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Diwali special: Let the outdoors in

A Bengaluru design house leads the way in blurring the lines between 'outside' and 'inside'

Time, one of the older TE projects, built around a large tree on the site in Bengaluru
Time, one of the older TE projects, built around a large tree on the site in Bengaluru

The team at Total Environment (TE), a Bengaluru-based building and architecture firm that’s known as much for its signature homes as the quirky names of its projects, doesn’t merely create terrace/balcony gardens—it makes outdoor spaces the cornerstone of the house, so that everything inside is designed to blend in with and highlight everything outside. Blurring the lines between the outdoors and the indoors is the idea every Total Environment house starts with, and they’ve done some interesting things to expand our understanding of landscaping.

Take the design house’s Hyderabad project “The Meadow Dance" for instance (every TE project is whimsically named after songs and books, from the somewhat unhandy “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" and “Pursuit Of A Radical Rhapsody" to the lyrical “The Magic Faraway Tree" and “Windmills Of Your Mind"). The project comprises 118 earth-sheltered villas, where the roof of each villa is a grass-covered semi-circular dome that stretches almost to the ground level. In fact, TE is replicating the concept in two projects—one in Bengaluru and one in Frisco, Texas, where a community of its signature earth-covered villas is currently coming up. Each earth-sheltered home comes with a green roof that has several advantages—keeping the insides cooler in summer and warmer in winter, reducing rainwater run-off, improving air quality and promoting a natural habitat and bio-diversity.

Inspired by the work of architects and designers such as Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright—and their projects such as van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or Wright’s Fallingwater House—the husband-wife team behind TE, Shibanee and Kamal Sagar, believe that for too long, “design" in the housing space has meant decoration or styling—spending a lot of money on expensive fixtures and fittings. But styling or decoration cannot change the inherent nature of a space. It has to be built in.

“When you want to work on something creative, like sketching or designing or composing music, the natural tendency is always to want to go out into nature—perhaps to the mountains or to the ocean. We believe that nature inspires," says Kamal Sagar in an email interview (he is currently in the US) about their central philosophy.

Creating garden-oriented houses meant devising a number of in-house innovations to make sure that structurally, everything is in place. In 1996, TE designed the first of its alternate cantilevered sunk slabs to carry soil and therefore a garden, ensured high-quality water-proofing and good drainage and provided a sprinkler system as well as a drip irrigation system. Over the years, other innovations have followed: creating sunk slabs receding on every higher floor (to prevent the gardens from being stacked on top of one another) —allowing them to create gardens that were open to the sky. “To make this structurally feasible, we designed a large arch beam and transferred the loads from the stepped units on either side, through this arch, to the ground," explains Sagar. In duplex apartments, in order to provide a space at the upper level to enjoy the gardens while allowing for light to pass through below, TE designed glass decks with glass beams. And of course, the futuristic earth-sheltered villas with vegetation covering the entire roof space.

While TE homes are typically larger than the average Indian apartment—and fall in the luxury bracket as far as pricing is concerned—Sagar has four ideas for homeowners who’d also enjoy a bit of the outdoors within limited space: potted plants, hydroponics (growing plants without soil), terrariums (miniature gardens inside a glass bowl or a similar enclosed space) and bonsai. Vertical gardens covering even one balcony wall will go a long way towards bringing the outdoors in, says Sagar.

Limited space? You can still green it up

By choosing the right building material and clever use of space

Use natural materials

The use of natural materials like wood, exposed brick, and stones is one of the best ways to blur the lines between the outdoors and indoors. Vitrified tiles can never achieve the warmth of terracotta or Cuddapah (a variety of black limestone from Andhra Pradesh).

Grow something

Even in small apartments it’s possible to grow a large variety of plants with the kind of options we have today in terms of planters and planting technologies. Terrariums are easy to create. Succulents are a huge trend and cultural obsession right now. They are pretty, hardy and require very little maintenance. Also look at self-watering planters (you water only once a week) and herb planters.

Cultivate hydroponics

Growing plants without soil? We have done it for decades, when our mothers would fill every available glass bottle with water and plonk a money plant in it. But today, hydroponics are being touted as the future of cultivation as farming spaces reduce. Even at home, hydroponic systems can be used to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, from tomatoes to strawberries. Hydroponic nutrient mixes that you can dissolve in water are easily available in gardening stores and on e-commerce websites.

Plant trees indoors/ on balconies

Total Environment is experimenting with growing full-size trees—including fruit trees such as mango—in apartment gardens as high as the 19th floor using deep soil beds. If that sounds too far-fetched for you, there are a number of trees that you can grow in containers, such as citrus trees, fig trees, frangipani, and Indian jasmine.

Create water bodies

With the right kind of tiles and waterproofing, it is possible to create small water bodies even on modest terraces. Explore water bodies with different levels—even adding a couple of steps or shelves adds depth to the whole structure—and greening up your water body with aquatic plants and integrated planters.

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