Architecture BRIO: Critical Tools


Architecture BRIO, one of the most versatile amongst emerging practices in India, has been able to create projects with a refreshing sense of newness and surprise. This piece is an attempt to understand the key ingredients of their design process with an emphasis on the act of drawing as a negotiator of ideas.

In 2006, Shefali Balwani and Robert Verrijt established their practice – Architecture BRIO after returning from Sri Lanka where they worked with Channa Daswatte. Their initial projects were designed for Magic Bus – a non-profit organisation and entailed very efficiently resolved simple structures that enable ideas of play and interaction to manifest. Since then, their practice has engaged with works of various scales and typologies with sites in the peri-urban region of Mumbai, across India and South-East Asia. The portfolio is significantly diverse with the common themes that concern tectonics of site, formal and spatial explorations of architecture, critical reading of the programme, systems thinking, and clarity of material and detail that have characterised their work. 


Being an urban practice, the work of BRIO draws keenly from the specific context of each project. The site plays a critical role in informing the course of design. The projects emphasise on the potential of the site and are constantly informed by the terrain, the qualities of the land, the vegetation, the opportunity for vistas, and the nature of the building processes that are connected with the site. Robert Verrijt articulates the initial phase of design for any project: “…through asking the right questions, formulating ideas on the project, conversations with the office, understanding the site. One by one the endless possibilities of ideas and concepts are filtered down and a few potential approaches appear.”

It is important to observe the constant presence of the site in the architectural process. One can realise the emphasis on sometimes mundane elements found on the site in the initial drawings, and it is these elements (a tree, a stream, a rock) that become pivotal moments of the eventual buildings. The buildings also respond to more abstract and experiential ideas – the climate, the material, the landscape and the sky. 


The consistent process of drawing forms the core of the Architecture BRIO’s design process. Sometimes sporadic and sometimes planned, the pencil drawings sketched from the last page to the first in a tracing-pad sketchbook evidence the sequential resolution of design. Much before drawing, the project is evaluated in discussions and in the act of “asking the right questions”. This initial framing of thoughts enables Shefali and Robert to articulate the core concerns of the project by eliminating the weaker ideas from the many potential possibilities and approaches. The processes of drawing are an investigative tool in the Architecture BRIO studio. “Sketching starts with procrastination” says Robert. 

The process of intuition resembles important moves and exploration of ideas that may or may not work, and the process of strategic planning that forms a conceptual underlay.

Ideas that concern scale of the built form, the proportions of the form against the site and the context, and the impact of the project on the site are drawn. The design evolution concerns itself with the negation of the built form against the site conditions. Shefali and Robert’s background of working in Sri Lanka and their encounter with the works of Geoffrey Bawa are evident in the way the spaces are sequenced in their projects in an act of “building up anticipation”. Once in a while, the process drawings represent a breakthrough – a point of clarity and perhaps the defining moment in the design process where the scheme and the trajectory of the architecture becomes apparent.

While design development drawings have their specific role in the process, the presentation drawings of the project have a distinct purpose and therefore, an independent language.

Mostly monochrome, these drawings make explicit the design and to a certain extent – its materiality.

The multiple layers of these drawings are read as overlays in plans, and the line-axonometric is often employed to clarify the intended construction system. The drawing layers are specifically helpful in understanding the project on contoured sites. Once the scheme is clear, the resolution of detail happens at a much larger scale and in this shifting of scale, the drawings become more intricate revealing the complexity of detail in material junctions, structural joints, water-proofing, roofing etc.


“Models are great tools to communicate,” they state. The role of a model in the process of design is to add clarity to a resolved design. The slowness of the model-making process, for Architecture BRIO, goes against the purpose of using them as design-aids. Rather, a model makes the design much more accessible to the clients and collaborators on a project. They depend more on their ability to visualise three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional drawing for design development as drawings are immediate, quick and more intuitive modes to access ideas. 

Sectional models are also made in scales close to 1:50 which enable them to imagine junctions and structural / construction details with greater clarity. These models do contribute to the refinement of design as they render an insight into the system with much greater resolution. Robert explains: “A construction detail that is being discussed on the meeting table can immediately be referenced to its location and interrelation to the other components of the project with the sectional model next to it.”

Nonetheless, the models do serve a larger purpose. From the perspective of an outsider, they present a quick insight into the work of the studio as one can appreciate the complexity of space and detail in their models. The ability of a model to open and dismantle enables one to quickly realise the intent of design. They have a quality of a well-articulated idea. 


In India, sites can be places where one can ‘improvise’. Owing to immediately accessible skill and a certain degree of craftsmanship on construction sites in India, an often-romantic notion of being able to ‘collaborate’ with the people on the site takes over imaginations of many architects working in the tropics. For Architecture BRIO, this approach is not an ideal one. “In the best scenario, this encourages collaboration with highly skilled craftsperson and workers and uses the principles and logic of ‘the process making’ to inform the design itself” says Robert. BRIO argue that while some experiments on the site are serendipitous, one cannot resolve ideas on the site. For a clear, workable detail, while one may collaborate with contractor or skilled workers on the site, in Architecture BRIO’s view, there has to be “great emphasis in the resolution of our construction details” in the studio. 

Particular aspects of design which pertain to ‘sampling’ depend on the feedback from the site. These include alternatives of a masonry pattern, the cleanliness of a junction between two materials, experiments with the strength and stability of masonry walls etc. Multiple test-samples on the site help decision-making in the studio. A sample detail on the site is also a tool to enable multiple agencies to understand the sequence and to coordinate better. Nonetheless, these experiments on the site translate into detailed architectural drawing to be sent to the site as a precise, clear instruction.

The site does serve as a laboratory to a certain extent and Architecture BRIO appreciates the limitations of working on sites in India.


The works of Architecture BRIO hinge on design development in the studio. This method seems un-negotiable and renders much clarity to the sophisticated buildings that they make. Both Shefali Balwani and Robert Verrijt acknowledge the potential of working in the tropics and in a landscape like India where skill and construction knowledge are both accessible. Nonetheless, by keeping a certain distance from the processes on the site, the architects are able to articulate a certain formality and direction to the design process that is not interrupted. For BRIO, collaborations are “only potentially as successful as the geographic location of a project (that allows one to work with these skilled craftsman), and the budgets and time to do so” – a luxury seldom accessible in mainstream practice. 

Their work is a considered and rigorous development from the key ingredients that include a detailed and considered reading of the site, an art of elimination of ideas during the initial conceptual development and an ability to envision detail. There is also a conscious distance in the works of BRIO from the concerns of design language. Their work draws from the ‘appropriateness’ of the scheme and its ‘response’ to the specificities of its context. Therefore, one can observe a refreshing variety of approaches in their work with a great sense of discovery every time a new project takes course. Their work is not limited by a specific set of materials or formal predilections. 

A layer of anxiety, conflict, friction forms the underlay for the finely resolved projects of Architecture BRIO. It is this constant cycle of exploration, refinement, rejection and re-imagination that enriches the work of Shefali and Robert. Their architecture rejects the image in favour of a process that leads to powerful spatial articulations. One can read the concerns of scale, materiality and detail in their drawings while the built work represents their command on more abstract ideas and finer elements – light, volume, texture, contrast, proximity, intimacy, temperature and sound♦

ARCHITECTURE BRIO was set up by Shefali Balwani (C.E.P.T, India) and Robert Verrijt (TUDelft, the Netherlands) in 2006. Located in Mumbai, the practice is invested in finding contemporary ways of working with urban and peri-urban landscape often experimenting with approaches that deviate from the mainstream and yet, resist being in a niche. With their background of working with Channa Daswatte, and studying Geoffrey Bawa’s architecture, Shefali and Robert’s work is influenced by both – an appropriate way of building in the tropics and spatial ideas that refer to the architecture encountered then. 

The work of the studio addresses new ways of understanding the often-contradictory interrelations between the city, architecture, landscape, and the world of interiors. Architecture BRIO is actively engaged in the creation of contextually appropriate, sustainable design solutions within an increasingly changing world.

Authored by: Ruturaj Parikh
Drawings and Images: ©Architecture BRIO; Courtesy Robert Verrijt and Shefali Balwani


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