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Forming Function, Forging the Future: Daraius Choksi, CCBA Designs

What attracts you to using steel as a primary building material in your architectural projects?
Steel is an extremely versatile material and we have been using it more and more in recent years. Steel provides strength and can span long lengths, but is also graceful. Its aesthetic qualities are unparalleled; steel provides a type of lightness to your structures which is rarely achievable with other materials. You can play with steel. It can be heavy but seem light, it can be solid but seem transparent, it seems rigid but it offers flexibility. In that sense, steel is limitless.

Even when used with other materials, it complements them. Concrete is a poetic material, but steel is what gives a rhythm to its poetry. With concrete, the bigger you go the heavier it becomes; you have to support concrete itself before you can support other elements! On the other hand, steel accommodates large spans more easily.

Can you share any specific examples of how you have used steel in your designs or projects?  
We have used steel extensively in both, greenfield and retrofitting projects. In greenfield projects, we have used steel for large spans. We have done lecture halls, factories and workshops where steel is primarily used for roofs, as well as in pedestrian bridges linking buildings. Along with this, we have clients with retrofitting projects where due to certain conditions we cannot change the existing structure. Steel becomes a saviour there. It acts as an add-on to the existing structure, seamlessly integrating into the old buildings. Thus, the old buildings which are often falling apart start becoming modern and beautiful. Steel helps in adapting these buildings for new uses and modern-day requirements. In these cases, we want the users to see the steel and appreciate it in its raw form, in contrast with the old existing structures.

How does the incorporation of steel, traditionally more prevalent in Western design, influence architectural choices in India? 
It is true that architectural use of steel originated in Europe, and is not prevalent in India at a large scale. In the West, people like Mies van der Rohe, Santiago Calatrava, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid have experimented with steel quite intuitively. They have created marvellous structures which are apt for their contexts and needs. However, we need to remember that the Indian context is very different. We need to understand its constraints rather than blindly follow the West.

The incorporation of steel completely changes the architectural proportions, aesthetics and selection of other materials. It liberates your building from many structural constraints. There are a lot of products in steel from various diameter sizes, finishes, shapes, and more and steel is a good material not only for the framework but also for a facade. Glass is a very good material for facades but has a lot of drawbacks, especially in the Indian context. Traditionally, wood was the way to go but now it’s not the most easily available material. Thus, moving forward steel is a good option in the Indian context.

In what ways does designing with steel impact construction timelines and costs compared to other materials? 
Steel can cut down on timelines, but it also needs more planning which is something we lack in the Indian construction industry, at the moment. Steel needs perfection and offers little flexibility in last-minute changes. But if the work can be planned and executed correctly, steel helps you in vastly cutting down timelines. When compared to a material like concrete which needs formwork, curing and so on, steel becomes a quicker option.

With respect to cost, steel is definitely a little more expensive. However, ‘lowest cost’ is not the criterion nowadays. More and more each day, people are looking at the bigger picture and taking into account the time, effort, energy and the final product. Thus, for construction efficiency, functionality and even aesthetics, steel is coming out on top. Most clients are now understanding that cost is not the only deciding factor when building for eternity. They are now more focused on quality.

How do you stay updated on the latest developments and trends in steel-based architecture and design? 
Steel construction is a rapidly evolving world, and one needs to keep up to date with the new technologies and trends. There are many sources available today, but magazines are always reliable. They offer a holistic perspective on the stakeholders but there are very few print magazines which have a focus on steel construction. The internet is always there but it is more superficial and not handy as a reference book or magazine. Expositions and exhibitions also help us see what others in the industry are doing and what new developments are going on

What challenges have you encountered when working with steel in your architectural projects, and how did you address them? 
There are three main challenges with steel: technology, workmanship and availability. There are a select few structural consultants who are well-versed in steel design. Many still rely on computers to give standard design sizes. Since computers have come into the picture, intuition has taken a backseat, and today we tread a fine balance between Human and Artificial Intelligence. This largely limits innovation that can be done in design, and all structures start looking similar.

There are also very few contractors who understand how to use steel effectively and master the workmanship. However, workmanship is improving with time.

The larger issue we have battled with ever since we started using steel in our projects is the availability of steel. For example, if a design uses a certain steel pipe of a specific diameter and it is not available then this throws off the entire proportioning and joint detailing.  We have tried to address it by having direct conversations with the manufacturers and to a certain extent it has helped us, but not all clients are willing to wait for the extra time.

What is your opinion on the future of steel in architecture, considering emerging technologies and sustainability trends? 
Steel has versatility, which gives it a limitless future. Today, construction in steel is also going vertical, leading to larger heights. People are beginning to understand the benefits of steel through sustained outreach programs, but for the mass market steel is still considered elitist, but technology will soon change this perception. With indigenous manufacturing, pre-fabrication will soon pick up pace and it will cut costs and time even further. This will make steel more accessible as a material and open up wider markets for the application of steel construction.

Are there any specific projects or areas within the steel construction industry that you hope to explore in the future? 
Currently, we are also working with a few discerning clients and ‘forging’ steel into a new vocabulary. These are both greenfield and brownfield projects and range from educational institutions to office spaces, factories and resorts. In the future, we will be going more for vertical structures in steel and are experimenting in our projects with a composite of steel and concrete, a fusion that tries to get the best of both materials.

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