Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

Tno ques­tion that In­dia and other parts HERE IS of the still-un­der-con­struc­tion world must build green.The build­ing sec­tor is a ma­jor contributor to cli­mate change and lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion be­cause of con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als used; en­ergy ex­pended for light­ing, heat­ing and cool­ing; and wa­ter con­sump­tion and waste dis­charge. This is the threat. There is an op­por­tu­nity as well. Most of In­dia is still un­built—over 70 per cent of the build­ing stock is yet to be con­structed— so un­like the rest of the al­ready de­vel­oped world, In­dia can build anew in ef­fi­cient and sus­tain­able man­ner.But how?

This is an is­sue that has been trou­bling us at the Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment. Over the past few years the idea of green build­ings has gained pop­u­lar­ity—every­body, it would seem, has turned a new leaf. A cross the coun­try large and small con­struc­tions are ad­ver­tised as the green­est of green.To prove that they are in­deed en­vi­ron­ment-friendly, the business of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion has also grown. There are agen­cies that now rate and award stars to in­di­vid­ual build­ings based on cer­tain pa­ram­e­ters. Many state gov­ern­ments are mak­ing th­ese same stan­dards of “green­ness” manda­tory. Some are even pro­vid­ing in­cen­tives, like ex­emp­tions on prop­erty tax, to those build­ings that qual­ify as en­vi­ron­ment-friendly. All this is im­por­tant but do we know what green means? When we be­gan ask­ing this ques­tion, what sur­prised us was the hos­til­ity with which it was re­ceived. No­body wanted the new God to be ques­tioned. No­body wanted to be asked some­thing as sim­ple as what the post-com­mis­sion­ing per­for­mance of a green build­ing was. We re­alised that the in­ter­ests—of ar­chi­tects, builders, au­di­tors and cer­ti­fiers—in this new in­dus­try were al­ready en­trenched.It was a cozy club and no­body was keen to give us en­try.

We dug in our heels. Build­ings are the key to a cleaner and greener fu­ture.The build­ing sec­tor uses, al­ready, some 40 per cent of the coun­try’s elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion.So, ev­ery ef­fort made to re­duce en­ergy in­ten­sity of build­ings will go a long way. We wanted to know what was hap­pen­ing and what more could be done to re­duce the ma­te­rial-use foot­print and emis­sions of ev­ery con­struc­tion.

What we dis­cov­ered is not a con­ve­nient truth.My col­leagues have put to­gether a book, Build­ing Sense: Beyond the Green Façade of Sus­tain­able Habi­tat, to bust some myths and ex­plore al­ter­na­tive ap­proaches. What they find is as fol­lows.

First, the gen­eral ap­proach is to build wrongly and then “fit” in the green fea­tures. For in­stance, glass-en­veloped build­ings are cer­ti­fied green, sim­ply be­cause they in­stall dou­ble or triple in­su­lat­ing glass or five-star air-con­di­tion­ers to cool places that were first heated up de­lib­er­ately.

Se­condly, rat­ing sys­tems are be­ing pushed through gov­ern­ment and mu­nic­i­pal schemes with­out any ev­i­dence that green-cer­ti­fied build­ings are ac­tu­ally work­ing. Data on the per­for­mance of the green build­ings after they have been com­mis­sioned was, till very re­cently, not dis­closed. So, even though rat­ing agen­cies say that green-cer­ti­fied build­ings save be­tween 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the en­ergy and re­duce wa­ter con­sump­tion by 20-30 per cent, they have no cor­rob­o­rat­ing data.

Thirdly, all th­ese so-called green tech­nolo­gies end up hik­ing costs to the ex­tent that build­ings be­come un­af­ford­able to most. What In­dia needs are build­ing stan­dards that are ap­pro­pri­ate and cost-ef­fec­tive. Green ar­chi­tec­ture should not be a bar­rier to in­clu­sive growth.

This is where old knowl­edge has a role to play. Tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture is based on the prin­ci­ple of “lo­cal­is­ing” build­ings so that they can op­ti­mise nat­u­ral el­e­ments and be ef­fi­cient in re­source use. This “sci­ence and art” of en­gi­neers for na­ture needs to be in­fused with the new ma­te­rial knowl­edge of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture.

Many ar­chi­tects, en­gi­neers and builders are in­no­vat­ing with this old-new sci­ence. That’s how the knowl­edge and prac­tice of af­ford­able and sus­tain­able build­ings will evolve. But big builders will adopt it only if and when the façade of green build­ings is lifted. This is what we hope to do.

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