We all dream of a house that we can call our own. A safe haven which gives us a sense of comfort and makes us forget all our problems. But, our wish of owning a forever home can cost the environment if we aren’t mindful of the means we use to fulfil our dreams.
The construction sector is one of the most polluting industries in the world. The International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report in 2019 titled ‘Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction’. The findings revealed that the construction sector accounted for 36 per cent of energy use and is responsible for 39 per cent of carbon emissions.
Additionally, other reports show that about 50 per cent of climate change and landfill waste comes from conventional construction techniques.
If these numbers highlight anything, it is the need for sustainable alternatives that can offset the environmental damage attributed to these sectors. Luckily for us, there exist such solutions.
Pune-based ‘Studio Alternatives’, run by duo Dhara Kabaria and Sonali Phadke, upcycles old shipping containers to provide living spaces that are sustainable, portable, and functional!
The construction is quick and Dhara informs that the smallest structures can be put together in about 3-4 months, which is much faster than conventional construction processes.
The journey began in 2009 when Interior designer Dhara decided to start a design studio that functioned like a consultancy firm. Upcycling had always been at the forefront of their activities.
“We started by creating furniture that was designed sustainably and made by upcycling waste materials. For example, old wooden doors were transformed into tables, newspapers were used to make wall cladding, and discarded elements would be given a new life. We also did installations using reclaimed materials for other interior designers,” informs Dhara.
However, the turning point for Studio Alternatives came in 2014, when a client approached them with the idea of turning shipping containers into living spaces.
“This client wanted to build a hotel using shipping containers. This was an interesting project and we undertook all the design work. Unfortunately, the client lost funding for his project and we couldn’t implement the designs. But, the idea stayed with us,” she informs.
Since then, the studio delved deeper into this idea.
Now, the design studio has worked on 17 projects and upcycled 43 containers into homes, offices, and even schools!
The love for Green Design
For Dhara, the interest in design and architecture developed during her formative years.
“When I was in the 11th standard, my father (a Civil Engineer) was constructing a house and a lot of architects and designers would come to our house. Meeting and speaking with them got me interested in architecture and design,” she recalls.
Dhara then decided to pursue Interior designing and enrolled at the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (CEPT) in Ahmedabad. She was also interested in handicrafts and the course introduced her to weaving, woodwork, and traditional prints.
When she had to work on her thesis in 2000, she decided to go work under Dashrath Patel, a legendary interior designer. He became her thesis guide and deeply influenced her.
“I was moved by his work. All his ideas were rooted in life and he had an empathetic approach to design which involved conditioning every material and how it can be used. Not only did he guide me on my thesis but he also taught me to ask the right questions,” she says.
In 2002, Dhara went to the Kent Institute of Art and Design in the UK to pursue a Master’s degree in Three Dimensional Design. Here, she had the independence to choose her own subjects and read books that introduced her to upcycling.
“When it came to my final project, I had to find someone who had a lot of scrap material. So, I found a bicycle repair shop in Rochester. The idea was to work with scrap material from the repair shop and create useful items by using the limited tools and skills of the shop itself. In the end, I designed a rocking chair using the discarded bicycle parts,” she smiles.
After Dhara returned from the UK in 2003, she worked with Dasrath Tael on several interior design projects, and museum designs using multi-disciplinary themes that helped her think out of the box. In the next few years, she also began freelancing for interior design projects and even joined the MIT Institute of Design. There, she taught basic design, analytical drawings, and working with wood and metal.
With all her cumulative experience, Dhara finally decided to found Studio Alternatives in 2009.
She met Sonali Phadke in 2014 when they were on their way to Mumbai for a ‘Green Idea Project’ meeting organised by the Environment Minister of Maharashtra. Sonali has a background in ecological studies and her environmental approach to design impressed Dhara. Sonali then officially joined the Studio Alternatives team in 2017 and has been working with them ever since.
Turning shipping containers into living spaces
Dhara says that their biggest learning while transforming shipping containers into livable spaces came when they completed their first project in 2014.
“After the 2013 project fell through, we met with a number of people who had an interest in container spaces. We finally got a client in 2014 who was intrigued by the concept and decided to trust us with the project,” recalls Dhara.
Working out the whole project took them about six months, after which they delivered a 320 sq ft space that comprised a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living space. They used a 40ft X 8ft container and the completed home was installed in a day.
Three things were very clear to her after this project.
First, ensuring that the structure was strong enough to be moved from one place to the other. Second, they needed to experiment with more alternative materials when it came to designing the space inside. Third, the structure needed to be lighter and they had to look at the detailing.
So, what are the best features of these homes?
Dhara says that portability is definitely the biggest advantage. The impact on the environment too is minimal because there aren’t any conventional construction materials used to construct the walls. Also, for clients who want to construct homes in remote areas, accessing building materials, masons, and other skilled workers can be a task. So, opting for a home made using shipping containers is ideal as the Studio Alternatives team works out of their own workshop.
The design studio has had its own sample space since 2015, a 160 sq ft office, made using shipping containers. In the same year, they also constructed an in-house project–The Blue House–using shipping containers, where Dhara and her husband currently live.
“This house is made using two 20ft X 8ft containers. One of the walls opens up into a deck which makes the space bigger. This house has moved around for about four times within Pune,” she says.
The design studio similarly extends these services to their former clients in case they want to move their homes. The charges for these depend on the distance and the terrain of the new location.
The shipping containers are sourced from Jawaharlal Nehru Port and come in 40ft X 8ft and 20ft X 8ft, costing between Rs 85,000 and one lakh. The cost also depends on the condition and extent of damage to the shipping container.
Having worked on at least 17 projects since then, Dhara’s team works like a well-oiled machine. They have two teams–one inhouse team of eight people and a team of service providers like electricians, plumbers, etc, who are contracted.
“Once we have the shipping containers and the design has been worked out, fabrication is done. Thereafter, we work on the flooring, insulation, bathrooms, and kitchens. We also need to work out the electrical fixtures along with the plumbing. Once all this is done, we design the interiors and furniture,” she informs.
Interesting projects and happy clients
When Studio Alternatives started using shipping containers to design spaces, they didn’t think they would find so many interested clients.
One of these people is Pune-based Harshal Surange. The owner of a cold storage design and consultancy firm first heard about these unique homes from friends. With a plot of land over half an acre located in the Kurunji Village about two hours away from Pune, he found his answer in Studio Alternatives for his home.
“We wanted a structure that could be moved around and hence, we got in touch with them around mid-2018. It took about 3-4 months in designing the home and by February 2019, we got our 480 sq ft home installed,” says the 44-year-old.
The house is built using three shipping containers, one at the bottom and two on top. There are two bathrooms and two rooms, along with a terrace, a feature that Harshal especially likes.
“Other than the fact that the home was designed with a clear understanding of what we wanted, we also like that it is sustainably built. The insulation is perfect and there is no need for air conditioners even when it gets hot outside. The house looks so different and the concept is very unique,” he says.
Studio Alternatives has worked on several projects so far, but designing a school using shipping containers was closest to Dhara’s heart. The project was for QUEST, an NGO that works on children’s education. The NGO moves its projects from one village to another for their educational programmes and hence, wanted a structure that was portable.
“In July 2016, we delivered a 640 sq ft school using two 40ft X 8ft shipping containers. The structure has washrooms and a functional pantry in addition to the classrooms. We also had artist Abha Bhagwat from Pune, who painted trees and birds on the exterior,” she says.
Overcoming hurdles and looking forward
All the container spaces that the studio has built are innovatively designed and beautiful to look at. However, executing such ideas in a country where this trend hasn’t really caught on like in the West, challenges are bound to come up.
“One of the key challenges is installing our structures rather than building them. The terrain of the location and weather conditions pose a major challenge, especially on the day of installation. In addition to that, finding transporters who are cooperative is a little difficult, which can otherwise make the installation much smoother,” she says.
Although the country is in a state of lockdown, the process of brainstorming hasn’t come to a halt.
Currently, the innovative design studio is looking to incorporate services that include greywater recycling, creating spaces for gardening, and other features to make the living spaces more sustainable.
Dhara says that they have been experimenting with all this at their studio. They are also looking at designs that are quicker to install and more cost-effective, without compromising on the quality.
“Our goal is to provide solutions based on the ‘3R’ theory–reduce, reuse, and recycle. The idea has always been to use our creativity in extending the life reclaimed materials we work with and to show how it can become a mainstream lifestyle choice. In the future, we hope to facilitate these values among communities who will be more open to environmentally-friendly practices,” she says, signing off.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)