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Project Creates Huts That Are Easy on the Ecosystem

Exterior rendering of ecotourism hut, which features an elevated foundation
The elevated foundation will keep the ecotourism huts above expected flooding during the rainy season. © Pasi Aalto/

A prototype project in southern India welcomes ecotourists to a region of great ecological diversity while seeking to minimize their impact.

April 2, 2013—The Western Ghats region of India is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world, home to vast arrays of flowering plants, mammals, birds, and amphibians. The mountain area is a prized destination in the emerging “ecotourism” industry, which poses a challenge to local residents who want to profit from the diversity while preserving it.

Recently the Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation, which is based in Bangalore, brought together a panel of experts for a seminar to discuss the emerging challenges of ecotourism and commissioned a prototype structure it hopes will serve as a model of sustainability for India’s ecotourism industry. The seminar topics included local history, tourism, permaculture, biodigesting, and rainwater harvesting.

The concept arising from the seminar is a series of modest huts designed to house tourists and constructed from local materials. The zero-net-energy huts are designed so that they can be easily constructed by local trade workers and incorporated into villages in the region. The villages could then rent the structures to tourists. 

 Rendering of two structures at the prototype site: a single story unit, and a larger two story unit

 There are two structures at the prototype site: a single-story unit
houses the kitchen and bathroom; a larger unit contains a living
room on the main floor and a bedroom above.
© Pasi Aalto

“The tourism business is growing fast in south India,” said architect Sami Rintala, a founder of Rintala Eggertsson Architects, of Oslo, Norway. Rintala, who is the architect of what is referred to as the Hut-to-Hut program, provided written comments to Civil Engineering online. “The idea is to empower the local communities to keep the earnings and land ownership in local hands instead of losing them to hotel chains.”

The prototype, which comprises two huts, was constructed on a former rice paddy in Kagala, in the Indian state of Karnataka. The masonry foundation is 20 m long and 5 m wide and elevates the structures above the flood level anticipated during the rainy season. Locally available laterite was used for the foundation blocks. This iron-rich material was chosen in part because it is easy to mine and to shape; it emerges from the ground soft and porous and then hardens as the iron oxidizes over a period of several days.

There are two structures at the site. A single-story hut houses the kitchen and bathroom, and a larger, two-story hut contains a living room area on the main floor and a bedroom above. The structures have modest integrated furniture and use locally available stone for kitchen and bathroom counters.

The huts are framed with locally available acacia lumber. Acacia is an extremely durable hardwood that is impressively impervious to water, sometimes lasting 40 years untreated outdoors. To keep the wood free of termites, it is treated with cardanol, a phenol developed from a by-product of local cashew production.

Exterior view rendering for one of the housing units on the prototype site

The second story of the larger unit provides sleeping space and
an expansive view of the site, a former rice paddy.
© Pasi Aalto

The acacia wood is so dense it actually presented an engineering challenge. “We tried to work with the local wood first with our modern tools but realized after a while that the local hammer and nails and handsaw were working better, which after all should be a natural conclusion,” Rintala said.

The corrugated aluminum roofs of the huts are painted white to reduce solar gain. The southern walls are covered with woven bamboo to protect against the intense sunlight of the region while enabling air to flow through the structures.

A photovoltaic array generates the electricity required to power a small refrigerator and the interior lights. The rainwater collection system has yet to be designed and installed, but large underground tanks will be placed beneath gardens at the site. Natural filtration utilizing hanging gardens will purify the water to drinking standards. A separate tank heated directly with solar power will deliver water to the shower.  

“This prototype has a water toilet, but updated models will be equipped with biodigester toilets that produce both fertilizer for the gardens and gas for energy and heat production,” Rintala said.

Rintala said the prototype was developed to attract the attention of local communities as well as tourists. The system can be built by villagers on a modest scale for tourists and enlarged later if required. The Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation will also help to arrange low-interest loans to facilitate the start-up phase, he said.

“This area is a 3-hour drive south from Goa, having the same climate and possibilities, except it still has the natural beauty to offer,” Rintala said. “This solution tries to maintain the low impact instead of establishing bigger hotels . . . like [those] found in Goa.”

The region includes two nature reserves and 13 national parks. Ecotourists will find 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 different mammals, 508 species of birds, and 179 amphibian species in the area. Approximately 325 threatened species can be found in Western Ghats.


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