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Sunita Narain: Redoing green buildings

It is time to build truly green structures rather than erecting huge ones and sugarcoating them with a little green

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

Building green is not about building structures that use lots of materials and energy, and then fixing them so that they become a little more efficient. Building green is about building structures that optimise the local ecology, use local materials as far as possible and, most importantly, reduce power, water and raw-material requirements.

Take the glitzy new airport building that Delhi will soon get. The developers say it will come with a green tag, because the airport is investing in energy-efficient lighting, sewage disposal system and rainwater harvesting. All are very important initiatives. But the question remains: Could the airport have been designed differently, so that it used much less energy, before it had to save some. For instance, green airports today are being challenged to think how they can reduce the time taken to enter the aircraft from the point of entering the airport building. This “frugal” planning would make everything more efficient — use of less building materials and less energy to cool and heat. But, we are thinking to first build the biggest and then sugarcoat it with a little green. I say this without even discussing the need for airports to give way to other much more efficient modes of transport like railways.

If we begin to think green in this more locally appropriate way, we will realise that traditional architecture was green in many ways. Every part of India had its unique stamp of buildings. This is because creative and architectural diversity was built on biological diversity. So, buildings in the hot and dry regions would ensure that corridors directed the wind so that it cooled naturally. In wetter regions, architects would build structures using natural breeze and light. All in all, traditional architects knew how to optimise the natural elements in the best way.

Today, we have forgotten how to build for our environment. Instead, modern buildings are mono-cultures — lifted from the building books of cold countries, where glass facades are good to look at and appropriate for their climate. But in India, the same building is a nightmare. The glass in the building traps the heat. It cannot be “naturally” cooled, because windows cannot be opened. It needs central air-conditioning and heating. In this situation, turning it green means using very expensive glass to insulate better, which is avoided by the builders. So, the only band-aid green measures are to include a few token items like efficient lights and some water-saving devices in the toilets.

The architects say: “God is in the details.” In this case, the details are both about simplicity and diversity. So, what we forget is that in large parts of India, where the sun is the source of both light and heat, traditional architecture made use of this, with a small but critical element: The window shade. Modern facades are built without these shades, because they don’t fit the image of the western buildings. Just lift up your head and see the next glitzy building, and you will notice this simple but effective detail missing in action.

Clearly, the way for our buildings of the green future has to be different. But this will need policy, so that practice can follow. The fact is, even today, we have no mandatory green standards for builders to follow. The National Building Code does not include energy, water or material efficiency standards. The only standard that exists is for energy — the Energy Conservation Building Code — and it is voluntary. The first and the urgent step is to incorporate this voluntary energy code into the mandatory National Building Code. The second step is to ensure its implementation so that builders measure and reduce the energy usage of their construction.

But most importantly, the Code must be developed so that it sets the mandatory benchmark for all builders to follow — tough standards for energy usage for each square metre of built-up area. This will then allow the architects and builders to do things with a difference — build for efficiency and cut costs or build for inefficiency and then spend on making the building more efficient. This will bring back all the knowledge and practice of construction to maximise passive energy, natural light and wind but to reduce the heat.

Simultaneously, the Code needs to be expanded to include water and waste standards — to reduce water usage in toilets — and to ensure that institutions and large residential complexes recycle and reuse their sewage. Similarly, these complexes must be provided space to compost kitchen waste. But, for that, we must segregate our solid waste — separate what can be composted, what can be recycled and minimise what cannot be reused (like plastic).

But this is only the beginning. The green building is as green as our city. So, if we cannot connect our homes with public transport, then our homes can be green but our lives and environment will continue to be brown and dirty.

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First Published: Fri, March 26 2010. 00:34 IST