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The Skew House in Kerala blends modern tropical design with traditional architecture

This family home by Indian boutique firm Thought Parallels, designed amid the picturesque rubber plantation in Kerala, embraces nature with contemporary minimalist features.

by Meghna Mehta Sep 28, 2019

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.

The surrounding lush rubber plantation camouflages the house from plain view | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
The surrounding lush rubber plantation camouflages the house from plain view Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt

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. 

Conceptual sketch| The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
Conceptual sketch Image Credit: Courtesy of Thought Parallels

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 has a modern tropical design amalgamated with traditional architecture | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
The Skew House has a modern tropical design amalgamated with traditional architecture Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt
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.  

Free flowing spaces blur the boundaries inside-outside in the design | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
Free flowing spaces blur the boundaries inside-outside in the design Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt

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.

Ground Floor Plan | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
Ground Floor Plan Image Credit: Courtesy of Thought Parallels

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.

The subtle slope of the traditional Mangalore tiled roof gives way to generously proportioned inner spaces within the house | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
The subtle slope of the traditional Mangalore tiled roof gives way to generously proportioned inner spaces within the house Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt

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.

Custom designed laser cut staircase with traditional wood carving leads to the bedrooms and linear pool above | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
Custom designed laser cut staircase with traditional wood carving leads to the bedrooms and linear pool above Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt

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.

  • The material palette has been kept very minimal with steel, wood and exposed concrete as the primary materials | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
    The material palette has been kept very minimal with steel, wood and exposed concrete as the primary materials Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt
  • The transition between the rooms on the first floor with natural mosaic marble flooring | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
    The transition between the rooms on the first floor with natural mosaic marble flooring Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt

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.

Wood paneling juxtaposed with concrete reveals a sense of warmth and intimacy within the spaces | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
Wood paneling juxtaposed with concrete reveals a sense of warmth and intimacy within the spaces Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt

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.

A wide passage divides the living area with the exterior landscape | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
A wide passage divides the living area with the exterior landscape Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt

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.

  • The architecture of the house is naturally rooted within its landscape | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
    The architecture of the house is naturally rooted within its landscape Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt
  • The architecture of the house is naturally rooted within its landscape | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
    The architecture of the house is naturally rooted within its landscape Image Credit: Prashant Bhatt
  • Elevation | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
    Elevation Image Credit: Courtesy of Thought Parallels
  • Section | The Skew House, Kerala | Thought Parallels | STIRworld
    Section Image Credit: Courtesy of Thought Parallels

Project Details

Name 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

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About Author

Meghna Mehta

Meghna Mehta

An architect by education and a journalist by passion, Mehta pursued a crossroad between her two interests. Having completed an M.Arch from CEPT University in Ahmedabad, she has worked in the field of architectural journalism for over 5 years. Besides content generation for STIR, she continues to teach in architectural schools in Mumbai.

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