Building Blocks: Return to the Native

Building Blocks: Return to the Native

The Development Alternatives headquarters in Delhi stands out amid a sea of glass and chrome.

Charles Correa building, BV Doshi, Development Alternatives (DA), Ashok Khosla, Delhi, Sanjay Van, Qutub Institutional Area, Ashok B Lall, Zeenat Niazi, Sir Bannister Fletcher, A History of Architecture, Rajasthani craftsmen, indian express, indian express news
Green shoots: The building allows for a low carbon footprint. (Courtesy: DA)

They didn’t want a Charles Correa building or a BV Doshi design, they wanted a DA building. Development Alternatives (DA), founded by physicist-environmentalist Ashok Khosla in 1983, was conscious of making a statement with its world headquarters in Delhi. The rectangular plot of land, at the edge of Sanjay Van in Qutub Institutional Area, has seen experiments in construction that honour its vision of promoting environmentally appropriate technology and social relevance.

When their first building was being designed in 1995, many young architects had their hands on deck. Nearly 15 years later, as the organisation grew, the need for a larger space meant a search for an architect, who was sensitive to their requirements. That’s how DA approached architect Ashok B Lall. “He held meetings with the entire staff to understand what we wanted in the building. From experiencing nature to having 100 per cent rainwater harvesting systems, we wanted an office that would be comfortable and welcoming,” says Zeenat Niazi, vice-president, DA.

The building celebrates a generous courtyard around which meetings rooms, offices, corridors and stairs are organised. Its inherently open, inside-outside feel turns even a balcony into a workplace. One can’t complain when there are views of the forest as far as the eye can see. While the interior and exterior walls are built of cement-stabilised, compressed-earth block and cement-stabilized, fly-ash, lime-gypsum block, Lall used less than 30 per cent steel and cement in construction, giving the building a low carbon footprint. Much of the mud from the previous building was used in the new one.

That the building will be included in the architectural bible, Sir Bannister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture (21st edition) is testimony to its sensitive view of design. “Until it’s about 18 degrees inside in the winters, the heating doesn’t kick in, and only when it’s about 28 degrees in the summer that the air-conditioning comes on. Lall oriented the building such that there is maximum natural light through much of the day, and the west walls are adequately insulated,” says Niazi.

But it’s in the detailing that the building stands tall – the waste mirror glass on surfaces in the courtyard; the free-hand given to Rajasthani craftsmen for the shallow domes; the unpolished granite and sandstone floors patterned to minimise wastage; the low air-conditioning vents that are quiet. These make DA’s headquarters a showstopper for a country that’s only got a glass-and-steel imagination.