For changing the way we build—and think—in the face of climate change
When devastating floods wiped out residences in Nanma Gireesh’s home state of Kerala, India, in 2018, the urgent need to design dwellings that could withstand environmental disasters became personal. It was a moment that Gireesh—who was just graduating with a degree in civil engineering—sees as part of a generational sea change.
“Many young people are enthusiastic about sustainability and are advocating for projects that benefit the environment and society,” she says. “This is resulting in more sustainable project management practices and a greater emphasis on social responsibility.”
Gireesh’s mission: constructing flood-proof homes. She began looking at options like barrel foundations, but “my life changed when I saw the amphibious houses and floating houses in the Netherlands,” she recalled in a webinar last year.
Gireesh brought the amphibious architecture idea back to India and founded NestAbide with a vision “to engineer a better society, environment and a better today.”
“We are paving a way, one step at a time, to a future where amphibious or floating buildings or even cities can be a part of the solution,” she says. “We encourage everyone to live in harmony with water. Everyone needs a chance to survive when the impacts of climate change affect them equally. NestAbide is trying hard to make it practical.”
One way of doing that: Amphi Nest, what the studio calls India’s first working amphibious housing prototype—combining cutting-edge flood-resilient tech with the region’s vernacular architecture. The structure’s design is simple but significant. During floods, it floats—tricked out with a buoyant foundation made from a concrete hollow box or with a combination of concrete and expandable polystyrene blocks. Guideposts keep it in place so it doesn’t wash away. And when waters recede, the structure simply settles back to the ground.
With no outside funding, Gireesh and her startup partner had to exhaust their life savings to build the prototype. They couldn’t afford to invest in design models, so they built it from scratch—then kept rebuilding it each time floating tests failed. Completed in 35 days for roughly US$4,750, the prototype was designed to win over the skeptics. “I had to make people believe,” she said in the webinar. “They can stand on it. They can jump on it … and check how it’s working.”
The game-changing design has already inspired three amphibious housing projects underway in Kerala, with several others in the planning stages. Perhaps most importantly, it paved the way to a partnership with local government leaders—and funding.
“We are taking the process slow,” Gireesh says. “Houses are a product of a person’s lifelong savings. We also have inquiries of privately funded amphibious houses. There are permit processes, and some systems must be altered to make the amphibious housing concept feasible for everyone.”
Her moonshot project? “We want to build a floating and amphibious city that can be made available to anyone in need, regardless of income level, so that everyone has a chance to survive in the face of climate change and rising sea levels.”
Gireesh is currently pursuing a PhD in amphibious developments, but she remains keenly aware that true resiliency against climate change requires more than a shift in design. For Gireesh, it also requires persistence—and a future-focused vision.
“My mantra is always ‘resilience,’” she says. “I have failed several times, but we have to get back up and continue our work. Floods might happen, but we must be resilient and stay afloat.”
Q&A: Nanma Gireesh on being a woman in construction, leading by following and why she’d recruit Priyanka Chopra Jonas
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Founding NestAbide and keeping it running for the goals that we as a team believe in. Managing construction projects as a woman in the construction industry is a very personal and professional accomplishment for me. This is unusual, given the risks, the pressure—convincing experienced construction workers to try a new method and so on.
What’s your project management superpower?
Leading by following and communication by networking. I understand the importance of teamwork in projects, especially during a construction project. I value input from team members with extensive field experience or we find a common ground by explaining the reason behind certain choices, such as materials.
How are young people changing the world of projects now?
Young people are often more collaborative than previous generations, and they’re at ease working in multicultural and multinational teams. They’re also willing to try new things and take risks, which can lead to more innovative project ideas and solutions. They’re also more likely to question long-held beliefs, which can lead to more efficient and effective processes.
What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now?
While young project managers may have creative ideas and the technical skills to put them into action, they may lack the experience and knowledge to navigate complex project environments. This may elicit skepticism and resistance from older team members who are more entrenched and less willing to embrace change.
Fast forward: What’s one way managing projects will have changed over the next decade?
By automating routine tasks, predicting project risks and delays, and optimizing project schedules and resource allocation, AI and machine learning have the potential to transform the way projects are managed. This can result in more efficient and effective project management, as well as cost savings and improved project outcomes. Although, for empathetic project management, project management professionals might have to learn more soft skills.
What famous person would you want to recruit for your team?
Priyanka Chopra Jonas because of her commitment to social and environmental causes, her advocacy and her communication skills. Leonardo DiCaprio would also be a really good advocate for climate solutions.