Published: 23rd June 2020
This Pune duo turns old shipping containers into portable schools & sustainable houses. Here's how
Dhara Kabaria and Sonali Phadke have been upcycling old shipping containers, turning them into living spaces, offices and schools. We find out how and why
Recycle. Reuse. Reimagine.
Following this motto for the past 11 years, Pune-based Studio Alternatives, run by duo Dhara Kabaria and Sonali Phadke, has been upcycling old shipping containers and turning them into living spaces, offices and schools that are portable, sustainable and functional. Telling us how it all started for the duo, Sonali says, "Dhara had started a small workshop after she completed her master's degree in Three Dimensional Design from Kent Institute of Art and Design in the UK and returned to India. She was experimenting with whatever discarded materials and leftovers she had from her regular work and interior design assignments. Upcycling had always been at the forefront of the studio's activities."
While Dhara set up Studio Alternatives in 2009 by herself, she and Sonali met later on, in 2014, at a Green Idea Project meeting organised by the Environment Minister of Maharashtra. "We kept meeting informally for some time, I used to go to her studio after work, but then at one point, it became quite evident that we should get together and collaborate full-time. Around 2017, I officially joined the company but it was in the works much earlier," narrates Sonali, recalling their initial days. She continues, "Independently, we had some grants, we were both working for different companies then. We met during these grant-related meetings and got to know each other. Though I have a background in Engineering, I also did a course in the sustainable management of natural resources, which helps me with the work Studio Alternatives does."
To the beginning
Their first project with shipping containers actually came from a client who approached the duo, best known for recycling and creating sustainable spaces, with the idea of turning old shipping containers into a hotel. "This client wanted to build a hotel using shipping containers. This was an interesting project and we undertook all the design work. Unfortunately, the client lost funding for his project and we couldn’t implement the designs. But the idea stayed with us," recalls Sonali.
In the meantime, as they had already done a lot of research on shipping containers, the duo wanted to do something with them even if it was a one-time thing. "In 2014, a client of ours, a musician, wanted us to build him a farmhouse which would be quirky and unique and wanted to experiment with shipping containers. That got a lot of media attention and we wanted to continue — that's when Dhara asked me to join her full-time. We took a year to study and properly learn how to scale up and how to do it systematically — 2015 was a learning year. Since 2016, we have to do regular projects," adds Sonali, who informs us that the team takes about three to four months to complete a project, which is faster than conventional construction.
Schools close to their heart
Their most interesting projects, the ones that are the closest to the duo's hearts, are the shipping containers that they turned into schools. One of them was done for an NGO named QUEST (Quality Education Support Trust) near Palghar district in Maharashtra. "The project was for QUEST, an NGO that works for children’s education. The NGO moves its educational programmes from one village to another and so, wanted a structure that was portable. In July 2016, we delivered a 640 sq ft school using two 40ft X 8ft shipping containers. The structure has a washroom and a functional pantry. We also had an artist from Pune paint trees and birds on the exterior," says Sonali, adding, "The NGO works with schools closely but never had their own space, so their brief was that the classroom and office should be welcoming. Students should voluntarily want to come in and sit and enjoy."
The other school project that they worked on was the Signal School in Thane in 2018. They work with street kids who are typically seen begging at traffic signals. The kids were not used to a classroom set-up and so, they would run away from school. Then, Samarth Bharat Vyaspith along with the Thane Municipal Corporation decided to take the school to where the children are — under a flyover. "They wanted to create a complete learning ecosystem. Two classrooms were created by us in a shipping container. This was an extremely interesting project. As this was for an NGO, somebody donated the shipping container; we brought it to Pune, built it and took it back to Thane," shares Sonali.
The design studio has worked on 17 projects so far and upcycled 43 containers into homes, offices and schools. What attracts people the most is that it's a movable space, you can shift the whole set-up and it's comfortable, adds Sonali. And it can be customised for any requirement.
The Blue House
Practising what they preach, ie sustainability, they have their very own shipping container which is now home to Dhara and her family. "These containers come only in the size of 8 ft. More than eight feet is not allowed on the road, so we have to work with that size. The shipping containers are sourced from across the country and come in 40ft X 8ft and 20ft X 8ft, costing between `85,000 and one lakh. The cost also depends on the condition and extent of damage caused to the container. People like the idea on paper but to get the entire thing done is a task," she adds.
Called The Blue House, the duo worked on this in-house project as a model to show potential clients. "We experimented a lot — used three containers, added a floor, and used a foldable or open deck option for the first time. We used recycled material, for insulation we used discarded thermocol, and old furniture. The Blue House now acts as a showcase project for people to see the possibilities with shipping containers. It was made in 2016, it is now Dhara's home. We have moved it four times already — including to an exhibition," explains Sonali. Their studio workshop is also an upcycled shipping container and it is placed in the outskirts of Pune.
They use rubber-based insulation for their projects and standard electrical and plumbing fittings. Designs are made in a way that these containers can be placed in remote areas. "Service personnel should be able to fix it if there's an issue in the future. For the flooring, we have all the regular options. We refurbish and put in furniture if a client is willing — most of the time, it's up to the client how much reuse they prefer," she adds.
Anything offbeat comes with its own challenges and a major challenge that the duo faces is that their designs must be all-season proof. "For this, we have invested heavily in our team. During the intense lockdown too, nobody went back, they stayed with us. The process of brainstorming hasn’t come to a halt because of the pandemic. We are also looking at new designs that will be quicker to install and more cost-effective, without compromising on the quality," concludes Sonali.