Women in South Asia have long been doing intense physical labor in building sites and brick industries for relatively low pay. And, yet it is discouraging to be a part of a heavily male-dominated construction industry. Whenever I passed by a construction site, I felt powerless and afraid of the tools that men carried effortlessly, as if to prove that gender disparity in the labor market exists for a reason. In other words, the construction world felt unattainable in all its toughness.

Image Source: Women at work © The Record Nepal

As an aspiring architect, the dichotomy between architecture and construction seems nonsensical, particularly in the ever-evolving realm of sustainable architecture, where prototyping and experimenting are at the core of design processes. There is also an assumption that architects are above construction workers – a dynamic that sustains social and class imbalance. While there are many structures to criticize about, luckily, there are also associations like Critical Concrete who facilitate three-weeks of intense, hands-on workshops to understand the material, building techniques, and teamwork as part of the post-graduation course in sustainable architecture. The workshop positively shifted my perspective of the construction industry and further expanded my own personal boundaries.

“Let’s get our hands dirty!” architect Hanno Burtscher, instructed a team of ten women who came from different professional backgrounds, race, and geographical locations. Hanno introduced himself as an earthman, with an Austrian sense of humor, quick wit, and great teaching style, he grouped students in pairs to use all four senses except for sight to identify the local materials used for raw earth construction. This is how the welcome ceremony to the workshop began and it had already set a higher bar for the rest of the workshop. The joy of sharing stories moved the conversation from endless banter about cheese and food to serious topics like what sustainable construction means and how the uncertainty during the time of pandemic has affected our lives. In short, the day exuded a sense of togetherness. 

*Sketch by Charlotte Schneider, Alumni, Post Graduation 2020-2021
WEEK 1 | RAW EARTH CONSTRUCTION | HANNO BURTSCHER

The first week of the workshop was a battle – a battle to make proper earth mix to build a heated earthen bench and flooring for the kitchen at Critical Concrete. From the start, we learned that the key components of earth mix are clay, small gravel (0-5 mm), big gravel (5-15 mm), sand (0-4 mm), and water.

Most of us were already aware of the composition elements through our Raw Earth online course, but what made the difference in the practical workshop was the experimentation and improvisation in the mixing process since the excavation materials were available in limited amounts. The question constantly surfaced during the workshop – how do we make the most use of what is available around us? And this was a revelation in itself because theoretically, we learn the ratio – 40% of excavation, 20% of small gravel, 20% of big gravel, 20% of clay, and water – to achieve the desired mix. 

In practice, however, there had to be adjustments in the ratio based on the materials that were available to us. The way we integrated the composite materials together also made a big difference in the quality of the earth mix. So, at times we had to find creative ways of using what was available to us.

“While nearing the end of the earth mix for the floor, we ran out of the large size rocks. My typical mindset is to say, “Let’s just go buy more.” However, with the mindset of Critical Concrete to use what we already have, we were not going to buy more. To finish the mix, we scrounged throughout the construction yard looking for proper sized rocks and were able to get the right volume,” Mary shared her experience. And this was the general experience during the workshop – how to find sustainable solutions when we hit a roadblock.

In our earliest days of the workshop, we dropped a fist-sized earth mix balls from 1 meter height to see whether they stuck together or crumbled. We concluded that the ball should drop in larger pieces rather than completely shattering or sticking together. If it’s too sticky, either the clay or water content is too high which will result in a mixture that won’t be suitable to create a form. The same logic applies for the dry mixture as well. After a process of trial and error, we realized that there was no concrete recipe to achieve the perfect mix. But there were a number of factors that determined the quality of the mix. One of them is the clay content, which is normally 20 percent in total but depending on the situation, it could range from 5 – 30 percent. The purpose of the clay is to bind the materials but the more surface area we have in the mix, the more clay we require, from which we can derive that the smaller the surface area of excavation, the higher clay content would be required to bind it. Simple physics!

Many construction sites are not inviting spaces for women. Women’s work is often considered too frivolous to the degree that they are rendered valueless in the number-driven capitalist economic system. During the workshop, this dynamic was challenged. A team of mostly women and Hanno prepared the foundation for raw earth flooring and built the formwork for the bench. As I was lifting heavy stones and using power tools, I occupied a space that was not ‘normalized’ for women. I quickly realized that the problem wasn’t these too feminine, delicate hands but rather it was the devaluation of women’s work that put women in confinement of patriarchal ideas.

“We either put 100 percent into this or we don’t do it at all,” Hanno remarked while we were putting earth mix into the form work. The workshop was fueled by this exact mindset but was also filled with laughter and leisure in between our hard work. Overall, during the first week with Hanno, he guided us by observing the way we were interpreting the materials. We were able to experiment with the materials and make decisions based on our judgement.