“Three billion people live in a house made of mud. For good reason!”
This fact leaped from the wall of text of the Mud WORKS! display as I perused the (obviously) impressively-designed Architecture Biennale in Venezia. Coming from Canada, the thought of mud-housing brings up images of poverty and hardship. However, for all the green building innovation, it may be the most cost-effective, hyper-local, cradle-to-grave-friendly building style. Many people I know would love to live in a net-zero home. Yet, few would be excited about living in a home made of mud. All these benefits are obvious, yet the idea is somehow too basic.
It seems mud is too humble for its own good. Or, perhaps for our own good. Is this architecture’s dirty secret?
A Viennese en route to Venice
We were lucky enough to share our train couchette to from Vienna to Venice with a mud-loving architect named David. We first chatted about Central European weather, Austrian politics, bicycle design, and then the biennale where he was invited to participate in a student workshop. He spoke enthusiastically about his thesis project in South Sudan.
He worked with an Austrian non-profit and the local community to design a health center constructed with locally-sourced materials: mainly mud and wood. Mud was essential in providing the main building material, as well as a strategic tool in protecting the wooden structure from termite infiltration. As is often the case, it would have been easier to protect the structure using purchased materials, but costs rise exponentially. As a pair of enthusiastic thesis students, they pushed to use local, inexpensive and easily repairable materials. With ingenuity and a little maintenance, they built a locally-sourced, environmentally-friendly building. The structure can now be locally maintained with little cost, expanded with little cost, and ultimately, demolished with little impact.
Talking Dirty at the Biennale
This idea of elevating mud was further enforced at the Biennale. The theme was ‘Reporting from the Front’, focusing on architecture that is building to connect with civil society, building for the millions of new urban dwellers and building in ways that creatively manoeuvre around the complex obstacles of modern life.
The pavilions were filled with architecture tackling these problems in ways that are as beautiful as they are innovative. Displays stretched across two grounds, providing more rich creativity and context than I could reasonably process. In this expansive event dedicated to the leading edge of architecture and design, humble mud was put on a pedestal. On display for all to see and bask in its simple, sustainable merits.
There was a warm and inviting structure built of mud that provided a cozy shelter with an inspiring skylight. It was built by Bangladeshi architect Anna Heringer with Martin Rauch, and Andres Lepik, and held mud up high. The displays showed the simplicity and effectiveness of mud as a construction material. It highlighted its prevalence and value, and presented mud as the only viable sustainable solution to the modern housing crisis.
The Muddied Waters of Western Building
Building with mud has generally been out-lawed in western architecture and building codes. However, architects around the world, particularly in lesser-developed-countries are elevating mud from a crude material to the ‘OG’ of sustainability building.
The whole concept was really eye-opening for me. It revealed how cemented my ideas of ‘proper’ building are (pardon the pun), and what a strong aversion I had to building with dirt. Of course, it has natural limitations, but I never before considered mud as a viable, modern material.
Every city is filled with dumpsters of ‘construction waste’ which gets taken to a landfill, often unsorted, to sit covered for decades, centuries or longer. How beautiful would it be if every structure simply melted back into the ground when its useful days were through. Or could be repaired with materials gathered within just a couple kilometers.
This kind of imagery reminds me of pioneering European-Canadians. I can’t help but shiver at the thought of a home made of all natural materials in a Winnipeg January. Yet, that’s how it’s been done for a very, very long time. As with many of the major environmental and societal issues of our time, aboriginal Canadians have important, traditional solutions. First Nations across the country used local materials, often including earth, to provide housing and survived fierce Canadian winters since Time Immemorial.
Although I’m not ready to build my home out of mud, sod or soil, I’m now not unnerved by the idea. It’s so simple. I often look to Technology and Innovation for the new solutions to our environmental crises. Yet, many of the answers already exist. They’ve existed for centuries and in this case, are used by half of the world.
There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. We may just need to re-build the mud-house.