Passionate about his work and an enduring inspiration to youngsters today, architect Karan Grover has grown in stature since he began his firm Karan Grover & Associates over two decades ago – and it’s all thanks to his innate insight of what it means to be green.
Karan Grover is the quintessential jet-setting architect – yesterday in Dubai, today in Baroda, tomorrow in Kolkata, the day after in Bangalore, then to Mumbai for a brief stopover packed with meetings before catching a flight to Oman. But back in Baroda, he takes great pride in his home, as anyone invited over for a meal will attest. On the occasion of Hong Kong-based cybertect James Law’s visit to India last month, he played the gracious host with ineffable style. While wife Nisha was in Delhi enjoying a well-earned break from running her school for deaf children, he was supervising the running of the household, rearranging the furniture, doing the flower arrangements, planning the menu and ensuring that each of his guests was comfortable. Despite digging his fingers into many pies, the champion of causes ranging from heritage conservation and green architecture to art promotion and city improvement always ensures that the meal he presents looks, smells and tastes the way he has imagined it.
Everything that Grover does, he does with style and passion. That’s what makes him a charismatic crusader. He made news in 2004 when the CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre designed by him in Hyderabad was awarded the platinum rating by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a voluntary certification system developed in 1998 by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) – the first building outside the USA to have won it. Moreover, he has the distinction of being the first architect in the world to win this award. The USGBC criteria are classified according to: sustainability of the site, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design process; and out of a possible 69, the Grover design won 56 points.
Thanks to his bond with the late archaeologist Arun Mehta, formed while he was still a student of architecture at the M.S. University of Baroda, Grover had promised his “mentor” that he would make the ancient historical site and medieval capital of Gujarat Champaner-Pavagadh his cause celebre. For 30 years, he led two parallel lives – juggling his work as an architect with his mission to put Champaner on the world map. “I started practising in 1975 and, till 2004, I would focus on architecture in the daytime. Then, from the evening till the next morning I would work on Champaner, devising strategies to create awareness. We started the Heritage Trust in 1984 and promoted the Heritage Club for children. I did not realize at the time, that my architecture and this heritage involvement were connected. I thought they were two different things, so I never spoke to architects about Champaner, and I never spoke to archaeologists and other activists about my architecture.”
All that changed in 2004, when Champaner was nominated India’s 25th World Heritage Site by UNESCO and the building he designed for CII received the platinum rating from the USGBC. It was a defining moment for Grover, who realized that each of his two burning passions was stoking the other. Since then, he has been juxtaposing them in his presentations. “I realized after ten years of practice in 1985 that nothing I was doing was of any value,” he confesses bluntly, recalling why he started his own firm, Karan Grover & Associates (KGA). “The problem was that my upbringing, my college, my teachers, my text-books were all Western-oriented. We were trying to replicate buildings that had nothing to do with our climate, culture or customs. My architecture which is now rooted to our context, the architecture of place, was influenced in a major way by my interaction with Champaner.”
Essentially, the design for the Hyderabad building makes use of lessons learnt from India’s past. “This is a courtyard building, and we made use of jalis… because when hot air comes in through a small opening and then expands quickly, it cools,” explains Grover. “We’ve used a wind tower to reduce the ambient air by 10 degrees C and then give it to the AHU, so that the AHU has less to cool. About 88 per cent of the building does not need artificial light during the day, as it is naturally lit. Around 75 per cent of the occupants have outside views. We recycle 100 per cent of the water, so our intake of water from the corporation is reduced by 35 per cent. We have used 80% of recycled material in the construction and reduced our load of air-conditioning by 20 per cent, so we use half the energy to run the building.”
These were major achievements, lauded for being green – a relatively new word for the use of age-old building techniques. “I learnt this word in 2000, when then US President Bill Clinton said he wanted to build a green building in India,” recalls Grover. “It dawned on us then that green was identical to what we have been building using tradition and the vernacular. The idea of the courtyard is that when air gets heated, because it’s hot it rises and cooler air comes in due to the pressure difference. We’ve worked with that idea before, as also the idea of zero waste and jalis; we’ve oriented our buildings north to south so that we get maximum daylight; we’ve experimented with the wind tower to cool air naturally – so when it came to the Hyderabad project, we said let’s incorporate all these ideas. We had tried them all individually, but this was the first time we used them all together.”
Since then, Karan Grover & Associates has become synonymous with green architecture and its founder has been recognized as a social entrepreneur by the Ashoka Foundation in Washington DC. “This title honours people who have a single idea that could change the world, and they have identified 700 people worldwide who have had such ideas. I am an Ashoka fellow for the involvement of children in conservation through the Heritage Club,” discloses Grover, who is zealous about speaking to students and young architects. “Well-known architects never came and spoke to us,” he muses. “We were taught by people who were not practising, so what we were learning was not relevant. I accept about six lectures a year – which sometimes take me two or three months to put together. I have a series called ‘Be Inspired’ whereby I try to inspire young people. I use that route rather than teaching.”
A number of young architects have been influenced by Grover’s lectures, but many more by their interaction with this crusader with many causes. Amazed at the way LEED works to ensure that the criteria of green building are followed, he has been inspired to work in a “charette” (a French word for horse-drawn carriage). Just like children would complete their assignments while travelling to school in a charette, he advocates that his office camps at the site along with the project consultants. “We work 24/7 for three or four days to come up with a design,” he discloses. Thanks to his boundless energy, the green Grover will not be caught napping.