When we started travelling in the Himalayas most houses we saw were lovely wood-frame structures such as the one shown above. It was fascinating to see one being built. A wooden frame would be erected over a mud or concrete base. Then bamboo mats would be nailed on to the frame. These would get a thick coating of clay. The clay took some time to dry, but then it would hold colours beautifully. The example in the photo above, which was taken outside Pelling, is true in all respects but one: it is built on the level of the road. Traditional houses would leap out over the valley. If you passed by on the road you would only see the top level; on the slope below there could be more levels not visible from the road.
Another traditional method of construction was the wooden cabin. This was less common. I believe the cost was what prevented this style from proliferating. The wood-frame and mat construction was clearly cheaper. I don’t know which is warmer.Heating was usually provided by the a wood-stove burning away in the house; the belly of the stove and the chimney act as radiators. We had stayed in such a house in northern Bhutan in early spring once, and through the night the wind blew through cracks between planks. So my guess is that the mat-and-mud houses would be warmer. The wooden cabin in the photo above is part of a tea house near Tashiding monastery, which is suspended above a valley. The view out of the windows is spectacular.
These traditional houses are slowly being replaced by concrete and brick constructions. The photo above was taken outside Ravangla. The location and plan of this building is very classic. From the road you see only the roof, which now serves as a garage. The house itself is in several storeys below the level of the road. Each floor is set into the hillside, and has spectacular views. The change in construction materials is due to two reasons. One reason we heard several times is that after the earthquakes in the last decade, people feel safer in concrete houses. The second is that with increasing prosperity families are able to afford the materials which are trucked up from the plains.
Then there are the controversial houses which would not look out of place on the plains, but seem very ostentatious in the mountains. They perch on land next to the road. Just the situation on premium land tells you of the money that has gone into the house. Then you notice the multiple doors and windows and wonder how the house will be heated in winter. The answer is electrical heating. In this part of Sikkim power is plentiful, so this works. Interestingly, the house shown above is a mixture of styles. It has two stories above the level of the road and two more below it, spilling down the slope in the old style. It is a really big house.