Think sustainabilty, think embodied energy

During the Q&A of a seminar I was asked if a leaf was more high tech than a smartphone. This sparked off a debate on the definition of ‘high-tech’.

Published: 15th October 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th October 2018 11:48 PM   |  A+A-

During the Q&A of a seminar I was asked if a leaf was more high tech than a smartphone. This sparked off a debate on the definition of ‘high-tech’. The outcome was that the smartphone is ‘high-tech’ but a leaf is ‘eco-tech.’ A phone is obviously high tech, but leaf is ‘high tech’ as well. For instance, a leaf adapts to an environment and makes its own food. The idea that a leaf could self-destruct in an eco friendly way, in my opinion makes it more advanced than the complex e-waste problem causing smartphone.

This entire discussion is interesting. Choosing between high-tech and eco-tech is an everyday grapple for architects. Most clients believe that sustainability is about use of natural materials like earth, brick and bamboo as materials of construction. 

For others, it is about including advanced materials and technologies like high performance facades with mechanical systems that track and change with the movement of the sun. So in a world so divided about what is true sustainability the riddle is: “should we go back to basics or should one reach for the moon?”
There are many merits to going back to basics and working with local materials.

They are more suited for the geography; can be harvested on site and have what is called very low values for their ‘embodied energy’. Embodied energy is the sum of all the energies required to produce a component, system or say, the building. It considers all the energy required to deliver a component ready for use at the door, gets incorporated with the rest and becomes ‘embodied’ in the finished product itself. The concept is useful to understand the effectiveness of energy-producing or energy-saving devices, or determine the ‘real’ replacement cost of a building. One fundamental purpose for measuring this quantity is to compare the amount of energy produced or saved by the product vs the amount of energy consumed in producing it.

Obviously some clients want to explore sustainability through materials with low embodied energy, such as earth harvested from the site, rapidly renewable bamboo instead of wood, palm and thatch for roofs, clay and lime plaster instead of cement and local stone which do not have to travel great distances to get to the site.

Consequently the environment is saved from greenhouse gases that would have otherwise been emitted to complete the building. The other advantage to using these materials would of course be that they all are easily degrade-able and will not require any massive recycling effort at the end of their lifetime. The flip side to this is resource depletion: if we were to use all the resources from earth with little ‘manufacturing’ going into making the building, then the earth would require aeons to replenish, if ever!

So if your definition of sustainability is about going back to basics, then start thinking about everything in terms of embodied energy. It will help take a balanced view about ‘green’ choices. Also remember to answer ‘leaf’ as you are clearly a believer in eco-tech! But there is a flip side to this debate and I am looking forward to continuing on it next week! Till then....

Pavitra Sriprakash


The writer is an architect, urban designer, dancer and chief designer at Shilpa Architects

India Matters


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