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Delivering eco-conscious infrastructure

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Chandrashekar Hariharan is an economist and heads Biodiversity Conservation India known more popularly as the ZED group for its ‘zero energy development solutions’. He is dedicated to deep-eco applied research and is looking at skill sets training for construction workers and farmer-entrepreneurs. Having presided over numerous projects on water, energy and green buildings for over 25 years, he talks to Buildotech about the paradigm shift needed in the way we design and construct.

Architects over-dependency on technology for design resolutions

A predicament that most architects face, more so in recent years, is: should I interpret a brief given by a client? Should I co-create the brief itself with the client? Better, should I create the brief for the client after having heard him out? Most architects practicing take the weaker route of saying, my customer does not allow me to experiment. I do what he asks me to do. I can’t risk losing clientele if the marketplace wants it in a certain way.

This has gotten worse in recent years with the quiet rise of tech-based solutions for active energy systems. Smart solutions or smart technologies to make a home intelligent have suddenly left the conventional architect out of depth. He doesn’t quite know how to keep pace with the shift in technology. Many of them who are vintage 1970s or 80s architects have not caught up with the digital age and find themselves quite not so savvy with the computer. This only adds to their handicap.

However, a generation of architects are beginning to use technology whether it is to do with the quality of presentations that they offer to their customers, or it is to do with the quality of work that they offer as part of their architectural working drawings.

3D has now gone up to 9D in certain kinds of software versions. Other software packages offer much more in terms of the technical quality of the drawings that are offered by architects to the client. IES and other packages have made easy the task of architects wanting to get their buildings to be energy efficient.

Smart solutions and technologies are also about smart users. How calibrated are practicing architects and service consultants in terms of such developments on the technology front? The answer is even, and it doesn’t quite help in the enabling of a good interface between technology and design resolution.

The solution is more to do with constant calibration and updating of knowledge among practicing architects and service professionals in water and energy management. If architects also got to taking seriously the bill of quantities that they make for a customer sometimes as part of the mandated agreement; if they got to understanding behavior of materials and the range of building materials that are today available; if they got to understanding the thermal coefficients of building materials that go toward making the external envelope; If they got to making structural components more efficient, if they paid attention to such detail that goes beyond their spatial strengths of offering design that covers only aesthetic, volume and space … it is then that such a shift in quality of response to the future can come about. These are areas that an architect has to begin to work toward building resources to take on the challenges of urban sustainability and client needs.

Impact of technologies on human behavior and living patterns

Human beings are incredibly adaptable. “Technology” is not something that is necessarily cutting-edge and modernist. Sometimes it can be a 200-year-old technology which can be put to use for the betterment of a settlement that a builder is creating.

There is nothing quantifiable as ‘impact of technologies’. You also have to remember that the building industry has seen only two innovations in 200 years. Using steel as structural members came about in the 1830s after Eiffel. Sanitation came about in the 1930s first in the United States and then in other countries.

To this day in many of our small towns we have open sanitation with oxygenation of such black water being the only ‘system’ that the towns have managed with. In many towns you still have pigs reared for only feeding on the black water. In the cultural context that they come from, it is extremely sustainable and viable, too.

Blending traditional technologies with contemporary understanding of engineering is the key. Smart solutions or technology is not about the technology being smart, it is about the users, the citizens, the builders, the designers and the architects, all as stakeholders being smart and intelligent as well as responsible in the use of such technologies.

Human behavior has not changed much over millennia. There is always fear of adapting a new technology. When a product claims too many innovations, the first thing that runs in the prospective buyer’s mind is – is the producer experimenting at my cost? Who will maintain it in the event of failure of performance? Any shift in technology has come about only ever so slowly in any segment of business or industry. The building industry is no exception.

The irony is that less than 2.5 per cent of all buildings in India are built by architects. The rest are built by local contractors with local engineers creating the drawings, and with really no governance except approvals from local planning authorities. The building industry in India has been by default led by traders and businessmen who are by and large ignorant of the professional nuance of engineering disciplines. So questions like whether green buildings cost more and are effective or not, are redundant.

How sustainable are the so-called green-rated buildings?

The rating systems, with their different segments of guidelines, explain in simple ways how organizations can percolate the system through their organizations and their engineers and project managers in a way that there is no ‘cause’ being promoted of sustainability, but process efficiencies and standard operating procedures are laid down to bring clear positive outputs that an energy-efficient building can offer.

For example, the adapting of a few practices that the methodology lays down in a green rating system can ensure that the energy and water demand at operating, post-occupancy levels of a building can come down by as much as 30% or more. If there is greater innovation and commitment on design, like we have in a few organizations like BCIL ZED, such methodology can help a building reach 70% drop in energy demand.

Similarly, the adoption of green guidelines can bring about a very minimum saving in fresh water demand of 30%. I did not say water consumption. All it means is that we don’t ‘manufacture’ water but we manage water more effectively and efficiently. In the case of zero energy buildings of the kind that BCIL ZED promotes and executes, we are able to reach as much as 70% drop in fresh water demand, thanks to the sets of solutions that we have put into place.

The green rated buildings can bring about a sharp drop in the demand for energy and for water by a minimum 30% each. Similarly in waste management, the adoption of the guidelines can bring about reduction in the quantum of waste that is exported from out of any such residential or office complex. However, green guidelines cannot be blamed for people not adopting all practices that are recommended. Many builders continue not accepting either the methodology or all the guidelines that are specified, because they have this misplaced apprehension that ‘green buildings cost more’. The truth is that the promoters do not want to bring a shift in mindset in their own selves or in the people that they manage as part of the organization.

Lessons to be learnt from vernacular architecture.

If you rate any building built before 1920s invariant of world, by the methodology that any green rating system today offers, you would find such buildings to be securing Platinum rating! It is because in the context in which they were built they were intuitively microclimate sensitive and natural resource sensitive. However, any pre 1920 buildings has walls which are 14 inches think. Today we build with eight inches and there are buildings at ZED which are at six inches too.

With the greater quantity of building materials that are being consumed at exponential levels in the last 30 years, there is now the need to only absorb and learn from such vernacular architecture and traditional building practices, but not to implement them in faith in the letter. As long as there is the right lessons learnt from such vernacular architecture – natural lighting, greater interaction between the outdoor and the indoor, use of flooring materials and roofing materials that are limestone-based and not cement-based. Use of external landscaping elements which can enhance the carbon sink value of the buildings and so on.

Vernacular architecture is good up to a point. Because of the greater shortage of materials and their non-availability in the current context of urban India, vernacular architecture can’t be practiced at scales. They can’t be replicated either because of the traditional skills that are not available in as much abundance as they were in the past.

The way forward to design our cities and buildings within.

Bangalore today demands two million units of energy, one billion liters per day of fresh water and spews out about 3,500 tons per day of solid waste. If all of us went with smart demand side management and also brought in renewal energy-based supply side resources in our own homes in the form of solar power systems, the city’s energy demand will fall by 50% in a city like Bangalore.

If fresh water is managed effectively by all of us as users with or without mandatory compliance, we would have dropped our need for fresh water in Bangalore to 500 million liters. This will take the load of infrastructure and reduce massively the public expenditure that is now being wasted on energy products and long distance water supply projects. 70% of all solid waste generated by a city is wet waste. If we can treat it locally, it will mean that we will have only 30% of the waste to be managed which is non-recyclable and toxic waste. Scientific landfills can easily be managed if there is only 800 to 1000 tons per day of such waste to be managed as against 3500 – 4000 tons of waste per day that is currently the challenge in Bangalore. The figures of Delhi NCR and greater Bombay are about 2.5 times these figures.

It might be useful to understand that less than two percent of India’s landmass today is our cities. Nearly 40% of our population stay on this two percent waste, 75% of all natural resources of the other 98% being utilized by these urban Indian and because livelihood emerges from the 65% GDP that this two percent of the landmass generate. The trend of more urbanization and great migration of population is a challenge that we have today in India and the world.

Thus, every residential settlement has to have a mandatory compliance on the following:

• Water efficient fixtures, harvesting of rainwater for at least 60 to 70 days of a year for drinking purposes,

• Treatment of all waste water and their reuse and recycle within the campus whether it is residential or commercial, use of energy systems that are highly efficient in terms of domestic appliance as well as pumps in a home. Lighting has shifted a generation from incandescent bulbs and halogens to T5s, LED, and CFLs.

• In terms of waste, there has to be mandatory compliance on all wet waste from kitchen and other such sources being treated locally within the home or within the campus. This will take away 70% of the waste being currently dumped into the municipal grid in every city.

If we do not take major and earnest steps toward bringing this shift in the way we manage energy, water, and waste, the future for our cities will not be sustainable and our cities will not be any more livable. We have in India today nearly 7900 towns/cities/agglomerations by the 2011 census. Each of these cities, no matter how small or big, needs to be implementing these practices. The solutions are available, there are enough producers of products and services. It is just that people are first not aware of the need for them and secondly, not educated enough to know how to pick and choose the solutions that they need to be putting into practice in their own existing homes or buildings and in those new ones that India is creating.


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