by Jincy IypeJan 31, 2023
Set along, under and in the middle of the arboraceous landscape that permeates Wayanad—a rural district located in the north-east portion of Kerala in India—Estate Plavu by Earthitects is a weekend home that urges and encourages the practice of reverse urbanisation. Earthitects, based in Bengaluru, Karnataka, under the helm of architect George E. Ramapuram, attempts, through their projects, to develop ecosystems and experiences that exist in close proximity to nature, and allow the earth's prims to dictate their architecture. Reverse urbanisation or returning to nature has perhaps never been more critical, and at the same time, smoothly feasible—pertaining to the advent of the work-from-home culture during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian design and architecture studio utilises this premise to build habitable locales sequestered within verdant landscapes, with grasping views to magnificent sights and a contiguous yet safe nearness to the habitats of birds and animals.
Stating the inspiration behind Estate Plavu, which is spread across one acre of a forested hillside in Wayanad, Ramapuram shares, “Rooted in the values of the land lie crafted spaces that emanate from this very earth that binds us all. At Earthitects, our mantra of ‘reverse urbanisation’ results from the influence of nature in upbringing and experiencing ‘life in its abundance’. Every aspect of Estate Plavu sings harmoniously with nature, from materiality to ecological impact.”
Building in accordance with nature not only ensures the sustainability of a project, but also impacts its designers, builders, residents, and visitors positively—urging them to reconnect with themselves and the natural environment. It brings out some of man’s primal and fundamental traits and emotions, inspiring hence the inception of new ideas, while also yielding a space open for the free utterance and acknowledgement of personal predicaments and vulnerabilities. Earthitects aims to carve such caverns in non-urban locales, in the midst of naturally occurring edifices. Ramapuram’s practice as an architect is pivoted on echoing his childhood experiences in the midst of nature, unadulterated and opulently spread across the cities that housed his family residence and school—Coorg in Karnataka and Ooty in Tamil Nadu, respectively.
Estate Plavu is a resounding example of Ramapuram’s core belief—”Nature is the greatest design to ever exist.” It is one of the fifteen private residences spread across an area of 13 acres of forested hillside that make up Stone Lodges. Estate Plavu, spread across three levels, each of which steps down by six metres, has a built-up area of 7,000 square feet. Each of the three levels individually houses lodges. While the upper and middle levels hold residential spaces, the lowest level is made up of an open terrace and an infinity pool surrounded by lily ponds. Adequate level differences between the three contoured platforms ensure clear and unhindered views from all points in the estate. The roof, crafted using unfinished teak wood rafters and clay tiles and supported by four sturdy wooden poles, shelters the viewing deck on the lowermost lodge. Punctures in the form of courtyard spaces ensure the flow of light and air in dense indoor spaces. The lodges, although separated by levels, are cohesively tied up with bridges that are inconspicuously housed within the site.
Moving past the configuration of Estate Plavu, the designers also ensured that the visitors at the weekend home experience the presence of nature whilst performing their routine chores. For instance, the estate’s outdoor baths allow the freedom of showering underneath the open sky. Cloistered in the courtyard, with lush foliage, natural boulders and Eucalyptus poles covering the bath area, and stepping stones leading the way into the space, the shower cabin serves as a sanctuary for meditation. The combination of the rustic stone wall, brass bathroom fixtures, roughly cut black granite wash basin, handcrafted wooden knobs, and wooden cabinetry further accentuate the bathing experience.
The interiors of the housing lodges, on the other hand, are highlighted by crude natural grey stone flooring and the exterior deck features stone flooring finished with black oxide. The gazebo placed near the infinity pool, too, is built using natural materials. Across the estate, the roughly cut and unpolished stone, juxtaposed against the wooden fixtures, imbues a rustic hue. The thick random rubble walls provide thermal insulation, hence cutting down on cooling and heating costs.
In order to preserve natural entities in their original state, minimum processing is done on most of the structural and aesthetic elements found around the estate. In place of wood slats, wooden poles are used as rafters for the roofs of the habitable rooms. The facades, too, are decorated with thick wooden poles, similar to those found in mountain lodges. The natural oil from the eucalyptus poles keeps them fresh, hence cutting down on maintenance costs.
In addition to carving a habitat in the wilderness, Earthitects also designed a furniture collection—touted Handcrafted Collectibles—for Stone Lodges. Scraps left behind from the construction process of the estate are used to build beds, mirror frames, and sofas. Stone slabs make the credenza at the entrance, hand-picked wood is configured to build the Allure Armchair, and Bole, which functions as a side table and floor lamp, and Snug Seater is a revolving chair—made out of Eucalyptus spindles—that derives inspiration from the cocoon of the Bagworm Moth.
In order to further gain an understanding of the architecture studio’s process and inspiration behind Estate Plavu and other such projects, STIR established a dialogue with the founder and principal architect of Earthitects, George E. Ramapuram.
Almas Sadique: The project is designed around nature, but does it also make use of materials from nature, specifically the local materials available in the region? If the raw materials were transported from elsewhere, was it sustainably done? How was this ensured?
George E. Ramapuram: Set amidst the dense greenery of Wayanad, Estate Plavu is majorly crafted out of natural materials. Ecological design practices discuss responsibly sourcing reclaimed wood and timber from fallen trees. No fully grown trees are cut on the site, and the wooden poles used in construction are compensated for with replantation efforts from managed mills.
No material went to waste. The raw materials used in this project are sourced from the same site or locally in the region. For example, some boulders are cut to form random-rubble walls, while leftover teakwood goes into making fixtures and fittings. The outermost barks of trees were salvaged to build switchboards used across the house. The stone chips left over from using them in walls were preserved and used as gravel on the pathways. The greenery and local materials used at the forest site help maintain the interior temperature between 16°C and 26°C, a stark difference from the sweltering central city of Wayanad. Moreover, several courtyards within the lodges provide relief and natural light to the dense interior spaces, influencing the microclimate of Estate Plavu.
Almas: Describe the construction process of the project. What kind of foundation was built to support the structure spread across three levels?
George: A combination of two construction belts sets the foundation in place. First, a regular random rubble foundation was placed for structures with a height of less than one metre, topped by a plinth belt. For structures higher than one metre from the ground, column footings were applied every four metres, centre-to-centre. Finally, at the finished floor level, we ran a plinth belt around the structure to level the base flooring.
Construction started with sourcing naturally available materials used in the civil structure. The locally-procured stone formed the belt at the lintel level. The two construction belts make the project structurally sound and earthquake resistant.
Almas: How does Estate Plavu ensure minimum disruption of the natural habitats of birds and animals in the region?
George: Sustainability and innovation form the heart of the project, which is home to about 64 species of endemic birds. The integration of prolific fruit trees and birdbaths-the lily ponds that surround the deck, invite them to coexist with humans. In fact, planting fruit trees invited more birds to make Estate Plavu their home.
Some birds around Estate Plavu include the Crimson-fronted barbet, Malabar Hornbill, White-cheeked Barbet, Orange Minivet, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Grey Wagtail, and White-browed Wagtail, among others. A multitude of bird species is thriving as the project has created a new ecosystem.
Almas: What were some challenges faced during the execution of the project? Did these challenges influence the design of the project?
George: The greater the challenge, the bigger the opportunity. Building a luxury villa on the side of a mountain was our primary challenge, which is how we came up with the three-level design. We built the lodges around the existing rocks, trees and site contours. Our philosophy of building 'around' nature rather than on it influenced the form of the spaces. The entrance porch, living rooms and bedrooms on-site account for the existing landscape and flow around them. For instance, the layout of the west bedroom in the second lodge was reworked around the existing trees, which enabled us to incorporate a study that overlooks the trees, and the bedroom is shifted further south. Similarly, a large tree was accommodated in the entrance porch area by puncturing the roof above to let its branches through.
Almas: Looking back at the completed project, would you do something differently if you were to work on it today?
George: If we had to do something differently, we would increase the volumes at Estate Plavu, similar to how we have done for villas since then. We would have raised heights by changing the roofing structure from hipped to gabled. The four-sided roof would become two-sided to offer more openings and daylight in the rooms.
Almas: How are projects conceptualised at Earthitects? How does the studio engage with clients and stakeholders, as well as future users of the projects?
George: At Earthitects, we study local architecture and gauge the existing designs’ strengths and challenges. We see how materiality and techniques work in a local vernacular setting and how to turn specific challenges into opportunities. For example, the stone is specific to Wayanad, like mud/ brick is specific to Coorg, and using locally procured and available material is ideal in its respective context. From a macro site level to a micro planning and detail level, we aim at minimal intervention to the site yet look to provide the best living experience.
Immersive case studies are a vital part of our process, where we brainstorm, document the site, and revisit the context countless times after several rounds of internal revisions. We aim to redevelop skillsets and revive dying arts that were once well-known in their regions. By doing so, we aim to cater to the local vernacular and reinstil the pride of that area in its inhabitants.
Our practice has attracted clients and stakeholders who share a similar ethos to us, and hence the primary goal becomes to get them on board our design journey and arrive at a shared vision.
Almas: What are some projects, or designers and architects that Earthitects looks up to for inspiration?
George: We look into the architecture of the place we will build for inspiration for our projects. Our philosophy of Reverse Urbanisation refers to returning to nature through the reconnection of man, his built space and the natural environment.
Almas: What's NEXT for Earthitects?
George: We want to revolutionise how people live and give people a space away from the hustle-bustle of the city. We are excited to bring to our patrons an area which will be an experiential living around coffee. A project India has never seen before is in the works!
Name of the project: Estate Plavu
Location: Wayanad, Kerala, India
Site Area: 26,500 sq. Ft (area of one residence)
Built-Up Area: 7320 sq. Ft (area of one residence)
Year of completion: 2021
Principal Designer: Ar. George E. Ramapuram
Design Team: George E. Ramapuram, Irene Ann Koshy, Hetvi Kothwala, Pon Athithyan Muthurajan, Ginelle Gabriella Lopes, Likhitha Shivmay
Supervisor: Johnson Joseph
Project Engineer: Sarmas Valli
Assistant Project Engineer: Harsha R
Electro Mechanical: Shaji E.K
Finance: Elias K T
Stores and Purchase: James Johny
Carpentry Manager: Vijayan N. K.