Architect Viren Brahmbhatt
Principal, de. Sign Studio LLC (New York | Mumbai).
The most important factors in designing a project are program brief, site and context. Then comes the project’s goals – client’s aspirations and objectives which tell us a lot about what design approach might be best-suited for the project. Every project aims to achieve something more than merely a functional building or space; very often clients want to project their ambitions through the architecture of the building and create lasting symbols. We love taking the clients along this journey beyond the functional requirements of the project.
Every building is a story, and we build these stories by listening to the clients, users and program. But, most importantly, we weave their hopes and aspirations into our own narrative and translate them into architecture. From here we begin to set a series of parameters – abstract and emblematic; architectural and tectonic; functional and metaphoric. Technical and construction-related issues are handled through design, detailing and material selection processes. Of course, client’s and sub-consultants’ input is valuable all through the process. And so are the selection of materials, methods of construction, project schedule, management, quality and cost. However, integrity of architecture’s prose and poetry remain our creative force and guiding light.
Often architecture is defined by the materials employed for construction. Understanding the strengths and limitations of the materials is key to successfully exploiting it in design and production of architecture. Each material has its specific properties and characteristics which we must understand and exploit in generating architectural form. Whole history of architecture is defined by this simple principle.
We routinely use shop-fabrication and occasionally, prefabricated components in our work to achieve quick, clean and cost-effective construction for our projects. Depending on complexity of the projects and design, we specify appropriate steel construction technology that can adapt to local conditions and offer ease of construction and flexibility. During the design process, itself, we explore carefully orchestrated use of modular structural components without compromising the program needs and design. We use BIM and digital technologies not only to design and generate architectural form, but, also to investigate most efficient ways to simplify construction through automation and standardization.
In a nutshell, the greatest advantage of using steel in design and construction of high-rise buildings is that it allows designing lighter and taller buildings with minimal structural footprint and well-proportioned or detailed architectural spaces. It is one of the most versatile of materials, and allows to construct building structures rapidly and efficiently, while also affording greater flexibility for creating larger unobstructed spaces and spans. Unlike the reinforced concrete-framed structures, steel allows for shop fabrications and predetermined assembly on site with much more precision and speed.
All the known properties of steel such as high strength, ductility and seismic resistance make steel most suited for tall buildings, especially in the areas that are earthquake prone. Ease of construction like easy fabrication, assembly and installation speed on site are other important factors considering tight urban site conditions and narrow streets lacking sufficient space for maneuvering construction equipment, cranes and such. Other advantages of steel-frame construction in my view are quality of construction, flexibility, adaptability and versatility. Additionally, steel can easily adapt to modular design, and therefore, help reduce cost. Lastly, steel is renewable, reusable and can be easily recycled, making steel-framed buildings more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
The biggest hurdle is ‘perception’ – more often, acceptability of steel as an architectural material is met with resistance from both, the users/developers and the construction industry. There is a lack of culture for steel as a material of choice in India, partly because most buildings in India have historically been low-rise, particularly residential buildings. Furthermore, climate and culture play a role and understandably discourage architects from using steel. Routine construction materials, methods and means do not require steel to be used in construction, except in special cases, so there is this comfort in conformity.
Also, there are design challenges that practicing architects face due to limited design skills, experience and/or opportunities to work with steel – it’s a catch-22 situation. And then there are cost and quality related concerns – the latter, a more serious problem in India owing to dependence on unskilled labor, and limited experience and expertise among professionals, fabricators and consultants.
Last, but not the least, is the lack of government oversight: policy and building regulations that are required to ensure proper design and execution, including compliance to design and construction standards in regards to life safety, fire and other physical and environmental hazards. Compliance and enforcement of building regulations are as important, not only for design, but, also for construction and maintenance through the lifespan of steel buildings – a lot is left to be desired on this front as well, from the regulatory authorities in India.
It is important to embrace sustainable design and construction practices to meet our collective commitment and address the challenges posed by climate change and brace up against environmental threats. However, I sometimes feel that the whole conversation about sustainability and ‘green design’ is being hijacked by the manufacturers and vendors as sheer marketing maneuvers! Sustainability is a cultural trait, amply exemplified in India. It is a way of life for many as frugality leads the way to being more sustainable. This allows for rethinking of strategies, adaptation and innovation through frugality – a cultural hallmark of India’s people to do more with less and turn ‘mess’ into more – more sustainable lifestyle, maximizing the potential of scarce and shared resources.
In my view, sustainable design is a better term than “green” – there has been a lot of greenspeak going on in the industry without much substance – mostly in efforts to portray companies, activities or products as environmentally friendly. What is important is that we must understand actual application of sustainable design concepts, connect the strengths and resilience of the people and shared resources while also bringing socially, technologically and environmentally conscientious design approaches to build sustainability and resilience. Sustainability is cultural in my view, and hence, it must be understood and developed as an integral cultural process by harnessing local culture of resilience and empowering and engaging local communities.
Education is another key factor that can play a substantive role in shaping environmental strategies for India – educating people (users and construction industry), professionals and policymakers should be at the core of these efforts.
Policy, regulation and enforcement are the key factors in shaping a successful strategy for implementation of sustainable design and construction practices in India. For the industry to embrace green building design and construction practices, government must implement both, regulations as well as educational reforms, and educate the industry about not only the environmental benefits, but, also the long-term socio-economic and financial benefits for the users and developers alike. There is a need to change the culture of design and construction industry and overcome certain known obstacles to this change including cultural change resistance, lack of government commitment, fear of higher investment costs, lack of professional knowledge, and lack of legislation respectively.
Potential areas where governments can play an important role is to help improve the perceptions, build a knowledge base and increase awareness, help remove financial, political, technical and socio-cultural barriers to the successful implementation of sustainable design and construction policies and measures.
Perhaps the one that I have not designed yet! Every project for me is a step towards improving the next one; and in our studio, we work on every project as if it were the first and last project we will do. So, it’s hard for me to choose one. But, if I must pick one: it would be a project I designed few years ago: Ellipsoid – A Community Center in New York City that has yet to materialize. It is a building with steel-frame structure and metal shell enclosing the multipurpose space and gymnasium designed for the inner-city youth.
As Susan Sontag wrote: “Every era has to reinvent its project of spirituality…” – we are working on ours, and I hope it will generate a shared narrative that will help move forward with the next best thing we do. It’s an ongoing project…
Be original, be yourself – blindly aping others, particularly the west can take you only so far, learning from them, further…. Be contextual without being conventional or conforming. Clarity and honesty of thought coupled with design skills and technical know-how is the key to excel and be good at what we do in architecture. Be innovative, use technology you are comfortable with, and only if it makes sense, not because you want to.
Same goes for materials… And here I will quote Mies van der Rohe: “Just as we acquaint ourselves with materials, and just as we must understand functions, we must become familiar with the psychological and spiritual factors of the day. No cultural activity is possible otherwise, for we are dependent on the spirit of our time.”