Bichli Haveli, a 140 yrs old legacy in Rajasthan’s Udaipur

The Bichli Haveli is 140 year-old vernacular courtyard home located in the heart of the Old City of Udaipur. It was part of a larger complex owned by the Mehta family. This specific Haveli was built by Lakshmi Lalji Mehta of the Bachhawat Mehta clan. He was the military commander-in-chief for the state of Mewar.

The Haveli remains in the ownership of his direct descendent, who initiated the restoration and revitalization of this exceptional building in 2017, to secure its future. This ancestral haveli home is being re-imagined as a ‘Resource Centre’ to help other custodians of small and big havelis to easily and smoothly adapt their houses for new and extended uses, as well as, a space for short-term creative residency, providing an opportunity to partake in ordinary Udaipur.

The Bichli Haveli is comprised of 46 rooms, 3 storeys, 2 courtyards, 8 staircases, and 60 doors and employs the typical load bearing structure of its time. The wall thickness diminishes on each advancing floor level so that the second floor walls are approx 400mm thick while the ground floor walls are approx 650mm thick. Its walls use local limestone stone masonry using mud mortar, finished with lime plaster, up to even 70mm thick, and a sensual polished artistic finish called ghutai or arraish.

The Bichli Haveli is made of entirely natural chemical-free materials that age gracefully and are highly performative. Its lime plastered walls literally ‘breathe’ to regulate moisture and interior temperatures. They get stronger with age- In fact, this Haveli is relatively a very young lime building – only 140 years old. It will live for another 500 years if cared for. This knowledge puts into perspective the timescale of every intervention and repair technology employed on site. The architect, Malvika Mehta, sees her role as to enable the building to remain relevant, forever growing and living.
The precious chain of the transfer of traditional building knowledge has now been greatly disrupted for at least 2-3 generations, since cement took over in the 1950s as the mainstream material and construction has been commodified. The current form of defective lime-based practices has led to a loss of faith in the material itself.

The project attempts to use the scientific and the industrial knowhow to fill in the gaps of the traditional knowledge and evolve its own material ecosystem as a marriage of old and new.

Typically lime is produced and prepared on-site from semi-processed raw materials, through largely the same process used 300 years ago. This is labour-intensive and needs highly experienced artisans- an increasingly are breed! This practice also needs a large amount of physical space on site and an initial investment on infrastructure.

In order to counter the problems of inconsistency, high wastage and high impurity, Bichli Haveli Project, engaged with the unique team of civil engineers from the School of Structural and Geo-technical Engineering at the Vellore Institute of Technology, led by Dr. Thirumalini who specialize as material scientists for historic buildings.

This rare collaboration between architect and engineer, for a privately-owned non-monumental historic structure, was made possible by the generous funding received from USA-based NGO, Restoration Works International. It sought to provide a scientific basis to the conservation and lime works being undertaken at the Bichli Haveli Project.

Dr. Thirumalini, known for her monumental conservation works, has been closely associated with ASI and other state archaelogical departments, visited the Haveli, along with her Phd scholar, Sriram Pradeep in March 2019. They extracted samples of the existing lime plasters and lime concretes and deeply studied and performed various advanced analysis and micro-structure studies to identify the type and properties of material used originally. The objectives, among others was to characterize old/existing lime plasters from the site simulate them- with currently available materials.

Through their on-site investigations, the team also characterized and graded the 3 qualities of lime available on site, including one experimental batch created by the architect in an industrially controlled environment. This unlikely candidate, won the engineers’ stamp of approval, over the other lime binders processed in the haveli with ‘DIY’ temporary infrastructure and aged to 18months.

Dr. Thirumalini says, “The original material was re-engineered and applied for restoration of haveli. During the process of material studies an old lost technology of production of low-energy materials were surfaced, highlighting the use of materials like lime, bats, plant extracts and hemp fibers to reduce the cost and CO2 emissions. The original materials used were also found to act as CO2 capturing materials, helping in mitigating global warming, paving its way to be used in modern constructions for low-rise buildings.”

Since then an independent enterprise, called MLIME, led by the architect, Malvika Mehta has sprung out of the Bichli Haveli Project. MLIME hopes to make the use of lime as a contemporary construction material easy, organized and scalable. MLIME offers its FAT LIME- a wet non-hydraulic lime putty that has been produced by the traditional method but in a precisely controlled environment. Its high purity and consistency can simply not be replicated by processing raw material on site.

It is used as a binder in construction (instead of cement) and can be mixed with various aggregates to make concretes, mortars, plasters, punnings, and more, for old and new buildings.

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