Chitra Vishwanath is an architect based in Bengaluru, India, where she is working as the principal architect and managing director of Biome Environmental Solutions Private Limited. She is one of the influential architects in making sustainability a household term in India. She has been involved in the conception and execution of more than 500 projects, encompassing the construction of buildings of all sizes as well as water harvesting and sanitation structures with specific relevance to the ecology of the sites. Chitra started with designing and building homes with earth and alternative materials for the middle class, which still continues to be the predominant clientele for her firm. She firmly believes in the principles of frugality, which should be applied to architecture for a sustainable future. She talks to Bhawna Jaimini about the growth of her practice, sustainable development, and problems of consumerism.
BJ: You have been a practitioner and advocate for ecological architecture from the time you started your practice in 1991, which incidentally was the year India opened up to globalisation and had a huge impact on the architecture scenario in the country. Were you conscious of this shift while setting up your practice then?
CV: It turned out be fortuitous that the practice began in 1991 but it was not a conscious decision. The opening up of the economy allowed banks to give housing loans and Bangalore had sites available. The city dwellers dreamt of building and owning homes of their own. This shift allowed them to do so. The cost of construction till the 1980s was about three times the cost of the land. People were directing their energy towards lowering the cost of construction. The Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) was one such organisation working on techniques and materials to reduce cost of construction. They had set up building centres in various cities to provide information and training to build economically.
However, as the city grew, both in terms of size and population, the sites became more expensive than the cost of construction. Now, fewer people can afford land, which makes the cost of construction a less important parameter in their wants. This phenomenon also presented an opportunity: The hinterlands of the city came into the folds of housing but were not serviced by the utilities of water and sanitation. So we began working with owners to adopt self-sufficient and intelligent systems for sanitation and drainage.
In the beginning, the focus of our practice was to design economical structures and we worked hard to reduce costs by experimenting with different materials and techniques. Then in 1996, we built our home with mud. The mud that was excavated from the basement was sufficient not only for our home, but also for another one nearby. The basement was designed to be an office. It turned out that the basement remained at 22 degrees Celsius throughout the year. Basements became an important part of our designs, as it is an additional space that is available for use early on but could not be added later. Most importantly, the soil from the basement in most of the sites in Bangalore is good for construction. This made building with earth much easier and later became the norm. The practice grew and adapted itself to the changing context and it continues to do so.