We are here to answer these questions in this conversation with Ar. Savneet Kaur, a pioneer of alternate architecture. She is the founder of Imarat Architects and has completed more than 150 projects using green architecture practices in Northern India. A nature lover and an environmentalist at heart, she questions the current trends in building industry. She took the unconventional path by venturing into sustainable architecture more than 2 decades back, when the domain wasn’t a popular choice. She has also worked closely with the esteemed Didi Contractor. Savneet is also one of the faculty members at Dharmalaya. Her own initiatives to encourage the youth in this field include ICEA and MISAAL, organizing hands-on workshops and seminars for those interested in learning about eco-architecture.
Read ahead to know more about her inspiration, her reasons for getting into alternate architecture, and her journey. Clear all your doubts and confusions about earthen and green architecture as she guides and charts out the road-map for anyone interested in this field.
- RTF: You’ve been working as an architect for more than 20 years. But back when you started, was there as much awareness about green or earthen architecture as today? What motivated you and how did your journey into the field of mud/green architecture start?
Savneet Kaur: I started my practice as Imarat Architects in the year 1995, and true enough the term “Green Architecture” was non-existent. However, growing up in cantonments and being an avid nature lover, my sensitivity to nature and the environment was always there. Early in my career, I collaborated with TERI (Tata Energy Research Institute) in Delhi, focusing on the relevance of Sustainable Design. It led me to be one of the first few Indian Architects to work with IGBC (Indian Green Building Council) when it was launched in India. At the start of the 21st century, that led to our new office building being certified as ‘Green’ and all our subsequent projects complying to Green Building Standards.
The moment my journey took a turn into Mud Architecture was after a chance encounter with a pioneer of reviving mud architecture in India- Didi Contractor.
So, onwards green & subsequently mud architecture became synonymous with Imarat Architects.
- RTF: You’ve been working with Didi Contractor, not everyone gets that chance! You are also one of the mentors at Dharmalaya. How did the association happen, (how did you meet Didi) and how has the experience been?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: My pre-college days were spent with my high school friends on the beautiful slopes and streams of the hills beneath the Dhauladhars. In 2009, I decided to revisit Dharamshala and specifically my school, Sacred Heart Convent in Sidhbari- hopefully catch up with a few old school mates. As chance would have it one of them now ran a hardware store nearby and told me of this American old lady trying to revive the vernacular architecture of the Kangra Valley, living nearby in a self-made hut in mud; in Sidhbari; a real coincidence.
Needless to say, I went there, – the line of some ‘unique’ architecture and an even more ‘unique’ creator. Up until then, Didi had done over a few houses for friends (mostly NRIs) in mud.
At that time, she had recently been asked to create an ‘Institute of Alternative Legal Policies’ by her close friend, Adv. Prashant Bhushan of the supreme council, Didi and I clicked instantly on various thought processes and as the site was far in Kandbari on a mountain slope, its contouring was needed at the start. With the client in Delhi, the work required was architectural & professional and got us to collaborate. I spent more than 2 months with her, renting the cottage right next to her to collaborate on this institute, resulting in “Sambhaavna Institute of Legal Policies”. I kept the rented house next to her and travelled back and forth to run the office near NCR over a span of next few years, during which time, Mark; a keen meditator approached Didi for an institute of Compassionate Living. He had bought a hilltop in Bir and wanted to teach meditation, earth building and organic farming as short-term workshops to students. The site had to be trekked and led to the creation of Dharmalaya- being designed by Didi, executed by Mark and assisted by me on both accounts. As a volunteer service to a cause, I deeply believed in, I started as a faculty for Dharmalaya. I was a visiting faculty at various architecture colleges in northern India and speaking on various forums, and I recommended students so they can have a more wholesome learning experience – and that association with Dharmalaya and Didi continues…
- RTF: There are very few architects in North India working with alternate materials, why do you think is there a reluctance for using these materials? Is it possible to use alternate materials across all building typologies?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: Part of the reluctance comes from our definition of ‘modern vs traditional’. Corporates still encourage employees to wear a coat suit pant to the formal lunch meeting in an extremely hot climate of Delhi for instance. We borrowed it from the west- or perhaps a result of years of colonial rule- dress evolved for cold British climate. Similarly, building with large fixed glass panels designed for a cold climate are seen as a symbol of affluence, so we copy it.
Concrete, steel, glass should be considered alternate materials and used seldom- as they cost this Earth. While mud, wood, straw, bamboo and stone should be the norm. Our entire definition of alternate materials is ‘misplaced’.
So the reluctance arises, not so much from the characteristics of the material, but from the of the perception of it.
- RTF: What is your definition of green or sustainable architecture?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: Architecture shaped with regard to the geographical, social and climatic context with materials sourced locally and designed with solar passive building techniques. Green architecture, as the name suggests, should give due regard to the environment while simultaneously ensuring the physiological and psychological comfort of the inhabitants.
- RTF: Will alternate architecture be mainstream architecture soon? Do you see a change happening in the coming times?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: A few years ago, it seemed really improbable. However, over the last few years awareness about healthy and ethical living has been on the rise with the educated few opting for organic food and cotton clothing over synthetics.
Similarly, awareness on our ‘shelter’, out of our three basic requisites on food, clothing and shelter, is increasing.
The current world scenario has made it even more imperative, people have started reevaluating their preferences opting for healthier measures. Even if not for ecological consciousness, concern for personal well being will cause a majority to start looking for ‘alternative architecture’.
- RTF: You are actively involved in spreading the word about earthen and green architecture through initiatives like MISAAL, ICEA, etc. Do you see the youth getting more interested in this field?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: Yes, I do.
ICEA, Imarat Centre for Earth Architecture, was the natural outcome of our work at Imarat Architects. Set up in 2016, it is a research, education and consultancy-based organization on all aspects of Earth Architecture and green building, having long-term and short-term courses with hands-on workshops on “Professional Practice in Sustainable Architecture”.
MISAAL (Maati Initiatives for Sustainable Architecture, Agriculture and Lifestyle) is a set of such initiatives with myself, Didi Contractor, Mark Moore (Dharmalaya), Parul Zaveri (Abikram) and Lara (Auroville Earth Institute) and Andrea Klinge (ZRS, Berlin) as its pioneers.
The current youth is a highly aware and intelligent force and I see a huge response in all our endeavors. Awareness continues to spread fast and hopefully we see a very promising tomorrow.
- RTF: You come across many young architects and students, which is the one thing that severely lacks in their learning and needs to be focused on?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: As part of educational initiatives, I have a lot of interaction with young architects and potential ones. The plethora of architectural colleges that have sprouted in India and all over cause many architects graduating every year. Severely lacking is the essence, passion and commitment towards the profession. The genuine creative and aesthetic abilities sadly replaced by numerous software and above all an architect has the ability to truly make a difference in the progress of mankind. That spirit, where a youngster wants to ‘make a difference’ is severely missing. If it were only about earning money, they would be better suited to other, more financially lucrative careers. At their age a desire to leave a signature on the earth, to have a client say ‘you gave us a wonderful house’ was the dream for architectural students of our time; money was a by-product.
In the over-materialistic society of today their education lacks that spirit.
- RTF: For all those interested in pursuing green architecture, how can they start?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: A genuine passion and commitment towards ensuring a greener tomorrow is the start. And then of course a B.Arch degree from one of the esteemed architectural colleges supplemented with a lot of self-teaching initiatives, organizations such as Auroville Earth Institute, TERI, Hunnarshala, Dharmalaya, ICEA, D.A. and many others offer part time courses & workshops. These students should avail these opportunities while doing a B.Arch and then if possible, a masters in Sustainable Development or similar courses.
- RTF: Who’s your role model?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: Role model in the Architectural Realm- in current times, definitely Ar. B.V. Doshi and previously Frank Lloyd Wright. Both brilliant sustainable, contemporary and contributing immensely to the future of Architecture via educational initiatives like CEPT and Taliesin.
- RTF: Which is your favorite book?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: Currently, 21 lessons for the 21st Century
- RTF: Which project of yours is closest to your heart and why?
Ar. Savneet Kaur: So far, the Misaal centre- as its built in adobe with solar-passive technologies in a mango orchard. Under the umbrella of a massive Gulmohar tree it is flanked by rice and wheat fields on one side. Its mud walls curve organically with the spaces within and huge windows make the inside outside as one. Despite being set in the NCR with severe winters and very harsh summers, it uses no electric heating and cooling. With mother nature — the sense of peace its mud walls create.
However, my favourite project is yet to be built.