Rhapsody in stone

Kamal Sagar, MD, Total Environment, blends music and an architect’s mind to bring to life architecture that make for better living

Kamal Sagar.
Kamal Sagar.

Timeless. Craftsmanship. One with nature. These are just some of the principles that the team at Total Environment embraces. Dig a little deeper and one is curious to know more about the beneficial values that have been carefully nurtured and cultivated within the company. It begins with Kamal Sagar, founder and chairman. By his own admission, he prefers to imbue his homes with functionality, space and humanism, and the architect and musician in him has honed this through a combination of technology and housecraft. And this is visible across every aspect of his body of work.

Sagar did not mean to start out as a developer. That role was nowhere on the horizon. All that the architect from IIT Kharagpur, along with his architect wife Shibanee, wanted to do was create homes that were a far cry from what he saw around him. Finding little acceptance, Sagar took matter in his own hands and founded Total Environment, a construction and real estate development company, which he says “would build out my designs without compromise”.

The grit to construct memorable buildings comes from his admiration for works by Moshe Safdie’s ‘Habitat’ in Montreal and Charles Correa’s ‘Kanchenjunga Apartments’ in Mumbai. Otherwise, he thinks that little has been achieved worldwide in architectural design with respect to multi-family housing.

Since then, Total Environment has built 4.6 million sq-ft of high quality, individually customised and furnished spaces, mostly homes, across Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.

Staying true to his core profession, Sagar has worked largely as an architect with customers, understanding their families and their needs in order to design and deliver homes that will work for them. Today, a large number of their homes continue to sell through customers.

Pull out all the stops
There are different skills that are important in life that can be developed by music. Sagar believes that music brings in harmony which also reflects in one’s work. “My work has always been inspired by music. I founded Windmills Craftworks in 2012, a Jazz theatre, microbrewery and restaurant, where people can experience talent at close quarters, with exceptional sound quality and in a beautiful, warm and comfortable setting with some of the best beer and food in Bangalore. In less than two years, Windmills Craftworks established itself as the best live music venue, bringing path breaking music ranging from Jazz, Blues, Rock, Folk, Bluegrass, Indian Classical & Folk and Latin.”

This passion also reflects in the nomenclature of hisbuildings, a rarity in India. Pursuit of a Radical Rhapsody, Windmills of Your Mind, In That Quiet Earth, The Meadow Dance, Van Gogh’s Garden, Greensleeves, After the Rain, are just some of the delightful places where his buyers live and thrive.

The architect in Sagar is confident that for long people have been misled to believe that design means ‘decoration’ or ‘styling’. “As architects, we are aware that a home in a high-rise, high density housing community, can be designed better. So, we took on the idea of embracing nature and creating high quality homes that were warm and individually designed for each family. However, this was not possible as architects. To bring about a serious change, we would need to take on the daunting task of developing and constructing such homes and not just designing them. Total Environment was born.”

Committed to a mission, the next step was arming himself with the right tools and technique to make it possible. Importantly, he wanted people to understand what he was offering so that they could get home-buying right the first time. Sagar says, “All our innovations have come from solving some basic problems. While the industry at large either ignored these questions, or chose to live by limitations, I started seeing possibilities.”

They created ‘eDesign’, a proprietary software that allows customers to design their homes with ease, while ‘Machine-Craft’ allows them to make that design a reality through getting all the accessories as they had visualised. All in all, a holistic approach to creating homes that hitherto was unheard of from a developer.

Sagar believes in being research-oriented and far-sighted, drawing upon experience to solve contemporary challenges in imaginative and unexpected ways. This calls for personal involvement and the business operates on a model of a design studio environment – all the while building up resources.

The research is visible in its eDesign platform which allows customers to choose from over 9.2 million options including walling, furniture and electrical layouts, floor and wall finishes, kitchen cabinetry, shelving in the wardrobes, and even landscaping. Select the location of lights in a room and decide which switches should control them. Tell them where you want to place your favourite lamp, and they will make sure there is a socket to plug it in.

What makes eDesign unique is that it comes with preloaded colour palettes, plan configurations, finish and fixture options that fit the style, budget and lifestyle of individual customers. It offers a highly personalised experience with a wide range of customised layouts, interior finishes, electricals, landscaping and store items to choose from. Advanced features like 3D perspectives and renders, smart suggestions, real-time pricing, cost break-up, among other things, help eDesign to be deployed on-the-move.

Master of the craft
The holistic approach does not end there. The team at Total Environment is dedicated to make living in a multi-storey home a unique experience for buyers. There is a focused approach to each project and every home.

There are certain tenets that must be adhered to so as to make it a Total Environment home. Sagar says, “Every apartment is designed around a garden, and each garden comes with sprinklers and a drip irrigation system. Large glass panels help bring nature into the home from these gardens, blurring the boundaries between the indoors and the outdoors. The roofs of our villas are green too, keeping the homes a little warmer in winter and cooler in summer.”

Moving insides, he adds that simple clean lines and minimum walls ensure free-flowing spaces without compromising on privacy. “And it’s the little details that make the big difference - our stairs, for example, are always comfortable to climb, louvred bathroom doors allow for ventilation, while large French windows bring in loads of natural light,” he says.

Homes come in different shapes and sizes. Sagar is not denying that. In order to make it easy for customers to choose, he has evolved four kinds. “Starting with our Green homes, with beautiful Kota stone floors, large solid wood French windows, terrace gardens and our signature exposed brick exteriors, to our Orange homes with extensive furnishing, or our Blue homes with central VRV air-conditioning system, you could go on to our Purple homes with smart home technology, central vacuum system, hardwood floors, rain showers and cast iron bathtubs,” he adds.

Interestingly, Sagar has made elaborate arrangements and gone to great lengths to assure top-notch quality in the furnishings and all the bells and whistles that go into making a home. Realising early on the need for skilled craftsmen of the kind who can be deployed on a larger scale in the areas of woodwork, marble flooring, masonry, metalwork, electrical, plumbing and landscaping, was not easy to avail, Total Environment Machine-Craft using a powerful combination of craftsmanship with technology was created – to deliver the products needed to build individually customised and furnished homes. To top that, came a Quality Assurance team to set up processes, provide training and identify and resolve even the smallest snag before a home is handed over.

Ask him about his core design philosophy, and he ponders about his earliest project, the Poonawalla Stud Farms at Pune, where he worked extensively with exposed wire-cut brick masonry using pattern and texture, with deep-groove pointing that brings out the character of each individual brick, and also with exposed concrete, wood and corten steel.

Striking a chord
Homes must age gracefully. That can only come with the use of right materials. Sagar says, “Our exposed brick exteriors develop a unique character and the Kota stone and marble floors get better with age. It takes a lot of pain to build with natural materials but, in the end, they make all the difference.”
This determination resonates through every project as designs revolve around embracing nature, free-flowing spaces with loads of natural light, and the use of earthy natural materials. Spaces that blur the boundaries between the inside and the outside, trying to bring bits of nature into each home through large glass panels, terrace gardens, earth covered roofs, creeper panels and pergolas. “Besides being maintenance-free, we believe natural materials provide warmth and age beautifully while giving them a life and character of their own,” says Sagar wistfully.

There has been a meticulous method to procure materials that are needed for the projects. The company has long ago established ways to selecting materials remotely – materials such as marble, FSE grade wood, and several fixtures and fittings – and even avail of them during this pandemic. “We centrally manufacture several parts of our homes – from the doors and windows, furniture, kitchens, metalwork, glasswork, hardware and even construction materials such as formwork and scaffolding material and ship all these to our projects – in fact we have delivered several containers to our two projects in the US, over the last two months,” says Sagar.

Play it by ear
What makes him distinguishable today is perhaps the genes he inherited from his parents. His introduction to the arts and design began as a youngster watching his mother paint oil on canvas while his structural engineer father excelled in his profession and moved on to writing books on quantum physics and philosophy.
His love for music inspired him to translate them to buildings. From the Grateful Dead to Pink Floyd to Sting, Sagar has not left out anyone. Possibly, his next project might harken to ….Island in the Sun (Demis Roussos).

Technological features
Smart Home: Every Purple spec home from Total Environment is provided with a Home Automation System that makes interaction with the homes seamless and pleasurable. The system provides access control, manages air conditioning, controls irrigation of the landscape in the gardens, has curtain control features, smoke and heat detection, communication and security.
Glass Deck: The glass decks act like an extension of the family space onto the terrace garden while allowing light to filter through into the spaces below.
Central Vacuum: The central vacuum system with ducts across the house provides unprecedented convenience. Sweep-in valves lets the owners collect dust and sweep it in directly without a separate hose. The vacuum system also has ‘open-type’ valves. A hose can be plugged in to suck dust and deposit it in the main collection bin, which is located in the utility area for easy disposal.
Green Roofs: Single family homes have their roofs covered with grass. This reduces rain water runoff and helps keep the spaces below cooler in the summer and warmer in winter. Compared to conventional homes, these homes also provide a harmonious blend with the surrounding landscape.
Heat Pumps: Heat pumps have been used an alternate to geysers as a sustainable option to conserve electricity. The heat pump takes in heat from the surroundings to very quickly and efficiently heat water, leaving behind cooler and dehumidified air as a welcome by-product.
Machine-Craft: Through a powerful combination of craftsmanship and technology, it has built a facility that can manufacture all furniture, doors, windows, metal and glass works, masonry, flooring and specialised interiors. Doing everything in-house from start to handover and beyond, Total Environment ensures quality and control costs benefits that are passed on to customers. Early on they realised that in order to deliver high quality craftsmanship on a large scale, one would need to create expertise in the delivery of each part of the house. So Total Environment Machine-Craft was set up, using a powerful combination of craftsmanship with technology – to deliver the products needed to build each home. Every sheet of veneer is hand-picked from different parts of the world by experts to provide beautiful colour, texture and grain to give a combination of production quality with a handcrafted feel. And there are several different design themes and finishes to choose from. Similarly, marble and other stone blocks are individually selected from specific quarries in Rajasthan in India, and Brescia in Italy and from other parts of Europe.

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