House building in Kumaon

Photo of neighbor's house with new addition in progress and cow, Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
The cow doesn’t care.

We live on a mountainside (or hillside, if you like) that slopes steeply down to a river valley. The village we’re staying in is small enough that we can see every house in it. So when we first noticed that one of the nearby houses had some rebar sticking up out of the rooftop, we figured the owner planned to add on someday. It wasn’t until we saw a line of thin, wiry men walking down the hill with loads of bricks suspended from their foreheads that we realized “someday” was “right now.”

It’s been fun watching the addition go up; the process is so different from how a brick house gets built in England. The workmen have neither a power cement mixer nor any other kind of power tool, and their methods reflect that.

An English house would be built with two courses of brickwork tied together at intervals, creating an airspace between the two brick walls to prevent moisture from penetrating the interior. But this new addition is being built with just a single wall. Another difference: As the brick walls rose, the workmen set wooden window frames straight into the brickwork. An English house would have lengths of wood set in, and the window sets would be attached to the wood later on.

The construction of the flat roof extending out to one side intrigued us the most. It’s typical for many houses to have some part of the roof flat, even if the rest is pitched, because it’s so nice to sit on the roof and catch the sun. It’s also a good place to dry laundry.

We’re used to seeing concrete poured around rebar in order to give some strength to the concrete. That’s not what we were seeing, though. First, long pieces of wood were installed across the open space of a room at one end of the addition, extending a couple of feet beyond the outside wall. The ends that extended out were supported from below by slender tree trunks, a method for supporting new structure that we’re quite familiar with from all over India, and other places, too.

Next, we saw short planks laid across the long pieces of wood, set close together. Then one day we saw a man digging earth out of a bank behind the house, and men taking turns carrying big dishes of earth on their heads over to the house, climbing a ladder and dumping the earth on the planks. I wondered if this was for mixing concrete, but then they spread the earth in a thick layer over the planks.

Carrying earth up to the roof of new addition, Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Spreading earth over the planks.

The next time we looked, we saw that the men were spreading freshly mixed concrete over the thick sand layer. The final result was a layer of concrete about six or eight inches thick. “But where’s the rebar?” we wondered. How strong could this roof actually be?

We got our answer a couple of days later. We saw that lines of rebar had been laid across the new concrete.

Rebar on flat concrete roof of house in Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Rebar in place.

A few days later, after some heavy rains had abated, we returned from a day trip to Jageshwar to find concrete spread across the rebar.

Fresh concrete over the rebar, Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Fresh concrete spread over the rebar.

While concrete construction in the west is done without seams (as far as possible), this method did seem like an intelligent way to deal with the fact that you can’t pour the whole roof at once. And houses around here seem pretty strong, so I suppose it works.

Another thing that intrigued me was seeing workmen carrying a long stripped log – really, an entire tree – uphill out of the forest, and along a narrow footpath to the house.

Carrying the log out of the forest, Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Bringing the log up out of the forest.
Bringing the lot to the house, Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Getting the log up the hill.

It turned out to be the ridgepole for the part of the house that’s getting a pitched roof. (You can see it in place three photos up.)

I haven’t mentioned that all this work is carried out by men who are wearing plastic flipflops, no helmets, no construction gloves nor any other kind of safety equipment. All they have is their wits, their experience, and their trust in each other.

The village we live in is, as I’ve said, quite small, and pretty much all the houses are owned by people related to each other. Everyone has cows, goats, chickens, and grows vegetables, but some of the families here also rent out rooms or cottages to paying guests – foreigners like us, and also Indians from Delhi and other hot locations on the plains. We figure this new addition is intended to be accommodation for paying guests.

We are leaving today, so we won’t see the rest of the building process through to completion. But if we come back, I look forward to seeing how the new house looks – and possibly, who’s living in it.

Pitched roof progress, house addition in Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Here’s how far the addition has progressed by today, our last day in the village.


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