A quick Internet search will reveal that Coco Shambhala boutique holiday villas have earned rave reviews from vacationers from across the world. A darling of travel magazines like Conde Nast and Elite Traveler, their Goa property makes it to the Top 25 Beach Villas in the world list. And their newer, equally luxurious, Sindhudurg outpost won the NDTV Architecture Award, in the hospitality segment in 2017.
We spoke to owner Giles Knapton on building Coco Shambhala in Sindhudurg to find out just what makes this space an architectural marvel tucked away in the hills that run along the western coast of India.
Giles, you’ve said that Coco Shambhala at Sindhudurg is a labour of love. How would you describe your aesthetics and what inspired its design?
When we first decided to build in Sindhudurg and identified the site, I knew we were blessed with a stunning location enveloped by an area of outstanding natural beauty. But as the very first luxury property in the area, we had a huge obligation to set an example for responsible tourism in this special region and build in a way that was respectful of the setting and local culture. I was determined, therefore, not to change the topography of the area by cutting into the hillside or creating ugly structures that stood out. We knew it was going to be a big challenge, but we took inspiration from the work that has already been done by leading tropical architects and landscape designers and researched vernacular, Indian building traditions to work with the elements.
Guided by these principles, we decided to create spectacular looking but minimally invasive steel framed houses that can be dismantled easily. The entire frame is held together by nuts and bolts without a single structural weld. This allowed us to build manually on steep hillsides, without using cranes or JCBs. These structures are housed under a four-way, pitched, Mangalore tiled roof — so that from a distance they blend into the surrounding village and do not look out of place. On the inside, we took inspiration from open living pavilions so typical to this area, and designed them as contemporary, inviting spaces that let in fresh air and light. This modern tropical approach also gave us the freedom to build around existing trees on the property and take full advantage of spectacular, 180-degree panoramic sea views that our guests fall in love with at first sight.
How was it being recognised for your efforts by the NDTV Architecture Award jury?
The challenges in building at Sindhudurg were great and extensive. The location itself is remote. We were erecting structures manually on a hillside using a local workforce with whom I did not share the language. They had to try and understand my vision and work towards a common goal. And we were constantly trying to learn from each other and source new materials. So, the NDTV recognition was an incredible reward for all the hard work, blood, sweat and tears that went into this project. It was welcomed by the entire team of 138 people involved in the project. It made up for many, many days filled with self-doubt and anxiety.
Did you hire an external architect? Could you elaborate on the role Elements Design Studio played in helping realise your vision?
I hired the services of Sumedh Naik, from Elements Design Studio in Mapusa, as a local architect to interpret my designs for the local authorities and communicate the plans on site. Sumedh was a constant source of support throughout the project. On days where I doubted my designs, he had confidence. We worked together to solve problems in the build and overcome challenges on the site. The technical expertise Sumedh provided made the end result possible. His support and the working relationship we enjoyed was a huge contributor toward the success of the project. I was looking for a good local architect to work as my draftsman, but ended up with a partner whose dedication was phenomenal.
Could you talk about a few choices in terms of building materials that make Coco Shambhala eco-friendly?
The woodwork at Coco Shambhala is mainly made out of locally sourced coconut, a renewable eco-friendly choice because the trees have a 70-year lifespan. Although coconut bark was a challenging material for our carpenters to work with, it has great structural properties and its unique grain provides a stunning finish. All furniture was made on site using recycled materials to reduce the overall footprint of the project. We also planned ahead and planted bamboo groves so we could use bamboo straws in our kitchen when we opened. I would say that thinking about small details like this while the project is being conceptualised is very important.
We also took special care to plan the landscaping around the property. Our gardens feature a profusion of local plants to help maintain soil balance and shield our villas from the harsh sun. This lush, green tropical cover and carefully placed water bodies help cool the structures around them, and reduce electricity usage and cooling costs – and of course, reinforce the idea of Coco Shambhala as a luxurious oasis where our guests can recharge and recover in the midst of nature.
Who was the sort of guest you had in mind while conceiving Coco Shambhala? Do you think travellers have become more discerning as time goes by?
Absolutely. The discerning international traveler is conscious of the choices they make when they travel. Where they choose to stay and what they see and do can have a positive or negative impact on the culture and environment of the place. The more travelers are aware, the greater the emphasis will be on operators to be responsible.
Having said that, our customer is used to a very high level of comfort and luxury. Therefore, it is not enough to be responsible, you also have to provide impeccable service and luxury. This expectation drives us to be creative and to think deeply about what our guests would like and craft experiences that they will remember, long after they leave.
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Keep visiting the Palmex Blog for more stories from the world of hospitality and architecture. And write to us for information on how eco-friendly thatch can be the right choice for your project in India.
Preeti Prakash | Journalist