Nikhil Mohan and Shabna Nikhil of Thought Parallels, a boutique architecture firm based in Calicut, Kerala, India, speaks to STIR about one of their recently completed projects - The Skew House, in the state of Kerala. The conversation takes various turns, as the duo speaks about things right from the initiation of the project, the process, the execution, details and everything else that makes one re-believe in the power of thoughtful design process, and exquisite execution for great results.
Meghna Mehta (MM): Tell us from the beginning, how did the project get going? What were the client’s expectations?
Nikhil Mohan (NM) and Shabna Nikhil (SN): The brief was articulate. The clients required a five-bedroom house with defined spaces for the family and the guests. However, being located in over an acre of land, the client also wanted the house to be luxurious, a house to rest, spend the holidays, receive family and friends.
MM: The house is set in a beautiful natural context. What was your initial approach to this context?
NM and SN: The site was indeed inspirational, located in the middle of a verdant part of Kerala, called Malappuram, with small mountains of lush greenery bounded with several fresh water streams flowing through. In tropical climate, cross-ventilation is a prime determinant for facilitating a comfortable indoor environment, enabling the house free from using any air-conditioning by letting the breeze into the house. This led us to settle on the possibility of a modern tropical design amalgamated with traditional architecture.
The clients further guided most of the design principles that we incorporated in the design and understanding their lifestyle was the prime objective to start off with. The design accommodates the brief, which was to create distinctive guest and family spaces. This clearly led to the formation of two blocks that are connected with each other by a semi-private living area. We wanted maximum use of natural light during the day. Hence, the lighting design is mainly composed of indirect lighting. This prompted a more spaced out planning with rooms having direct cross-ventilation. Function dictates the layout of the house. However, the form is influenced by the traditional architecture of Kerala, (which is) interpreted in a modern aesthetical language.
The house was designed as two distinct zones connected by a bridging space. The nature of the bridge is like alchemy of time over space. The changing time is enhanced by the translucent walls with shadows moving along, creating a visual narrative of time. The nature of the sun keeps changing over time. It changes in colour, temperature, direction, intensity and shadows. These changes reflect on to the built form, turning it dynamic and charged. – Nikhil Mohan and Shabna Nikhil, Thought Parallels
MM: During the entire process of design and execution, did you happen to make changes or see an evolution in the design?
NM and SN: Not many changes were made from our original ideas, since we took time to arrive at our approach and, importantly, that we convinced the client that it would work. A good amount of time was spent before we actually arrived at the concept for the house. So, conceptually and philosophically, there was a certain certitude we always aspired for.
MM: The plan of the house seems divided into zones with multiple intermediate open spaces. Could you walk us through the entire house and its functions?
NM and SN: Sure. The need for clearly separate private and guest spaces formed the basis of our planning. So, we designed it as two buildings, a private and a formal/guest block, connected by a wide foyer that became a semi-formal space in itself. The pathways from the gate can lead one into the formal area, or separately, to the private area. The greenery between the spaces appear as subtle but effective spatial separators.
There is a linear arrangement of spaces, which ensures ample light and air into every room. Entering from a wide verandah, the guest zone is divided as the living room on one side, and the prayer hall and guest bedroom on the other. The passage leads to the ‘bridge’ or wide foyer with a cozy semi-formal living space that leads further to the private block. A wide door separates the entire section when needed.
The private zone has two poles of activity; two bedrooms on the western end, and kitchen and utilities on the eastern end, flanking a rather large living and dining space in the centre, that lead in from the common foyer. Two more bedrooms and an access-controlled, open swimming pool rest on above this space.
On the whole, the house is like a hand stretched out in the landscape with fingers splayed apart, letting air, light and people flow between them. – Nikhil Mohan and Shabna Nikhil, Thought Parallels
The south-facing facade of the bedroom and corridor leading to the bedrooms have been adorned with louver sliding doors that control light, wind and the privacy of the house by moving them according to the daily weather or the time of the day.
MM: How did you derive the name ‘The Skew House’ for the project? Any particular reason?
NM & SN: Although we followed a clear and parallel structure throughout, the axis of the guest area that contains the prayer hall is skewed in the direction of Mecca, giving it its actual name, ‘The Skew House’. This is what we believe made the open space between both the zones more interesting, and took a possible monotony out of the structure as a whole imbibing a dynamicity to the form.
MM: Did you take any inspiration from the local traditions and incorporate them into this otherwise contemporary design?
NM & SN: Yes, certainly! Re-interpreting the Kerala architectural tradition, we designed large sloping roofs overlaid with Mangalore tiles. These are sound and heat insulated, with wooden panelling inside. However, since we used a mild steel T section framework, the roof profiles are unusually slim as compared to the thick and heavy-looking Kerala roofs. We also incorporated a double water-cutting detail to make sure the wood inside doesn’t get wet.
Again, on the first floor, there is a long series of louvered open able windows with screens, that can double up as a ‘balcony’ with railings, when left fully open. This helps retain the open feel of the house as a whole, while letting residents control the intensity of light and air from the south.
Regionally, some starkly differentiating features include the large glass walls in the living areas, with their slim ‘pivoted windows’ that open just enough to let air rush in. The use of exposed concrete is rather unthinkable for most architecture in the region.
MM: The finishing and construction of the project appear exquisite. What would you say was unique in terms of materials or methodologies while developing it?
NM & SN: Laterite masonry is common here, but its combination with steel, glass and wood makes it not only unusual but also unusually lightweight - yet strong. Steel is used for columns as well, with brackets for wide overhanging roofs that bring shade from the strong southern light. The landscaping uses grass paver that sustainably combines hard and soft elements.
Since construction personnel here are not used to working with a combination of these materials in such ways, we trained and worked closely with them to get the desired results in fabrication, masonry and carpentry. In some ways, we think we have imbibed a confidence into the workers here towards executing new and challenging construction methodologies.
The design of the roof was prototyped at the site, many times with alterations and improvements by vendors who were trained by our firm, to get the desired result, fabrication and carpentry and allied detailing.
MM: Lastly, if you could go back and change one element in this project now, what would that be?
NM & SN: Well, given the amount of wood we have used, we might have liked to use more sustainable wood like coconut or palmyra, which is less expensive and locally available, compared to teak.
We would also have loved to add more lushness to the landscape and make it more tropical. The finish of exposed concrete also could have been better.
Project DetailsName of the project: The Skew House
Location: Kerala, India
Area: 12,000 sqft
Year of completion: 2018
Time taken from conception to construction: 2.5 years
Time taken for construction: 2 years
Architect: Thought Parallels
Design team: Ar. Nikhil Mohan & Interior Designer Shabna Nikhil
Brand collaborators: OED gallery, Grohe, Floss, Nolte, Bo concept, Good Earth, Cinnamon, Saint Gobain