From a Sustainable Life to a Sustainable Home: Design Jatra

Founded by Shardul Patil, Vinita Kaur M. Chiragia and Pratik Dhanmer, Design Jatra is an award-winning firm that encompasses the truest essence of architectural practice that goes beyond buildings. By Aishwarya Kulkarni

“If you want to live in a sustainable house, your lifestyle needs to be sustainable first,” says Pratik Dhamer, the co-founder of Design Jatra, a socio-architectural practice experimenting with vernacular architecture that caters to modern needs, in India. Founded by Shardul Patil, Vinita Kaur M. Chiragia and Pratik Dhanmer, Design Jatra is an award-winning firm that encompasses the truest essence of architectural practice that goes beyond mere buildings.

The first mud and brick house designed by Design Jatra, affectionately called ‘Mati cha bangla’ (The house of mud) by locals.

The inception of Design Jatra was an organic process that began in 2013, with Shardul wanting to build a mud house for his family. As the trio brainstormed the details with their mentor, Malak Singh Gill, they realized that they already had a deep understanding of indigenous construction techniques that was embedded in their mind subconsciously – nurtured by their upbringing in the village.

As they began the process of building his mud house, they visited villages in Palghar and Thane districts near Mumbai to deepen their technical knowledge of vernacular architecture.

The team travelled to document vernacular houses at the grassroots level.

Travelling in remote villages, they were welcomed warmly by the locals, and they stayed with them to document their traditional houses. This first-hand experience helped them construct their first project, Shardul’s mud house, affectionately called ‘Mati cha bangla’ (The house of mud) by locals. Its popularity soared, drawing visitors from neighboring villages and the house becoming a tourist attraction. Soon after, a news channel featured it, sparking inquiries from across the country for construction of mud houses. Initially, it was a group of friends pursuing their passion for construction, but this marked the official beginning of Design Jatra. Working closely with the community, utilizing local knowledge and resources, provided the co-founders with a platform to fuel their shared love for indigenous design.

Team Design Jatra: Vinita Kaur M. Chiragia (left), Shardul Patil (standing) and Pratik Dhanmer (right)

SCALE conversed with Pratik Dhanmer, one of the co-founders, to understand the idiosyncrasies behind this sustainable practice.

SCALE: You have often spoken about how Architecture is an interdisciplinary subject, and the context and community is an integral part of it. How was the initiative of ‘Tokar Bamboo Eco-Art’ a testament to it?

Design Jatra team enabling the youth from surrounding communities to create useful bamboo products.

Pratik Dhanmer: Having lived in Mumbai for long, leaving the city behind was a deeply personal decision, one prompted by a soul-searching quest to find meaning in life. As I moved to Veti-Murubad, a quaint village nestled in Dahanu, Mumbai, I saw how intrinsically sustainable architecture and sustainable lifestyle choices are linked.

In the coming years, I realised that true sustainability extends beyond farming practices; it hinges on fostering symbiotic relationships with the local community. This realisation prompted a shift towards embracing the ‘gift economy culture’, where mutual support and reciprocity form the bedrock of communal well-being. That sparked the creation of ‘Tokar Bamboo Eco-Art’, a social enterprise of youth creating bamboo products.

A pen-holder designed by Tokar Bamboo Eco-Art

Living with the indigenous Warli tribe, we saw how the youth were attracted to the city, and often succumbed to distressed migration, especially during the pandemic.

A bamboo pouch designed by Tokar Bamboo Eco-Art

These tribes have an innately creative eye, and are known to have a proficiency in painting bamboo craftsmanship. This sparked the idea of leveraging their skills and creating an enterprise for bamboo-based products.

A bamboo stationery holder, design especially for architects and architecture students

These primarily targeted architects, and catered to their love of stationary with stationary items. The success of these products helped the youth earn while staying in the village, refine their craftsmanship, while fostering a sense of pride and ownership within the village.

SCALE: With the architectural pedagogy in India focusing more on the ‘mainstream’ architecture of steel and concrete today, why do you think it is important to spread more awareness about the traditional vernacular practices as well?

Design Jatra conducts workshops that enables students and architects to practise vernacular design practices with theoretical and on-ground experience

Pratik: I believe that the new generation of architects and architecture students is increasingly getting exposed, and gravitating towards vernacular practices. A decade ago, resources for learning about such practices were scarce, but now, many educational institutions provide this exposure. However, it has yet to become mainstream.

While there’s a growing focus on environmentally conscious design, it often revolves around achieving high energy-saving ratings rather than practicality. Nonetheless, there’s a rising awareness, and Design Jatra, in collaboration with various colleges, is actively contributing to education in this area. Given the changing climate, it’s crucial for us to spread awareness among young architects.

The design approach lies in integrating the nature by creating semi-open spaces like verandas, outdoor seating, etc.

Today we are proud to have established a community of architects dedicated to vernacular architecture, where we periodically meet to discuss and address relevant questions that affect our built environment.

We also hold workshops for students and architects to learn and get a theoretical and hands-on experience of building with traditional materials. In recent years, we have adapted ourselves to use Social Media as a platform to explain these concepts and techniques through visually-attractive and easy methods.

Integrating traditional furniture pieces, like a rocking chair accentuates the space.

Didi Contractor used to emphasise the relevance of vernacular architecture – that it is shaped by centuries of trial and error, and ingrained in our evolutionary process. People often reminisce, and get nostalgic about their ancestral homes, connecting deeply with elements like sloping roofs, verandas, or swings, highlighting the subconscious association we have with these spaces.

The artisans involved in construction are mostly locals who are endowed with traditional, and contextual building practices

It’s heartening when people express a desire to incorporate traditional elements while building a new house, as it helps us manifest their appreciation for heritage and wisdom. Moreover, these projects contribute to the local economy by employing village masons instead of relying on large corporations, thereby revitalising the local community.

SCALE: How important is the role of local governance in designing the process of our built environment?

Design Jatra conducts workshops that enables students and architects to practise vernacular design practices with theoretical and on-ground experience.

Pratik: While speaking with a young man from our village one evening, we had a very interesting revelation. When we asked him why he, and many others, preferred cement houses over traditional ones, he said “I won’t be suitable for marriage if I live in a mud house,”.

This revealed a deep-seated societal perception – that mud houses are a reflection of poor financial status – which extended beyond architecture. Addressing this required more than architectural solutions; it meant understanding and tackling broader community issues. As architects, we often fail to recognise the socio-economic issues a community, especially in the rural context, might face; that architecture ranks low among pressing concerns like food and shelter insecurities. And even though architecture cannot directly solve financial issues, we, as architects, can assess an ecosystem to find loopholes that prevent economic growth.

In our context, we realised that the main threat to sustainability lies in the lack of sustainable governance, despite ample funds allocated for village development.

Many of these funds are reserved for circulation to local contractors for construction work. A breach of this system was seen in our district during the COVID-19 pandemic when discussions on governance revealed widespread misuse of laws and funds. We realised that the youth were not aware of the corruption due to a lack of awareness about local governance.

Numerous workshops, with a hands-on approach, were conducted for generating awareness about local governance

Recognising the need for change, we focused on empowering local governing bodies like the Gram Panchayat and Gram Sabha. We conducted sessions daily to educate youngsters on relevant laws. Support from organizations like ‘Vayam’ aided legal understanding and activism, leading to over 40 RTIs filed to uncover corruption, exposing misappropriated funds of nearly 60 lakh rupees.

Meetings with Gram Panchayat for decisions regarding the village’s local governance

This spurred youth empowerment and a prolonged fight for accountability. By challenging corrupt practices and promoting local involvement in projects, we improved the quality of construction by disbursing funds to local contractors, and reduced migration by employing local youth.

As a professional, I believe in utilising my skills to contribute to community self-development in fields that are not directly linked to architecture only. I take pride in Design Jatra’s role as a catalyst for positive change, and believe that an empowered community makes the backbone of a strong, and sustainable economy.

SCALE: What is the Seed Conservation Initiative started by Design Jatra?

Pratik: While we romanticise living in vernacular houses, we would be living in oblivion if we didn’t address the reasons why the world is shifting to concrete buildings. Traditional houses require a lot of indigenous materials like timber, stone, limestone, and slated tiles which most villages don’t have in sufficient supply.

Recognising the depletion of resources, we proposed increasing forestation. However, the community pointed out that they are currently struggling to meet immediate food needs, and planting trees that would benefit us years later seemed impractical to them – and rightly so.

Meetings with the community for knowledge-sharing while building the Seed Initiative

Through further discussions, we discovered that farming, the only activity that unites the whole village, is financially unsustainable. For instance, farmers are receiving less than 8 rupees per kilogram for their seeds, despite spending heavily on chemical fertilizers, which degrade the land.

Design Jatra team Planting native rice species with the villagers

Drying the native rice species

This realisation led us to meet numerous farmers, including Sanjay Patil, known to have conserved over 400 native rice species. Through him, we were amazed to learn about the existence of so many rice varieties. Sanjay provided us with 56 species to experiment with, and after planting these seeds, we witnessed a remarkable diversity of rice. The villagers were astonished to see varieties they had thought extinct. This inspired us to create a seed bank to conserve these seeds.

We established a system where anyone borrowing seeds would return double the amount the following year. Now, we grow native, organically cultivated rice. As the surrounding markets recognized the value of our rice, it strengthened the financial ecosystem. Since then, many young villagers have started taking seeds from the bank, learning about the selling process, and engaging in marketing.

Students learning how to build a Wattle and daub wall at Design Jatra’s workshop

This way, we were able to strengthen the communities’ basic needs by prioritising them. The next step was then to focus on their built environment.

SCALE: How can the principles of vernacular architecture be used for a sustainable urban living?

Pratik: In the 2011 census of Mumbai, some surprising facts emerged. It revealed that over 1.8 million apartments in Mumbai were vacant because they were bought as investments and not rented out. Additionally, it highlighted a stark contrast in land usage – 51% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums that occupy just 7% of the land, while the remaining 49% of the population lives on 93% of the land!

A vernacular house with a farm to support the family’s food needs, around it

Slums, despite their challenges, present a unique form of space management. People live and work in close proximity, creating a harmonious and sustainable lifestyle. Architect Ashok Lall, during his presentation at the 361 Degree Conference, shared some intriguing insights.

He explained that a 1,000 square foot single-story building might require resources equivalent to one acre of land. However, as buildings grow taller, the resource demand increases exponentially. According to him, this inefficient land usage stems from our greed, leading to unhealthy economics and unsustainable construction practices.

The interior project in Mumbai by Design Jatra

Building with traditional materials like mud and lime becomes impractical in cities due to the distance from resource sources. Therefore, urban areas require innovative approaches to sustainability. In one of our interior projects in Mumbai, we reused materials extensively. We avoided false ceilings, removed walls, and used granite for surfaces.

We bypassed modern materials like gypsum boards, vitrified tiles, and new plywood. Instead, we sourced wood from a ship-breaking yard, which was over 50 years old, achieving a carbon-zero footprint. Stone floors and walls kept the space cool, reducing the need for air conditioning.

Even without fans or AC, the temperature difference between our project and adjacent flats was about 10 degrees. The space was designed so that ample natural light eliminated the need for daytime lighting. These innovative ideas demonstrated that sustainability is achievable in urban environments as well.

The interior project in Mumbai by Design Jatra

However, applying traditional, vernacular building methods to city projects is challenging. In villages, materials like wood, cow dung, and lime are locally sourced and free. Villagers often help each other build houses in a reciprocal system, making labor cost-free. This communal support system allows one person to own multiple houses. Understanding this economic and sustainable model is crucial. The gift economy, where services are exchanged for goods like honey or grains, works beautifully in villages and can be harnessed in urban projects.

The interior project in Mumbai allows ample sunlight during daytime to reduce dependence on lighting

At Design Jatra, we embrace this philosophy. We often charge clients in kind, accepting honey or grains as payment. This approach aligns with the communal and sustainable practices that have thrived in villages for generations. By integrating these principles, we believe that cities can also achieve a more sustainable and balanced future.

Use of earthy tones and materials.

SCALE: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your practice?

Pratik: There are numerous challenges in the field of sustainable and vernacular architecture. One significant challenge is client awareness. Many clients seek the aesthetic appeal of an “eco-home” without understanding the maintenance requirements. This necessitates extensive counselling to ensure they understand and accept the implications of building a mud house.Reviving traditional skills in villages takes considerable time. We inform our clients that we train local artisans, which is a gradual process. Building with vernacular methods, unlike cement construction, is time-consuming. To create a healthy home, one must be patient.

A contemporary aesthetic achieved by using natural materials in ‘Pradhan Villa’

Another common misconception is that mud houses are the cheapest option. In reality, reinforced concrete (RCC) was introduced to India by the British for affordable housing. Traditional materials were historically considered luxurious. While it is possible to build low-cost houses with natural materials, it requires a lifestyle change, as these homes are raw and need regular maintenance, for instance, re-plastering with cow dung. This means keeping a cow, which adds to the maintenance despite lower initial costs.

Trunanubandh’ experiments with bricks to create a striking visual appeal

There are also misconceptions about the durability of mud houses, with many believing they will wash away. This is unfounded, as there are 300-400-year-old mud houses still standing today. Addressing these misconceptions is one of the biggest challenges we face. Each new house we build presents a unique set of tasks and obstacles to overcome.

Brian and Madhu’s home by Design Jatra

SCALE: ‘Sustainability’ has become a very loosely used term today. What does sustainability mean to Design Jatra?

‘Terra’ uses a range of natural materials to create a sustainable, and aesthetically cohesive residence

Pratik: The term “sustainability” has become rather overused and misunderstood. In our opinion, true sustainability encompasses multiple layers – economic, environmental, social, and ecological. Each project must be thus evaluated to identify its specific purpose and impact within these layers.

Take the architectural work of Laurie Baker, for instance. Although he didn’t build mud houses, his brick constructions are still considered sustainable because his techniques addressed the housing crisis at that time. He pioneered methods like the Rat Trap Bond and Filler slab, which standard practices used till date. These techniques were designed for mass use, making them highly sustainable by addressing multiple issues efficiently.

‘Meraki’ by Design Jatra

At Design Jatra, we evaluate all projects through these lenses of sustainability. We rigorously question our structures against all dimensions of sustainability to ensure they truly meet these criteria. As discussed before, one of our interior projects in Mumbai might seem less sustainable in the first glance, compared to our other projects. However, in the context of Mumbai’s interior design trends, it is actually quite sustainable. Here focused on reusing materials to maximise sustainability. We avoided false ceilings, removed unnecessary walls, and used granite stone, optimising space management to design small areas cost-effectively.

SCALE: Which is your favourite project / the project you enjoyed the most?

 Pratik: One project that is particularly dear to us is a house we built for a farmer in Palsunda. This low-cost, earthquake-resilient structure holds a special place in our hearts, especially because it was led by two women, Vinita and Anuradha, from our firm. Architecture often faces gender discrimination, with female architects struggling to be taken seriously by labourers on-site. We encountered this issue on the Palsunda project.

The Palsunda project

 The Palsunda project under construction led by the women architects of Design Jatra

To address this, Shardul and I decided to step back from the project, leaving the labourers no choice but to work with Vinita and Anuradha.

In a pioneering move, Vinita and Anuradha began hiring a significant number of women to build the house, resulting in a project with a majority female workforce. This project not only won a national award but also secured a government project for us. But the larger success was how it became a testament to breaking gender barriers in architecture.


Your mantra for life.

Pratik: Travel. As much as you can. Travelling, especially to the roots of India has exposed me to the immense wealth of knowledge that can be gained from the people and their architectural practices. India offers a vast landscape of diverse and rich traditions in architecture, and every young architect should experience this firsthand.

How can sketching be a strong medium for storytelling?

 Pratik: As a kid, I loved drawing. When I began studying architecture, I found immense inspiration in the works of Mario Miranda.

A detailed sketch by Pratik Dhanmer which shows the cultural intricacies of a rural ecosystem

I was captivated by his style and wondered how he created such starkly unique pieces. To understand his process, I started copying his art, which helped me develop my own style.

A sketch by Pratik Dhanmer

Even when making travel sketches, I capture elements that a camera cannot. Sketching allows me to convey the fourth dimension and the sixth sense, providing the freedom to express my thought process on paper. Both Shardul, Vinita, and I share a passion for sketching. Looking at my old architectural sketches often brings back memories of past discussions and experiences!

Your pastime? Hobbies/interests other than architecture?

 Pratik: I love playing cricket, and enjoy all kinds of outdoor games. I have recently started playing the flute and practising yoga. I love spending quality time with my family.

(All Images Courtesy of Design Jatra)