I) Earth is Wealth
The beauty of daily life hidden in a valley region in northeastern state of Myanmar is now worldly renown. Kyaing Tong has long been separated from its globalized neighbors, i.e., Myanmar, China and Thailand by high mountain ranges. Presently, it is being an important part of the Great Asian Highway. The architecture of nearly-century-old Earth Houses decorated the cityscape and rural heartland reflected that Kyaing Tong was once a vibrant city.
Traditional society was formed around an understanding of “Earth is wealth” which revealed a profound attachment to their land and neighboring forests. People believe humans are born from the earth and will be back to the earth, therefore, we must live harmoniously with the earth. Living with the earth makes way for knowledge expansion and rational thought of preserving natural functioning ecosystem. The knowledge of the earth expands the frontiers of human knowledge, ranging from wildlife and native organisms to complex relationship with non-living beings of rocks, stream, minerals that nourishes mountain ecosystems. That knowledge helps people learn to live in careful balance with their environment, i.e., to moderate their material needs while maintaining the wellbeing.
Kyaing Tong is home to “virgin mountain tropical forests” escaped harvesting over the last centuries and contributes to ecological diversity. A combination of cool climates, abundant rain, groundwater, moisture and fertile soil (including red and yellow tropical soils) provide a variety of productive natural resources that allows virgin forests to flourish and an sufficiency economy to grow. Therefore, forest conservation is felt as a duty of being born as Kyaing Tong people. Forest thriving could prevent people from high climatic risks resulted from global warming including floods, landslides or the loss from massive quake in the earthquake prone places.
II) Earth House
From the start, Earth House plays a key role in the organization of Kyaing Tong society and supports the greener sufficiency economy as well as a sustainable city from energy perspective. Earth House is a low-energy buildings without any environmental impact, strong, durable and affordable. It brought the fast expansion of human settlement in the last century.
In those old days, an abundance of high quality of soil encourages people to adopt the Earth House building as their traditional practice. Earth House innovation move people to actions with more respect to their local customs in order to protect the earth and neighboring forest heritage. In modern days, people relying highly on modern economy, the house-building capacity and the knowledge on sustainable building materials are largely ignored.
Building Earth House does not only require a much larger amount of soil, but also a constant influx of people and the families that live closely. People know that the best mineral-rich soil must be collected from their own paddy fields, situated on the foothill encircled by the mountains. The expanse of rice field within 2 rais will be excavated for house building. The layer of topsoil will be removed before digging down deep into the layer above water logged soil at the waist level for clay and red soils.
Increasing depth of soil excavation could harm the formation of unique environment and natural replenishment. Many big holes will trap much of the nutrient-rich sediments from mountain run off that floods and fertilizes fields. Within a year, it will be filled up and ready for rice farming next season. If the field has not yet been filled, it signifies inadequate rice supply for the consumption year round and put the whole family under the risk of food insecurity. The depth of excavation does not only ensure the next generation of soil but also enhances soil fertility, rice-farming productivity and biological assets.
Earth Houses are quite different in color and form, less material and less expensive material. Good insulation, improved ventilation and cooling systems with efficient windows evokes feelings of comfort. Earth House building is especially efficient at transferring knowledge to the next generation to enable them live with the earth, build houses from the earth and protect the virgin forests to ensure the high quality of the earth.
III) Soil tampling and Material Mixing
The practice of Earth House has enhanced the role of the house to be the most important production unit within sufficiency economy. It produces knowledge, innovation, physical strength, and community’s intimacy and friendliness.
Each family develops different building technique according to their socio-economic status and tradition. But the common technique are the development of soil trampling by people and the use of water from various sources as the binder. Blocks of earth produce manually and elaborately. The first process starts up with the excavation of paddy field soils and using a shoulder pole or cart to transport a massive of soils at least 10 rounds a day. It requires enormous efforts (Viriya). Asevana-paccaya in transporting soils enables people to be more powerful and skillful.
Rotting leaves and roots, soil animals, debris and rocks are removed by a sun-drying and sifting technique. Different types of soils are mixed up with water in a mixing pan; then soil trampling will mix all materials into earth. The secret of qualified earth is water. Owing to Kyaing Tong’s immense mineral wealth, water is very special. Water must be collected from various sources including rainwater, backyard groundwater (at 4 meters depth), nearby rivers and the sweat of neighbors.
Clay soil is the principal ingredient of earth. In cooler areas, yellow tropical soils have a lot of clay. Mixing clay soil with certain amount of red tropical soils, and topsoil before adding some water to ensure that the soil damp is enough to hold materials together, then trample soils to firm up these materials. Within 2 hours, the earth becomes sticky and flexible.
A year of effort to trampling soils into earth becomes the life’s routine and is possible with the dedication from family members and neighbors. The ability to mobilize labor on the village scale to work in unity demonstrates enormous power of Buddhist philosophy. As a devout Buddhist, sharing their labors to the neighbors in Earth House building is considered as an act of merit.
People believe they will benefit from this act next life, i.e., to be able to afford a house of their own and not being born in a miserable state of homelessness. To rejoice in neighbors’ meritorious act is, therefore, greater than sand material offerings to the temple. Soil trampling brings a new value to the Earth House. It involves use value in housing and sharing value in order to serve the social need for sustainable living.
Money becomes worthless when the community shares their labor in earth mixture. An act of friendliness (Metta kaya karma) connect people and community together in order to care and share (Saraneeyadharma). When community spirits are lifting up, people will love and respect each other; they will be more helpful and tend to live in unity.
This belief redefines a sustainable living in Kyaing Tong into 2 ways. Firstly, all lives center within their house and sharing system. Secondly, a wide range of house building difficulties make people consume their house conservatively through frequent monitoring and maintaining activities. House fixing turns forests and fields to be an integral part of their lives.
IV) Building Intelligence
Earth Houses do not cost much money but the building process must be careful. Building intelligence starts with the development of earth quality and trampling efficiency which requires neighbor labors and trust. Without trust, the earth is not sticky which make Earth House gradually worn and less durable. If otherwise, it is durable but not quite beautiful because of unshaped bricks.
Some house adds extra materials/fibers to reinforce the earth such as sand, dried rice straw and rice husk.
- Sand will be added to release water and remove moisture from the earth. This technique is useful especially during rainy season.
- Rice straw is the major agricultural by-product of Kyaing Tong. It helps enhance the strength of earth blocks without shrinkage cracks that will occur when dried. Rice straw also stabilize the earth by holding building materials together. After the rain, rice straw helps release water from the earth bricks. Rice straw must be dried up for days before using. Adding dehydrated straws in the final stage of earth mixture can lessen damages or water soaking to prevent the growth of fungi.
- Rice husk increases block heating. Rice husk would kill grass that will later grow on the earthen wall.
For Kyaing Tong people, the right proportion of earth mixture with rich straw is 8 to 2. Eight portions of clay soils or sand soils will be mixed up with 2 portions of rice straw. Each straws will be cut into pieces of an inch, if otherwise a long straw will spring up from the wall and make it looked untidy. Each block of moist earth needs to be dried up each side a day for 3 days in full sunlight until 5 days to ensure there are no air pockets left inside or shrinkage.
There are many sizes and types of the bricks widely used. The biggest one covers 8 x 10 inches with the depth of 3 – 5 inches. The bricks will shrink about 10%, covering about 5 x 8 inches when dried. The small size is not used widely for the bigger size is economical. Using big bricks on the wall demands good footings of 2 feet with a number of larger bricks. It helps to distribute load from the wall.
Each day the dried up process produce 100 bricks. The process could be done during summer and winter seasons. There are 2 types of the bricks: raw bricks and burnishing bricks in use. Burnishing bricks will be used as a waterproofing foundation of the wall, with the height of 90 cms approximately. The upper part used the raw earth bricks. Raw earth wall in upper part of the house will be protected from hot summer sun and heavy rains of Kyaing Tong by roof overhang. Roof overhang with one-metered extension and earth plaster technique of Kyaing Tong could protect almost the whole part of the wall.
A thick earth plaster applied by hands will be mixed up with either lime (White) or rick husks (Red) to color the house. Lime plaster forms a barrier to liquid water which allows earth wall to dry out. A colorful earth required special rammed earth. Earth plaster coupled with heat-storing wall thickness of 30 cms are good for interiors to uniform the indoor temperature for housing comfort. Earth House response to seasonal climate. Wall and ventilators allow the hot air to escape for summer cooling and prevent cool air to come for winter heating. Therefore, some family allocates some spaces on the second floor of Earth House to stockpile rice grains during post harvest period because the uniform temperature could prevent their rice from termites attack.
Earth plaster with lime
Warmth and cleanliness are vital to keeping all family members healthy. People believe that living in Earth House could prevent them from asthma and allergic diseases. The Earth House need a more careful monitoring especially during the rainy season or earthquake. Rats pose a threat to the house. Rat holes can damage Earth House. People, then, take protective measure by raising kitten for rat catching.
However, holes, cracks or collapse are easily repaired. To renovate the earthen plaster, the old plaster will be removed, then keep spraying the water all over the wall to “shock the earth” for 3 – 4 days. The moisture from water spraying will make the plaster softer and bond well to new plaster materials.
V) Earth House in Modern Era
Kyaing Tong enters the modern age with the change of housing. Many houses has become a historical showpiece of Tai Yai traditions, raising well-being of sufficiency inhabitants over centuries. Earth Houses lost their significance with time when losing inhabitants due to ASEAN migration. Many families left their hometowns for Thailand in order to earn money for building new modern houses. With new development that pushes against old neighborhoods, it puts young generations into poverty. Earth House is, therefore, a affordable housing option for the poor and sufficiency extended families.
Many old Earth Houses are still thriving in Kyaing Tong for recreational use and family extension. Its space is being used for social interaction as people are still in favor of the living inside the Earth House. In summer, modern homeowners will share a space in their neighbors’ Earth House during daytime. It is more comfortable than using electric fans in modern house. Saving the electricity cost led to the reduction of the living cost.
Old Earth House features as the heritage house that can accommodate young working-class people and their upcoming generations. Though building technique is labor-intensive and no longer affordable nowadays but the science of Earth House building is experiencing a rebirth with changing shape and size. It follows minimalist approach; using a combination of earth block and bamboo materials, low-cost and eco-friendly technology, energy efficiency and smaller size.
Modern Earth House is no long be a compact home but stand-alone room building with small and efficient space. These rooms are built separately in different part of the house. There are bedroom, kitchen and the spiritual room to keep the bones of their ancestors.
A grid pattern of wall building made of bamboo materials is an effective method for controlling cracking. The bamboo structure in a squared shape arrangement (or Jak Gward in Tai Yai language) within the length of 4 square inches, is good for room sidewall while a x-shaped bamboo joint is good for building the house wall as it allows earth to hold up better. The only disadvantage of bamboo structure is the development of fungal decay due to moisture. Therefore, Earth House with bamboo structure is subject to change every 20 years. Bamboo structure requires less earth and the building process can be done by homeowners for money saving. Earth House becomes a vehicle for green sufficiency economy and community development.
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