Building Small
Conversations with Chitra Vishwanath, Architect and Founder,Biome Environmental Solutions.
Chitra Vishwanath was five years my senior at the School of Architecture, CEPT Ahmedabad. Daughter of a sculptor she grew up in Benares where her father taught sculpture and was guided by him to take up the path of architecture.
Interview by Manisha G
With a diploma in Civil Engineering Chitra came to the world of architecture already equipped with knowledge of construction. Chitra chose to focus her architectural practice on reducing the ecological footprint of her buildings and on building affordable homes for the common man in Bangalore. Her career and her work reflects deeply her journey of learning and the respect and love she and her husband Vishwanath have for ecology. Chitra was in Pune to speak at The Loft and we had a chance to spend time with her and understand her world view.
Serendipitous beginnings with inspirations from Laurie Baker
Chitra is a great believer in serendipity.  She feels that things evolve.. people circumstances and situations .. and if we calmly observe these happenings we receive clues for action. When she began to build in Bangalore as a fresh graduate, people needed affordable homes. Laurie Baker, the English architect, had already done a lot of work in low cost building using bricks and residents in Bangalore were asking for similar work. Chitra studied Baker's approach and techniques and ventured to explore the same. She further preferred the use of mud block building using research being done by the Centre for ASTRA (Application of Science and Technology for Rural Areas) since largely the soil available in Bangalore was well suited for such construction. Though the construction material changed Baker's philosophy of "Frugality" remained unchanged.
Connection to the Earth
Chitra built on experiments being done at the IISc Bangalore on mud block construction and started applying these to her buildings. The earth that was excavated for the foundations of the building was then converted into mud blocks to build the walls of the structure. She minimized the use of machine and equipment preferring human labour. Her prefabricated concrete beams would be consciously of a dimension that could be easily lifted by masons without forklifts needed.
To maximize the earth available Chitra designed her homes with basements. As her work evolved the earth became a material that could actually connect people to each other. The earth excavated for larger homes was enough to supply mud blocks for other homes too. She feels it has a possibility of creating an emotional connect in the community.
Other materials used in her buildings also came from a local radius around the building keeping the overall footprint of the building to a minimum. Most of the building was done with a response to the site and with minimal planning or drawing beforehand.
Building small

Chitra's caution with resources – both natural and financial – attracted many clients to her. She meticulously calculated the expenses expected and ensured that she did not overshoot the budget of the client. This built a trust between them that reassured her clients and more and more work started pouring in. Simply around her office nearly fifty small and medium homes have been built by Chitra and her team with an overall of around 700 in all of Bangalore city.
This approach of building small and for ordinary people is reflective of Biome's world view that believes in seeding and allowing things to sprout. Techniques of water harvesting that they applied to single homes, have spread out in this manner to the extent of becoming integrated into municipal bylaws. This model of growth is closer to how Nature herself functions.

Collective action
From a one woman practice, Chitra's work slowly grew as more and more young architects chose to come and work with her. In 2008 they created Biome Environmental Solutions which has several senior architects each handling their own projects.
‘I devolve power,’ says Chitra, because it gives me my own freedom and time. ‘Once an architect has built for four or five years, she doesn’t need constant supervision. As long as the architects in our team understand the fundamental values we work with,they are free to express their own creativity and design aesthetic.’
Vishwanath, her husband, whose work with housing and water conservation, has been fully integrated into Biome's philosophy, points out how this ability to share power is a distinctly feminine trait and is one of Chitra's core strengths. In all of Biome's work, the focus is on bringing people together, through diverse views, of understanding their concerns and helping address them so that a solution may emerge collectively.
Learning from Failure
‘Our home is a constant experiment,’ say Chitra and Vishwanath. It is not a show case or a place to idolize. We believe that homes should enable processes of learning, they should display intelligence not wealth.’ Using their own home as the ground for exploring, they have always learnt from failure. This has allowed them to discover and evolve new ways of doing things that are more relevant to the context and the people they build for.
Extending this to their clients, the Biome team, takes the time to let clients understand the mud block technique step by step before they take the decision to build. In  Govardhan Eco Village, the clients asked them to start by simply building one wall of rammed earth – this moved on to one cottage of Stabilized Mud Blocks  and then finally they were convinced enough to offer them the design of the entire campus.  While this takes time, Chitrais very clear that things don’t happen overnight. ‘We are in it for the long haul’, she says.
Respect for natural resources
Ecology is the basis of Biome's design philosophy. This translates into a deep respect for all natural resources be they trees, soil or water. In one of the homes designed by them, there was a beautiful large tree in a small plot of 30 x 40 feet typical of plots in Bangalore. The tree became the most important element of the home ensuring that no damage was done to it during construction and laying out the house in a way that celebrates the presence of the tree. To be able to do this the Biome team had to discuss and convince the clients that their needs and aspirations could be met without causing any damage to the tree and that in fact it would enhance their lives in that home.
Smart Terraces
As Vishwanath's involvement with water conservation grew, Chitra's buildings started to integrate his understandings. Water is a scarce resource in Bangalore and is brought from the River Cauvery even though rain is a constant feature in this region. To make homes self sufficient in terms of their water needs, Biome's work involves a variety of interventions from harvesting rain water to recharging underground aquifers as well as recycling grey and black waters. In their own home,Vishwanath created a terrace farm to grow rice. Compost for this comes from a dry toilet that they built on the roof which provides them with fertilizer. Lifeline water for drinking and cooking also comes from the terrace. These techniques of water conservation are integrated into all the homes they build.

Zero waste building
Another of Biome's concerns and explorations has been the waste generated by construction.They have been evolving a zero waste design strategy which  includes ideas like inserting e-waste into concrete slabs and using waste plastic bags for water proofing in foundations.
In one of their projects, the client had an old home which had to be demolished to build new structures that would be passed on to his children. Rather than demolishing the building as is the norm, the Biome team carefully dismantled it and collected all the materials on the site. Each and every aspect of the old structure was reused in the building of the new home. The old concrete slabs were also disintegrated and reclaimed by using the concrete for new pile foundations. This involved a lot more labour and time but saved a considerable amount of money as well as minimized the construction debris in the process.
In another project for a school, as the land did not belong to the owner and was on a limited lease, the Biome team designed an entire building that could be dismantled and taken away to another plot of land eventually.
Design as service
In the world of architecture, design is seen as a form of art, generally, and architects are glorified for their personal talent and ability to create. However with Chitra and Vishwanath, design is a form of service – to Nature, to the context and to the people they design for. This process does not have much room for the ego of the individual architect. In this way of working, the Biome team has laid out a new path for architectural education and practice, one that is more focused on the needs of the community. It also ensures that a harmony is achieved between the individual, the community and the larger natural environment we all live in.
Watch a TEDx talk by Chitra here ...
Visit Biomes website here