Going Green

February, 2014


Architect Sanjay Prakash, the force behind SHiFt: Studio for Habitat Futures Architects and Engineers, talks about how architecture can remain environmentally relevant in modern times.

As Principal Consultant of his design firm, SHiFt: Studio for Habitat Futures Architects and Engineers Private Limited, Architect Sanjay Prakash´s work rests on the pillars of energy-consciousness, eco-friendly design, people´s participation in planning, music and production design, and 32 years of research and experience. He explains to PRAACHI RANIWALA how green architecture gives one the satisfaction of being a part of creating ĉlives well lived´.

What is your definition of design?
Design is the conception, description and execution of objects and systems that satisfy various needs. My definition of good design, however, would be that these objects and systems be simple, well-considered, affordĦable, energy efficient, water conserving, and healthy.

Innovative structures with an eco-friendly heart are at the core of all your designs. How do you achieve this balance?
If you strive for an eco-friendly heart, innovation automatically follows! But in our practice, the best work comes out of resource constraints constraints of space, weight, energy, water, money and skills. Architecture without constraints is not architecture at all. Constraints give us the opportunity to do more with less.

Our team uses a variety of methods to achieve this collaborative design, including conducting charrettes leading inter-disciplinary work, computer-aided design and participatory and environmental theatre are some of the social and cultural methods we apply. Technically, we turn to shuttering-free domes and vaults, arch making, assisted and natural cross ventilation, stack effect, evaporative and indirect evaporative cooĦling, low-capacity chilled water central AC systems, rainfall harvesting, water treatment and recycling, day-lighting, low energy lighting and so on.

The materials that come to our aid include earth construction (I have built in adobe, compressed soil block, and have co-designed the Balram block press), ferro-cement and micro-concrete, bamboo floors, structural bamboo (with steel and cement grout joints), recycled materials, vegetation on building (green walls, roofs, dome) and low energy materials, among others.

How did this concept come about?
It wasn´t conscious. I have always been interested in how much we can do with how little, in innovation and technology, and in simple, logical choices. Therefore, this was the natural way of design for me. I have been doing this since the 1980s. My interest in green architecture happened during college. I was impressed by the social-technological direction shown by early writers in environment and appropriate technology, such as Rachel Carson and E H Schumacher, and these resonated well with a modernised Gandhian world-view.

Give us some examples of how you remain energy efficient and eco friendly?
One example would be the T-Zed housing development for Biodiversity Conservation (India) Limited, Bengaluru a complex of luxury houses for a private developer, with near-autonomous state-of-the-art energy, water and recycling systems. This includes water recycling and conservation, decentralised waste-water bio-treatment, solar hot water, central thermal energy-conserving air-conditioning and refrigeration, electrical load optimisation, low embodied energy materials including soil blocks, and eco-friendly infrastructure development, all trying to achieve a sense of the ´housing of the future´. This project became the first IGBC platinum-certified Green Homes project, though it wasn´t designed for that certification.

The office campus for Agilent Technologies, Manesar, is an extreme energy and water conserving office for a leading global instrumentation corporation. It uses highly energy efficient HVAC systems, rainfall harvesting, water recycling, daylight harnessing and low-energy task lighting. It is future-ready for captive gas co-generation and demonstrates the future of ecologically appropriate office architecture in continental tropical climates. It proves that we can manage with less than half the water and air conditioning typically consumed in our offices.

Another example is two luxury wildlife resorts for Taj Safaris (a joint venture of Conservation Corporation of Africa, now called &Beyond, with the Taj Group), at Kanha and Panna, use nearly one-fifth the amount of energy as compared to equivalent resorts without affecting the guest experience. This is achieved by way of double-skinned tents with fogging systems for cooling and floor heating for warmth in one, and stone cottages with upgraded local technology, materials and gas heating in the other. Both resorts retain natural vegetation and drainage with check dams.

What are the most noteworthy projects you are working on? Which ones are closest to your heart?
That would have to be the master plan for the Indian Institute of Technology, Jodhpur, on a large site near Jodhpur. This unique master plan conceptualises the workings of all parts of the campus as an interlocking, integral network of complex dynamic systems like the metabolism of a living organism. This meta-system shall be actively studied and monitored (partly to generate intelligent control instructions and partly to mine data) and in that sense is a settlement evolving through trials and tests, a ´living laboratory´ if you may call it. The ideas for this ´Smart Intelligent Eco-campus´ encompass the ideals of social, economic and environmental sustainability, and inteĦgrate aspects of landscape and biodiversity, food, water, waste, solid waste, mobility, energy and ICT to create an intricate life-like system of campus metabolism. Working with net-zero energy, near-zero water and waste, and with urban agriculture and emissions-free mobility, is a challenge that I have been working on since the 1970s. Its first amateurish design manifestation was when I put together an eco-farm hospitality project (an unknown building type in the late RS.70s) in Haryana for my undergraduate thesis. A grueling national competition for an eco-campus in Vadodara (for the Gujarat Energy Development Agency) 10 years later created the opportunity for us to set out the theoretical underpinnings of the dynamic systems that would animate such designs. This never went into implementation due to land issues. Doing a full-blown version of such a project 20 years later is extremely challenging and satisfying.

Besides this, every project has its excitement and challenges, be it resort hotels, residences like the ones we are doing in DLF Gurgaon, or education campuses like that for the Scindia School in Gwalior and Pragyan School in Noida. Besides architecture, I am also associated with progressive school and college education, I advise various governĦment and NGO groups, and am a member of international environment think tanks.

What is your message to aspiring architects out there?
Firstly, look at the environment as something that is a part of, and not opposed to, society and economics. Secondly, do not take demand or consumption as a given; question its quality and quantity. Thirdly, try to internalise the negative outcomes of a project. Either avoid exploiting, or pay for using common resources (like fresh air and clean water). You can´t get something from nothing. And finally, understand that a sustainable world begins with a sustainable lifestyle and that it implies starting with you, here and now. We can all do our bit without waiting for some magic technology to do it for us.

Sanjay Prakash