An experimental workshop in arches, vaults and domes!

We got an email from Africa which got us super-excited! The ‘client’ said all the right things….she mentioned that she loved our project ‘ The Brick House’ and wants to have a similar sense (mind you, not the exact same replica, which too people have asked for) of aesthetics in a community building in Malawi (wow, a public building). Both she and we exchanged a lot of emails, had discussions, threw around words like ‘potential’ and ‘possibilities’, skype meetings and for once, the client asked us our fee quotations before we started talking about work and miracles- of- miracles, spoke about an advance in the initial 5 emails itself.(Sometimes even after all discussions, you have to be shameless and ask for the advance since the client refuses to even mention the damn word.)

There was only a small little problem. We started talking about designing and building in Africa and realised that domes and vaults are the preferred method of construction. We had done some work in arches in the Brick House but vaults and domes were something we had only studied in history of architecture in the third year of our degree. We were keen on using the local sustainable methods already established. Now sitting in Mumbai, if you have to execute a project in Africa, you have to know what you are talking about in and out. You cannot visit site every week and decide on how to go about detailing or experimenting with the structure. Your experiments need to be done as much before the designing as during the process of designing. So the three of us decided to go back to class to learn about arches, vaults and domes for our new project in Africa….

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In India, if you want to learn about arches, vaults and domes, then THE PERSON to go to is Satprem Maini and THE PLACE to go to is Auroville near Pondicherry. They have workshops every few months, covering different aspects of the same. So that was our intention. But the schedule for the next workshop and the dates for starting design work on the African project were clashing and so were the financials. We also were not able to choose all that we wanted to learn as against what the designated course material was. We were stumped as to the next step. But those who help themselves, get help from all directions. In the course of a casual conversation with another architect friend, we realised that a friend of a friend has worked under Satprem Maini for a year and has learnt all that we wanted to learn AND is wanting to do workshops on that and more. We were perfectly willing to be bakras and they were willing to develop their skill sets on a first set of volunteers. Both the teacher and the students were clear that the entire exercise was an experiment.

 

AVD-iStudio-D810---0592Atelier 101 and we conceptualised the program for the entire workshop and decided what we wanted to learn about. We asked Atelier 101 if we could do asymmetrical half-domes, catalan organic vaults, leaning brick vaults. They said maybe. We handed over the entire technical responsibility to Atelier 101 and followed instructions for organising material, form work and any other requirements.  We asked around and realised that there were a bunch of crazy people willing to take out time and money to spend a week actually getting a hands-on experience of building something. Atelier 101 gave a theory lecture, explaining the basic fundamentals of arches and all the technical terms that we would use in the coming week. We calculated some problems and felt proud about having solved something mathematical after years.

And then arrived the Workshop Week in October and off we went to the Brick House, Wada!

 

We all arrived in bits and parts the day before the workshop, the night before, the early morning of the workshop and a few days into the workshop….

We worked on regular pointed arch with formwork, bucket arch with formwork, a corner shallow vault with leaning brick technique without formwork, 2 half-domes of different radii, a twisted arch and an organic thin brick catalan vault.  Since there were various components of construction, individuals worked on all components in varying groups and at varying stage. We got formwork for arches & domes, the brick walls required for support and cement, bricks and sand arranged for the workshop. At all times, there was a few labourers and skilled masons on site to help with preparation of plaster mix, moving bricks, cement and sand, carrying the form work and other small jobs.

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We started off with regular arches- pointed and bucket. We basically got the hang of how to handle a brick (having done that never), make a plaster mix, to use a trovel, to sweat like pigs and just survive the (October) heat. At the end of the day, we had developed huge respect for our labourers who while not educated, had equally important skill-sets for actual execution of the project and a whole range of sunburns, (cement induced) blisters and a failed bucket arch. (We now understand that we might have not been skilled enough to construct the bucket arch since the mortar gaps which should have been minimum on the inner edge, were too much with excessive mortar filling). We decided not to remove the formwork of the pointed arches so as to not risk the same fate as the bucket arch.

 

Day 2

Firstly, we removed the formwork of the 2 pointed arches completed the previous day and heaved a huge collective sigh of relief when it all stood. We continued with the basic arches on the other 2 corners, the second brick layer on the first 2 corners and started with the leaning brick technique vault and the dome. We realised that the arches are going too slowly and got the masons to work on it. It was a lesson in skilled workmanship. Not only were they fast and had an accurate sense of proportion of the cement mix, they were extremely neat. The vault required cut bricks and a lot of hands to hold each brick. We mastered the art towards the end of doing it with 2 people and a bamboo support. The dome moved quickly since the initial few brick layers were simple circles. We just laid the bricks at an angle and continued one layer after the other.

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Day 3 & Day 4

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We continued with the domes, the vault and the arches. The arches were to be vaulted and we started joining the corners which was a very difficult job. At the end, we could not finish the vaulting of the arches due to lack of skilled finish, time and to be truthful, interest. But we understood the basic principles and should be able to get one constructed. The domes started separating into 2 different radii and now the natural geometry of a dome was no longer in play at the edges where the circle was breaking. But each lower layer was providing enough support to the above layer.

The twisted arch preparations started on the third day with working out the angles and directions of bricks to be cut. All calculations for the twisted arch were done by Atelier 101 and hats off to them! The semi-circular formwork made of plywood for the twisted arch had already been made. But the formwork for each layer as per the radius of the arch and to guide the twist in the arch was placed under supervision. The formwork for the catalan vault was also cut out of stiff cardboard, forming an interlocking grid of 1’x1′, strong enough to take the load of the bricks in the shape of the organic vault.

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Day 5, Day 6 & day 7

We started brick work on the twisted arch and the catalan vault. Each layer for the twisted arch acted as a single layer of the arch and the four bricks forming one layer were cut in the angle to account for the radius of the arch and to avoid too large mortar gaps. The plywood formwork guided the twist in the arch and the changing angle of each layer. It was slow going but slowly the twisted arch took shape. The center of the arch was filled with cement mortar and brick pieces and a hollow pipe was inserted in the center (presumably to allow air bubbles formed in the concrete to escape).

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For the catalan vault, we had made a Rhino model to understand stability issues and basic

form. We used thin bricks (brick cut along the vertical length of the 9″ face) for the vault. We could not get ready thin bricks and the cutting bricks into half was the cheapest alternative. We used the herringbone arrangement for the vault. We created the arches in the vault with the use of temporary formwork made of stiff cardboard. The mortar used was pure cement with a layer of moist cement on top of each joint to prevent drying and cracking of mortar. We had realised early on that this is an excellent way of strengthening joints in the terrible heat of October since it would hold the moisture of the mortar and allow the joint to set. On the advice of our head contractor, we removed the formwork of the twisted arch and it successfully stood. We decided to leave the organic vault as it is, for 2 weeks of curing. (The structure looked awesome when we removed the formwork 3 weeks later and loaded it with approximately 75 kgs for testing.

We definitely hope to construct it as a project somewhere!

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We were all expert masons, brick cutters and mortar mixers by the end of the workshop. We tried a few mortar combinations for quick setting properties with Plaster of Paris, lime and gypsum but did not come up with a faster setting mortar. Probably a lot more research and accuracy is required for the same. Since this was the first time we were doing this kind of a collaborative experiment, we were really not sure what we would have been able to achieve at the end of the week. We managed to construct quite a few components with a bit of earlier preparation and lots of homework. It was a fun week of hard hands on work along with music, song and laughter. We had an impromptu art work session, tabla session, lunch in the pond, sketching lectures, lots of jokes and food and sleeping in all sorts of nooks and crannies. It was a one of its kind of experience and everybody had a tough time returning to the daily grind of everyday life. It is definitely something that we hope to repeat for bamboo, ferrocement, photography….the list is endless. Einstein said ‘creativity is intelligence having fun’ and we absolutely agree!

Click for time lapse video of the complete workshop!

Participants :AVD-iStudio-D810---1107

Amit Patil, Kiran Bobade, Loretta Rego, NetraMohan Changmai, Prashant Dupare, Roopa Iyer, Saurabh Jain, Shriya Parasrampuria, Vidhita Hattangadi

 

Conceptualised & organised by :

iStudio architecture & Atelier 101

Conducted by :

Atelier 101

Photography credits :

Sanket Patil

Contractor :

Gurunath Dupare

Site Assistant :

Harshad Wanage

Cook :

Rajaram