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The future is green: Post COVID-19 world stares at a more eco-friendly way of architecture

As the country reopens, the need for sustainable buildings with the focus on hygiene will be the calling card of urban planning.

Published: 05th July 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th July 2020 04:06 PM   |  A+A-

Source: World Green Building Council (Credit: Kanhai Gandhi)

In the last three months, the world sought solace in confined spaces. Occupants realised the importance of the health of these spaces. Add to this, the spectre of global warming that haunts us.

The houses we live in, our offices, our marketplaces, and other goliath structures we have erected are not helping either.

The concrete clutters belch out harmful pollutants and threaten to drive the planet to ecocide. Realtors have woken up to the needs of Urban India.

Chennai-based firm Akshaya is looking at redesigning apartments keeping in mind the demand for hygiene, an office-like feel, and maybe even, quarantine.

A healthy house—read sustainable green building—provides natural defences against respiratory illnesses and airborne vectors. Stringent ventilation and filtration requirements reduce exposure to viruses.

Jamshed Banaji Director, Banaji & Associates

Travel to the picturesque village of Aldona in Goa and you will come across a dilapidated 1950s’ house lovingly nurtured back to its beauty.

“As architects we feel that restoration is a legacy which we leave to the next generation. Architecture embodies our heritage and our buildings are a reflection of our values. The approximately 6,700 sq ft plot was purchased with an intent and desire to enhance the old Portuguese charm by converting the dilapidated and poorly planned house into a luxury villa with modern amenities,” says Jamshed.

The villa was re-planned and to reduce the carbon footprint, the entire house doors and windows, along with the frames, ventilators and grills were sourced and refurbished.

The absence of cross ventilation in the existing house was achieved in all rooms through subtle changes in the plan and window positioning.

“The thick laterite walls and river-washed natural stone flooring keep the villa cool throughout the year,” says the proud architect who believes adopting passive architectural strategies have the maximum economic benefit.

Vivek Singh Rathore Design Principal, Salient

Rethinking the future is what this founder of Salient—a multidisciplinary design studio operating from Kolkata—doing. This IIT gold medalist recently changed urban landscape of Kolkata with his Swabhumi project that has undergone an adaptive reuse of land on a garbage dump of 13 acres. The site was an urban waste dump till early 1980s.

Swabhumi aimed to provide a sustainable solution to the dilapidating architectural heritage in the city. A firm believer in sustainability, Vivek thinks the luxury of a space experience does not necessarily mean being expensive and this very philosophy can be adapted in design.

“Sometimes an old structure is easier to handle. For example, in this very project, over 60 percent of the built fabric has been conserved, the new 40 percent is revamped with the spirit of ‘Bengal craftsmanship’ and is layered with existing to render it vitalised. Sustainability was an important consideration, both in terms of design in architecture and interiors. Material reuse, vintage sourcing, daylight harvesting, facilitation of natural ventilation of spaces, were essential,” he concludes.

Jamshed and Nirmala Banaji

Each housing unit is isolated from another, leading to lower chances of exposure or contamination. Moreover, with the concept of co-living and hostel accommodation becoming less attractive, more people would be eager to invest in homes. At a time when owners might be reluctant on letting out their homes, builders will have to think of constructing smart apartments at affordable rates. These would require going back to roots to integrate sustainable hygiene.

Jehan-Ara Poonawala, Chief Designer, JJ Poonawala Architects & Interior Designers, integrates green principles and practices into her designs to showcase social, environmental and economical best practice. A big influencer of sustainable design, she believes over 20 years the financial payback of a green project typically exceeds the additional cost of greening. Talking about one of her designs, she says, “While working on Africa’s first five-star sustainable hotel, Verde Zanzibar, I faced a unique challenge. The site had a large mangrove zone and the client perceiving that as unproductive was clearing it to make room for the hotel.

There was also a rivulet on the property which was affecting the salinity level of water. We decided on a small damming project to help the mangrove survive.” The challenge, for Poonawala, was to first convince the client to spend on an environmental cause and secondly incorporate the dam area into the construction and landscape. As per studies, real estate generates a few trillion tonnes of wastes and pollutants. It alone ingests about 40 percent of natural raw materials, 25 percent water and 35 percent energy resources. In addition, it emits 40 percent of wastes and 35 percent greenhouse gases. So, building structures in a sustainable fashion has become indispensable more than ever before. According to the World Green Building Council, a ‘green’ building—in its design, construction or operation—reduces or eliminates negative impacts, and can create positive impacts on our climate and natural environment. Akshat Bhatt, Principal Architect, Architecture Discipline, says, “Our buildings, neighbourhoods and cities should be designed to minimise pollution and carbon emissions. This implies not only using renewable sources of energy but designing energy-efficient buildings that incorporate vegetation and biodiversity.” 

The Great Indian Green Building Movement today stands high with 4,000 projects. Avikal Somvanshi, Programme Manager, CSE (Centre for Science and Environment), says, “India needs it. The Indian regulation already mandates housing to have solar panels, sewage treatment plant, and insulation. It’s a part of our rules and regulations. What we need is to bring the overall consumption to come down as part of green building movement, rather than becoming efficient. Indian buildings don’t consume that much. Since most residential houses in India, except for metros, are without air conditioners or heaters and other high energy consuming appliances, they consume less energy than the houses in the West. This is applicable for  office buildings in non-metro cities as well.” A Harvard Business Review report suggests that the architecture of sustainable buildings shoots up productivity to as high as 40 percent in the people who work there. Employees work more efficiently and help the businesses earn better revenue. For people working in a green building that has followed sustainable parameters, 44 percent were better at making decisions that have a significant impact on workplace goals, while 31 percent were reported to be better at planning and strategising under pressure, according to a survey done by My Tech Decisions, a commercial technology management blog.

The Goa project that saw the designer completely renovate an old charming villa with a Portugese effect. The 6,700 sq ft place was fitted with sustainable interiors.

Why did we move away from our traditional architecture?

The Indian spiritual philosophy interpreted humans as a direct extension of the cosmos. Early civilisation in India was fearful of nature and always respected the environment.

The same philosophy got included in the traditional home architecture through usage of local and sustainable materials and various methods that would be climate-responsive.

Till date, we can trace a few of these elements—courtyards, clusters, wind towers, roof terraces and jaalis.

Traditional architecture took into account the climate condition of the terrain. So a house in Bikaner region of Rajasthan would be planned in such a way to ensure minimum sunlight can enter the rooms. Most houses would have a courtyard.

The rooms would get their light and ventilation from this courtyard and have very few openings on to the exterior. Dust storms being quite common in summer months, the roads were designed in a way that pedestrians were less affected.

This is the reason most major old streets in the cities of Rajasthan are oriented almost in the East-West direction at right angles to the direction of dust storms. Contrast to Rajasthan architecture is the one in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh.

The houses are characterised by an attic with small windows on the sides. The main purpose of the attic is to insulate the rooms. Besides, it also worked as a store room to preserve corn, which is the staple of the region. The windows helped in drying of corn.Avinash Singh, Founder, ARK 

Village 24, believes any project can be made sustainable if traditional materials and local craftsman are used. “While working on a project in Meghalaya, the building was situated near a cliff, which made the job difficult. The client gave clear instruction to retain the overall ambience and essence of space.

The aim was not to disturb the core structure and material initially used. I chose to use local masons and materials as much as possible. Selection of material was also very crucial due to its geographical location,” he says. 

However, as India’s population kept expanding and the migration from rural regions to metros kept rising, urban planning went for a toss and people started adapting to architecture that would fit the increasing number of people, forgetting the values of our tradition.

“The transition from traditional to modern happened due to development and increase in population. Urbanisation has led to pressures on providing spaces for work and homes. These have also put immense stress on energy, water and waste. So it was only apt that the concepts of green buildings were brought into the mainstream and we are now seeing Indian cities adopting these practices in their construction methodologies and also in the operations and maintenance,” says Gopalakrishnan Padmanabhan, Managing Director-APAC & Middle East, Green Business Certificate Institute (GBCI).

But not all is lost to oblivion. According to the report, ‘Go Green: The Mantra for Sustainable Living’, India ranks second after the US in terms of the number of green technology projects and built-up area. About four percent of buildings in the country are ‘green’ today. Almost 14 lakh houses of total residential properties in India have chosen to go for a ‘green building’ tag, amounting to about 6.33 billion sq ft. India now has an ambitious target of having 10 billion sq ft green building footprint by 2022. Considering the period of a couple of decades ago, when a lot of public and government buildings were built with the influence of vernacular architecture and traditional influences, in today’s context—with fast-paced technological advancements—it is crucial to incorporate the active techniques with the passive design strategies.

Anubhav Gupta, Zonal Head, Vikhroli, Godrej Properties Limited (GPL) Design Studio and Head, CSR and Sustainability of the firm, says, “We want to be water-positive, carbon-neutral and minimise waste to land fill.” He stresses that the idea to upcycle older buildings or use what exists shouldn’t be overlooked before building something absolutely new. In an effort to reach this target, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, offers fast-track clearance for green building projects. States such as Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh are at the forefront of providing benefits for green buildings. But, experts say this is not enough. What is needed is incentivising time and money, in addition to fast-tracking projects further and giving subsidies to encourage construction.

What more can the government do?

Kanhai Gandhi, Co-founder, KNS Architects Pvt Ltd, believes that a green or sustainable building is the one that can maintain/improve the quality of life and harmonise within the local climate, tradition, culture.

Celebrated for his Karnavati University project in Ahmedabad, Kanhai says, “Creating a new building increases the carbon footprint, though it helps us incorporate the necessary sustainable features from the start. Whereas, if it’s an existing building, it could be challenging sometimes to add the green features because of its location or other limitations.”

It is here that the government’s initiative matters most. The government should, he urges, help bolster India’s status in the future, ushering in a new era of sustainability for the nation.

India has committed to the Paris Climate Agreement and is working hard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent and carbon by almost three billion tonnes by 2030.

The ‘Housing for All’ initiative presents the country with a unique opportunity to integrate affordable and resource-efficient housing at scale and, in doing so, bring about a sustainable transformation to India’s residential market.

At the same time, turning existing buildings green will add an edge to the green movement. “Existing buildings represent by far the largest share of the global real estate market and present us with a unique opportunity. Consider that it can take up to 80 years to make up for the impacts of demolishing an existing building and constructing a new one, even if the resulting building is extremely energy efficient. We need to get our existing buildings on a path to sustainability in order to realise true market transformation,” explains Padmanabhan.

Despite measures by the architects, sometimes green buildings—especially residential ones—refuse to find buyers.

The reason is simple: the pricing associated with green buildings in terms of technology and the way the buildings need to be designed to make them eligible for LEED certification requires additional costs. LEED evaluates buildings and awards points in six credit areas—location and transportation, materials and resources, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, sustainable sites, and indoor environmental quality.

The programme has certified Silver, Gold, and Platinum award levels. These costs are passed on to end users. To counter this, Chintan Patel, Partner, Deal Advisory and National Head, Building Construction and Real Estate, KPMG in India, says, “The government can try to incentivise more. There can be more tax rebate, which can be eventually passed on to the buyers. Or starting with smaller things—it needn’t be 100 percent green, but maybe 20-30 percent green, thus cutting costs and making it more accessible.”

Anubhav Gupta, Zonal Head, Vikhroli, Godrej Properties Ltd Design Studio

The chief design officer and business head of Godrej Properties aims to make all projects that the group undertakes at least silver-rated IGBC or LEED green-certified. He claims that over the last two decades, 100 percent of their portfolio is green.

The aesthetic of “artisanal minimalism” attracts him. The group, already known for a few Platinum-rated projects, is now working on its first hotel with Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris (Tata group), which will be Platinum-rated as well.

Elaborating on a project close to his heart—The Trees—Anubhav, who likes “to tell stories through what I make”, says, “We created a masterplan where we decided to save about 85 percent of green cover. The idea was not only to save green but also to save a few of the older buildings on the sides. Old building materials pollute as well.”

He rues unlike the West, India does not have stringent urban design or development guidelines. For someone who does not like wearing collared shirts because they are “stuffy and pretentious”, his professional vision echoes the same personal choice.

How grading changed the game

Before 2000, a green building was more of a concept and an interesting experiment that was unfeasible. However, a few factors led to the tectonic shift at least in the drawing boards. As per Harvard Business Review, in 2000, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) in Washington, DC, launched its rigorous LEED rating programme. And that changed everything.

In India, there are other independent rating agencies such as Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA), Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) and Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI).

Amit Khanna Design Principal, AKDA

With the Yellow Brick House—a residential project in Delhi— AKDA beautifully merged light, space, durability, high-performance and craftsmanship while being inherently sustainable. The pale-coloured brick facade fights off the Delhi heat while maintaining longevity.

Sunshine and natural light are the central theme, besides use of sustainable products such as clay bricks, pale-coloured walls, aluminum-glazed windows, and LED lighting. His design philosophy is “to make regional specificity and sustainability intrinsic to the design process and product”.

Amit was drawn to architecture on watching his parent’s friend in Kenya. He considers Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth in Texas, the US, the finest building of the 20th century. Another roadblock to people opting out of wanting green spaces, he thinks, is the cost involved. “However, the long-term financial gains are significant,” he assures.

Kanhai Gandhi Co-founder, KNS Architects Pvt Ltd

Clean and clutter-free are his calling cards. When it comes to green buildings, this national award-winning architect follows a simple principle: “A green or sustainable building is the one that can maintain/improve the quality of life and harmonise within the local climate, tradition, culture.”

Well known for his Karnavati University project in Ahmedabad, Kanhai wanted to incorporate the ethos and culture of India into the academic world and also talk of sustainable measures that can help in local and global ecosystem throughout the entire building life-cycle. But the project brought about its own challenges.

He got down to work and designed the south façade as a huge dead wall with a scooped-out mass giving the structure a big and monumental entrance. Apart from working well aesthetically for the architectural design, it helped in reducing the harsh sunlight from entering.

Also, the scooped-out mass helped in achieving a quadruple height atrium bringing in immense natural light. The use of solar panels helped in generating 70 percent of power.

What is a Green Building?

A ‘green’ building that, in its design, construction or operation, reduces or eliminates negative impacts, and can create positive impacts, on our climate and natural environment. There are a number of features which can make a building ‘green’, which include: 

1) Pollution and waste reduction measures and the enabling of re-use and recycling

2) Consideration of the environment in design, construction and operation

3) Use of materials that are non toxic, ethical and sustainable

4) Ground indoor environmental air quality

5) Efficient use of energy, water and other resources

6) Use of renewable energy, such as solar energy

7) A design that enables adaptation to a changing environment

8) Consideration of the quality of life of the occupants in design, construction and operation

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