Vinu Daniel on the glory of garbage in architecture and Chuzhi House

With an ethos of reuse and local sourcing, architect Vinu Daniel of Wallmakers is rewriting the rulebook for sustainable architecture and wins Best Earth Builder at the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2023

chuzhi house by vinu daniel in india is made of earth and hidden in the landscape, seen here a hint of the exterior
Wallmakers’ Chuzhi house, in Shoolagiri, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is built using scavenged and discarded local materials, including mud bricks, glass bottles and reclaimed wood
(Image credit: Syam Sreesylam)

Vinu Daniel never aspired to be an architect. Born in Dubai to parents of South Indian origin, he was always expected to pursue something mainstream, such as law or medicine or even chartered accountancy. ‘Certainly anything but Carnatic classical music,’ jests the founder of Wallmakers of his childhood proclivity for the arts. In a bid to reconcile his passions and his family’s hopes, Daniel moved to India for university, enrolling at the College of Engineering Trivandrum for a degree in architecture. ‘I got into architecture, thinking that it would be a creative space where I could express myself. But within a year or two, I became disillusioned by the pedagogical framework [the teaching philosophy, systems and values] of the curriculum.’ It was a chance encounter with eminent British-Indian architect Laurie Baker in his fourth year of university that reshaped Daniel's world view. 

The meeting with Baker served as the watershed for Daniel’s career, prompting him to ponder where, or whether, nature should end and built form should begin. ‘I was inspired by the idea that buildings should coexist with nature. Baker also told me something very profound about a meeting he once had with Mahatma Gandhi: that the real people we should be building for are the ones in need, the “ordinary” people in villages and congested catchments,’ he says. ‘But the most important thing that Gandhi told him, and one that has stayed with me, is that the ideal house in the ideal village should be built using materials found within a five-mile radius.’ Building on this concept, Daniel became intrigued by the idea of using earth: ‘Sadly, today, less than one-third of the world’s population lives in buildings made of earth, even though it is a much more sustainable and durable alternative to cement. I knew I wanted to help change that narrative and commit to reusing materials that had already made an environmental impact.’

chuzhi house by vinu daniel in india is made of earth and hidden in the landscape, seen here a hint of the exterior

Chuzhi house is built on a rocky site using a camouflage construction technique that blends it into the landscape

(Image credit: Syam Sreesylam)

Chuzhi house by Vinu Daniel and Wallmakers

Fast forward to today, and the afternoon light spills in through the ceiling of this new dwelling in Tamil Nadu. Daniel appears disarmingly collected, certainly not like someone who spent the morning staving off the fiery south Indian sun. From where he sits now, however, the sun seems like a distant neighbour, shielded generously by an overarching rock bed and a leafy canopy of trees. In a sage button-down and faded jeans, he looks as much a part of the subterranean landscape as the poured earth walls and precast composite beams that surround him. And while his colour-coordinated attire may be a coincidence, there’s nothing coincidental about this underground home that is his latest project. 

For Daniel, the house – named Chuzhi, after the Malayalam word for ‘whirlpool’ – is special in many ways. ‘The house as such is hidden beneath the earth. It is our first subterranean build, but it's also our first attempt at building directly on to a rock face. We used a camouflage construction technique to blend the home into the landscape and keep it from hindering the natural beauty of its surroundings,’ he explains, gesturing to the swirling walls. These are in fact precast poured debris earth composite bottle beams, fashioned from 4,000 castaway plastic bottles, and spiral up to parlay into a perfectly flat, polygonal glass roof.

Chizhi house by vinu daniel and wallmakerhero interior of bathroom

Chuzhi house is formed from a series of precast composite beams that spiral up to a flat, polygonal glass roof

(Image credit: Syam Sreesylam)

True to Daniel’s Gandhian ethos, Chuzhi also stars other discarded materials scavenged from the original site: the floor wears reclaimed wood, and mud was the material of choice for the construction. Although the house has no elevation, the roof masquerades as a charming seating area, with the trees for company. ‘The idea was to leave the foliage and the surroundings true to their original form without compromising the comfort of the homeowners,’ says Daniel, who was given pretty much carte blanche to transform a tricky, rocky site with its two mature trees into a contemporary home.  

The architect considers himself a disciple of the site, a philosophy he inherited from French architect Satprem Maini at the Auroville Earth Institute (located in the experimental Indian township of Auroville), where he moved in 2005 after graduating from university. ‘There I learned about Nubian techniques and vault making. I was also working on some rehabilitation projects in tsunami-stricken areas of Tamil Nadu at the time,’ he recalls. The series of experiences inspired an epiphany: ‘When I saw the calamity around me, it felt like a sin to be sitting in an air-conditioned office.’ At a time when his peers were opting for steady jobs at established firms, Daniel knew his calling lay in reimagining waste. On returning to Kerala in 2007, he started Wallmakers, named after its maiden project: a compound wall built with surplus mud bricks and discarded beer bottles.

chuzhi house by vinu daniel looking up to the transparent ceiling

(Image credit: Syam Sreesylam)

Over the years, Daniel has built up his own repertoire of techniques, most notable among them his now-patented debris wall and shuttered debris wall systems. The shuttered debris technique is most evident in Shikhara, a residence that he and his team completed in 2019. The site's soil was riddled with pebbles and debris, making it unsuitable for upcycling into mud bricks. The solution? Upcycling the stones – some as wide as 70mm – into the cement and soil formula. ‘In India, discarded plastic and construction debris are commonplace. This is precious waste. I look at it all as newly minted material because, who knows, this is all we may have in the future,’ he says. 

In another project he took up a few years ago, later dubbed the Pirouette House, he used a variation of Baker's Rat Trap bond masonry technique. In doing so, he arranged the bricks vertically, rather than horizontally, to create wall cavities designed to augment thermal efficiency, reduce total brick volume and conceal service ducts and structural members, leading to 40 per cent less cement and 30 per cent less steel consumption. Daniel’s contributions have been recognised on the global stage; last September, he was awarded the prestigious Royal Academy Dorfman Award 2022 for Wallmakers’ pioneering material approach and sensitivity to local context and climate.

living space in chuzhi house in india

(Image credit: Syam Sreesylam)

The light on the site is dimming now, and Chuzhi's swirling skylight appears as if a gateway to another world. The description is not entirely inaccurate. After all, with a brand of architecture as rare as Daniel's, the site is far removed from the homes that neighbour it. And yet, for the architect, there is a long way to go in honing his craft. For now, though, the site is his biggest teacher, and he, its biggest disciple.