GREEN WAYS(Above) Romaine, and her house made of recycled plastic bottles.
Romaine San Francesco of the Samarpan Foundation on the wondrous possibilities of building with waste
The place is somewhere near Puzhal lake. A few kilometres beyond Red Hills, we take a turn into village roads, an area without name boards. But driver Narayanan has no problem taking me to Samarpan, an eco-farm in Sarathu Kandigai village, Pammadukulam Panchayat, Ambattur Taluk. We reach the gate, drive past tall water towers to stop in front of a striking yellow house with a front verandah. Saying that it stands out — in that landscape of trees, saplings, open areas, earth mounds, plastic bottles and farm birds — is an understatement. And Romaine San Francesco, its frail-looking owner, could be the wood nymph.
We walk into her breezy living room. “We are standing on a raised platform of plastic bottles,” she says, making me jump. “The pre-fab house came in sections (roof, walls, steel-grids for roof and walls) on a truck from New Delhi, and a technical “threesome” grouted and assembled the house in three days.” I stamp my foot, and she laughs. “These houses are sturdy, insulated and cool. They can withstand high-velocity winds from the lake.”
We need to go back a little in time. In October last, the lease on her Red Hills Forest Nursery was withdrawn as the owner decided to sell it. “Fortunately, we had a lease for a neighbouring farm, on which Samarpan Foundation (SF) was constructing a Women’s Empowerment Centre with plastic bottles.” As Patrick San Francesco, Founder/Chairman, sketched a floor plan for the buildings and nursery on the new farm, SF volunteers rushed in to procure materials and plan electrical systems. Kind-hearted neighbours pitched in with workers, construction material and rubble for the road. “The Red Hills traders supplied us with electrical hardware on deferred payment. The Panchayat heads brought vans/tractors to shift saplings, soil, manure and nursery equipment.”
In 90 days, Romaine had warehouses, living quarters and irrigation systems. Some 20,000 saplings and over one lakh empty bottles had been transported. Her eco-projects had been reassembled on the new farm. Magical, she says, the way barren land was transformed into an ecological outdoor lab in 90 days.
On the old farm, Samarpan had a greenhouse built entirely out of used bottles, tightly packed with waste and mud. Nylon-6 fishnet formed the substitute for steel in the RCC roof. It also encompassed the building from the foundation, she said, interlocking with the bottle caps along walls, and passing through the ceiling. “Our free bottles-and-Nylon-6-fishnet hospital in the Sundarbans benefits 96,000 inhabitants, who otherwise have no access to medical aid.”
Her bottle-house model has passed the “shake-table” test (up to 1G on the Richter Scale) at the Central Structural Institute of Research-SERC, Taramani, making it earthquake-proof. “‘Bottle bricks’ are reusable; the parking area on the farm is laid over ‘bottle-brick’ debris. In fact, her home is a model for building with waste material. “You can construct houses cheap and strong,” she says.
You’ve chosen Chennai to work in, I remark. “I’m a Chennai girl,” she counters, “I did a PG degree in Public Administration at St. Aloysius. My love of Nature comes from my grandma, who would say, ‘If you don’t love trees, you can never love anything’.” “Our message for Chennai is on our logo: Love, peace, happiness, kindness. We aren’t helping; just doing what needs to be done.”
She has grown “all kinds of” saplings from seeds she collects, has found a way to grow mangrove trees in her backyard, prepared solutions for Chennai’s water shortage and flooding, developed a mosquito-eradication programme using herbal pesticide, and installed bottle benches/structures in several places. She lectures educational institutions, corporates and hotels on clean-environment awareness, helps with construction of rain-water-harvesting trenches, and does workshops on the plastic bottle wonder.
She is now greening the 14 villages in her Panchayat. “Our aim is to green the city,” she says.
Call: 08939929678 / 09823529678 or log on to http://www.samarpanfoundation.org
My love of Nature comes from my grandma, who would say, “If you don’t love trees, you can never love anything. – Romaine San Francesco