CHENNAI: While the Chennai summer begins its scorching march and people inside capsules of glass-and-steel keep their air-conditioners on throughout the day, the terms ‘green building’ and ‘sustainable’ are splashed across ads and hoardings, raising the question: what does sustainability mean? With many artificially-ventilated buildings ranging from hotels and tech parks being certified as green buildings, architects practicing climate-oriented design believe in more than just satisfying certain standard sustainable prerequisites – buildings need to respond to the local conditions.
“Nobody is sure any more what sustainability means. So we ended up with branding and certification of buildings as ‘green’, based on certain standard values,” says Eugene Pandala, a Kerala-based architect who is in the city for a workshop with students on low cost, sustainable construction. Pandala has designed buildings in Kerala and outside focussing on local materials, passive cooling, and conservation of heritage and biodiversity.
Orientation based on the sun and wind direction and using locally available materials are practices that have slowly dwindled in the era of mass-production and urbanisation. International rating systems use calculations based on building features, elements like solar panels, water harvesting systems, and low-energy ACs are used. Experts believe that while some of these features may be good, most builders ignore climate-oriented design and select materials that are high-energy and unsuitable for local conditions.
Common grading systems used are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and IGBC (Indian Green Building Council). GRIHA, a national rating system, is considered by designers to be a more site-specific method suited to India. “Sometimes, high-end features that are necessary for international ratings can cost up to four times more than a regular building and will not reach the common man. In my projects, I try to use innovative techniques with low embodied energy that flourished before cement and steel came into the picture,” says Pandala. Embodied energy is consumed by all processes associated with production of a building for its full life cycle, including mining raw material, processing, transport between each step, construction, maintenance and disposal.
“If we respond to the local climate, we have solved 80% of the issue. We can have rainwater harvesting and solar panels, but how do you treat a wall that faces the harsh southern sun? Before opting for extra fittings, the climate orientation should be taken into account,” says city-based architect Durganand Balsawar, whose firm Artes conducts workshops on sustainable techniques like making tiles and adapting old furniture.
Though larger buildings and modern materials are here to stay, they believe that traditional techniques can still be adapted and reinvented for mass housing or big offices. “Concrete and glass can be used, but not abused. One should not take shortcuts, like making a building hot by using a lot of glass and then cooling it with air conditioners,” says Pandala.
“Traditionally, Indians have always managed to build even huge palaces with climatic cooling,” says Vidhya Mohankumar, a Chennai-based architect and urban designer. “The essence should be local energy and local skills, rather than aspiring for international ratings. Today, sustainable building skills are getting lost and skilled labour is disappearing due to lack of patronage. We need to revive this.”
While there are small gestures towards sustainability in individual projects, she adds that there are different levels of development. “Whether it’s a house, a neighbourhood, or a city, sustainability needs to be practiced at all levels for results,” she elaborates.
One way to bring traditional methods to prominence, Balsawar says, is to give them a proper scientific audit. “I have designed many buildings with a rat-trap bond (a method where there is a cavity inside the wall for climatic insulation).Only when these methods get prominence can architects and users confidently adapt it for their buildings.”
It is not enough to construct a ‘green building’. It also needs to be a part of a bigger lifestyle-change of energy consciousness. “Water usage, travel patterns, everything needs to come together. Other ideas like giving incentives to people running green businesses is a great way to encourage them,” says Vidhya.
Vernacular architecture is based on local needs, construction materials and reflecting local traditions. Originally, this form did not have formally-schooled architects, and relied on the design skills and tradition of local builders
Passive cooling is a design approach that focuses on heat gain control and heat dissipation through methods like building orientation, use of materials and natural ventilation, to have thermal comfort with low or nil energy consumption
‘What happened to reuse?’
Using an old biscuit tin to store masala powder and carrying old furniture while moving into a new house are some of the common ‘middle class’ Indian practices that are fading with the glitter of the modern
In buildings too, reuse of materials can save resources
If a concrete building is demolished, it just goes to waste, says Balsawar. But building parts like doors and furniture can be reused. He conducts workshops on repairing and adapting old furniture and giving them a new look
Using recycled building bricks or timber and creatively adapting vintage trunks or clocks into interior design elements are also concepts explored by designers