Kacca, Pucca, and Vernacular Architecture

In order to understand the architecture of urban informal settlement, we have searched its origins through a method that can be summarized as 'follow the people.' It is based on the logic that it is people who create buildings and that when people migrate; their way of building migrates with them. We will start with a look at where informal settlers come from and what architecture one finds there.
Migrants to the city generally come from the countryside, towns and villages. In the case of India, we could describe the migration chain as Tribal – Rural – Urban. We’ll use Tribal to designate those people who live in a close relationship with the forest, in pockets of only a few houses. Rural covers small villages based on agriculture, whereas towns and cities are urban.

What we see

An important marker of the difference in way of life of tribal people as compared to urbanites is the balance of indoor and outdoor activities. When much space is available around the house, as is the case in tribal settings, many of the daily activities take place outside. Therefore, there is limited need for indoor space. The house is mainly a place to keep things safe, whereas home activities stretch out around the house. The land around it is part of the realm of the home. The veranda is an item that expresses this hybrid notion of inside and outside very clearly. It is a sheltered outside and still part of the home. In a modern urban setting the home is confined to the house. Also, the near absence of windows in tribal architecture is an indicator of this outdoor oriented lifestyle. During the day, doors on both sides of the house afford cross ventilation. A small window is enough to allow daylight where needed, and often such a window is constructed in the roof. Windows in a wall would be a weakening of the protective function of that wall.
Photo 1. A mix of kacca and pucca. The walls of matting plastered with earth and cow dung are kacca, whereas the roof tiles and cemented base are pucca.
An often-noticed distinction in building techniques is that of kacca and pucca. A kacca house is built of earth and organic material, unlike the pucca house that is built of more durable materials like brick, stone, timber and cement. We’ll elaborate on this distinction below, since it is more sophisticated than a mere material difference. Pucca is understood as 'solid' and 'permanent', and comes from the Hindi word पक्का pakkā, which according to various Hindi-English dictionaries means 'cooked, ripe, solid, complete, inerasable, thoroughgoing, …' It is the opposite of कच्चा kaccā (also: kutcha) 'raw, unripe, crude, uncooked, unmade, careless, superficial, ...' Note that these meanings link to both the material and the process. Khosla (1983, p. 60) says about pucca that it "refers to the use of fired materials for the walls, like bricks or blocks; it also assumes […] a concrete or firm tile roof and all the ancillary specifications such as good flooring, doors and windows. Kutcha conversely […] implies mud walls, a temporary roof of thatch or country tiles."

How it works

The logic of countryside architecture is to use locally available materials. From today's perspective this may seem primitive and due to a lack of means of transportation, but that is reverse reasoning. The absence of cheap transportation is the default situation; its availability is the exception. Moreover, it is simply irrational to put effort in transporting materials over long distances when adequate materials are at hand. In addition, every built structure needs maintenance and renovation, which is again easier without the logistics that come with the use of exotic materials.

Photo 2. Base and beginning of a wooden structure for a kacca house. All materials come from the site's immediate vicinity. The base is surrounded by a dry wall, i.e. without mortar or cement.

Local materials available to tribal people in the regions around Mumbai, are those that come from the forest: wood, twigs, leaves, earth; from riverbeds: reed, clay, mud, stones; and from livestock: cow dung, urine, hides, and hair. A typical kacca house is built on a base of earth contained in a low stonewall. A wooden structure of poles and beams bears the thatched roof. Walls are filled in with matting of leaves or wicker, and then plastered with layers of mud and cow dung. This plasterwork is essential in keeping snakes, insects, and rodents out. Cow dung is sticky and has a binding effect, but is easily damaged by termites. Mud is termite resistant, but brittle. By combining these characteristics, a sturdy termite resistant plasterwork is reached through the application of alternating layers of cow dung and mud. The cow dung's cellulose binds the sand grains, while the sand protects the cow dung from termites that typically have no appetite for mud. Earth floors are sealed using the same technique. Cow dung is dissolved in water and then used to wash the earth floor. Floors are washed this way approximately every week, a routine by which cracks get repaired, dirt is bound, and the floor becomes more solid over time. The result is a smooth dirt free floor, easy to sweep and pleasant to the feet. Its ability to 'breath' contributes to quality of the interior climate. Clearly, this technique requires frequent maintenance and consequently the house demands time from its occupants.
A pucca house is built of more permanent materials like bricks and roof tiles. Another distinction with kacca lies in the way materials are produced and acquired. Roughly one could say kacca materials are directly available from nature (or the environment at hand), whereas pucca first need processing like firing in a kiln. Note that kacca and pucca are comparative qualities, i.e. a material can only be qualified as more pucca in comparison to another material. The same goes for structures. An improvised dwelling is kacca compared to permanent settlement. Note also that pucca can be the result of applying a certain technique, without changing the material. A house built by craftsmen is likely more pucca than a DIY-one. In building improvement, the tendency is to move from kacca to pucca. In this thesis we use the term puccafication to refer to turning a kacca structure into a more permanent one.
The permanency of pucca materials and techniques inevitably makes it less easy to adjust the house to the needs and habits of the occupants. Through puccafication, the relationship between house and occupants becomes more rigid, more fixed. A kacca house can easily be adjusted, and in fact the occupant is in charge of how he and the house go together. In a pucca house, the structure is less flexible and the occupant will have to adapt to it. Of course people create a balance that suits them best. In the following we will show examples of balancing kacca and pucca for maximum flexibility.

A typical kacca house is built of a wooden structure with an infill of earth walls or wooden matting covered with earth and cow dung plaster. For puccafication, both the load-bearing structure and the infill could simply be replaced by brickwork. Brickwork has load-bearing capability, so a distinction between structure and infill is not necessary. For flexibility however, that distinction is very useful and the logical thing to do is to make the structure pucca while keeping the infill more kacca. Using the same bricks, masonry can be made in both a kacca and a pucca version by respectively using earth and cement for mortar. As a result, the wooden structure is replaced with columns made of brickwork with cement mortar, whereas the infill is made with earth mortar. This affords future changes and saves costs of cement.

Photo 3. The use of cement mortar in this corner column is a handshake of pucca and kacca. The wall is made of earth mortar masonry and allows easy future changes while keeping the main structure. The dentation on the left is a provision for future extension.

Photo 4. Earth mortar affords easy changing of a facade, as shown by the traces of the former doorway on the right

Photo 5. A ventilation grill is easily created in a kacca wall.

Photo 6. Kacca extension of a pucca house: earth mortar versus cement plaster.

The replacement of building elements in the gradual process of puccafication shows a certain order. This order can be understood from the perspective of rainwater management. The roof is the most basic protection against rain. Therefore, the introduction of pucca starts with roof tiles replacing thatch and leaves, as in Photo 7. Second, the raised level of the floor provides protection against flooding. The next pucca step is to mason the stones of the base's dry wall with cement mortar, as seen in Photo 1. The introduction of bricks is a third step, followed by the use of cement for mortar (Photo 3) and later for plasterwork (Photo 6).

Photo 7. A house built of the materials that surround it. The only pucca are the ceramic roof tiles. The rice thatch on top provides extra protection against the sun.

Brick making
Brick making is an activity that can be done by the household, but like with the production of rice, a surplus can be sold on the market. Nowadays, although it is still handwork, bricks are produced in an industrial manner. In the countryside it is often part of the local economy, especially when bricks can be produced from locally available clay rich soil. Such soil is found in riverbeds that are accessible during the dry season. The soil is mixed with water and sawdust, molded, and left to dry for several days. Then the green bricks (fired bricks are red) are stacked with thin layers of sawdust and coal between them, resulting in a stack that is a kiln at the same time. Stacking and fueling is a very precise job and requires the presence of experts. Fuel must be applied evenly and balanced since, once the kiln is lit, it is impossible to make adjustments. The kiln must be densely packed to keep the heat in and thus generate high temperatures, yet allow sufficient airflow for the burning.

Photo 8. Brick making starts with molding clay-rich soil and drying the raw bricks for several days.

Photo 9. Clay-rich soil needed for brick making is typically found in riverbeds, which are only accessible during the dry season. Therefore, brick maker's houses are temporary and kacca.
 The firing itself takes about ten days. Then the stack can be unpacked and the quality of the bricks assessed. Bricks at the core have received the most heat and are therefore of the best quality. The bricks on the outside are of the least quality and often not suitable for use in building. In order to reduce this gradient in quality, the outer skin of the kiln is built as a separate structure, much like a cavity wall. This way the stack is insulated and as the heat stays inside, it will spread more evenly and contribute to a more constant quality. Bricks of too poor quality, provided they are not broken, are left on the spot and used again for the skin of the next kiln.

Photo 10. Unpacking a kiln and rebuilding it for a next round. The firing process changes the color of the bricks from green to red. Insufficiently fired bricks are reused in the skin of next kiln.
Bricks of sufficient quality are used for building throughout the region, including the city of Mumbai. Note that transportation is only required after completion of the product. All phases of the production process take place on the same spot, and only the small amount of coal is transported towards it.
Brick making is a dry-season activity, as it requires access to the riverbed and the drying of green bricks. Consequently it alternates with rice cropping, which is a typical monsoon activity, and it is common practice in families to work in both farming and brick making. In addition to this pattern, the same brick makers can be found as construction workers in the city during monsoon.
Brick making being part of the local economy brings puccafication to tribal people's doorstep. Government supported improvement schemes help people to replace kacca walls with masonry. In practice this means that people dismantle their house and rebuild it with bricks and cement. Since it is not possible to rebuild a house overnight, the occupants stay temporarily with neighbors or family.

Photo 11. Rebuilding pucca. Cement is a marker of puccafication.

Photo 12. This makeshift house is profoundly kacca as it is made of readily available kacca demolition waste.

What it tells us

We already saw that the distinction between kacca and pucca is a relative one, i.e. can only be made when comparing two materials, structures, or techniques. A house built of masonry is more pucca than a straw bale house, whereas compared to concrete masonry is more kacca. So far we have focused mainly on physical properties, but as already mentioned, the way of acquiring, processing, and producing materials is a distinguishing factor too. As suggested by Caimi & Hofmann (2005), techniques as such can make structures more pucca, for example by weaving materials or designing roofs with a larger overhang. There are actually many building characteristics that can be understood in a dialectic of kacca and pucca, and we have collected some in Table 1.

Occupant makes adjustments to building
Occupant has to adapt to building
Durability depends on skills
Durability comes from material
High maintenance
Low maintenance
Do It Yourself
Readily available materials
Processed materials
Low impact on environment
High impact on environment
 Table 1. Building characteristics categorized in a kacca - pucca dialectic.

Photo 13. Example of the kacca - pucca dialectic in Swiss construction: light weight masonry versus in situ cast concrete. Rue du Centre, St-Sulpice VD.

Puccafication is also related to changes of lifestyle. Mrs. Patil for example, used to live in one of the last remaining kacca houses in her village. Although she appreciates the fine qualities of the kacca architecture, her job as a teacher does not leave her sufficient time to do the maintenance the house required. She explained to us that the modern lifestyle based on the nuclear family[1] instead of the joint family[2], is only affordable when one earns enough money, i.e. when one has a job outside the home. The necessary frequent washing of cow dung floors and earth walls is simply too time consuming. Moreover, the income she generated with her job as a teacher, allowed Mrs. Patil to have her house converted into a pucca one. We spoke with her just two weeks before the house was to be demolished and rebuilt pucca. She expected important changes in her relationship with the house as her home, since she had already noticed such changes when she changed her source of income. For example, before taking a full job as a teacher, farming was the main livelihood. From the day Mrs. Patil sold the 30 cows that were part of the household, all kind of problems started to occur, one of them mosquitoes feeling free to come inside. The scent of cow urine is a natural mosquito repellant, and the departure of the cows meant the introduction of potentially infectious insects in the home. In the tropics of course this is a big thing. The absence of cows also deprived the household of its source of cow dung and thus directly undermined maintenance of the house. Not only had modernization made her change her household, it also brought her the need to take artificial measures against diseases. Mrs. Patil foresaw more of such changes, but nevertheless felt compelled to have her house rebuilt pucca, since "everybody in the village does so and living in an old fashioned house will not be good for my reputation as a school teacher."

[1] A nuclear family consists typically of a couple and their children.
[2] The joint family includes grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Photo 14. Mrs. Patil's kacca house two weeks before replacement with a brickwork-and-cement version. The neighbors already changed to pucca.

Photo 15. Mrs. Patil's kacca house, kitchen area.

Photo 16. Pucca house in the same village, showing extensive use of cement.
The story of Mrs. Patil shows how people and buildings become independent from each other in what is called modernization. In a kacca house, everyday life activities are closely related with the house and the house cannot survive without the frequent support of the human hand. In pucca, the house becomes less dependent on the occupant vice versa, i.e. the two get disconnected.
A step much further on the line towards pucca is that from a ground bound dwelling to a multistory condominium. Mr. Korde used to live with his mother, three brothers, and three sisters in a small two-room chawl until it was sold for redevelopment. Part of the arrangement was a free of costs condominium for Mr. Korde on the fifth floor in the new to build concrete eight-story high-rise. He now lives there with his wife and his daughter. As Mr. Korde gently put it: moving from the chawl to the condominium was 'upsetting'. He immediately added that he could not sleep for six months. He felt it was 'not his house' and missed the social environment of the chawl. Note that Mr. Korde's change of house type coincides with the change from joint to nuclear family. Besides the social and psychological aspects, he argued that concrete is a problematic material for many reasons: the concrete becomes much too hot to be comfortable, it has poor tactile qualities, and it comes with an inherent impossibility to change the layout of rooms or make even the smallest hole in a wall. Concrete is too pucca. The thing he appreciated most in his former (more kacca) chawl was the cow dung floor. 

Photo 17. Mr. Mathre is maintaining the cow dung floor around the house by washing it with a mix of water and fresh dung.

Mr. Santosh N. in P. also laudes the qualities of cow dung floors. The house he lives in together with his joint family has gradually become more pucca. Since sleeping is mostly done on a mat on the floor, the difference between cow dung and tiles on concrete are felt clearly. A cow dung floor has more moderating capacity, i.e. it maintains constant temperature and humidity. According to Mr. Santosh, floor tiles give more health troubles and for that reason the family decided not to put tiles in the kitchen.

Photo 18. Mr. Vadu and his family abandoned their pucca house on the left and prefer living in their new house on the right.

Pucca is not necessarily better than kacca, as the above has already shown. There are people who move back to kacca, like Mr. Vadu for example. He lives in a house with kacca walls now, next to his former more pucca house. The kacca house however has a roof of corrugated fiber cement panels, so maintenance is kept to a yearly round of plastering the walls. The pucca house with its masonry cement-plastered walls is abandoned. The cemented walls and floors had an unpleasant effect on the interior climate and were difficult and expensive to maintain. Mr. Vadu is an artist and expert in Warli-painting. We will discuss Warli painting and its relation with architecture in a separate chapter. Mr. Vadu prefers the kacca house because it fits better with the artwork and his profession. In order to give maximum protection against wind and animals, e.g. tigers, the kacca house has no windows. Doors on both sides of the house afford cross-ventilation.

Photo 19. Mr. Vadu's house is deliberately equipped with kacca walls. In order to create maximum protection against animals, there are no windows.
The above illustrates that the kacca – pucca distinction is a relative one and that it applies to both material and construction. Combinations of kacca and pucca are common. The preference for more kacca or more pucca can be based on practical reasons, e.g. comfort and maintenance; social reasons, e.g. status; or psychological reasons, e.g. well-being.
Puccafication in tribal areas has raised concerns among experts as it might lead to loss of culture and create environmental issues. In government supported schemes to improve tribal housing and help people create pucca houses, restrictions on the use of cement are an important tool to curb such effects.
In the next chapters we will see that skills and way of life go with the people. In the chapter about pavement dwelling for example, we will see the kacca – pucca distinction again, albeit with the same people but different locally available materials, and different sociologic context. 

Photo 20. The use of color paint is a marker of permanency.

Photo 21. Expressive and exotic colors are found on houses of the higher, often wealthier, castes.


Caimi, A. and Hofmann, M. (2005). From Kutcha to Pucca. Proposition de reconstruction d'habitats résistant aux calamités naturelles pour les villages de l”Orissa (Kendrapara District, Orissa State, Inde). http://infoscience.epfl.ch/record/127951 

Khosla, R. (1983). Architecture of Rural Housing: Some Issues in India. Social Scientist, 11(4), 56–60. doi:10.2307/3517024

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