From Machynlleth to Mumbai

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Maurice Mitchell is a Professor of architecture at London Metropolitan University. He also teaches the Appropriate Building Methods short course at CAT and writes here about how the ideas developed on this course are influencing projects all over the world.
You would not think at first that an old slate quarry in Wales has much in common with a road stone quarry just outside Mumbai but the alternative building techniques practiced here at the Centre for Alternative Technology have transformed the educational opportunities of the children of stone quarry workers in India.

The opening of the Tata Press stone quarry community classroom, Navi Mumbai, India
The opening of the Tata Press stone quarry community classroom, Navi Mumbai, India

Using materials which are immediately available locally, my architecture students  have, in partnership with local crafts people and the enthusiastic support of local children, recently constructed two small community classrooms in the stone quarry belt of Navi Mumai, India. A third school will be constructed this November. These schools provide primary school education for the children of stone quarry workers as a bridge into state education. They are also used for adult literacy classes, sewing workshop sessions and community meetings. They fit neatly into the emerging slum streetscape and terraced hillside helping to raise aspirations and the quality and sustainability of local construction whilst at the same time integrating into local settlement patterns.
The building skills and methods used to construct these classrooms were developed and finessed during the hands on courses I run at CAT. The course prioritises the ‘loose fit’ craft approach to hands-on, creative, on-site making, rather than the ‘tight fit’ methods employed by the mainstream construction industry in the UK. We start by assessing the site we want to build on to see how it can contribute to the success of the project: not only for the potential of its on-site materials but also for the contribution which its orientation, slope and water resources could make to the sustainability of the project.

Fitting the roof of the Larch pole tower, ABM Course, 2004

The Alternative Building Methods course at CAT shows how to develop a way of making buildings from the various materials and skills which may be available to you wherever you are: in the city, urban edgelands or countryside; whether using scrap materials such as pallet timber or naturally occurring materials such as timber poles, clay, sand and field stone.
The course is based on my experience of projects in situations of rapid change and scarce resources. I have worked for long periods with transitional communities in Ghana and Southern Sudan and more recently with my students in Kosovo with ongoing live projects in India and Sierra Leone – this guides the content of the course.

These building methods and approaches can be applied wherever culture and technology is changing fast and resources are scarce: a condition which affects an increasingly large proportion of the world’s population both in the rapidly expanding cities of the global south and the forgotten and neglected corners of the shrinking landscapes of the global north.

Pallet timber Lamella roof over stone steps and bench, 2006

Maurice Mitchell is a tutor on the appropriate building methods course that will run at CAT in late July.