06 Nov 2019 | Sustainability

“As architects, we must be held accountable to the manner in which we design our buildings”

Architect Amit Khanna talks about the need for sustainable architecture and more
Achieving a harmonious balance between nature and the making of buildings is a complex, conflicted issue says Amit Khanna

Take us through the journey of starting AKDA.
After graduating with a master’s degree in Sustainable Urban Development from the University of Oxford, I started my first job with Abhimanyu Dalal Architects, working in urban design, residential & housing projects. Soon after, I founded AKDA | Amit Khanna Design Associates in 2004 with a philosophy to make regional specificity and sustainability intrinsic to the design process and product. Initially, we spent a year as Consultant to the Architectural Heritage Division at Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The first job I received after starting AKDA was not just a design job. I had to manage the accounts, buy the material and coordinate with the contractors. Essentially, I built what I designed. That experience made the firm’s outlook highly pragmatic both in the sense of working with materials and with people. AKDA has since grown and settled down into a boutique size firm, since that is where we can tread the balance between being fastidious in design thinking and executing large commercial projects.

With rising awareness and global exposure, client briefs today are very different from what they were a decade ago. What are the changes you have witnessed?
At AKDA, we do not fear the abundance of information available to clients. Rather than fight for control over the process, we embrace our clients’ awareness and allow them to participate in the evolution of the design. The focus is to deliver innovation that uplifts our environment, instead of allowing our built environment to be a mish-mash of private agendas – an outcome of vulgar misinformed aspiration. There is change in two aspects—the behavioral trend and the design aspect. Now, people don’t feel the need to have a matched look. People are mixing looks and price points.

You have been an active advocate of sustainable architecture. What has been your biggest challenge in convincing clients to go green?
To try and achieve a harmonious balance between nature and the making of buildings is a complex, conflicted issue. At AKDA, we are constantly struggling to make buildings that are more humane and kinder to the environment, and that is getting harder every day.

Skepticism of sustainability is on the rise, and even lawyers argue that claims made about the efficacy of green design are far beyond the expertise of even architects and engineers. In this context, do you feel that globally there has been a bandwagon approach to the concept than actual work?
A green building is one that incorporates multiple kinds of active and inactive techniques in order to reduce the impact of the building on the environment, both during construction and during the lifetime of the building. The industry must find its place in the larger global goal of building a sustainable future rather than focus on short term architectural showmanship. We must incentivise the construction of green buildings, either by providing tax breaks to owners, or allowing preferential sanctioning processes, or by increasing allowable coverage for buildings that use lesser energy than they produce.

The material used for construction [along with design] is what contributes to a structure being green or not. There is a general perception that whatever avoids metal or wood is green. Can one treat a structure or design in isolation or does context matter?
Material does contribute to greener building but depends on the context, any construction material that can be found near the site becomes more sustainable than a scientifically proven material that will be brought from far away. Material used in different scenarios decides if it’s sustainable or not. Wood in hilly areas is the most sustainable and metal in the right scenario is the answer. However, how recyclable is a material and how it reacts to the climate also decides how green a building is.

We interacted with around 2000 architecture and design students from India recently. A majority of them want to be entrepreneurs, start their own practice and work in the sustainable design space. What would you be your advice to them?
Buildings and the construction of new buildings are responsible for 30% of global energy consumption. As architects, we must be held accountable to the manner in which we design our buildings, both in the manner they perform during use and by the materials they consume during construction. I would suggest younger architects to look at the immediate regional context, identifying the key construction issues and get the buildings to project a strong statement in an effort to answer those issues. It is important to work on the fundamental anatomy of the building, getting the scale right, getting the choice of materials right - be it brick bonding of a residence or the spacing of steel frames of an industrial structure. We need to build to address the materiality of place and the concerns of livability, but most importantly, we need a building to be sustainable – it must be built with local materials, it must save energy, it must be low maintenance. How many variations of use can you image in a single space? And what are the ways it is associated to adjoining spaces? And how does all of that change with time, or with changes in weather? These are the questions that should be answered while constructing a sustainable building. 

Students also told us they find it really difficult to get through the right organisations for internships and work. What can they do right to get an opportunity to work with you?
It is important to acquire the tools of practicing because that makes a student knowledgeable enough to deliver on a project, using current knowledge of construction materials, systems and possibilities. However, architects should also spend time travelling to observe culture, climate and architecture. There is immense diversity and plurality in the world today. Younger people should be willing to work in rural areas, be able to engage with stake holders at all levels and learn many methods of creating spaces. There are no mistakes, only potential for learning.

We noticed that you also have a penchant for photography. Has photography helped you look at spaces from a different perspective?
Photography helps one visualise and frame a space better. Elements which would make a better photograph sometimes are required for a better space too. Photography is a tool that helps us think how a space look from a general viewer of the space.

Check out  Amit Khanna’s profile and design showcases here.