How did mud walls find their way into urban designs?
The Business Standard recently visited an under-construction apartment in Gulshan 2 and met the project’s lead Abdun Nime, the only person utilising mud for urban designs in Bangladesh
Growing up in a two-storey mud house in a remote rural area of Bangladesh, the idea of using mud for construction is not something new to me. But running into a mud wall in the heart of Dhaka; in places like Gulshan, Banani or Dhanmondi; was not something I had expected.
The Business Standard recently visited an under-construction apartment in Gulshan 2 by the invitation of Abdun Nime, the only person utilising mud for urban designs in Bangladesh. This is one of the 46 projects where Nime worked to install mud walls for high-rise residential complexes.
It was almost bizarre to see two walls made of mud, especially because it was being used for a glamorous five-bedroom duplex apartment which came with a swimming pool. The half-finished solid wall in the living room looked almost like cement plaster, whereas the one in the study, made out of yellowish-orange sun burnt bricks, looked similar to tiles.
Nime's inspiration for using mud, and locally available construction materials, came from his experience working with the famous German architect Anna Herigner.
Architect Khandaker Hasibul Kabir, who knew Nime through his firm Trii Landscape – Earth Consultant, introduced him to Heringer, who worked with the Bangladeshi NGO Dipshikha to build the METI Handmade School in Dinajpur. The project started in September and continued until December 2005.
In 2007 the building was awarded the prestigious Aga Khan Award with a special mention of how "easily available local materials" had been used to create a new model for the school that is "beautiful, simple and humane."
Nime was a member of Heringer's team. Working on this project opened up new horizons for him. Nime, along with the other team members, gained national and international recognition through it. He was offered to do a diploma on Earth Structure at the University of Linz following the second week of Heringer winning the Aga Khan Award.
During his stay in Austria, under the mentorship of Martin Rauch, who is recognised as the Mud Guru of Europe, Nime developed a deep love and connection with the earth that he still carries in his heart.
"I was very shy and awkward in the class because, among the 36 students, I was the only one from South Asia. Seeing my hesitation in our first class, Martin Rauch pointed out to me that the Earth Structuring courses that I went to study in Austria originated in Asia. This made me very proud as I was the only Asian there," said Nime.
Mud walls started to be a part of urban architecture in Dhaka when Nime returned from Austria in 2010. Through his work as a landscape designer, Nime got introduced to Nahas Ahmed Khalil, a prominent Bangladeshi architect, urban planner, and educator.
Khalid Mahmud was looking for a rustic design for the interior of the restaurant Ajo Idea Space. Nahas, who was serving as the Chief Consultant of the project, hired Nime to build mud walls using the rammed earth technique.
Many people, including a few seasoned architects, were sceptical about the idea of using mud walls in modern constructions. The result, however, took everyone by surprise. And in no time, many people wanted mud walls in their posh apartments and restaurants.
"Especially architects from Bangladesh became very interested in my work after my first project. They wanted to construct mud walls for their designed projects. It was almost like a mudwall storm took hold of the community. Orders kept coming, and I kept working."
Nime, who likes to introduce himself as 'matir karigor' (clay artisan), soon took on another project of building an entire Spa Resort in Kapashia, Gazipur, in 2010.
The client had a requirement that all of the materials must be locally sourced. That was not an issue for Nime, he believes in using only locally sourced organic materials for his projects.
Nime, so far, has found 16 different coloured soils in Bangladesh, all of which he uses in his projects without mixing any chemicals. He found eight of them while constructing a vacation house for the owner of Square Group in Moulvibazar, Sylhet. His mentor Martin Rauch works with only six colours.
"I always believed that I would find more varieties of colour and much richer raw materials in Bangladesh. This is why I left Europe and my job with Martin Rauch."
He used three colours to build the Spa Resort in Gazipur – red, yellow, and grey. It took him almost nine months and a team of 12 people to finish the project.
While talking about this specific project, Nime showed us photos of the different stages of construction. And it took me by surprise because of how different these rammed-earth mud houses look. It is a mud house, but with a very modern and urban look, unlike the more traditional and blunt-looking mud houses we see in rural Bangladesh.
The grey wall that we saw in the under-construction apartment in Gulshan 2 almost looked like a concrete wall until you came closer and felt the texture.
Touching the surface gave off the naturally cool and smooth feeling of the earth. But once finished, the walls look rustic, yet very appealing. While answering the question of how he gets this particular result, Naim said that he uses natural glues; produced from boiling parts of local plants such as Bijla, Peepul, Khagar, etc; for a finishing touch.
"When the wall dries completely, bubbles and grains form in it. We use the glue to fill that up and protect the walls from water and moisture. We test the wall by spraying water on it. If the water is soaked quickly, that shows we should apply more glue," said Nime. "We keep applying glue as long as the wall keeps soaking it in. We use different percentages of glue depending on whether we want a sleek and polished finish or a rustic finish."
For example, he will use only 30% glue for the Gulshan 2 client because they want a more rustic and rough look for their wall.
All the materials used for constructing these mud walls and vacation houses are locally available. That makes these projects very cost-effective, which perhaps is another reason why mud walls are finding their way back to modern urban architecture in Bangladesh.
Nime charged Tk 33 lakh for the 2,900 square feet Spa Resort he built in 2010. In this Gulshan 2 apartment, the marble tiles used in one washroom alone cost Tk 26 lakhs, whereas the grey mud wall costs only a little more than Tk 3 lakh, the material cost him only Tk 6,500.
Earth structuring is very expensive in most places of the world. But in Bangladesh, it is the cheapest option because of the abundance of natural resources.
"I charge my clients based on their affluence," said Nime. "If someone can't pay that much but would want a mud house, I would gladly work with them. I love working with people who love the earth."
Nime, through his firm Trii Landscape – Earth Consultant, dreams to reintroduce people back to their roots. Apart from Ajo Idea Space, he also worked with restaurants like the Oyster, Halda Valley Tea Lounge, Peda Ting Ting, etc.
However, we are yet to see if his dream will remain only within the elite aesthetics of urban architecture and the remote vacation houses of the well-privileged, or if it will become a popular trend among the general public of Bangladesh.