Circular Buildings with Shefali Balwani

Shefali Balwani is a practising architect and founder principal and director of Architecture BRIO. Born in Mumbai, she studied at the renowned School of Architecture C.E.P.T. in Ahmedabad. She met her partner Robert Verrijt while on an exchange program at the TUDelft in the Netherlands. After graduating, they both practised in Chana Daswatte’s Studio in Sri Lanka to experience and get a closer understanding of the works of Geoffrey Bawa. Together in 2006, they started their practice in Mumbai, looking at alternatives to meet the challenges of our current time by exploring alternative building typologies and methods.

How would you describe the current architecture landscape of India?

A bit stuck in the past. Perhaps still searching for some kind of identity which is not relevant anymore. We need to move past all that and be future ready. That said, there are some young practises that are doing great work with re-generating craft skills and sustainable practises. However this is not in the mainstream which it needs to get into.

How important is it to incorporate sustainability into design?

Extremely. We as an industry consume a huge amount of energy. We can’t rely on depleting resources anymore. Buildings need to be more self-sufficient and resilient to face adversities in the years to come. Being conscious of material consumption, where your material comes from and using efficient building systems that reduce material use, labour and energy to put up should be all part of our building process. And post construction, generating power, recycling waste and harvesting water should all be integral parts of today’s architecture. Only with all this will we reduce our burden as an industry.

Tell us about your projects that are driven by sustainable design.

We incorporate sustainable design principles in all our projects. Of course the extent of it differs from project to project and from client to client as allocation of funds in projects are often a limitation. In a mountain home we are building in Uttarakhand for example, we quarry stone from the site itself and use that as the building block for the house. So in a way the house is made of the earth is sits on. This was just common sense for us because the site is remote and carting up cement, sand gravel from the foothills to the land would have meant a slow 6 hour journey uphill (which would consume energy and time). In a school we build in Saba in Borneo, we’ve used decommissioned shipping containers as the base for the school, thereby recycling and reusing material. The school also generated its own solar power and harvests rainwater and recycles grey water.

Do you think design can help us conserve the environment?

We can definitely coexist in a peaceful way without causing harm to the environment. We have also used the method of Japanese technique of Miyawaki planting in one of our sites where forest are generated very quickly thereby increasing shade and vegetation on sites which maybe have been temporarily disrupted during the construction process. Using passive methods of sustainability such as reducing the requirement for cooling energy such as by planting shade trees, enabling natural ventilation are also ways to reduce the impact of the building. We use floor cooling in buildings where recycled water is run through cooling pipes laid below the floor. This again reduces the air-condition load on the building.

Do your projects have a waste management system build in?

Yes we use a reed-bed system for waste water recycling. Where the plants allow bacteria and fungi to digest the sewage and clean the water.

What would your advice be for young architects?

Look to the past for guidance but to the future for inspiration. Don’t be limited by how it was, the challenges of the past and present are very different, so it is for us to redefine the way we build. Design should no longer be about a statement or a reflection of an ego. We live in a time of collaboration and learning from each other. We are curators of this future. Build humbly and sensibly.

If you had one goal towards sustainability, what would that be?

Adopting a more circular approach to construction practises. Reuse, readapt, refurbish, recycle as much as possible.

Traditional Indian homes were build for conversing energy, are those elements present in the current Indian architecture?

They were definitely built more sensibly and intuitively. Thick stone walls were built for insulation from both heat and cold. Elements like courtyards, verandahs that still exist in todays buildings are essential elements for life in tropical climates and the modulate the level of heat, shade, protection from rain in our buildings.