Working with Nature

A young architect couple, based in Pune, India, rewrites the rule book in sustainable architecture by experimenting and reviving materials used in age-old and time-tested local practices.

“Architects borrow from nature, the space upon which they build.”

So, said Tadao Ando. We have seen architects who respect nature and build structures that pay homage to the landscape while we also see ones who build nature-defying structures that rise up in stark contrast to the landscape around. Every structure has a need to fulfil, and it is mostly the clients’ prerequisite that sets the dialogue of the building. There are few architects in the melee of designers who set the tone for the buildings they create. Architects who have decided their course of action. To build in tandem with nature; build as sustainably as possible in their current natural setting.

A young architect couple, Dhruvang Hingmire and Priyanka Gunjikar, who graduated five years ago from the Rachana Sansad Academy of Architecture, Dadar have decided to take this road less travelled. They have taken up the burden of building consciously and cautiously in this age of signature architecture. Their five-year-old practice is not a mindless compilation of designs and contacts, or cash amassed but a thought-provoking coming together of few like-minded clients who want to build structures that put a minimum strain on the existing ecological balance.

One of their recent projects in Kamshet - Dhruvang Hingmire  Priyanka Gunjika

The exterior of a house the couple built in Kamshet, near Pune, Maharashtra.

Their sensitivity towards the built form and to nature was evoked by one of their professors, Malaksingh Gill, a senior architect, who believed in eco-friendly, culture-sensitive architecture. The two architects were influenced greatly by their teacher who himself was a follower of the Laurie Baker school of architecture principles.

Using burnt bricks in the construction of the arches

During their fourth year of college, Dhruvang’s batch had visited a small village in Satara to explore local housing where the local womenfolk-built houses using mud and cow-dung in an area that was water scarce. The warmth and the hospitality offered by the local women in the face of water scarcity and poverty touched a chord and Dhruvang made a tough decision at this moment.

” I no longer wanted to sit in an airconditioned office and make drawings and sketches on a computer, disconnected with reality. I wanted to connect people to their roots,” he said.

That set the tone for the architects’ practice. The couple uses lime and mud, stone and bricks, traditional labour and locally available resources to build homes.

“It is a conscious decision we have taken in our lives. We do not want to face the brunt of commercialism or fall prey to consumerism; we have decided to live simply and give back to the community. Due to the amount of time we spend on research and education of the locals on the techniques and processes, we can afford to work only on four to five projects a year,” he says.

Kamshet house interior

The interesting use of perforations, mud, stones, and wood allows natural light to enter the house and keep it cooler.

While one might have reservations of their intentions, the couple knows where they want to be in the future.

“We want to reduce our cost of living by moving away from the city, to the outskirts of Pune, and thus reduce our needs. Live more closely to nature and farm whatever we need.

SCALE had a conversation with Dhruvang to know more about this architects’ unworldly yet much grounded architectural pursuits.

“We believe that the success of our work is when people look at our building and say that they had a part to play in building it”

SALE: How and what inspired you in this journey of sustainable architecture. Was it challenging to pursue this form of architecture at the beginning of your career?

We were inspired by our Professor Malaksingh in our college. Of course, there was a lot of resistance from some of the other faculty itself when we did our projects, but because of pioneers in the field like Laurie Becker and even this professor of ours, we did not have to struggle as much to convince people. People had already started to hear about eco-friendly architecture and some were even intrigued by it.

SCALE: How about your clients? Who are the clients who approach you?

We have been very fortunate. Our practice has grown only through word of mouth and our clients come to us on the basis of the recommendation by others who have seen or experienced the way we build and design. We started out with a friend who wanted to build a farmhouse on the outskirts of the city. The rest of them came to us because they wanted to build a house like the ones we have built.

SCALE: What have you learned from your experience working with available resources?

We first do a site recce of the project that we have signed up. A good survey of the local soil and the materials found around the place is the first step. We then look at the traditional architecture of that place and find out if there is any relevant practice that we can imbibe into our own methods of construction. After these observations, we have come to use burnt bricks and mud architecture in our construction. But after a few studies, we have also realised that the large-scale emission of the black smoke from the burners of brick kilns has been causing environmental pollution in almost all the urban and rural areas thereby increasing health risks in the region. So, we are now moving on to using sun-dried bricks or Adobe and we are constantly researching to find the best ways to use them. No compromise is made on the strength or ways of maintenance on any product that we try. We recently eliminated the use of sand completely from our projects and substituted it with Surkhi, which is the waste or powder that comes out of brick. It is mixed with lime and used in our construction.

SCALE: Who is your inspiration?

Other than our professor in college, the biggest inspiration for me is Didi Contractor who has been passionately implementing her architectural visions in the North West of India, the Kangra Valley, at the foothills of the Himalayas combining rural traditions with modern requirements. She builds houses from clay, bamboo, slate and river stone, constructed in tribute to their natural surroundings. At the age of 86, Didi Contractor pursues her vision working day and night – dreaming her designs and then designing for economically and ecologically sustainable, bright and well-ventilated buildings. She is a living legend and is synonymous for building with mud in the North.

Biju Bhaskar is another architect from the South of India who had influenced me. Biju is the creator of Thannal, a natural building awareness group based in Tiruvannamalai who experiments with low embodied energy materials and low-tech appropriate technologies. They also conduct numerous workshops to spread their research and we have also attended their workshops to be aware of their good practices. There are numerous such architects around India, who are working on this concept of reducing the dependence on energy-intensive building materials and using more natural materials like mud, bamboo, and stone.

Another inspiration is Ecological society based in Pune, founded by eminent ecologist late Dr. Prakash Gole. We have completed a one-year interdisciplinary course on Natural resources management, conservation, and restoration conducted by the Ecological Society. This course has truly shaped our understanding of the environment and needs to contribute towards a sustainable future.

SCALE: What would the choice of materials to use for construction be, if you were a practicing architect in the Middle East?

Mud, definitely. It is available everywhere and has been used in construction from times immemorable. Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy built an adobe building in the 1930s and he was convinced that buildings designed with traditional methods appropriate to the climate of the area would speak louder than words.

SCALE: What do you have to say about signature architecture that is now very popular in developed countries and also in the Middle East?

We don’t believe in the signature style of architecture. There are two different styles of architecture; both starkly different from one another, one that stands out and grabs the attention of the onlookers, while the other is the kind of architecture which follows the traditional wisdom that has stood the test of time, that blends with the surrounding. We believe that the success of our work is when people look at our buildings and say that they have had a part to play in building it.

SCALE: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Here and hopefully, doing what we are doing now.

Ongoing project near Chakan

Dhruvang Hingmire & Priyanka Gunjika Wooden House

Another project that describes the couple’s architecture aspirations

Kamshet house attic space

Attic space within the Kamshet house, a recently completed project

The interiors of the Kamshet house – Dhruvang Hingmire, Priyanka Gunjika