When Varun Kohli, principal and sustainable design leader at HOK, works on a project, you can be sure it is eco-friendly

By Maria Louis

As a principal and sustainable design leader based in HOK’s New York office, Varun Kohli leads global design projects and is responsible for all sustainable design and management efforts in the office. For the Kathmandu-bred architect, whose early conversations with his father prompted his interest in architecture, this must be a dream come true. “I had always been good at drawing and painting as a kid and, when my father once mentioned how he had always wanted to be an architect – but was never able to, it sparked my curiosity,” he recalls. “As a teenager, before migrating to the United States, I grew up in Nepal…but every time I travelled to Mumbai or Delhi, the tall buildings fascinated me. I remember a poster of New York City in my bedroom in Kathmandu, and I could never imagine how a dense urban city such as this worked. Little did I know that I would end up studying and practising architecture in New York – possibly the greatest city in the world.”

Kohli’s professional journey has been a focused and sustained learning experience, right from the time he was a student. He did his Bachelor of Architecture at the City College of New York in 2003 after completing his Bachelor of Science in Architecture there in 1998, and then went on to do his Master of Science in Sustainable Environmental Design at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London in 2006.

“I have been fortunate enough to be a student of architecture in two extraordinary urban centres of the world – New York and London,” he acknowledges. “At the City College of New York, we were encouraged to use the city as our lab. Studying neighbourhoods of New York, designing projects at the cusp of Chinatown and Little Italy in Manhattan, understanding the immigrant community while being an immigrant myself, and having access to museums like MOMA and the Metropolitan, were part of our educational experience in the city.”

In his final year undergraduate school, Kohli began to discover a passion for architecture that responded to its external environment and aimed to achieve spaces that enhanced human experience. “This was before sustainable design was at the forefront of architectural design, or even a buzzword,” he points out. “After a few years of working with New York City, I headed to the Architectural Association in London to pursue a graduate degree in Sustainable Environmental Design. Learning and researching building physics and analytics under the guidance of Simos Yannas (director of SED program at the AA) has since clearly formulated my approach to architecture and design. Every project I’m involved with must react and respond to its immediate environmental context as well as the needs of its inhabitants. Although I have been practising architecture for 20 years now, I don’t believe the learning stops. There’s always more…and it keeps things exciting.”

Kohli believes that the most defining event in his professional development was probably the most conventional one – the focused environmental design education at the AA. “Design up until this point felt very arbitrary to me. Programmatic solutions, material applications and poetic compositions and form making of buildings felt a bit soul-less,” he explains. “A connection to and interaction with natural ecology and laws of nature provided a reason. To me, it gave purpose and soul to architecture. The stronger the built ecology embraces the natural ecology, the more successful architecture becomes.”
In 2000, while working for Vollmer Associates in New York, Kohli was asked to go up to Albany and meet their city transportation department. “We were tasked to take over a small portion of the new train terminal being built for Amtrak in Rensselaer (across the Hudson river from Albany). The Rensselaer rail station ‘Passarelle’, as it came to be called, was the first significant project I took from conceptual design through construction,” he discloses. “Looking back, it was a simple and small project – but I realised then the power of every line drawn and how it came to life. I also learnt how every design went through its design and development life and it never ended up as you imagined; that the architect’s role was that of a composer and conductor; and that he/she must coordinate with the entire design team to ensure that the design intent is carried through to final construction.”

Over the past decade or so, Kohli has worked on various projects around the world and done a significant amount of work in India. He is passionate about delivering quality projects and ensuring that they don’t transplant Western office buildings in the country. Before joining HOK, while he ran his own practice – Merge Studio – out of New York, he designed an office complex at Karle Town Centre in Bengaluru. “The twin buildings we designed, carefully addressed occupant use and comfort,” he discloses. “The design of urban plazas .and pedestrian connections ensure pleasant outdoor spaces to congregate. Indoor spaces ensure ample natural light, while a self-shading façade also prevents direct radiation from penetrating into the space. During my last visit, my client informed me that the tenants are happy with lower energy bills. I must add that the West-facing sunset shot from between the two buildings is one of the most ‘Instagram’ed images out of Bangalore (Bengaluru).”
Surfers Paradise Terminal Redevelopment Proposal (The 4217), Gold Coast, Australia, is also a Merge Studio project. This was a proposal along with local developers – presented to Gold Coast city council to rehabilitate the existing bus terminal, infuse it with retail, connect it to an adjacent park and re-clad the exterior to create a transit focused retail hub for the city.

Another Merge Studio project is the Arihant HQ Building, Chennai – “a small jewel project design” for Arihant Foundations. “The building skin design was based on the concept of layers of skin that included, from outside-in a channel glass, an IGU with custom frit pattern and interior blinds behind. This layered approach with varying degrees of transparencies deals with shading and daylight, as well as provides ventilation while buffering some noise pollution.”

A recently-completed project is the renovation of 4 Times Square lobby – an HOK project for the Durst Organisation in New York – with team members Ken Drucker (design director at HOK), Nathan Hoofnagle (HOK) and Alan Stevenson (HOK). The design of the lobby is simplified all over and accentuated by a parametrically designed ceiling that uses GFRG to create 50 unique diamond-shaped panels that spread over the 10,000sq-ft lobby. “4 Times Square tower was one of the first commercial towers in Times Square in the 1990s that began the transformation of the neighbourhood,” Kohli points out. “The building owners were looking to revamp the building lobby in an effort to reposition the property for new tenants. Our team designed a lobby that connects 42nd street to 43rd street with clean homogeneous elements, and then adorned the complex curved ceiling with parametrically designed GFRG panels. The process for design and fabrication of the ceiling panels is entirely digital, where our 3D model was used by the fabricator to CNC the moulds that were used to cast the panels.”

The HOK team has also recently finished the design for the Brigade WTC project in Chennai. This is a mixed-use development of over 2 million sq-ft with over a million sq-ft of SEZ office space, abutting OMR, the city’s new technology corridor. The office building façade is designed through a thorough analytical process, and the team members again include Ken Drucker, Nathan Hoofnagle and Alan Stevenson.

“The project employs an intelligent skin where profiles are designed to mitigate solar heat gains while ensuring vistas to the Bay of Bengal,” informs Kohli, who recently led a team of young designers from the company’s New York office (team members: Apoorv Goyal, Sara Dionis, Shayna Cooper, Harsha Sharma, Donald Marmen, Alexander Nash, James Stawniczy) for a façade design competition. “The ideas competition was to design an office tower of the future,” he discloses.
“We had a pretty successful entry with a design that fractured the architecture and brought natural elements back into its occupants’ lives. Our concept developed around occupant health and wellbeing. An office in a tower in Brooklyn is fragmented to allow for natural ecology to co-exist in sync with its occupants. Driven by biophilic design concepts, the building ensures a variety of spaces for its occupants.”

Commenting on the rapid architectural transformation in India, Kohli is optimistic about the outcome. “At the onset of economic development in India starting in the late ‘90s, we saw a desire to create architecture that mimics the West, often with disregard to its context, use and even quality of materials and construction. The trend continued through most of 2000s, but we have seen a positive shift from the newer generation of designers who are embracing design response more rooted to local climate and culture and rejecting thoughtless re-transplanting of Western architecture.”

While he is hopeful about the future, Kohli says he can understand the cynicism for some of the new architecture in Indian cities. “I recently started a new project in Gurgaon and, whilst looking at the context, realised how almost the entire city of Gurgaon is screaming to be noticed. The architecture is loud and the visual clutter can sometimes be hurtful to the eye. I recall Koolhaas – ‘the non-iconic is the new iconic’. I saw in Gurgaon that the elegance and simplicity of places such as the International Habitat Centre are mostly absent.”

Kohli insists that architects should always be striving to design built environments that uplift the human spirit. “Our design community is now, more than ever, conscious of the impact a habitat has on its occupants and how better natural light, better air quality and removal of toxins can enhance its occupants’ physical and cognitive capabilities,” he observes. “We also know that strategies applied to enhanced indoor environmental quality have a direct correlation to energy consumption and can simultaneously address both.”

Beyond ensuring that these ideas are inherent in his designs, Kohli has been involved with various groups to further the agenda for environmental stewardship. Currently part of the AIA Committee on the Environment’s Advisory Group, he leads the research cluster where they are looking at ways to collect data on best performing projects more readily available for the design community in the USA and abroad.

Although this may vary depending on geographic and climatic location, Kohli would love to see more terracotta products fabricated and further developed for use as external cladding in India. “The raw material for terracotta is primarily earth and, with the use of the right technology, terracotta can be a precision material with the right thermal properties for most of the Indian subcontinent,” he opines. “I am constantly looking at technological advancements in building skin design. We as architects have the biggest impact at the envelope level, be it aesthetic expression or energy balance. Of course, I speak of projects at a larger scale. Although we are able to design building skins with passive design strategies, additional integration of technologies is welcome. BIPVs, integrated fresh air intakes and solar chimneys are a few strategies and systems that are transforming the function of building skins beyond just protection from environmental elements.”
In the past, the ‘green’ architect has taught studio courses at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)’s graduate level programs. He has also taught seminar courses at Harvard GSD. Although he is not currently teaching any courses, he does attend final reviews of architecture students at several universities – thus playing the role of mentor to generation next. After two decades of being a green trailblazer, he would like to be remembered for the fact that his architecture “seeks the truth for its times, its context and its usefulness.”

Kohli strives to make the design process more intelligent in every project that the HOK team takes on. “I push our design process to be more methodical, scientific, computational and based on relevant data. I believe that design aesthetics is an outcome of a smart design process coupled with care and thought for its final occupants,” he maintains.
While he is hesitant to pick one project that he thinks is his best work, Kohli tries to ensure that every new project is better than the last. “By that logic, I think that the Karle Town Centre building complex is so far a good project at that scale.”

KARLE TOWN CENTRE: HUB 1 & HUB 2
As part of a 3.6 million sq-ft SEZ development in the city of Bengaluru, the first tower of roughly 3,60,000sq-ft is now well under construction with the 12-storey (G+11) structure topped off. Merge Studio was engaged to lead the design of this speculative office building. A key feature of the project has been its façade, which is designed with passive environmental strategies to enhance the overall energy performance of the building. From the outset, three essential goals were established for the façade design: high performance, timeless aesthetics and efficient constructability.

Merge Studio led the collaboration of an international team of consultants between New York, Bengaluru, Chennai and Mumbai, to deliver design and documentation for the façade, external and internal public spaces including the public plaza, main lobby, internal street and shared amenities in addition to peer reviewing and coordinating the building core and utility spaces.

Sustainability: The project exemplifies the integration of performative analysis and design. The façade is designed with varying modules that strive to optimise solar shading, daylighting and natural ventilation strategies. The end result is a dynamic façade that excites the senses while responding to its micro-climate, minimising energy consumption and enhancing occupant comfort and experience.

In addition to the façade, the building uses light and air openings for fresh air supply to AHU rooms and provides additional daylighting in office spaces. The project is aiming for LEED Gold certification with energy savings of approximately 22% over ASHRAE base case and 36% when compared to similar (non-compliant) office buildings in India.

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