It is remarkable how far we have come with technologically advanced homes and offices which protect us from the  raw power of nature, whether it is the blistering heat of the sun or the bone chilling cold of winter. But these advancements have come at a cost – global warming, water scarcity and resource shortage.

What is the way forward? Holistic design ! Chandni Shah, our next pathbreaker, Environmental Architect, blends Design and Functionality of buildings with Environmentally sensitive science, integrating the natural aspects of the site in the overall design, thus lowering operating costs in the long run through energy savings, water conservation and green materials.

Chandni talks to the Shyam Krishnamurthy from the Interview Portal about her work ensuring sustainability under  LEED, IGBC and Griha standards and the satisfaction it brings to her career.

A great read for students who want to specialise in next generation building architectures.

Chandni, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Mumbai. My father is a businessman and mother, a homemaker. Being the elder child, it was expected from me to be more responsible and have a very thoughtful approach towards everything, considering all the circumstances. I was fortunate enough to have parents who believed in me and asked me to pursue the career of my choice. My father taught me to be analytical about everything, accept failures and push your limits harder every single time. My mother on the other hand taught me to believe in myself and become independent.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After pursuing my Bachelor’s in Architecture, I have completed my Post graduation i.e. M. Arch. in Environmental Architecture at Rachana Sansad’s Academy of Architecture.

My career has been more of circumstantial and I have no regrets. I was rightfully diverted from the things I wished to pursue, which made me realize that God has a different and better plan for me. The overall outcome is that I work in something that just doesn’t pay my bills but also satisfies my soul.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

After pursuing science in high school, i was thinking of pursuing either engineering or architecture. Eventually, I turned to my guru for advice and she said that a majority of people today choose engineering and told me to choose something different. I decided not to go with the crowd and hence, decided to take up Architecture as a profession.

The next turning point came when I wanted to pursue my post graduation. Considering my initial work, I thought I was good at management, I was inclined towards M. Arch. in Project Management. But while filling my request for admission, i filled in M. Arch. in Environmental Architecture since I thought this would be a more satisfying career, in terms of the work I do. 

At every step of my academic life, I was unsatisfied with my results. And the will in me to accomplish something more than the previous time helped me work harder. My dad taught me never to be afraid of failures but be afraid of not trying hard enough. He used to tell me to always work hard and give my best. So even if i did fail, i know that i had given my 100%. 

My teacher in school used to say we Indians have a typical attitude in us, that everything is “chalta hai”. For every work we didn’t give our 100%, we always have a tendency to say “chalta hai”. She advised us to remove the “chalta hai” attitude and then see how all the world’s success is ours. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My internship and first job started at a small interior design firm in Mumbai wherein I worked for a period of ~2 years. It was my first professional experience working in the corporate world. What they teach you in college and what works in the real world are two very different things, especially in our field.  Apart from the technical work that gets more meticulous and practical, the real world taught me how to interact with clients, handle contractors, schedule items, manage everything, etc. Normally, I would end up working till my legs gave up. Being a girl, I would work 14-15 hours a day. But it was all worth it because I was always excited to learn new things, achieve something and be content with my work at the end of the day. I normally don’t get sleep if I am not satisfied with my day’s work. My hard work and dedication were appreciated by the person I worked for. He saw huge potential in me and bestowed responsibilities on me which no junior was normally given. 

Later, as I took specialization in environmental architecture, I started working on projects of sustainability and green buildings. I would say that the latter part of my career has changed me as a person. The profession has shaped me to become a better human first. 

During my masters, I started working with a Green building consultant in Mumbai as a Jr. Green Building Analyst. My job included assessing various projects for their feasibility and their compliance towards the requirements of IGBC (Indian Green Building Council) and Griha. Additionally, various design case studies were conducted which would help clients have a thoughtful approach to design in terms of macroclimate, microclimate and site development. These studies would typically include façade design, orientation, fenestration designs and optimization, preliminary daylight studies, wind movement, ventilation patterns, etc. 

Being from the architecture background, a clear understanding of functioning of buildings and spaces is there, but often an in-depth study of the climate is missed out during design. Hence, my job helped me in deriving a climate-responsive design and also work on measures to further evaluate the project in terms of technical aspects to make it more “green” in the operational phase, as well.

Post marriage, I shifted to a Tier II city from Mumbai which was a complete shift of the atmosphere around. Though I was getting work from clients I worked with previously, I decided to take up a job here. The reason being, I was getting an opportunity to work with one of the most prominent people in the Green buildings industry and secondly, it gave me time to understand, explore and adjust to the new city, work environment and culture. Here working on high rise projects, I started understanding the complexities involved with respect to green building aspects in large scale development. My journey of 2 years here had me working on high end residential, commercial, mixed use and factory developments under LEED, IGBC and Griha. 

During my work here, I was advised to participate in IGBC (Indian Green Building Council) Green League, which is a yearly learning experience wherein we would be trained by experienced professionals on green building technologies, materials, concepts, etc. and also get a chance to participate in a National Level quiz competition on Sustainability.  Learning something new is something I always look forward to and so I took this opportunity to participate in IGL under Ahmedabad chapter. Apart from the enormous knowledge I gained during the five week course and the friends I made, I emerged as a winner in IGL Ahmedabad chapter in the quiz held. I was in perfect contentment as I accepted my first trophy from the respective dignitaries. Subsequently, I competed with participants from all around India in the Green building congress held at Hyderabad, wherein I emerged as a national winner for IGL 2018. It has been one of the milestone moments of my life which not only gave me the recognition but also made me realize my potential. 

Every small problem I see, I want to make a difference. At the back of my mind, I am always looking forward to find a solution. Just an example, I feel bad even when cows have to search and eat leftover food from plastic bags thrown irresponsibly by “us” in my city. I always end up thinking about how can I bring a change in their lives as well? 

How did you get your first break?

My first break in the field of sustainability came through a recommendation. The reference was given by a person with whom I interned as a part-time professional during my college years. He saw potential in me during that time and as I was doing my masters in this field, he recommended me. Since our field is relatively new, it is difficult to get a job as a fresher. But somehow, luck favoured and my nature of maintaining relations helped me get this break. 

Where do you work now? 

Apart from independently handling projects in sustainability with my previous firm, I decided to take the risk and venture on my own with “The Open House Studio”. The reason being I had reached my comfort zone and somehow, I was not able to enjoy the calmness.  I wanted to do something that would keep me on my toes. The 9 to 5 thing somewhere constrained my growth. Now as I work for myself, I can evolve more as a person and a professional. 

Apart from architecture design, we take up projects in sustainability under LEED, IGBC and Griha wherein the projects are critically evaluated for site development, energy and water conservation, material use and indoor environmental quality.

What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?

The primary skills required for technical work are Building Energy modeling, Daylight Analysis and CFD analysis. The courses are available online but to enhance your skills, it’s important to spend time working on the software more. The software has millions of possibilities and it’s important to spend time on it to efficiently use it. This being more on the technical side, sometimes it becomes difficult for people from architecture background to understand.  

Other than the technical skills, we do need skills for site development studies and high performance building design studies in terms of energy conservation measures related to orientation, facade, insulation, shading devices, lighting design and HVAC Systems. 

My mornings would normally include brain storming sessions in architecture and design, because I think in the mornings my mind is quite fresh to think about new ideas. The latter part of the day involves working on technical aspects.

What is it you love about this job? 

The thing I love about my job is that every new project has a new challenge attached to it. After completion of a project, I find myself saying this often, “wow. I didn’t know that I could do this”. There’s always so much to learn even in the smallest of projects. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

Sustainability I think is a complex and multifaceted topic. Our every action, from what we eat or how we travel has an impact on our environment. As an architect practicing in sustainability, I feel we help build a greener, more sustainable world. We can help the future generations live in the same beautiful world we grew up in.

My work being associated with the environment around, we help people (Architects, real estate developers, corporate, etc.) provide a better environment for their tenants or employers as well as save on running costs for the owner/developer/tenant. 

It’s simple mathematics. If we take the total cost of any building, approximately 10-15% will go into the construction and 85-90% of it will go into operational and running cost which will be incurred during the life of the building. Our work helps people focus on saving considerably in the operational phase. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

See, a profession is not just about making money; it is also about enjoying what you do. If you are not passionate about it, sooner or later you are bound to give up. Find your passion and work every damn day towards it. Even if you have not found your passion yet, keep working on things in hand and you will soon realize what your passion is or what your heart is calling for.

Secondly, never give up. Don’t be afraid of failures. Be afraid of not trying enough. And remember hard work will always beat Talent.

Good Luck.

Future Plans?

I feel that in the last decade there has been awareness and work in making sustainable buildings, which is fine. But, we have forgotten one part in this scenario, which is wellness of humans. Very little work has been done in this matter, which needs to be addressed sooner or later. We have already started witnessing the impacts of indoor environment on humans in the form of sick building syndrome, occupational hazards, etc. I really hope I can create impactful solutions for the environment as well as the people. I wish to take up this in my PhD.