Some names are difficult to live up to. Inspiration, an architecture and environment design firm that operates out of a suburb of Kochi in Kerala, has managed to do so by building an innovative office for itself using bamboo as the primary material.
The three-year-old building is as accomplished a work of architecture as you can get, given that the construction system is innovative and not easy to execute. More to the point, it is inspiring. Perhaps the only office building in urban India to be built largely of bamboo, it is systematically engineered—no romantic experiment.
Clustered around an artificial pond that harvests rainwater, the office is also a delight to inhabit, with its integration of relaxed natural systems and elements into the professional routine of a modern office.
The building, held aloft over the water on concrete pedestals, appears to float
It also seems in keeping with the general nature of things here that Jaigopal G. and Latha Raman, the two low-profile principals of the firm, were surprised when they won the top award in the ‘Urban Office’ category at the Hawaii-based 2007 International Bamboo Building Design Competition. After all, it is not every day that such an achievement, rooted in local ethos, is followed by apt global recognition.
From some angles, the Inspiration office appears to float on water, echoing the spirit of Japanese and Chinese pavilions that are set in gardens with meandering water bodies.
The design—a series of two-storeyed buildings and pavilions connected by open passages—follows the logic of its unusual construction system. To begin with, it has been broken up into a series of small blocks housing specific functions—architecture studio, management office, conference room and others. From inside and outside, each block reveals the elegant grid of slender reinforced concrete posts and beams that hold up the floor above and its roof. This grid is filled-in with prefabricated bamboo panels that resemble screens from the outside, but have a conventional plastered-and-painted finish on the inside. The building appears to float because the posts are held aloft over the water level on concrete pedestals, allowing the pond to continue under the floor.
“It is often back-breaking work,” says Jaigopal with a smile, about the process of building with the new system. The fact that the office building was effectively a prototyping project, meant that Inspiration had to build its own design without any contractors to delegate the job to. Every step of the construction process threw up new problems, starting with sourcing the right kind of bamboo.
It helped that Inspiration has always built its own designs. Jaigopal began practising in the mid-1980s, using the cost-effective and energy-efficient brick-based building techniques of Laurie Baker. Raman was part of Jaigopal’s team of architects and engineers that worked with Baker’s unconventional approach to design and construction. These techniques, says Jaigopal, are now the conventional palette for Inspiration’s practice, and it is only the new construction system employed in the office building that really gives him and Raman the high of a new challenge.
Together, they have extended the scope of the firm’s expertise in environmental management. The waste water of the office building is treated by anaerobic bacteria in a baffle reactor and recycled for the garden.
Bamboo is directly present in the wall, floor slabs and the roofs of the office as a central structural material. Because it is very light, relative to its strength, its extensive use reduces the overall weight of the building by half and the use of steel by over 70%. It allows the reinforced concrete columns and beams to be very slender, especially since they are only a little over four feet apart. This slenderness and the close-spaced rhythm of the grid is crucial to the friendly, often intimate, scale of the spaces and forms.
Inspiration collaborated with K.R. Datye, an eminent Mumbai-based engineering consultant and an internationally recognized authority on wood construction who has pioneered a broader wood-concrete composite system of construction.
Bamboo slabs make up the wall, floor slabs and the roofs of the office
Among other things, Datye and his colleague V.N. Gore helped Inspiration develop a theoretically sound approach to the jointing of bamboo elements with the concrete structure, which can often be a knotty problem.
Bamboo, itself, is not to be taken lightly, of course. As Datye points out, the light bamboo panels between the concrete columns are truly structural elements—these are designed to counter the impact of cyclones and earthquakes on the building.
The real breakthrough for Inspiration is as much technological (and ecological) as it is aesthetic. As in the best architecture, all of these go together here. The building is experienced as being ‘light’, similar to a pavilion, both from inside and outside. At the same time, the interior spaces and the exterior ‘natural’ space intermesh closely. Both qualities emerge from the structural system and also directly reflect the agenda of treading lightly upon the earth—that the design is rooted in.
In the process, an original, logical and meaningful grammar has been developed that expresses eco-sensitive construction through a multi-sensory habitational experience. Along the way, the design is also open to scrutiny.
The ‘natural’ exterior space is, for instance, an artificial creation—the pond holds rain water for recharging groundwater and for reuse, and the bamboo grove was not always there.
The connect between the shaded pond and the ever-changing light conditions—caught magnificently in the deepening red of the polished cement floor of the covered but unenclosed deck—is a refreshing experience.
Whether intentionally or not, the design reminds us that ‘nature’ in the average garden is often an artificial construct serving only an aesthetic purpose. Why not connect it more meaningfully to larger, truly natural processes that also serve human purposes such as storage of precious water and the production of dappled shade?
For Inspiration, the gamble of trying out a new eco-sensitive technology for its own office appears to be paying off. Among current clients committed to adopting this technology are a couple of resorts, as well as a few independent houses. Most promising, however, is a five-storeyed office for an information technology company that Inspiration has to build within next year near Thiruvananthapuram. Software ‘parks’ may then live up to this nomenclature.
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