls up to three feet and mud bricks for adobe walls were made out of earth excavated during the site levelling process. Different sizes of bricks were moulded and sun-dried for different applications.

  • Different sizes of mud bricks sun drying in the brickyard | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Different sizes of mud bricks sun drying in the brickyard Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio
  • Central RCC beams with brackets holding on to the timber beams and bamboo reinforced slabs | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Central RCC beams with brackets holding on to the timber beams and bamboo reinforced slabs Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

Didi had examined the material constraints within the vernacular and provided individual solutions with new materials wherever needed. For instance, to increase the room spans, a reinforced cement concrete beam with brackets was designed centrally which supports wooden beams and bamboo slab structure of the upper floor. This helped in providing an open plan concept of the living-dining area.

Floor slabs and roofs were constructed with well-seasoned bamboo lengths which were placed one foot apart and laid across wooden beams. Split and opened bamboo termed locally as Chachraa was laid over the bamboo rafters. On top of this ferro-cement was poured and bamboo reinforced slabs were cast. Further, was finished with mud or slate flooring in different areas. This has provided more stability and thermal advantages.

To accommodate plumbing services, red-baked brick with a rat trap bond masonry was used in the wet areas. This allows maximum airflow, avoids moisture and also uses less baked bricks while constructing.

  • The project explored the potential of clay as a construction material  | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    The project explored the potential of clay as a construction material Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio
  • Casting of Bamboo-Ferrocement Roof | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Casting of Bamboo-Ferrocement Roof Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

Waste management was also a major concern for Didi and she always tried to find out ways to lay refuse to rest in building projects. In this building too, plastic bricks were sourced from a local NGO and were used as fillers in the ramps, berms and bathroom sunken slabs to reduce the dead load. Reed bed sewage system was also executed to manage grey water from the bathrooms.

The process of constructing with natural materials is labour intensive and season bound and could have not been achieved without the support of the local community and collaborative craftsmanship. Didi had always respected and admired the efforts of an artisan and the nuances of indigenous knowledge. She believed in offering opportunities for work for both skilled and unskilled labourers. And we as a team felt the power of sharing knowledge and bonding with the community.

Use of plastic bricks as filler | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
Use of plastic bricks as filler Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

Although, her association with the project was limited. But, her passionate approach created a great impact on our lives and gave us lessons to think methodologically about material-detail-design coordination. We explored the potential of clay as a medium to the fullest and executed complex construction details to the best of our ability.

  • Resting amidst the tea gardens, the residence exhibits the humanitarian approach of Didi Contractor in creating an environmentally conscious design | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    Resting amidst the tea gardens, the residence exhibits the humanitarian approach of Didi Contractor in creating an environmentally conscious design Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio
  • The northern façade shows an amalgamation of nature, geometry and materials | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
    The northern façade shows an amalgamation of nature, geometry and materials Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

On this journey of creating the 'Mud Mansion', we adopted and evolved a more suited hybrid approach towards vernacular techniques and sensitivity towards the ecological setting we built in.

This collaboration with the late Didi Contractor not only gave us the opportunity but a pearl of collective wisdom which has a great potential to create resilient solutions for a sustainable future.

Kriti Dhingra with Didi Contractor | The Mud Mansion | Didi Contractor | STIRworld
Kriti Dhingra with Didi Contractor Image: Courtesy of Sanshraya Design Studio

[1]Contractor Didi. Taken from an informal interview between Kriti Dhingra and Didi Contractor. February 08, 2014
[2]Contractor Didi. Design conversations with Didi Contractor about the Mud Mansion. November 15, 2018
[3]Contractor Didi. Design conversations with Didi Contractor about the Mud Mansion. July 09, 2019

STIR: If Didi were alive today, is there a message or a moment that you would have liked to share with her?

Kriti Dhingra: Well, I would have loved her to see the project come through.

STIR: As a practicing architect working in the hills, what is NEXT for you?

Kriti: We have a few upcoming projects in the region, which have given us the opportunity to understand the soil and the terrain differently. We aim to explore further possibilities in mud and bamboo with the local craftsmen to encourage them to enhance their own building traditions. We have also shared our learnings with architecture students of the region through workshops and will continue to do so in the future.

What do you think?

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