Shipra Singhania (35) and Sunita Sanghi (60) share a common love for nature. Their second home in Alwar, Rajasthan is built using zero cement and even employs edibles like neem, jaggery and methi in the building material used for construction.
Shipra Singhania (35) from Mumbai and her mother-in-law Sunita Sanghi (60) from Rajasthan bond over several commonalities — one of them being a deep love for their roots and nature.
Their getaway home in Alwar, Rajasthan, tucked away in the village of Barh Kesharpur, is a testament to the duo’s shared passion.
Designed keeping sustainability at the core, and polished with eco-friendly principles, the home has come to be a space where the family reconnects not just with nature but also with each other, away from the hustle of routine city life.
As Shipra recounts in conversation with The Better India, “everything happens for a reason”.
Her true strengths were tested when she was on the precipice of a project, she says. Going on to recall how in 2020, a client approached her for an agro-tourism space he wanted to have on his farm.
“I’d been practising as an interior designer since 2014 through my firm Sketch Design Studio, but this project compelled me to deep dive into natural building and the whole domain,” she notes.
She adds that once she saw the potential of this sustainable architectural space, there was no going back. “I decided to build a second home for my family using these principles of sustainability. It would be our weekend home.”
The 2,000 sq ft dream that took a year to build was finally ready in 2021, and the family couldn’t be more excited to step into their version of paradise.
Eco-friendly scaffolding put to the test
To understand how Shipra’s natural building techniques needed to be fine-tuned to the climate of Alwar, it is essential to get a lay of the land. As one of the most recent of the Rajput kingdoms, Alwar’s scenic landscape comprises forts and stone buildings that incorporate local sandstone as the main material.
The average temperatures of the city soar to 41 degree Celsius and dip to as low as 8 degree Celsius come winters. These extreme climes meant that the design of the home had to be such that it would bear the brunt of the harsh winds and scorching heat, without showing drastic fluctuations in the ambient temperatures inside the house.
Shipra says, “Because it was my first project as an architect, there was a lot of learning involved. I reached out to fellow architect friends for help regarding natural building materials that I could deploy.”
She goes on to talk about these sustainable materials, highlighting that there was a scientific basis entwined with ancient principles that made them a good choice to go with.
“We used mud and earth sacks to build the home along with lime and plaster. We even incorporated edibles, such as neem leaves, turmeric and jaggery, in the building material. These edibles have been used for years in earthen constructions due to their many properties — neem keeps termites at bay, while jaggery is a great binding material, and methi (fenugreek) too binds the bricks well.”
Shipra shares her initial concerns about using these natural materials for construction adding that she wasn’t certain about their strength, but she was left surprised. The overall construction utilises zero cement.
A walk through the cosy abode
With the extreme climates that the state witnesses, Shipra’s priority was seeing that the home is well insulated.
“To make this possible, the walls on the south and the west are constructed with mud as this provides better insulation levels, while the walls on the north and east are done with stone. The roof is made with thatch for its breathable properties.”
As you make your way through the home, the central roof lies at a much greater height than the rest of the home (23 ft to be precise). This is the secret behind the home being well-ventilated throughout the year. Ample windows let the sunlight filter in, especially in winter when the temperatures are chilly.
The central focus of construction was limiting the use of energy-consuming materials, such as cement and concrete, while amplifying the use of local materials.
For instance, Shipra says the mud that went into the foundation and walls, all came from the land itself, while the lime plaster was sourced from a village 20 km away. The windows have overhangs done with stone brackets that ensure the harsh sunlight or the rain coming in does not hit the window directly.
“The overhangs create a barrier between the water and the sun. While we have used stone brackets, people in earlier times used steel but the stone creates an aesthetic element.”
The two-bedroom home is just the perfect getaway for the family, especially on cold winter days when they drive to the farm, get a bonfire going, and sit and gaze at the stars. Dreamy as it may sound, this is possible because of the strategic geographical location of Alwar.
Shipra says the fact that the home is in the middle of farmland means there is not much light on the ground, making it ideal for stargazing.
To enhance the experience, she created a high central pyramidal roof for the home with flat terraces on the side. As the family settles down in the courtyard far away from the city madness, in this little village where the stars shine brighter and the air feels fresher, they say it feels liberating.
‘It feels incredible’
Connecting the dots of how this dream project came to fruition, Shipra says it was all thanks to a 10-day workshop on sustainable architecture that she attended in South India before COVID-19. Here, she was enthused by all sustainable architecture techniques and couldn’t wait to try them out in a home of her own.
“The entire project was an experiment. I came up with the design based on my brief and immediately started looking for people who I could team up with for materials, construction, etc. Everything was done keeping the climate as the focus.”
Shipra adds that along with the construction rooted in sustainability, even other eco-friendly practices prevail on the land, which includes rainwater harvesting.
“It is inspired by permaculture and we have swales that harvest the rainwater. The greywater system we have installed involves a banana circle that purifies the water while it goes into the ground, then lets it flow into the farmland. The idea is to send the water that we collect back to the soil and help vegetation thrive.”
At this point, Sunita interjects, to speak about the thriving farmland that is her pride. Formerly a craftswoman, Sunita has always held organic farming a chapter close to her heart and would spend her time gardening. So when the vacation home enabled her to have her farm blooming with organic produce, she felt thrilled.
The four-acre property, she shares, is filled with produce, almost all of which goes into the food they eat.
“We have millets, dals (lentils), wheat, a spice garden where we grow turmeric, dhaniya (coriander), and saunf (fennel), and even a vegetable patch where we have tomatoes, potatoes, and lady’s fingers along with some seasonal fruits. Around 90 percent of what goes into our food comes from here,” she says.
But even as the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law duo bond over this labour of love, they say it has been a life-changing experience creating this.
They reap the fruits of their efforts during dinners and breakfasts on weekends when they drive to the spot and settle down for a quiet meal.
Jokingly, Shipra adds that what perplexes her the most often is why this is their vacation home and not their mainstay. “I think in a few years’ time, we might move here!” she says. “The temperatures are lower, the sky is cleaner, we are closer to nature and feel rooted.”
As the sky over the land grows inkier by the minute, the family prepares themselves for a night of watching the stars, dining under the carpet of black, and feeling grateful for this home away from home.
Edited by Pranita Bhat