Architect's Perspective, Architectural Theory, Building Design, Design Guide, Design Theory

Laurie Baker’s 9 Low-Cost Construction Techniques Manual

The potential of Baker’s work over the years of his stay in Kerala, tending to the people’s design needs, regardless of their financial situation, was noticed everywhere. Everyone wanted a ‘Baker House’ to their name.

In 1972, the Chief Minister of Kerala, Achuta Menon, in collaboration with the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development(COSTFORD), published a handy step-by-step guide for laypeople. 

Menon’s idea for the book is to make it simple enough that even she will be able to understand it regardless of not having a background in building construction. 

Laurie Baker’s Low-Cost Building Principles in His Manual

In the book ‘Laurie Baker – Life, Works, and Writings’ by Gautham Bhatia, a detailed Baker Construction Technique Manual is featured. The following are the simple features included in an illustrative, easy-to-understand method in the book:

  1. Overall Building Construction
  2. Topography Construction
  3. Excavation of Soil
  4. Stone Wall Construction
  5. Wall Construction
  6. Furniture
  7. Lintel Construction
  8. Doors and Windows
  9. Roof

1. Overall Building Construction

The new-fashioned house is cubist, finished with cement and paint. The roofs fail to protect the walls from rain and sun. 

The old-fashioned house has a sloped overhang that protects it from sun and rain. Windows replaced with jali are a cheaper alternative, giving permanent light, ventilation, and protection to the house. 

2. Topography Construction

When your site has contours, construct the houses in the middle of the contour instead of on the corners.The foundation and basement wall cost will be saved.

In sloping site, place the entire building parallel to the contour instead of cutting across it. 

3. Excavation of Soil

While excavating soil to lay the foundation, instead of excavating the soil outwards, building the foundation and filling it back in, excavate the soil inwards. This helps save excavation costs.

4. Stone Wall Construction

Usually, a stone wall is constructed with big flat-faced stone on the outside, which is filled with smaller ones. This requires the use of cement or lime mortar to create a strong bond.

The stones should instead be dovetailed with stones on either side, giving a much stronger and more stable wall. This kind of stone wall will barely need any mortar. 

5. Wall Construction

For single and double storey houses, the 9 inch thick wall should be flush with the 18 inch wall below to prevent rainwater from seeping into the foundation wall.

A four and a half inch thick wall is structurally stable enough for single storey houses if it has thin burtresses 5 or 6 feet apart, or with recesses are created in the wall. The recesses can alse be used as shelving space. 

Cost of construction can be reduced by using the rat-trap bond instead of the english bond. 

Mortar can be filled over the sunken end of bricks to produce a clean exposed brick wall instead of coating the entire wall with cement or plaster.

6. Furniture

By building the basement wall up to a suitable height, built-in furnitures can be made to reduction furniture cost in the future. 

7. Lintel Construction

RCC, steel or cement lintels are often unnecessary for regular sized windows and doors. An ordinary brick on edge is enough.

For a stronger lintel, the brick on edge can be topped with a hollow arrangement of bricks on edge filled with one or two steel rods with concrete. This reduces cost by half. 

The cheapest way of spanning a hole in the wall is by creating corbel arches as no formwork or shuttering is necessary. 

8. Doors and Windows

Door frames are costly these days, and most often they’re unnecessary. Planks can be bolted with strap iron hinges and bolted to the side of the wall instead. 

The most inexpensive way of constructing a window is to put them on pivot hinges, one at the top and one at the bottom. 

One square foot of window costs 10 times more then the brick or stone wall it replaces, A jali wall can prove to be just as functional as a window in most use cases. These can also be made aesthetically pleasing by creating unique patterns. 

9. Roof

Roof construction has become so complicated and expensive these days. A traditional roof on roof upto 12 feet wide required just three pieces of wood nailed together to make a truss rafter. No wall plates or ridge poles are necessary.

When timber is scarce, a traditional filler slab can be preferred. The fillers can be terracotta managalore tiles, cutting the costof the RCC slab by 30%. The fillers are placed between steel reinforcement and filled with concrete. 

Bamboos can be split in half and used as shuttering instead of steel between brick units with thin concrete ribs. Three burnt bricks are joined together to form a small modular slab.

Laurie Baker’s module has been used in multiple projects, long after he was gone. His studies on low-cost building construction came from trial and error coupled with the study of thousands of years of expertise in vernacular building construction. 

The above steps are simple and efficient, but their impact is very high. Making low-cost construction a possibility gives hope to thousands of homeless people. 

Efficient construction practices are the need of society, regardless of the scale and budget, because there is a need for the conscious use of resources in all our building endeavors after all. 

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