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Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

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Hand-built by local people trained on the job using rudimentary tools and local materials, this cultural centre in rural southern India is both an exemplar sustainable development and a force for social change in the area

I was introduced to the work of The Sarvam Charitable Trust, an Indian NGO, during a holiday to Pondicherry in 2005. A year later I left commercial practice in London, moving to India to develop Sarvam’s Sharanam Centre for Rural Development on a pro bono basis. A supporter had donated a five-acre site and Cadbury Schweppes had agreed to fund the project through its corporate social responsibility commitment.

When I arrived, the project had no brief. The rural site, ravaged by illegal quarrying and dumping of municipal waste, was 10 miles west of  Pondicherry in a district  comprising about 40 villages where chronic poverty, violence and alcoholism are deeply entrenched. To broaden Sarvam’s reach, we proposed the creation of a centre that would host active development programmes including health, education, sanitation, gender equality and income generation.  

Extensive planting over the first two years has revived the heavily abused site

Sharanam means ‘refuge’ in Tamil. We started with the landscape, and extensive planting over the first two years has revived the heavily abused site. The entrance sequence leads through eucalyptus groves, gardens, an avenue of Palmyra trees and a green amphitheatre that can seat 500. In addition to its  550m2 vaulted multi-purpose hall, the centre provides administrative offices, meeting spaces, a newspaper office, community radio station, stores and a kitchen. The primary structure is comprised of six segmental masonry vaults, which span 9.5m over a sequence of meeting spaces defined by folding walls, level changes and ornamental ponds. Granite slabs step down into the main hall, which is defined by a 21.5m x 11m granite thinnai, a raised platform inspired from the Tamil vernacular, which can be used by small groups, workshops for 50-60 people or an audience of 200. The thinnai extends to the east to form a deep stage, beyond which sits a smaller circular hall under a detached vault.

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

Verandah of the newspaper studio behind the main hall

Sharanam is entirely hand-built by local people using rudimentary tools and local resources. The site’s red soil is the primary material. More than 200,000 earth blocks of nine different dimensions were manually pressed for the walls, piers and vaults. Cured under the hot sun, these incorporate 5 per cent cement to stabilise the mix. Tests demonstrated they had three times the compressive strength, cost one-third the price and contained a 10th of the embodied energy of market bricks. The masonry piers and walls, using stabilised earth mortar, were built on rammed earth foundations, minimising cement consumption.  

The masonry vaults were hand-built in nine weeks. Only 9cm thick at the keystone, the 140-tonne vaults were constructed without centering, using nylon laundry lines as guides. Steel tension ties counter the lateral thrust and the entire structure is earthquake-resistant. Cost analysis demonstrated that this technique was 50 per cent cheaper than the equivalent reinforced concrete frame used throughout the region.

The building is orientated to capture the prevailing seasonal breezes. Ventilated cavity walls, radiant underfloor cooling, roof gardens, offices through small courtyards. Adjustable full-height glazed screens of reclaimed teak enable users to adapt the spaces to changing weather. Cool-to-touch polished earth plaster walls and hand-finished pigmented flooring complete the interiors.

Other principal materials include local black granite for the thinnai, salvaged Jaisalmer stone floors, hand-made precast ferro-cement roofing channels, waste pebbles, local lime, natural pigments, coconut oil and white wax.

Environmental infrastructure includes a site-wide rainwater harvesting system, a toilet block with farm-sensitive waste management and an elegant kitchen with semi-shaded ‘washing courtyards’ lined with  hand-made water-saving basins and troughs.   

From the architect this demanded a hands-on approach remote from conventional practice

Deliberately set up without a contractor, Sharanam’s construction process was established to address pressing regional issues: job scarcity and lack of  skills, as well as rampant exploitation in the local building trades. Workers were directly employed and trained on the job in blockmaking, masonry, precasting, metalwork, carpentry, stonework and finishing.

My assistant, Trupti Doshi, and I assumed full site responsibilities, including foreman, supervision, materials procurement and financial accounting. This ensured transparent payment to workers – many of whom learned to sign their names for the first time.

Between 2007 and 2014 Sharanam employed more than 300 village workers.  Almost two-thirds of the construction cost was directly invested into the villages through wages. Today, many previously unskilled Sharanam workers are employable as masons, carpenters and painters. Some are undertaking more lucrative, professional contracts.

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

Drama performance in main hall

Throughout construction, Sharanam regularly attracted visitors, including representatives of the United Nations and the World Bank. Particularly rewarding was the participation of nine Manchester School of Architecture graduates, who undertook part of their RIBA Part 3 training at Sharanam. Since completion in mid-2014, Sharanam has allowed Sarvam to expand its outreach. The campus is used by local special needs schools, development agencies, farmers and teacher training institutes, all of which host regular events there.   

From the outset I knew that Sharanam had to be more than just a building. From the architect this demanded a hands-on approach remote from conventional architectural practice. The aim was to demonstrate how architecture and construction, when driven by human issues and ethical practices, can foster sustainable rural and social development.

Jateen Lad is a director of Jateen Lad Ltd in Manchester, and practises internationally

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

View of the circular hall bridge and stage wall

Project data

Start on site July 2007
July 2014
Gross internal floor area 2,530m²
Form of contract  None: daily labour wages
Construction cost £225,000
Construction cost per m² £89
Architect/construction/project manager Jateen Lad
Client Sri Aurobindo Rural Village Action and Movement (Sarvam), Pondicherry, India
Earth technology consultant Auroville Earth Institute, Auroville, India

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development

Granite steps leading down into the main hall


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