A building made from mud and straw is cool

This mud and straw building in Chiangmai is cooling and eco-friendly.

The heat from the afternoon sun disappeared quickly as I stepped into an unusual mud building. Inside, it felt cooler by several degrees, even without air-conditioning.

I had just entered an office built with bricks made of rice husk and straw combined with fine mud. This was the new secretariat for the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) near Chiangmai, Thailand.

AIPP secretary-general Joan Carling said, “It’s good to demonstrate that we live up to our commitment to promote the environment,” she said during the office inauguration recently.

AIPP is a regional organisation of indigenous peoples’ movements to promote and defend their rights. Currently, its has 47 members from 14 countries in Asia. The media and NGO members had been invited to visit the mud office during the group’s 3rd Regional Media Exchange recently.

Carling said that she had seen some simple mud houses in North Thailand and became convinced that the concept could work for AIPP’s office. She then started looking for the right designer and was connected with Thai architect Woravut Pojjanasanee, 41 who runs his own company, Freelance Studio Design.

The mud bricks were made by the Lahu indigenous people of northern Thailand. Costing US$150,000 (RM623,715), the building is expected to be ready by Nov 15, she said.

Thai workers laying bricks made from mud and rice husk.
Thai workers laying bricks made from mud and rice husk.

Woravut said that he took up the challenge because he wanted to create an energy saving design.

“It is also suitable for the local climate and setting plus it portrays the indigenous way of living,” he said.

“We use materials which can be easily found locally such as earth, old wood, plus rice straws and husk.”

Australian architects Paul Von Chrismar (from Buro Architects) and Ryan Moroney (Architects Without Frontiers project coordinator) plus Thai mud house expert and contractor, Rachapol Siridit, all collaborated on the project.

“Joan wanted to have a building that uses low energy, does not use air-conditioning, and has lots of natural light and ventilation,” said Von Chrismar. The tradition of adobe brick was not used a lot in Thailand he admitted, but he believed it would become more popular as interest grows.

He said the advantage of mud brick is that if it breaks down, new mud could be used to patch it up, and the building should thus be able to last a long time.

Thai architect Woravut Pojjanasanee (in black tee), discussing plans with mud house expert Rachapol Siridit (right).
Thai architect Woravut Pojjanasanee (in black tee), discussing plans with mud house expert Rachapol Siridit (right).

Asked if the wall could be painted, Von Chrismar said that it could be – but the coat must not completely cover the walls as they need to “breathe”.

Moroney said, traditionally, the benefit of a small mud house was it could be easily built by the community using local materials.

However, due to the more extensive size of the office, the architects added in a strong steel structure to connect the mud walls to the roof.

Design elements

The building looks more modern inside than outside.
The building looks more modern inside than outside.

To make the building cooler, various structures and design elements were used. Woravut said the earth wall helps conserve energy and keeps the temperature lower than the outside by 4°C to 6°C. The building also has a curved wall.

“A curved wall is stronger than a straight wall. It also draws local winds into the building and removes the hot air,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the roof and the working area are 5m apart so that heat from the roof would not affect the working area, he said.

The ceiling also has three-inch (7.6cm) insulation to protect the building from heat, pointed out Woravut.

A thatched roof further protects the building from the sun while portraying an indigenous look. The roof is divided into two layers for better air ventilation.

The roof is made longer to protect the walls from the rain and direct sunlight, he said. But despite all the protection from the sun, Woravut said there will be adequate natural light during day.

As if the building structure was not enough to create a cool environment, he added that ponds were also created in front of the office while a big tree facing south was planted.

“The local wind blowing across the water and trees will create a cool breeze. This adds to the comfort of this energy-friendly building,” said Woravut.

He added that those interested in building mud houses should understand the nature of dirt.

“The mud wall is heavy, so, the structure has to be strong enough to support the weight. It also needs to be on dry ground. Walls should not be directly exposed to water. You also need to check on insects which easily get inside the wall,” explained Woravut.

To build a good mud house, one should consider the location, as it should take into consideration the direction of sunlight, wind and rain, he said.

“If the windows and doors are not properly designed, it could also affect the air ventilation and trap heat in the building,” added Woravut.

He said there were still some indigenous people making mud houses and city folks may soon join them as the idea of self-reliance and natural conservation is catching on.

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