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7 ways to sustainable style

Himanshu Burte 

A new office building for an NGO makes a virtue of necessity, and shows that energy- and resource-efficient spaces can be handsome, too, says Himanshu Burte

Sustainability is sometimes considered a party pooper. In architecture, it seems to forbid everything fashionable, luxurious and fun — like glass facades, airconditioning and weird shapes.

However, the head office for an NGO called the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD) in Gurgaon, designed by New Delhi architect Ashok B Lall, shows how sustainable architecture can be stylish, comfortable, contemporary and even funky.

Asked to design a practical and elegant building with a low ecological impact, Lall decided to focus on creating an architectural form that had low ‘embodied energy’.

This design has been awarded a Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating by the US Green Building Council (USGBC).

Small windows, stone façade
Today, office buildings are often designed with glass facades that let in heat and light through the entire wall surface. The heat trapped indoors by the glass adds greatly to the load and cost (capital and recurring) of the airconditioning system. So the glare and heat let in through glass has to be cut by a more expensive coated glass, and then fixing blinds on the inside. Both add to an expense that could have already been avoided. Lall chose to think in the opposite manner. The walls are conceived as opaque surfaces that keep the sun out. The windows are relatively small openings made only where they are necessary for optimal light and ventilation, and are also shaded externally so that the harsh sun is not allowed in.

Funky shades
Many architects find sun shades (chhajjas) an aesthetic nuisance. But Lall has turned them into an important decorative element. Because the building is oriented keeping the street in mind, the direct sun entering through windows could have heated up interior spaces. Lall has developed a horizontal and a vertical system of shading. Both are lightly fixed to the external wall and are light in weight as well as look. The vertical shades are especially sensous, made of imported synthetic fabric stretched into its unique shape on a metal framework mounted on the wall. These extremely functional devices, along with the dramatic array of PV panels, make the building appear very contemporary and use industrial technology judiciously.

Low energy, high liveability

The building is organised around two internal courtyards. The larger one greets the visitor walking in through the entrance lobby. Look up and you see not the blazing sky, but an unusual apple-shaped cut-out in the roof. The underside of a large array of photovoltaic panels which produce electricity from sunlight, is visible through the cutout and works like a shading device that softens light entering the courtyard.

Most indoor spaces are well day-lit, saving on electrical energy consumption. Daylighting involves letting in the sun deep and blunting its harshness. To let the sun in deep, spaces are kept shallow so no corner is too far from windows. To cut the harshness of the sun it is deflected or ‘filtered’ through jalis or external shading devices.

Harness the sun, harvest water
The complex harvests rainwater and also recharges ground water. An ingenious design for the filtration bed of the rainwater harvesting tank yields an amphitheatre. This amphitheatre is being replaced by a parking structure which will also have a garden on top.

Says Lall, “The clients decided to invest heavily in photovoltaic panels — it cost almost one fifth of the total project cost.” These arrays are often eyesores in many buildings. Lall has, however, turned the large size of the array into a virtue and it hovers over the building like a high tech parasol. The array shades the roof even as it harvests the sun’s energy.

Natural materials and open space
‘Embodied energy’ refers to the total energy consumed in producing any particular material or product — from cement to hardware. Gurgaon is full of glass and aluminium panel-clad buildings. A lot of energy is consumed in producing these materials, so they are not considered sustainable. Lall decided to use local materials like sandstone for external cladding (instead of aluminium-composite panels, or glass), and timber for doors and windows (instead of aluminium).


Low floor heights
An ingenious detail allows Lall to keep the typical floor height at 3.2 metres saving walling material, paints and associated energy and monetary costs inside and out. The usual figure is 3.6 to 4 metres to leave room for AC ducts and false ceilings. Lall integrated the airconditioning ducts within ‘corridors’ in the beam layout. Lateral cut-outs are provided in these beams to enable cool air to be blown into the rooms through them.

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First Published: Sat, September 18 2010. 00:20 IST