Construction industry primarily responsible for climate change Sustainable, cost-effective housing need of the hour: Architect
The construction industry is primarily responsible for the degradation and deterioration of the environment across the world as it is contributing significantly to the climate change today. Unless we make sustainable interventions to check this, we are in for major catastrophes,” said renowned Indian architect Padmashri G Shankar. “The environment is getting badly mutilated and forest cover is dwindling at an incomprehensible pace. The pace and intensity of environmental degradation matches with the pace and intensity of urbanization. It is very critical. We see signs of unrest,” Shankar told the Kuwait Times in an interview.
Shankar spoke about his philosophy of cost-effective and energy efficient housing in the context of a growing concern over climate change. Shankar is known in India as people’s architect by developing construction techniques that are eco-friendly, energy-efficient, culturally appropriate and cost-effective. He arrived in Kuwait to deliver a keynote speech at FOCUS Kuwait’s annual event. “Today, the developing world is reeling under an energy crisis. The crisis is at our door step and unless we find a viable alternative, we are in for trouble,” he cautioned.
“I don’t think we ever had a harsher summer in Kuwait than this year’s weather. We are slowly inching towards a day time temperature of 60 degrees Celsius in Kuwait while nights are becoming cooler. It is a perceptible change and this change is happening all over the world,” Shankar said. Shankar said construction sector is intricately linked to this change. “We are using highly energy-intensive material like steel and cement unnecessarily in our construction. It is adding to the pressures on energy,” he elaborated. Shankar has constructed 150,000 individual buildings and half a million mass housing units in various countries across the world. He has also headed several rehabilitation missions following natural disasters in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia etc.
In his view, governments across the world have become helpless and the world is losing its options without resources in addressing the energy crisis. According to him, many disasters can be prevented if people make sustainable interventions. Though there are many initiatives and protocols such as Kyoto and Paris where people talk of sustainable development, they are not becoming mandates, he said.
“I strongly believe that only people can bring changes not governments. Here, I am talking about multi-dimensional interventions to prevent environmental degradations and climate change.” “By promoting eco-sensitive, energy efficient and resource-efficient architecture, I am trying to tell the people that if houses become simple and people adopt simple lifestyle, it can make a paradigm change in the habitat sector.”
Elaborating on how incremental housing differentiates between dreams and needs, he said “We have to begin to look at our basic needs. Dreams can come later. In India, we have had the heritage of building happy homes. Our forefathers never suffered by building houses. But for the present generation, building a house has become an insensitive exercise which is fraught with tension and mental torture.”
Quoting his mentor and renowned American architecture Frank Lloyd Wright, Shankar said, “If one were to construct a building on a hill, it should be of it, not on it. Land is god given. Human beings do not have the right to manipulate it by defacing the profile of the nature. It is the essence of organic architecture. And by destroying the profile of the nature, you are inviting calamities,” he added.
The first habitat summit ‘Habitat I’ was held in 1976 in Vancouver under the UN mission on habitat called the United Nations Human Settlement Program (UNCHS) headquartered in Nairobi. “It was for the first time that the world debated the challenges in the habitat sector with a slogan ‘Housing for All’ after it realized the fact that there were millions across the world who did not have adequate shelter,” he said.
“Twenty years later in 1996, a review system was held in Habitat 2 summit Istanbul. I had a huge opportunity to participate in the Istanbul summit as a representative of civil society organization and raise the issue of adequacy of housing. Shankar attended the Habitat III summit that took place from October 17 to October 20 2016 in Quito, Ecuador. “To my disappointment, I found out that the whole habitat sector was hijacked by insensitive bureaucracies, so-called international development agencies and academicians. The initiative was completely trivialized and voices were not heard,” he said.
“It is a kind of going back on the promises that were made in 1996. Present slogan before the world is ‘Housing at the Centre’. So it is from ‘Housing for All’ in Vancouver in 1976 to ‘Adequate Housing’ in 1996 to ‘Housing at the Centre’ in 2016. We are not really going forward,” he said. Elaborating on his definition of adequate housing, Shankar said, “We told the world that adequacy of housing means access to portable water, access to clean cooking space and access to clean sanitation facilities as three mandatory requirements.
More than 50 percent of the urban population was still being denied of these basic facilities in the 1990s. The pace and intensity of urbanization was not as frenetic as it is today. But for the first time, we thought of a sustainable human settlements development in an increasingly urbanizing world. The world realized the significance of it and they became mandatory UN agendas with around 140 countries endorsing them. Now 180 plus countries are participating in UNCHS summit,” he said.
Shankar believes that housing must be made as a fundamental right. It is a multi-dimensional issue where the dimensions of safety, security and access to basic urban infrastructure are critical issues and to be addressed seriously. “And there are several sub-headings to that such as labor management, material management and new dimensions in architectural designs,” he said.
Consultant to various international organizations like Cordaid (Netherlands), Architecture and Development (France), BGS, Germany, Shankar looks at urbanization as a positive phenomenon. “It can be a promise as well as a curse. Urbanization is all about connectivity. People migrate to urban areas in search of livelihood opportunities, better healthcare, education and better transportation etc. The world is getting urbanized because the city will remain a home as a promise. It has the potential to rope people in. At the same time, the world has begun to realize the fact that urbanization is bringing a lot of problems. Bad urbanization could drive poor people who are living on the margins out of the scene in the name of beautification,” he said. “Urbanization can be a positive phenomenon if sustainability becomes a primary criterion,” he argued.
Indian architect Padmashri G Shankar