Building with local materials

Finally on the fourth day, thatching began for real. Three men were aloft and one was at the underside of the roof. Kutty would be tossing the dressed bundles. The men up there would place the bundle under a slender keeper stick, untie, spread and dress the reeds, using small wooden paddles.

When the pile was just right, they would send foot long bamboo needles with stiff fibre strands threaded in their eyes. The man underside would grab and send them back up so that the fibre strands made u-turns around the keeper stick and be fastened. [ Detail]

They piled loose thatch material over the ridge and tied it down with some binding wire. And the job was done. A thatch roof is a site to behold with a creamy texture to its surface. The comfort within is delirious. Breezes wafting through are decidedly cooler because in the shaded space there are no hot air pockets anywhere; the whole roof breathes. The key to its longevity is the pitch of the roof – the steeper it is, the quicker it sheds rainwater. A good thatch should last between 6 and 8 years.

Though we had some knotty problems to sort out along the way, there was, in contrast to the experience with building the concrete room, no frustration or a sense of helplessness over galloping costs and wasted material. Only 25% of the high cost of the concrete room went to local people. The rest went to distant factories. With the bamboo space, close to 75% went to people we met, talked to and worked with.

There is much room to innovate with bamboo, thatch and related materials to attract wider, more affluent customers. For example, why can’t an entrepreneur make tested, certified bamboo available at a declared price. Why can’t thatchers of Kazhapakkam and elsewhere be organised into work-groups to sell carded combs of thatch that can be quickly laid on and tied down. This would put more profit in their hands, increase clientele and the pleasures of thatched roofs can reach many more people. Alternatives to industry-organised building systems hold a great business potential.

Such was my reverie as I lay and spent my first night under the roof smelling of vast gentle meadows.

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