Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Week 0 - Week 23: Construction Update

We started construction in late January 2011 and are projecting a construction timeline of 12-14 months which according to most is very optimistic considering that we are not building using standard structural design, materials and details.

After careful research and consideration, we have put a team in place:

Architect: Rajiv D’Silva & Tallulah D’Silva, Architecture R/T
Contractor: Binod Arya & Ram Kishen, APBD Constructions
Site Supervisor: Manoj Shetgoankar

Along with these folks, we play the role of the Creative Director & Project Manager and being our own green consultants.

Most people would probably agree that there is no such thing as construction schedules in India. But being foreign-returned project managers, we have at countless occasions pushed for detailed schedules. But these  quickly get thrown out of the window due to religious holidays, strikes, weather and/ or personal events in individual’s extended families.

April 2011: Soon after pouring the first floor concrete slab for the right side bedroom
Early May 2011: Beginning shuttering for the main living room roof slab

Late May: After pouring concrete for the main living room roof slab and beginning excavation for pavilion block

End of June 2011: Raw living room space without shuttering
End of June 2011: Pavilion Block masonry up to sill level in the foreground

The biggest deadline that we were chasing since the start of the year was the expected start of monsoons in June. Goa receives 3000mm of rainfall every year and most of that rain in concentrated in the months from June- August. In Goa, ‘when it rains it pours’. This makes it nearly impossible to carry out construction activity in the open. It specially makes it difficult to do concrete work as it would not set due to the rains. So our aim was to have all our concreting work done before June along with the other wood and tile roofs. Then while it was raining outside then contractors would work indoors on the internal walls, plastering, woodwork, flooring, kitchens and bathrooms.

It was an ambitious plan and we nearly made it. We were able to finish all the concrete work for roof slabs but hit unexpected delays and have not yet completed our wood and tile roofs (that go over two bedrooms). The pavilion block (a two-story structure with the staff quarters below and the pool pavilion above) has only reached sill level (maybe 4’ from the ground). The delays were caused by:

1) Restriction by the Goa Government on extraction of sand from its rivers in May. The ripple effect was a transportation strike. The people against the imposed restrictions were not allowing any trucks with construction material to pass through. They were vandalizing the trucks, busting their tyres and not allowing them to move forward. The result of this was that no material could reach our site for almost 3-4 weeks.

2) Early in May one of our contractors, Ram Kishen met with a terrible accident. He was hit by a car while he was on his way back from a suppliers office. He had to be rushed to the hospital and needed immediate surgery. He is recovering now but must stay in the hospital for a total of 2-3 months. At that time his partner, Binod Arya was in Kolkata attending the funeral for one of his relatives and could not return to Goa to personally take over the sitework where Ram Kishen had left off. As a result no new item of work (such as wood and tile roofs, steel structure for pavilion block) could be started on-site.

3) Meanwhile, there was more material shortage once the rain started. The laterite stone (main local building material in Goa) suppliers were claiming that the quarries are filled with water and they could not quarry any more stone. My question – don’t they deal with this every year? They should know that the quarries will get filled with water and that the suppliers should stock up before the rains start? Apparently they do know that and as best business practice, they sell their stored supply of stone in black for many times the regular market cost....sigh...

But all is not lost. Our entire team has agreed to pull up their socks and work efficiently through the rains (as much is possible) and avoid future delays. What lies ahead is challenging. Completion of the civil work for the pavilion block would have typically taken 20 days but is now scheduled to be completed in a month and a half (projected deadline end of July) and the wood and tile roofs would take at least 3 weeks (projected deadline mid-July).

Fingers crossed with a game plan in place, we march ahead.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Design Concept II - Site planning

While planning for the house on-site, we were trying to balance two criteria:
-      -   To refrain from building one monolithic structure but take advantage of the entire site (1025 sq.m. in size) so the user can enjoy all open spaces within the site and to allow the site to become a part of the building.
-       -  To minimise the hard building footprint and reduce the pressure of new construction on site and its surroundings. This strategy would allow us to retain majority of the site’s natural landscape and topography.

In addition, we wanted to maximise views and provide for open spaces in the form of verandahs, balconies and courtyards to all rooms. We hoped to create a system of open spaces that were designed around the existing trees and topography on site. Most importantly, we wanted the open spaces to be intertwined with the built spaces.

Keeping all these aspects in mind, our resulting plan is comprised of a main house and a pavilion block. Together they form a ‘L-shaped’ house plan that is knit together with a series of courtyards that flow into each other. The central main courtyard of the house is planned around the two biggest existing trees onsite. These are full grown native trees that tower to a height of at least 10-12 meters providing an inviting entrance along with cool shade for the courtyard, entrance porch and decks in the bedrooms.

The main house is sited at the back of the site at the highest elevation (also, the highest point of the hill where the site is located). This allows for all the main living areas of the house to enjoy the best views of the entire expanse of the site and beyond. The main house has a central grand living space that is flanked by a bedroom on each side. The master bedroom alone occupies the first floor of the main house.
Proposed site plan
The two existing trees that are at the heart of the proposed building creating the central entrance courtyard 
Proposed view from the living space in the main house with the two big trees in foreground
Proposed view from a ground floor bedroom
The central living space is designed to be grand, inviting, open, and calm. It has a north-south orientation with two exposed basalt stone walls. The other two walls are all wood and glass that can completely open to transform the space into basically a covered courtyard connecting two open spaces. The living room has 17’ high ceiling furthering the feeling of the enclosed space being a part of the surrounding natural landscape. The front of the space opens to views of the entire site with the pool and deck along with the hills and vegetation beyond. This is also the main entrance to the house through a covered porch and the central courtyard with the two main trees.

Each bedroom in the main house is designed to be like a pavilion in the garden. Each bedroom has two solid stone walls to enable arrangement of furniture and once again two walls that open to the outside to make the room a part of the garden. All bathrooms have their own dedicated courtyards (balcony in the case of the master bedroom) with outdoor showers and baths.

The pavilion block is designed to be a light structure that is an extension of the house but is still more a part of the landscape on-site. The pavilion is meant to adapt itself based on the requirement of the owner of the house, season and time. It can function as a separate guest cottage with a bedroom, bathroom and covered sitting area; or an office, workshop, pavilion to the pool, or entertainment space.

The series of courtyards enclosed by the built structure also houses a swimming pool, pool deck and space for outside dining. Beyond these courtyards, the remaining site will be retained as open space with some turf but mostly native plants, fruiting and flowering trees.

Read more about us and our team.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Design Concept

This is a difficult post to write because I can go on and on about all the things that we are trying to achieve with the design of this house. But I will try my best to be concise yet comprehensive.

The core principle behind the design concept and decisions is ‘to be true to the place where we are building’. We asked ourselves this question: Why would a person choose to live in Goa (part-time or full-time)? We realized the underlying theme is because Goa allows a person to reconnect with nature. This aspect has since been central to our design concept.

In our proposed building design we have tried to minimise barriers between the built structure and nature. Each room has been designed such that it has an internal space (bedroom, living room, bathroom) and an external space (verandah, courtyard, balcony) that meets with the larger green open spaces on-site. Many walls dividing these internal and external spaces are designed to fold or slide to create a barrier free integration of inside and outside.
House in the Jungle in Brazil
The architectural style would probably be called ‘Tropical Contemporary’. It suggests a contemporary open plan layout where there is seamless interaction between the inside and outside. In addition, there is a focus on the use of local natural materials while integrating contemporary technology and design.

Furthermore, we realised that we must make every effort to preserve our reason for coming to Goa. Hence, we have resolved to try to keep our immediate site surroundings and Goa green, idyllic and free from the added pressures of development. How we do that is to commit to building a green building, by using local materials, reusing and recycling building material whenever possible, reducing waste, minimising energy use, storing and reusing rainwater, cleaning our grey water on-site and reducing the storm water runoff from our site.

We aim for our project to be responsive and responsible. 

My inspirations have been:

Architecture practice in Auroville where architects question all standard norms of construction to build in the most innovative and sustainable manner. I spent close to 4 months in Auroville while working at the Auroville Building Center as part of my architectural professional training in the year 2000. I remember attending a party at architect Anupama Kundoo’s house. I was blown away by how her house could completely open out to be a part of its landscape but at the same time she could easily close it up if she was heading out of town. It was the first place where I saw an open air shower bath and then a plunge pool on the terrace. Breeze blew through the entire house and one did not need even a fan on the warmest day or night. I loved the freedom and luxury it represented where one could sit, sleep, and bathe everything while enjoying an uninterrupted connection to nature. This was a truly unique experience for an urbanite; there were no neighbours, traffic noise, pollution, or congestion. This was a kind of architecture where your space and its experience changed with seasons as different trees around you would flower and fruit, migratory birds would join the local birds, frogs would appear in the monsoons and butterflies in spring. 

Anupama Kundoo House in Auroville
Along with the spatial innovations, at the Auroville Building Center we were building homes with mud excavated from the sites (hence not requiring new building material), straw and other renewable recycled materials like glass bottles, broken tiles, etc. There were also stepped pools in my backyard that organically filtered the water from the kitchen and bathroom. Communities generated power through the sun and wind. These were the innovations in Auroville almost 11 years back, probably it is time for a few of these to make their way to commercial construction, specially while building on Greenfield (i.e. virgin) sites in environmentally sensitive areas.
House for Pradeep Jayewardene in Mirissa, Sri Lanka by Geoffery Bawa
Geoffery Bawa – What I love about Bawa’s work is his understanding and use of local natural materials, the play of light in his buildings and the integration of open spaces in his designs. Bawa got the opportunity to work on some of the most beautiful sites in tropical Sri Lanka, its seafronts and lush green hills. The key element in his design has been to integrate his buildings with nature. The buildings were never meant to make an architectural statement but instead get lost in the landscape. His architecture was more about the outside than the inside. In urban areas, Bawa pioneered the courtyard house where the home and its living areas were arranged around internal courtyards instead of looking out onto noisy city streets. In suburban and rural sites, Bawa deconstructed the traditional courtyard home to create 'walls' and 'no walls' breaking the separation between inside and outside spaces, creating outdoor rooms and embracing the site's landscape.

House for Osmund and Ena de Silva, an urban courtyard house in Colombo by Geoffery Bawa
Bawa has influenced several architects in Goa, most notably Architect Gerard da Cunha and Dean D'Cruz. While in architecture school, I also had the chance to visit Goa and we visited many buildings built by these two leading architects. They left a firm impression on my mind. Gerard and Dean built in Goa while respecting the land and nature of Goa. It was legend among us students that these two architects many times did not do drawings but actually designed their buildings on-site while considering all the unique site features of orientation, wind direction, topography, views, trees and other vegetation. It presented a respect for the site and surroundings that I hope to embody in our designs. 

House designed by Dean D'Cruz 

Other leading architects in India have been following these principles of responsiveness to the site and surrounding and environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, this way of building has not found its way into commercial real estate development. Most commercial construction tends to play it safe, are afraid to experiment and therefore produce conventional buildings that look and feel the same regardless of their location and specific conditions. We hope to change that by raising the bar. Stay with us while we work on it.

Continue Reading: Design Concept II

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why New York and Goa ?

In September 2010, We moved to Goa after living in New York for 5 years and Boston before that for 2. This does not mean that we have left New York for good. That would be unthinkable. My husband and I want to live in both places.

To most people that sounds crazy and not 'something that one does'. To some extent they are right, we have picked 2 locations that couldn’t be further apart from each other but really it is not that bad. The 15 hour direct flight from New York to Mumbai helps...

I guess the next big question is why? My simple answer to most people is 'to build a house in Goa'. The longer and more insightful answer is complex. It is mainly driven by my training as an architect in India, a planner and real estate professional in the US and being passionate about the rapid development occurring in India.

I am an architect and planner. I left India in 2003 when the sharp upswing in India's development had just started. As a result, I have observed most new developments from afar while simultaneously studying and learning about the best and worst practices in city planning and real estate development around the world.  In all the years that have followed, I have brainstormed, researched and written about the many ways in which India has the potential to leapfrog to a new sustainable developed future nation, by learning from the past mistakes of the West (that they are struggling to correct like over-dependence on cars, urban sprawl, a highly energy dependent society, corporatization of food, and rich man’s diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart ailments). If India must mimic the West then we should mimic the future that the West is trying to create rather than the past that they are leaving behind.

These are interesting times in India. There are masses of consumers with increased spending power demanding new products. This is also a time where one can set standards and put forth products that become benchmarks for future developments.

As an observer of the real estate market in India, I have been shocked at how the sale prices have shot up to be directly comparable to other ‘hot’ and ‘desired’ real estate markets in the world but the quality has remained very much what it was in the last century. Home owners still complain of cheap quality of construction, water seepage, floods, termites, high energy use, worsening micro-climate, loss of green cover, unplanned parking and zero space for recreation.

These observations are ofcourse not new and not just mine alone. There is a large community of thought leaders in India and abroad who know and advocate similar thoughts and principles. The problem in my mind is that the folks actually implementing development works are not actively engaged with the thought leaders. Most implementers are thinking short term and not changing their ideology and processes based on a long term view of sustainable development. In commercial real estate development in India, most developers are so busy profiting from the surge in demand that they see no incentive in changing their age old business models and construction practice.

Among global consumption of resources, buildings account for: 20% of water use; 25-40% of energy use; 30-40% of solid waste generation; 30-40% GHG emissions; and 40% - use of raw materials.[1] This statistic alone proves how important the building sector is and why construction is a big responsibility.

I find it frustrating to see that most intellectual talent who claim to know how to do things right are completely removed from all commercial building activity. I get frustrated when great ideas stay on the drawing board because there is a divide and a feeling of distrust among intellectual and commercial sector. I want to take the great ideas and build them. I hope to show that attention to good architecture and high quality construction is needed and that consumers deserve better.

While building a house in Goa, we will utilize principles of good architecture, sustainability and high quality construction to build a home that we will then sell in the mass market. The idea to build responsibly and create a model in real estate development that is responsible, innovative yet economically feasible.

This is an effort to offer new and better alternatives to the innovators, visionaries and leaders of the new sustainable future India.

Along the way we are learning new ways of living and building in lovely Goa, while getting inspired and motivated in amazing New York City.

[1] (Source:  The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, UNEP, OECD)


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