Fired brick Conundrum

Architect Vinu Daniel talks about the depleting state of country fired brick and the necessity of sustainability.

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Posted on: October 18th, 2020

Fired brick Conundrum

Article by: Prutha Barot

In the seventh interview of the ongoing series of Shades of green, we present to you a talk between architect Vinu Daniel and Mohammed Ayazkhan. This interview series is a place where we talk to various practicing architects about sustainability and its different approaches in architecture and design.

Vinu Daniel is a Kerala based Architect who is known for his earth construction practices. Recipient of the Commendation Prize of HUDCO Design Award, Vinu Daniel is one of the dedicated sustainable architects of our country. Alumnus from CET Trivandrum, Vinu Daniel started Wallmakers in 2007, which is devoted in Eco friendly and sustainable architecture practices.

In the interview, Vinu talks about the depleting state of country fired brick, how the new high-quality fire brick has replaced it, and what is the environmental impact of such an event. He also introduces us to his beautiful projects and the way he runs his practice called Wallmakers.

The talk starts with Vinu explaining briefly about how the country fired brick came into being. From agriculture to settling permanently in a piece of land, humans came up with the idea of sun-dried bricks. This over a period of time was replaced by a more strengthen and permanent version, the fired brick.

(Globalization and its effects on buildings in Kerala)

The initial idea of fired brick had over time started to be used with plaster and paint frequently, in Kerala. Here is when Vinu explains the interjection of Laurie Baker and the way his architecture used fired bricks made around the locality and his expression of using less material while using it in its complete honesty. His buildings were prevalent especially in Trivandrum.  Other architects like Louis Kahn had talked about the expression of the materiality of the brick but unfortunately, after globalization, there was an influence from the architecture of other places around the world which was perceived as a luxurious alternative to the climate-specific fire brick that was being used at that time.

In the next decade, as this influence increased and the agricultural land decreased because of urbanization, the country fired brick that had been a prevalent material started to decline in its quality and quantity. After this process around the 2000s fire brick started disappearing from the built environment.

(The comeback of a new type of fired brick)

In recent years, with the awareness of global warming and climate change, fired brick has returned into practice in a new form. This new type of fired brick is a high strength, is full of additives, and made in specialized kilns which are later used as non-load-bearing elements in the facade. After its comeback, fired brick has been considered as a material that is not maintainable in the interiors while it is mostly being sold as a sustainable material. These new fire bricks are stronger than the older country fire bricks and are underused. Vinu’s perspective here is that even if county fired bricks are not as strong as cement blocks, they can be used in a load-bearing manner.

(A photograph of Kiran residence)

This idea was exhibited in Vinu’s project in Trivandrum called Kiran Residence.

The depleting state of country fired bricks was highlighted even more when Vinu started finding them to source it for the project. The fired brick that was once prevalent locally and is found in Laurie bakers projects all over the city, now couldn’t be found anywhere near the city.

(Layout of Kiran residence)

Kiran residence was located in a very tight spaced urban sprawl, which barely had any space to breathe. Observing this, Vinu’s take here was to provide a courtyard with a large volume that could help the building breathe. In an attempt to make the courtyard bigger in volume, his design incorporated a diamond-shaped form that included the structural columns within a parametric wall which was specifically detailed by their team.

(Staggering Rat trap bond walls with concealed columns)

The lateral loads here are taken by the staggering rat trap bond wall and the columns. The walls in the project were built by using the rat-trap bond in a different fashion where staggering and stacking the bricks lead to enhanced air space in the middle with concealed columns. The staggering of the walls gives the courtyard a larger space on the first floor which is then covered by a ferrocement shell roof spaced to bring the light into the spaces.

(Process of building the staggered Rat-trap bond wall)

(A photograph of Kiran residence)

(Large Openings with Screens allow ample air-circulation for a tropical climate)

Vinu shares with us the complete process of making the house from walls to the shell roof, the result is a breathtaking space that brings in light and winds while balancing the lightness of woven jalis (screens) and the massive staggering brick walls. The house provides its users dynamic, comfortable, and intimate spaces.

“This project showcases some of the principles I was talking about, that country fired brick can be used wonderfully, but are on the verge of death partially due to lack of fields, and partially due to us not thinking that they can be used in our living or bedroom spaces.” 

In discussing the project, we get to know that Fired brick is not Vinu’s usual choice of material. In this project however, because of the site conditions and the context, he used Fired brick as tribute to Laurie Baker.

In conversation with Ayaz, he decides to show us another project which is a completely different typology of material called Shutter debris wall. This patented technology is used in a residence of a professor who loves travelling to the hills.

(A photograph of the Shikhara Residence)

(Form of the Shikhara Residence)

(De-Shuttering of debris wall)

(A photograph of the Shikhara Residence)

In Shikhara, a residential project on the hilltop of Trivandrum Vinu designs on a site that faces west. He designs the form consisting of slant walls where he could get the winds in but restrict the sunlight. The material used for these walls is what Vinu calls shutter debris wall, made of soil, cement, and debris and shuttered after getting to an optimum consistency by mixing with water. The juxtaposition of materials, and the lightness of the aluminum coin sheet used for ventilation against the heavy shutter debris wall with the angles of the various openings, make the spaces bespoke, for a client who fancies living on the hills.

In conversation with Ayaz, the talk focuses on how fire brick is an endangered material, however, Vinu believes that if one were to use this material they should use it by being honest with its immense potential and not reducing it by adding more material over it.

“ Material, site and the (clients) requirement is at the center of everything, other things like sustainability and being climatically aware, participatory processes…I feel that is the responsibility of everyone, there is no question that, you have to be sustainable, participatory in the design, if we have to teach these things, then we have failed somewhere.”

Revealing about his practice, Vinu shares how he practices with a balance between site work and office. He explains the value of site work and design that happens in an office space. He talks about the undue romanticism of designing on the site. Vinu draws inspiration from the site and after sending the drawings, he calls the next stage, follow up, where he and his team visit the site and make sure that the construction workers understand every line that is in the drawings. These drawings and the process of drawing can now be done on laptops which liberates us from the typical notions of offices.

“Making a drawing beforehand makes sure that you don’t make many mistakes, but it doesn’t mean that you need a glorified office space. There are two aspects of architecture, one is on the desk, and the second is on the field, both are mandatory.”

In the discussion as well as Vinu’s work we see how he doesn’t consider sustainability as an alternative, but as a necessity. Both the projects that showcase his attention towards materiality and its impact in the space. His spirit to push the limits of the material exploration to the standards of his vision is pleasantly apparent in his work. The simplicity of his argument on the fired brick conundrum leaves us with the question of how many other such materials that were once used locally are now on the verge of disappearing. Vinu’s persistence is the ray of hope in this scenario. He encourages us to use the materials without the predefined notions of what spaces or strength we assume it has.

Articles by: Prutha Barot

Fired brick Conundrum

Prutha Barot, is a graduate from School of architecture, CEPT University. As an architect who composes words, she is always looking forward to reading a great book, or having a conversation on art, society, business, and culture. She spends her time silently looking for pieces of content in everyday life