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Rolf's house

An eye-like opening in the roof, painted blue.Hidden in thick vegetation, Rolf Lieser's expression of home makes a sudden appearance. The fluid sweeps of roof, the flora, the close contact with water, all create a total surprise.

The house reflects freedom, experimentation, innovation. Primarily an artist, Rolf Lieser felt no architect could express his needs better. He would be responsible for his own house. With a year's experience in a construction company in Germany, he was confident about the physical realisation of his ideas.

Rolf also knew his involvement would result in economy and efficiency. After all, he was also the contractor - always at the site during working hours, instructing and supervising. And then, only after working hours, purchasing materials and planning the next day's work in detail. Working drawings were never drafted, only a detailed model used to communicate with the labourers, as Rolf mostly operated on spontaneous decisions, Only the structural system could be accurately pre-planned, leaving scope for several improvisations during construction.

Spatial requirements

The couple and their two children required living spaces, and separate store house and toilet facilities. The older daughter, Surya, needed a separate house. Four structures resulted around the central garden. The areas of the main house were arranged in three hexagons. The internal walls formed smaller circles inside, and freed themselves from this structural order. The ground floor houses the sitting room, studio, and dining and kitchen areas. The bedroom is above the atelier.

The roof silhouette and substance

The choice of roof was significant in shaping the structure, and in regard to the economy. Keet woven coconut palm, the most popular local roofing material, was cheap, but looked too raw and unclean. The more recently developed ferrocement was "too cold". So a vermiculite concrete roof developed, following the ideas of an Australian visitor. It was constructed with 12ft long palmyra beams supporting a network of pacca-maram reepers at 150c/c. the secondary beams supporting the roof were only introduced after the roof settled.

A water channels runs around the main house to keep ants and centipedes at bay.This framework allowed a variety of fluid roof shapes. Bamboo mat was stretched over the network, and coated with lightweight vermiculite concrete. The vermiculite results when mica, heated to a high temperature of 1,000 degrees, expands about 20 times in volume. It replaces metal aggregate in concrete. Rolf used a mix of 1:1.4 cement-sand-vermiculite by volume. The thickness of the vermiculite concrete coat was only 4cms; no steel reinforcement was required. Unlike ferrocement, this material was also a good heat insulator. And it could be made at half the cost. The 160m2 surface area cost Rs.20,000.

Rolf attributes the notable coolness in the house, in the absence of fans, to good cross-ventilation. After all, the heat-insulating qualities of vermiculite could not be exploited. Not only is a minimum thickness of 10cms required for effective heat insulation to work, but it must be aided by controlled openings in other areas of the house - indispensable for Rolf's lifestyle.

Columns

Easily available, granite pillars of uniform rectangular cross-section and irregular surface are the main roof supports. The column junctions and intersections of multiple beams are interestingly concealed for a cleaner junction by gradually deriving a hexagonal cross-section at the capital from a rectangular shaft. The column treatment is repeated below, at the base. The columns are slightly inclined towards the inside for better structural continuation of the roof curve. Only the two columns marking the entrance differ. They are in ferrocement, as the granite piers cracked during construction. The non-loadbearing partition walls are 225mm thick - in burnt brick and cement mortar. A concrete ring exits 60cms below ground-level; another 2m above.

Openings

Wide jaali openings with the characteristic convex profileWindows are largely responsible for the character of the house, although they came about spontaneously during construction. Brick jaalis were found too rigid and defined; glass too ordinary. So, 3-1/2mm wires were left protruding near the openings. Chicken-wire mesh was later hung from them, and finished with a cement-sand mix. The convex profile resulted automatically. The terrace railing was similarly treated.

The entrance door is a steel frame with chicken-wire mesh. A cement-sand-vermiculite mixture is sculpturally applied as a mural. The panel is then given a varnish coat, and vermiculite flung at it for a more natural texture.

The other shutters are coloured glass panels directly fixed into the wall. These are, of course, susceptible to vibration and temperature fluctuations. Shutters of openings in the roof, from interesting tables on the upper floor, are painted blue on the exterior creating an illusion of the continuity of the sky.

Landscape

A water channel runs around the house, warding insects off. Coconut trees shade the roof, keeping it cool in the West Wind.

Published in 'Indian Architect & Builder', August 1990

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