As Bhutan teeters on the precipice of a monumental transition from ‘least developed’ to ‘developed’ status, every decision we make will indelibly etch our values into the global consciousness. The choice between mud and cement as our principal building material extends beyond the pragmatic; it is a profound declaration of our philosophical stance, shaping the narrative of our national identity and defining how we present ourselves to the world. 

Historically, our revered dzongs have articulated our aesthetic and cultural heritage. As we confront this critical juncture, we face a decision: continue in the vein of these iconic structures or pivot to paths paved with cement—a material emblematic of modernity yet laden with grave ecological and health detriments.

The importance of building materials goes beyond their physical attributes; they represent the soul of a nation, its past decisions, and its future direction. In this crucial moment, our traditional use of mud in construction—an eco-friendly choice with minimal processing needs—stands not just as a preference but as an imperative.

Mud, as a building material, is inherently aligned with the bio-regional context of Bhutan. It is locally sourced, reducing the environmental impact associated with transportation, and it complements the natural climatic conditions by providing excellent thermal mass that keeps buildings cool in summer and warm in winter. This starkly contrasts with cement, which contributes significantly to global CO2 emissions—accounting for approximately 8% as reported by the Chatham House. In stark contrast, mud offers an environmentally benign alternative, crucial for sustainable development amidst the escalating crisis of global warming.

Moreover, the health hazards posed by cement are alarming. The prevalence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in cement-based constructions contributes to a spectrum of health issues, from respiratory ailments to cancer. Studies have shown that buildings constructed with cement can have increased levels of VOCs, which are linked to a variety of health issues, including respiratory problems and cancer. Our buildings shape our health as much as they shape our landscapes.

Furthermore, the vibrational qualities of mud—its ability to harmonize with the natural energies of the earth—offer profound spiritual and emotional benefits. As echoed in the philosophies of ancient civilizations, the materials we build with influence not just our physical health but our spiritual well-being. “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves,” Carl Jung once said. Mud invites us to play, to create spaces that are not only physically but spiritually nourishing. The material’s low vibrational disturbance creates what spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh describes as “spaces that are alive, that can breathe and that can speak to our souls.”

In essence, the impact of design on human progress cannot be overstated. Well-designed environments do more than fulfil basic needs; they enhance well-being, inspire tranquillity, and foster community. Mud, with its natural properties and aesthetic flexibility, allows for the creation of spaces that are not only functional but also spiritually and culturally resonant. This approach to design, which prioritizes human and environmental health, is essential as Bhutan navigates its developmental path.

To fully harness the benefits of mud as a primary building material, a revision of current building codes is essential. These codes must be adapted to support the unique properties of mud, ensuring that structures built with mud meet modern safety and durability standards while retaining their environmental and health benefits. “Incorporating traditional knowledge and modern engineering practices into our building codes can bridge the gap between the old and the new, making way for sustainable development that respects our heritage,” suggests an expert in sustainable architecture.

By revising these codes, we can create a regulatory framework that not only permits but encourages the use of mud, providing guidelines for its application in everything from residential buildings to public infrastructures. Such initiatives will require collaboration between architects, engineers, environmental scientists, and policymakers, ensuring that the new codes are both scientifically sound and culturally sensitive.

Economically, the allure of mud is not only practical but strategic. It nurtures local economies, reduces dependencies on volatile imports, and sustains traditional construction techniques that are pivotal for cultural preservation and local employment. Our investment in indigenous materials transcends mere construction; it is a commitment to nurturing a self-reliant economy and safeguarding our cultural legacy.

Perhaps most importantly, the use of mud as a primary building material aligns with Bhutan’s pioneering concept of Gross National Happiness. The rich countries of the world, with their skyscrapers and expressways, often register poverty in mental, physical, social, and emotional health — a result of poor environmental design. The face of Bhutan, as it steps into the developed world, should not be marred by the standard concrete jungles that symbolize development in the conventional sense. By shifting back to mud, we can reduce our ecological footprint, promote cultural heritage, enhance the health and well-being of our fellow family members and align construction practices with national values of sustainability and holistic development.

While the benefits are clear, the transition to mud from cement does come with challenges. Durability and modernization needs mean that mud construction techniques must evolve to meet contemporary standards without compromising the benefits. This can be achieved through innovative approaches to traditional methods, such as stabilized mud bricks and mud plasters, which have been shown to provide enhanced durability without sacrificing the environmental and health benefits of traditional mud.

The measure of our progress, should be aligned with the rhythm of the earth, not the ticking of the clock. The choice of building material is fundamentally a choice about what kind of world we want to live in. This view is supported by global thinkers like former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has emphasized the importance of sustainable building practices in combating climate change during his speeches on global development strategies.

This is a pivotal moment. The material choices we make today will define our tomorrow. As Bhutan rises, let it rise with the earth. Let it be known not for its fleeting embrace of concrete but for its steadfast commitment to sustainability and holistic prosperity. This period should be marked not by towering edifices of concrete but by a thoughtful, deliberate return to materials that embody sustainability and respect for heritage. This call to action urges a return to the soulful embrace of mud—a material that protects our future while honoring our past. Let us champion a development model that the world not only admires but seeks to emulate, one that proudly declares that in Bhutan, progress is measured by the happiness and health of its people as much as by its economic metrics.

Choosing mud over cement is not just a practical decision; it is a moral imperative, a bold statement to the world that Bhutan will continue to lead with wisdom, vision, and an unwavering commitment to the principles of Gross National Happiness. This choice is an opportunity to redefine modernization, one that prioritizes ecological integrity, cultural continuity, and holistic well-being.

Contributed by 

Sneha and Ugma 

Sneha Poddar is a lead initiator of the planetary Omniverse Life Alliance, a Committee member at Global Soil Health Programme, a Research Fellow at GIOAS, Wawasan Open University, an Adjunct faculty member at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh and an Experience Designer at OmniPYua. 

Ugma Desai is an Ecological Designer and Creative Director at OmniPYua.