Across the harbour from the chaos of Mumbai lies the coastal area of Alibaug – a 45-minute boat ride away from 22 million people and the lowest open space ratio in the world.
The family home of 650 sqm on a 1.3-acre plot of land is located at the base of the hills, far removed from the sea. The land is lush with the native coconut, mango, and neem trees and peers up at the sunrise on the eastern hills above it. When we first saw this beautiful property, we wanted to include the hills, the trees, and the gentle winds; the leaves strewn over the earth turned out to be the perfect cue. The form of the leaf – gentle but sloping – was perfect, and our very first sight of the plot yielded a site plan made of leaf-shaped pods. The client enjoyed the idea of pods – overlapping but distinct – to house each part of the home, and the journey between pods was sculpted around the existing native trees.
The clump of neem, bhend, and coconut became the centre – an unstructured but designed courtyard, and each pod was created with an eye to the sun and the winds. The “leaf” roofs open and rise to the north and the east to allow in natural light. They are lower and deeper towards the south and the west to protect the structures from southwest monsoons and harsh sun.
The critical design of the leaf – structurally, climatically, and then ergonomically – entailed innovation at every step. At the structural level, dense concrete and a steel web were used to generate beamless leaf shells supported over steel columns filled with concrete. Clear chemical coatings were applied to retain the natural colour and texture of concrete and steel in the face of tropical rain and sun.
The roofs were 3D modelled extensively to ensure that the influx of the sun and the rain, and the overlapping heights between adjacent pods worked-out seamlessly. And then, the ergonomics to allow doors, windows, and cupboards that still adhered to orthogonal principles to sit cosily in the unorthodox leaf was resolved. The pallet of materials comprising concrete, steel, linseed oil, polished wood, and natural limestone was kept subdued to focus on the light, the form, and the enthralling nature around the structure. The simplicity of every other element to ensure the pure experience of space, form, light, and nature was a deliberate pursuit. However, there was a constant dialectic between creating rules and breaking them. We enjoyed the form but never allowed it to play dictator. Each pod plays with different rules depending on need and circumstance. The lack of symmetry allows walls to move as needed, open as needed, and break into skylights when required. This allowed for the sun and the wind to enter the pod in the right amount, so that indoor light and air quality is dramatic yet comfortable.
The landscape for the house was carefully designed to augment the existing natural flora and fauna. Local plant varieties were used, and nothing exotic was even considered lest it competes for attention or resources with the existing mango, coconut, and neem trees. We used lemongrass extensively to counter mosquitos and retain the simplicity of the landscape. Rainwater harvesting was necessary on this land, where the borewells ran dry most of the year. We gathered all rainwater runoff into underground trenches and canals, thus feeding the borewells.
The house began as an exploration of natural forms, built and designed to sit in nature. It encountered the man made constructs of doors, windows and domestic gizmos – the orthogonal products of an industrial economy. Navigating and refining this encounter into a serene and natural environment for a family to live in complete comfort, embedded in nature, was the challenge of this project.