What the Strength of a 10th-Century Mud Building Can Teach Modern Sustainable Architecture

Jhere are several ways to adopt a sustainable lifestyle. From food, product choice to home choice, the motivation to embrace sustainable ideas and designs out of the box seems to be a new trend in the modern world.

However, this is not such a new development as one might think, especially in terms of sustainable architecture and design. This involves going back to basics to learn and use ancient construction techniques and materials married with innovative technologies.

One such example is the rekindled love for earthen buildings made from a natural building material called cob. Cob is a clever mix of raw earth, water and fibrous materials like straw and has enjoyed worldwide fame for centuries. Whether on the banks of the Nile in Egypt, the Andes in Peru or the summit of Tibet, the use of raw earth to build public and private structures has been a practice for thousands of years. It continues to be so even in the modern world with more than 1.7 billion people across the globe living in mud houses. But its integration into urban infrastructure and planning is something we need to explore thoroughly.

Source (LR): Tabo Monastery; Cob house construction

The use of raw earth, one of the oldest and most appreciated building materials, is also referenced by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1964, where he highlights the double dependence of civilizations on the earth. raw or cooked for the development of all sectors, from food, medicine to even architecture. In this regard, it was the use of a concoction of raw earth with other materials left to dry and harden in the sun that stood the test of time.

This is because of the many advantages of cob houses, including energy efficiency. Walls constructed of cob are known to have good thermal mass and when combined with straw thatched roofs or clay roof tiles, this results in a well insulated interior even in the coldest of environments.

A living proof of its wonders is the famous mud monastery of Tabo in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. Built in 996 CE by the Tibetan Buddhist translator Rinchen Zangpo, under the orders of the King of Yeshe-Ö, the ruler of the western Himalayan kingdom of Guge, this monastery is the oldest cob structure still standing in India. The use of raw earth concoction as a building material is mainly used in the region, even to build the traditional flat-roofed houses.


Located in the village of Tabo, it is the oldest working Buddhist structure in the Himalayas and is commonly referred to as ‘the Ajanta of the Himalayas’ – due to its impressive and priceless collection of frescoes and thanksas (scroll paintings) adorning its walls.

Steeped in mythology and spirituality, these remarkable colorful walls, however, carry centuries of strength within them, allowing them to withstand the extreme weather conditions of the Himalayas, especially during winters and earthquakes. It was not until 1975 that the structure of the monastery, after surviving several natural disasters due to its structural strength, finally faced a major threat due to an earthquake. Although the earthquake managed to significantly damage the structure, its superior build quality allowed it to stand on its ground until a reconstruction project was launched in 1983 with the 14th Dalai Lama at the helm.

Although now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as the country’s National Historic Treasure, the monastery continues to face preservation threats, especially with regard to the art adorning its interior which is of immense significance. historical. Cob walls have retained and preserved the beauty they housed for centuries, but the challenges they face today are more severe than ever before. With climate change being a constant source of concern, untimely and increased rainfall in the arid regions of Spiti has contributed to damaging many of its murals and valuable architecture.

In this regard, it is important to take note of the declaration of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development which encourages sustainable building solutions that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet the theirs, especially in terms of the use of natural resources. It’s time to embrace innovative sustainable techniques that complement older earthen structures like this while improving their overall strength and durability.

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(Editing by Yoshita Rao)

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