Backed by a good mix of inquisitiveness and idealism, Shibanee and Kamal Sagar — alumni from Sir JJ College of Architecture and IIT Kharagpur, respectively, started Total Environment in 1996. They aimed to find their design style and direction in architecture, “and create buildings that add some value to the architectural heritage of the country, and the world.” From the beginning, they were clear about certain variables, mainly that they wanted to work with natural materials extensively. They started off by experimenting with individual home projects in Bengaluru and Pune.
During those early days, Kamal was unhappy with certain practices in architecture — such as clients awarding projects to cheaper contractors, which affected the final outcome of the designs. This probably explains his exploration into design-build projects. Along with a couple of friends, he began designing and building unique residential apartment buildings in Bengaluru. It was an intensely proactive effort that required him to find the appropriate land, purchase it, design it, and then sell the individual apartments — all from an architect’s perspective and not a developer’s. They barely broke even with their first attempt, but it didn’t prevent Kamal from creating Windmills of Your Mind, a premium residential development, also in Bengaluru, using the same design-build format. If anything, this exercise speaks of their resilient pursuit of good design — even if it means being extremely proactive in pursuing projects.
While they went on to explore other typologies besides housing, their design language remained constant, with an emphasis on a natural material palette and spatial planning that is characterised by an open layout with minimum walls — aspects they maintained for small and large projects alike. What has evolved are the finer details, from masonry to individual elements such as fenestrations.
One of their significant explorations has been in the housing space. “There are a few things we incorporated that didn’t exist before, like the idea of having a garden for every apartment, on every floor. We began incorporating this concept in ‘96, from our second housing project onwards,” discloses Kamal. They began building a 10×10 private garden for a 1,200sq-ft apartment, and the concept now spawns duplex and double-height gardens, as well as 1,000-1,400sq-ft individual gardens in apartment buildings.
There is more innovation on the horizon for Total Environment. “With the advent of 3D printing and other technology, it is possible to do a lot more in terms of details,” says Kamal, who wants to completely break away from historical motifs and decorative elements. True to its initial quest, Total Environment’s future projects will also integrate more of nature. “For two of our projects, we have created a sense of nature by taking over the built environment and having trees grow out of the walls,” explains Kamal, who — interestingly— had pitched a similar idea for his thesis project, but was met with utmost scepticism.

Looking Back

For Windmills of Your Mind, the firm designed earth-sheltered homes, large duplex apartments and single-level apartments in a manner that was unconventional in large-scale housing projects. “It got us nationwide recognition and helped us get great talent to join us,” says Kamal.

Looking forward

Total Environment’s upcoming nature-centric project, A Saucerful of Secrets, in the Ooty hills, is a secluded resort with an area for live music performances. The firm is working with National Geographic, Cleveland Zoo and Auroville to ensure that the wildlife in the area is not affected by the resort.

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