Over the last 30 years or so, the world over, land and built space have been traded more aggressively than ever as a commodity, causing large scale destruction of habitats. In this context, a development firm like Good Earth, based in Bangalore, is an interesting enterprise. The people who founded it were originally design and building consultants in Kerala and have worked for long with the philosophy and technology established by Laurie Baker. However, they have since become developers to be able to realize their sustainability agenda more fully. How does the logic work? Natasha Iype, a trained architect and one of the directors, explains that the move from consultancy to development came about for a simple reason. Being developers offered more control over the user demands that architecture has to satisfy in the marketplace. It also allows for greater control and freedom for experiment in the process of construction. Finally, it paid better and ensured that the group would be able to survive financially and constantly attract younger professionals.
The founders of Good Earth, a group of architects and engineers based in Kochi, Kerala, carried on from an earlier NGO called ESDC which collaborated with COSTFORD on projects designed by Laurie Baker. ESDC had been set up by architect Jaigopal Rao and engineers Stanley George, Binu K Jose, Matthew Varghese and others in the late 1980s. Jeeth Iype joined ESDC in 1993 and was followed by his wife Natasha, also trained like him as an architect in Mumbai. The group built many cost-effective residences, institutions and other kinds of buildings.Over a period, a kind of frustration and boredom began to set in among the team members including Iypes and George.
They felt that their agenda of working towards a sustainable habitat was too often at the mercy of what clients demanded from buildings and the construction process. This reduced the scope for innovation, among other things. The returns from consultancy in cost-effective construction were also not enough to sustain a large group. This last motivation is important to consider. Even though it is fashionable to believe that commitment to a just cause should override monetary returns, the absence of adequate compensation does drive committed professionals off their chosen path. Good Earth’s logic thus can be seen as a way of achieving otherwise contradictory ends through a sensible application of professional skills. After a number of individual digressions, the group reorganized itself in the late 1990s in Bangalore as Good Earth and entered the development business. Jaigopal had already gone his own way and set up Inspiration, an independent consultancy with his wife Latha Raman.
In the period leading up to the formation of Good Earth, the group and its individual members also pursued consultancy in parallel. For instance, the consultancy wing of the group, House of Consultants, designed Sambhavna, a hospital for the gas affected in Bhopal. Sustainable architecture and communities The broad focus of Good Earth is on creating sustainable communities. There is a stated commitment to liveability, as well as to using low-embodied energy materials and techniques. But Iype points out that a sustainable building alone is not enough and it is important to have a sustainable approach to maintenance. Moreover, a sense of community does not necessarily develop by default. It has to be actively nurtured right from the process of building and after occupation, say, through various cultural initiatives. Iype sees an important role for the firm in ensuring that these objectives are actually met.
GoodEarth projects are run in close collaboration with its clients. Like most developers, the firm identifies and acquires a plot of land on which a residential layout is designed. Individual clients buy into the development and have custom houses designed and built by the Good Earth team. The finance for the entire project is raised to a large extent over the stage-wise payments clients make in the process. The customization of design helps build a rapport between the in-house architects on the project (Natasha Iype for Orchard, for instance) and clients, which carries forward into the management phase after occupation. In the last few years, the group has built a number of residential developments in Kerala and around Bangalore which appear to have succeeded at different levels, beginning with sustainable construction. Good Earth builds largely in load-bearing systems (except in the occasional multi-storey project) and has continued the use of brick learnt on Baker’s projects. One known social benefit of load bearing systems, Iype points out, is that a larger percentage of the project cost is given over to workers rather than to big capital businesses or traders who sell industrial products. But Good Earth has also revised the palette inherited from Baker and Costford, experimented with other materials and expanded into systems Baker did not actively implement.