A speck of green amidst the grey: a journey of building a team and practice sustainably

By Prutha Barot
A speck of green amidst the grey: a journey of building a team and practice sustainably


In the third interview of the ongoing series of Shades of green, we present to you a talk between Ar. Falguni Desai and Mohammed Ayazkhan. This interview series is a place where we talk to various practicing architects about sustainability and its different approaches in architecture and design.

Falguni Desai is an architect who graduated from CEPT in 1989. She has been a practicing architect in Surat since 1989. She is currently also a director at Laxmi Institute of Architecture, Sarigam. She is the convener of INTACH Indian National Trust For Art And Cultural Heritage for Surat and a trustee with TAPI trust which organizes TAPI UTSAV a city fest. Out of all the hats she wears, education is closest to her heart. She believes we can make a difference in the world with art and design and the route to this endeavor shall be through education.

From practice, academics to organizing art festivals, Ar. Falguni Desai has been actively practicing, discussing and propagating sustainability in all streams of her work. In this talk she shares with us her projects, concerns and her journey. Starting from her projects to discussing the changing times and variety of materials, the talk gives us a glimpse of how her journey has been guided by her intuitive processes.

A speck of green amidst the grey: a journey of building a team and practice sustainably
(Oviyan house,1994)

The talk begins with Falguni, speaking about her journey with a project called the Oviyan  house, which started in 1994. In going about making this project happen, collecting materials from different places, wood from alang, refurbishing used windows, she started with the process of using these materials and objects as elements in the project. The biggest challenge though was making the house an exposed brick structure in Surat, a place that is humid and hot and has black cotton soil, which performs poorly for a load-bearing structure. In figuring the construction process, exploring rat trap brick bonds, and ways to deal with services in such a structure she describes how in the process she ended up creating a language and a team of workers, a family she says fondly, that executes such challenging projects.

Over some time, she explains how she developed the idea of load-bearing cavity walls where the foundation is built with augers and ground beam, and in this process, how the workers’ skills had improved. Slowly she built a team of skilled workers who could execute this particular kind of building language  and could also teach others these skills.

“In one house, you begin creating a foundation and load-bearing walls and in the other you create lintels, and thus you have a kit of parts for each project that keep informing and refining themselves.”

A speck of green amidst the grey: a journey of building a team and practice sustainably
(Team of masons at Oviyan house)

Falguni explains to us how she worked through different projects to develop and learn these systems while building a team of skilled people that get better at executing, with every project that is done. She argues that even in remote places, you need to know how to train workers on-site to execute these systems.

“Your stone workers, wood workers, masons join in the process and bring more refinement, and then the students join in and learn from them, so there’s this whole team that can go to a site search for the local materials and explores the possibilities…this is how you can build for your clients, by having a team that understands and respects what you are trying to do, and takes it a step further.”

In the long journey as Falguni puts it, she gives us a glimpse of how her team creates options of local material in relation to the economics and from there you can work with the client towards making a building more sustainable. In doing this we can not only simplify the execution process, and have a construction system that does climate control.

A speck of green amidst the grey: a journey of building a team and practice sustainably
(Experimenting with local materials)

“Once your team starts understanding and respecting the work you do, you can explore all kinds of materials with them. They will stand by you with enthusiasm and bring value to this endeavor.”

She shows us her journey of projects and the experimentation, with which the workers’ skills have improved over time, and she says this is how when the discerning client comes along, you are ready. In Eco home, Surat, a home to a small family that is off the grid, the client had certain aspirations, being an informed client towards sustainability.

A speck of green amidst the grey: a journey of building a team and practice sustainably
(Water harvesting system at Eco home )

Falguni further explains the systems that are involved in the making of the house, ways for water to be harvested and reused, cooling systems that are supported by the green around the house. In this project, because of the high level of participation of the client, you can use all the standard systems of sustainability, whether it is water, sun, wind.

“In this process of making a sustainable project, you start celebrating all the ideas of sun, wind, green, water and they all start participating in the building language, which is rationalized around the idea of comfort, appropriateness and certain experience and it comes together where you see everything in one place.”

For a single project to have achieved all of the systems together and it being well-received makes it exceptional. We see in the pictures, the progress on-site, and how vegetation goes to all the levels, that appease the senses is further enhanced by the progressive idea of the house being covered with the forest in a few years from now. The delightful moment is when she links the joy of living in the house that is an ever-growing mix of art and landscape, where nature and animals coexist with the client.

A speck of green amidst the grey: a journey of building a team and practice sustainably
( Eco home,Surat )

Talking about how clients have now been able to appreciate sustainable design she says,

“Slowly if you keep at it for long enough, and if you keep giving answers, people will accept the notion of sustainability. People are now beginning to accept and even experiment with it today.”

Her practice juggles between different scales of architecture, urban, and landscape to define the idea of green, even before it was a matter of concern.

A speck of green amidst the grey: a journey of building a team and practice sustainably
(Finding a speck of green)

“In the 30 years of experience, we realize this is not it. In the common definition of green is the combination of blue and yellow, but in the digital combination you find that it is grey, and there is a lot of grey in our projects, with a speck of green.”

In conversation with Ayaz, we see the other side of her work as well, which comes from a place of caring for the environment in the most tragic of times while finding solutions towards it. Her experience with the realities of the world, outside that of architecture, has taught her that people understand their resources.

“You don’t want to talk about climate change globally, you only want to understand common sense locally. If you start from a local place, a small one, you will see people know their resources, and here we can try to bring people together to do something, try to educate them and create awareness.” 

Her take on sustainability gives us a deeper understanding of how sustainability can be perceived. This understanding has come from her years of effort throughout her work from different organizations, like INTACH where they have worked towards documenting. Through Tapi Utsav, they have set up a firm where there is a platform created to discuss ideas that can matter, having a conversation around the topic of sustainability. Through her efforts as an academic, practitioner, and an aware human being we see her outlook and way of life. Above all, she believes in the joy of people coming together for making a difference.

“Above all, there is empathy, not words like sustainability or green, getting people together, and caring about the things around you. If you have empathy for land, water, people, then things will go well.”

In discussing the difference in the way of practice in 1990 to now, and the different materials that have come up, the conversation is where Ayaz questions what Falguni’s choices have been affected in these changing times. Falguni believes that in having the consciousness of reusing, whatever material you use out of constraints as context or economics, it is about using things effectively and stretching it, and this as research has to be mastered as architects.

“Allow for training and intuition to guide the process, intuitively we are trained to respond to everything, but now we need to learn things and build with more awareness.”

Theconversation ends on the note of exploring the constraints in every project, whether it was the 1990’s or the present, with the instinctive choices that you make. Instead of continuous questioning of whether something is sustainable or not, everything should be built with an intuitive awareness of the situation of our planet. This discussion was never meant to be a separate discussion on sustainability and it should not be one.

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