Filed under Interview
Hitesh is an eco-Architect, eco-Landscape Architect, Environmental Planner, Professional Photographer, Adjunct Professor and Author. Here is his story…
Hitesh giving a presentation in traditional African attire
1.If you were introducing yourself to me in an elevator, what would you say in 30 seconds (no more than two lines)?
I am a beach bum during the morning, at night I am a conscientious party animal and in-between, when I feel like it, I get my clients to pay me to visit the most exotic locations in the world!!
In action in Indonesia
2. What was your journey to becoming an eco-Architect?
During high school and university, I began to travel Kenya with a group of intimate friends and before long, we had observed most parts of this amazing country that has some of the most varied landscapes on the planet. Kenya has one of the natural wonders of the world—The Great Rift Valley—snow-capped mountains on the equator, fresh and salt water lakes, rivers, equatorial and montane forests, deserts, savannah, oceans and of course one of the highest concentrations of mammals on the planet. In addition, Nairobi is the only city in the world that has a National Park within its boundaries. Just 30 minutes from my work, I would be in the wild with zebras, lions, and cheetahs, with my office building still in view on the horizon! So, as you can see, the pristine yet fragile landscape around me and my wish to protect it for future generations was an influencing factor of why I chose to pursue a profession of environmental planning.
After taking my degree in architecture in Kenya, and a Masters in Landscape Architecture at University of California, Berkeley, an academic career as an Assistant Professor at the University of Nairobi followed. But 15 years ago, I felt strongly that I needed to take all my interests—architecture, landscape architecture and conservation—and combine them into one. I decided to focus on ecotourism and ecolodges and became convinced that there were better ways to integrate sustainability and tourism—protecting both endangered species’ habitats and local communities. I noticed first and foremost the striking disconnect between architecture and the landscape on which the safari lodges were built—ugly, modern buildings that were anything but timeless. I remember asking myself, “As landscape architects and planners, are we truly the stewards of the land and oceans, or are we destroyers?”
It is at this point that I developed a precocious interest in the holistic relationships between landscape architecture, environmentalism, local community benefits and tourism. In 1995, I wrote what is considered the first research paper on ecolodges in the world. I decided that my calling was to go deeper than simply helping to control the aesthetical features of my residential house projects. I was already a conservationist and had grown up with deep-rooted ‘ahimsa “philosophy of non-violence, so after working for five years in the traditional industry, I felt the need to get back to my roots and eco-architecture was the right path to take!
As such, my focus in landscape architecture moved to pristine and fragile natural areas where tourism was uncontrolled, and had large social and environmental impacts and required a new planning paradigm to protect the sanctity of those places. Projects in national parks, for example, would need careful storm water and wastewater discharge, non-invasive plant species, alternative energy sources and energy conversation methods.
Lecturer at University of Nairobi
3. What inspires you to create the designs that you do?
My inspiration to protect and preserve nature and create low-impact designs is a result of my humble upbringing in Kenya. I grew up in a family that practiced the ancient Indian Philosophy of Jainism and from day one, the principles of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence were instilled into my everyday life. In my family, we have been vegetarians for over forty generations!! I am currently now a vegan.This early childhood has influenced the way I design, think and live – a low impact approach. Ecotourism designs are low-impact, practice non-violence principles and, as a sector of the tourism industry, has played a role in alleviating poverty in several rural parts of the world. It is the one sector of the tourism industry that has the greatest respect for both faunal and floral species as well as the welfare of the local people. Simply put, ecotourism is the ‘Jainism’ of the leisure industry.
Childhood Family Portrait
What’s keeps me motivated and passionate is that I want to make a difference in this world; I want to save it from the chaos that it is experiencing. When I am laying on my death-bed, I want to be able to ask just only one question and that is “what have I done in my lifetime to make mother-earth into a beautiful place?”….and I want to be able to have at least five satisfying answers.
In my designs, nature is my greatest inspiration and also the harmonious architecture developed by indigenous communities around the world. Design in this global age of heightened cultural and environmental sensitivity needs to be holistic in nature and sustainable in all aspects of the design process.
Working in Costa Rica
4.How would you describe the line of your work?
HM Design is a unique one-of-a-kind planning and design firm which practices it’s very own quadruple bottom line philosophy – one that balances economic, environmental, social and spiritual aspects for every project.
The firm began in Nairobi, Kenya in 1990 as a traditional Architecture and Landscape Architectural practice but is now based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and has now metamorphosized into a specialty eco-planning and eco-design office. The President, Hitesh Mehta has built projects and consulted in over 55 countries spanning six continents and is a multi-international award winner in the fields of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Environmental planning, Urban Planning and Design, Interior Design and Photography.
Design in this global age of heightened cultural and environmental sensitivity needs to be all-encompassing and holistic in nature and sustainable in all aspects of the planning and design process. In every project, HM Design tries to create an eco-plan or eco-design that has never been created before. Each plan and design is a response to the local context: physical, metaphysical and cultural.
All HM Design projects have a respect for animals, plants, local people and the spirit of the place. The approach right from the outset is that of Low-impact development. This stewardship-motto of taking care of Mother Earth and all the species that inhabit on it begins right on day one and continues into Construction Supervision.
Hitesh sees his Firm’s work as an opportunity to improve the earth for all. Greatly influenced by Gandhi’s spiritual and moral principles, HM Design strives every single day to be “the change it wishes to see in the world.”
HM Design Logo captures the philosophy of the work done at the office – low-impact and with low ecological footprint.
5 .Could you tell us more about eco-lodges and where we can find them?
Ecolodges are the environmentally and socially friendly tourist accommodation components of Ecotourism. By its definition, you can only find them in natural locations and not in cities and towns. I first got interested in Ecolodges in the early nineties after twenty years of safaris in Eastern Africa. A research paper (1995) was followed by criteria systems (2002) and finally a definition in 2004. In short, ecolodges are “low-impact, nature-based accommodations of five to seventy-five rooms that protect the surrounding environment; benefit the local community; offer tourists an interpretative and interactive participatory experience; provide a spiritual communion with nature and culture and are designed, constructed and operated in an environmentally and socially sensitive manner.”
6. You have written a book, “Authentic Ecolodges” – could you tell me what was your thought behind the book.
A few months after the launch of my first book- International Ecolodge Guidelines in 2002, I saw the need to complement it with a pictorial book that showcased most of the authentic ecolodges on the planet and in so doing celebrate the amazing work of local craftsman, indigenous communities, architects, landscape architects, engineers, owners, operators etc.
After a journey that took me to 46 countries spanning all six continents and at a cost of $800,000 (my time and expenses), I am delighted to state that Authentic Ecolodges is the first “chai-table” book in the 32 year history of ecotourism.! My journey around the earth spanned from a remote village in Mongolia, to the backwaters of South India, to the deserts of Namibia and to the forest canopy of Amazonian Brazil, representing some of the most forward-thinking ecolodges. Little did I know then that this would become a ‘labour of madness’ project! I say “chai” because almost twice the number of people drink tea than coffee in the world!
The three main reasons I wanted to do this book was to raise the bar in the ecolodge industry, increase awareness amongst travellers of today and add to the body of work for professionals and academicians alike. Some of my case studies like the Crosswaters Ecolodges show how metaphysical approaches have been used whilst others show the spiritual communion that ecolodge provide to guests. As I mentioned earlier, there are unfortunately many cases of greenwashing, whereby lodges are marketing themselves as ecolodges when they are at best nature-based lodges or in a few cases town eco-hotels.
The cover for Hitesh Mehta’s Book “Authentic Ecolodges”
7. What up and coming trends in design really inspire you?
• The trend that is integrative. That involves local wisdom and knowledge into the design process
• The trend that employs a ‘cradle to cradle’ philosophy in the materials selection process
• The trend that blends aesthetics with environmental consciousness.
• The trend that uses only recycled and re-used materials for buildings.
8. Tell us something unusual that happened in your career?
I believe that everything is meant to happen so the word unusual does not exist in my dictionary. There have been several times in my career where I wanted something badly ( whether a project or a job) and then for some reason it did not take place BUT then what transpired after that has been better than what I wanted. So in my life the usual is unusual. For me, insanity is better than sanity!
Meditating on Mt. Kenya
9. Do you have any advice for the aspirational designers reading this interview?
Yes, stick to your belief and do not let anyone put you down. Learn from Architects and Landscape Architects that are truly making a difference to the environment and local communities. Avoid getting into the media hype that idolizes the so-called “star architects”. And do know that from very basic beginnings, you can indeed go to the top!...but you must have a vision, discipline and tremendous passion to make a difference.
10. Which blog do you visit the most?
The blog for my latest ecolodge project http://www.kwanari.blogspot.com/
and of course my own office blog: www.h-m-design.com
All the photographs that have been placed on this blog post are courtesy of Hitesh Mehta. Read more on his photography tips in an exclusive interview with Printerpix.