Meet the environmentalist teaching natural building techniques in India

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Traditionally, homes in India were built from sustainable materials like mud, bamboo, lime plaster or even animal dung. As populations increased and cities expanded, India’s construction industry focused on materials like cement and steel.

According to Statista, India is now the second-largest producer of cement in the world, with production amounting to 370 million metric tons in 2022. Globally, concrete comes with a high environmental cost, generating between four and eight per cent of the world’s CO2.

Sustainable building materials

Shagun Singh founded Geeli Mitti in 2016 and is on a mission to reinvigorate India’s building industry. She wants to see the country return to using more traditional and sustainable materials.

“I created this place to serve as a centre of excellence for leading a sustainable lifestyle. As a place which serves as a demonstration and research training centre,” Shagun tells SCENES.

“We work on all aspects related to sustainable living,” she explains.

Geeli Mitti workshops

Geeli Mitti is a social enterprise and natural building foundation. The community runs workshops ranging from intensive natural building courses to permaculture design certifications and water management courses.

“But once people come in, we first tell them that’s not all you’re going to be learning. While they live here for a week or a month, they experience what sustainable living is all about.”

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“Whether that is starting to train people about natural construction, different forms of farming or taking up livelihood opportunities or health care,” Shagun explains.

The workshops are open to all ages and experience levels. The only requirement is a willingness and a commitment to learn more about living a sustainable life.

Geeli Mitti believes that building with mud offers a fulfilling experience and a chance to have a quality, sustainable home that will last at least one hundred years. She believes that it is only in the recent past that society has veered away from sustainable living.

“Homesteading, thrifting, recycling are no longer virtues. What became virtuous was an economy of waste.” She says

Demystifying mud-building

Shagun, and other environmentalists like her, say that reviving old building traditions is a vital way to address modern-day challenges like climate change.

To get more people on board, Geeli Mitti simplifies the process of building with mud. The foundation teaches people about the different kinds of soil present in the ground and shows them various building techniques. Their building’s fundamental components are clay, sand, straw, and water.

“Even a bird, even an insect, knows how to build a shelter for themselves,” Shagun says. “Our goal has been to empower people and train them to feel confident building a beautiful, happy, sustainable ecological shelter for themselves and their families.”

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Mud buildings are mainly known for their natural ventilation and ability to control high temperatures. It is ideal for preventing a house from getting too hot in a warm climate like India because walls have a high thermal mass that can absorb and store heat slowly.

In recent years, more and more architects have started returning to natural materials as they seek to create buildings able to withstand extreme weather and rising temperatures.

Mud is very resilient, and once constructed, buildings are self-sufficient. Shagun explains, “When you talk about mud building to people, the first thing they’ll say is, “Oh, but it requires a lot of maintenance. But that’s not true.”

Working with the community

Geeli Mitti architect Anubha Jain says she’s learned a lot working with Shagun and the team. “I’ve done everything from digging to carrying and building. And you realise your own strength,” she explains.

“For me, it was super transformative.”

Dayal, a local villager who works at the foundation, agrees. “From Shagun, I have learnt all the techniques that she uses. Constructing homes and everything. I can do it all,” he says.

“Almost everyone from our village has worked at Geeli Mitti for a few days at least,” he adds.

Providing jobs for local people is one of the organisation’s key initiatives, from working on the construction side to providing daily lunches.

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Future-proof buildings

Shagun says making changes and becoming more sustainable is all about starting small.

“Segregate your waste into biodegradable or non-biodegradable. Once you’ve done that, ensure all people around you do it. Make that into a movement. If you start anything new, there’s going to be a time period when you’ll be learning new skills. You have to stick with it.” She concludes.

Geeli Mitti wants to leave a permanent legacy, a lasting impact on people’s lives. The homes they’re constructing are flood, fire, and earthquake-proof, and Shagun hopes they will remain standing for centuries.


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