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You are here: Home | Environment | Eco-logic | Small green hope in India's burgeoning construction industry

Small green hope in India's burgeoning construction industry

By Darryl D'Monte

Most of India’s construction industry mimics the energy-inefficient glass-and-steel buildings of the West. But with the introduction of two green rating systems for buildings, the revival of traditional architecture and 30 architecture/engineering colleges introducing green certification courses, the country is slowly building up capacity to construct green buildings

CII-Godrej Green Business Centre, Hyderabad

V S Naipaul’s scathing term, “mimic men”, applies all too easily to nearly every facet of life in this country. Buildings are no exception. In every metro, they are designed according to Western norms, which are based on temperate climates. In cold weather, you need to keep buildings warm. Apart from artificial heating, architects there design buildings to retain as much heat as possible. This is why they use glass extensively. It is not for nothing that, globally, we refer to the greenhouse effect on the climate.

Why high-rise office buildings, malls and the like must follow suit here defeats the imagination. I can recall that when the Ceat office was built in Worli in Mumbai in the 1970s, the air-conditioning was switched off at 5 pm. Admittedly, people didn’t work such long hours those days, but whenever people had to put in overtime and weren’t fortunate to have a window in their room, they were extremely uncomfortable. Today, most windows in offices are hermetically sealed.

According to the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, cities account for around 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. United Nations estimates put it higher at 60-80%. Most of these pollutants are generated when energy is used in buildings -- to heat or cool, depending on which part of the globe we are referring to, as well as for lighting and lifts. This doesn’t include the embodied energy used in construction materials. One must remember that glass and steel, the two most favoured materials for contemporary Indian high-rises, are extremely energy-intensive, as indeed is concrete. The other major user of energy in cities is transport.

On the eve of the recent Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development, the annual meet of movers and shakers in the environment sector from around the world, held by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), there was a meeting on ‘Green Buildings’, organised by the EU-India Action Plan Support Facility, with the objective of sharing solutions between India and the EU.

In such sectors, as indeed global commitment on cutting emissions, the EU has been most proactive and could achieve more on the latter if the US came on board. It is aiming for a 20% increase in energy efficiency by 2020 (which mirrors its goal of reducing emissions by 20% by the same deadline), a 20% increase in the use of renewables by 2020 and reducing the energy demand in buildings by 40%, half of these being commercial buildings. In a highly developed region like the EU, buildings consume more energy than transport and industry put together.

There is an EU portal called Build Up which details a range of opportunities for making energy use more efficient. However, even in the EU there is a lack of interest in general regarding such innovations. There is also lack of information and technological capacity. Green buildings have collateral benefits: there is reduced water use, and construction materials are more sustainable, making them easier to recycle and reuse.

The problem, which applies to this country as well, is that builders don’t occupy the buildings they build, so there is no incentive for them to go green because they don’t pay the electricity or gas bills.  Further, the construction industry doesn’t undertake the lifecycle costing of a building: its objective, even more so in India, is to complete a building (some or most of it may already have been pre-sold in this country) and clear out.

It is a myth that green buildings are more costly, or require greater investment. Builders are also under the impression that they are difficult to build and are less attractive to look at or work in. The EU tries to use fiscal instruments like lower value-added tax (VAT) or other taxes, including tax holidays, as an incentive.

India comes second only to China in the scale of construction activity. The amount of built office space is projected to increase from 200 million square metres in 2009 to 890 million square metres by 2030. The building industry used some 81 million tonnes of material in 2010, up 9% from 2009. However, as a measure of its lack of efficiency, half of the waste from construction ends up in landfills, which are getting more difficult to find as cities endlessly expand their footprint. There are various ways in which this waste can be recycled, including surfacing roads.

“India’s economy and building sector is growing at an unparalleled rate -- 75% of buildings that will exist in 2030 have yet to be built,” says Anjali Jaiswal, director of the US-based Natural Resources Defence Council’s (NRDC) India Initiative. It has recently brought out a study -- ‘Taking Energy Efficiency to New Heights: An Analysis and Recommendations for the Commercial and High-Rise Buildings Sector’ -- which includes three Hyderabad building case studies and an overview of national and international efficiency standards and financing options. It also provides targeted stakeholder recommendations to help India become a leader in building efficiency.

ITC Green Centre, Gurgaon

“This leaves India with a unique opportunity to lock in energy savings for decades, and the opportunity to lead the world by setting a high standard for building efficiency and pushing the boundaries of what is considered possible,” notes Dr David Goldstein, co-director of NRDC’s energy programme. The three Hyderabad buildings provide real-world examples of construction costs, certification processes, energy efficiency techniques used in building construction, and the short turn-around time required to recuperate the cost of energy efficiency upgrades.

According to TERI, there is a shortfall of around 190 million units of housing in this country. The National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) reports that by 2015, half the middle class will be housed. This presents a tremendous opportunity to build from scratch, literally, and to avoid the mistakes of the past. As much as 30% of electricity consumed in the country is in the building sector, which includes residential, commercial, hospitals, etc. Only 27% of waste water is treated, with consequences that are too well known to bear repetition.

The Centre passed the Energy Conservation Act in 2001, but it seems to have been honoured more in the breach than the observance. In 2007, an Energy Conservation Building Code was passed, but it was voluntary. Now, thanks to the proactive efforts of Dr Ajay Mathur, who heads the relatively newly set up Bureau of Energy Efficiency, new buildings have the option of complying with this code. In Delhi, the Fortis hospital building is Code-compliant, which indicates building specifications and benefits from compliance.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), under Dr Farooq Abdullah, has also started a solar building programme. What are known as “passive solar” buildings use diurnal variations -- the varying temperatures between day and night -- to heat or cool buildings without the use of electricity. The simple circulation of air, using vents which are opened or closed as appropriate, makes a world of a difference, at virtually no cost. At the very least, such buildings can reduce the need for cooling or heating even if they cannot eliminate these altogether.

A UNEP Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative document on the ‘State of Play’ of such buildings in India states: “Vernacular schools of building design are deeply embedded in the traditional wisdom that offered beauty and joy to enhance the cultural milieu of India’s built environment.” The architect Charles Correa has often commented on the need for buildings to be “open to sky” wherever possible, through the inclusion of verandahs and courtyards. In his iconic high-rise called ‘Kanchenjunga’, on B G Deshmukh Marg in Mumbai, he has tried to replicate such design by building verandahs in each duplex apartment.

Some of the new initiatives which have incorporated traditional know-how include the Torrent Research Centre for the pharmaceutical company in Ahmedabad, which is said to represent the ‘Mera Wala’ school of green thought. In Pondicherry, Sharanam is a training centre for buildings that employ some of the principles of Tamil Nadu temples. The Manav Sadhna Activity Centre is based in Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad and attempts to build sustainable communities in slums by including cottage industries in the redesign. Finally, there is a Solar Housing Complex in Kolkata which seeks to create a financially sustainable model for green buildings.

Two green rating systems for buildings co-exist in the country. One is known as the Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA), a national system endorsed by MNRE. It is partly mandated by the government. The Centre for Environmental Sciences and Engineering at IIT-Kanpur is the first GRIHA-compliant building. To date, 1 million square feet of constructed area have been registered to be rated under GRIHA. This amounts to 1% of the connected load of space for air-conditioning and lighting from renewable sources. The National Action Plan on Climate Change, unveiled by the prime minister in June 2008, has one of its eight missions on sustainable habitat, which is under the aegis of the Ministry of Urban Development.

The second rating system is titled Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED), launched by the India Green Building Council (IGBC) which, as its name suggests, is an intra-industry endeavour under the umbrella of the Confederation of Indian Industry. The first to obtain such rating was the Institute for Rural Research and Development, in Gurgaon. The CII-Sorabji Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad has attained a LEED platinum rating. At least two ITC buildings -- in Gurgaon (also platinum-rated) and in Hyderabad --have won this laurel. The latter was awarded a Green Globe award for sustainable design at this year’s Delhi summit.

According to Dr P C Jain of IGBC, the energy efficiency earlier achieved by LEED buildings was 61%; this has now risen to 67%. He made a case for not providing such buildings with funds but incentives. LEED-certified buildings should get an increase in floor-area ratio (FAR, the amount of constructed area in relation to the size of a plot; in Mumbai, known as FSI). This energy efficiency has to be maintained, failing which the owners can be heavily fined. To date, some 590 million square feet have been LEED-certified.

The Bureau for Energy Efficiency has rued the fact that the present codes are only applicable to commercial buildings. However, the country is slowly building up capacity with as many as 30 architecture or engineering colleges having introduced green certification courses, with USAID assistance. These students have a training module, after which they undergo a proficiency test and obtain a certification licence.

There is some attention being given to proper materials too. The UNEP document quotes TERI: “Many new office buildings import typical glass-curtain wall designs which increase demand for mechanical cooling in India’s predominantly warm climate. Recent studies of the energy performance of commercial buildings in India indicate that efficiency is poor by international standards, which has the effect of locking Indian cities into inefficient and potentially uncompetitive building stock for decades.” One only hopes that the glass being used to cover three sides of the newly designed Churchgate station in Mumbai, at a distance of 1.8 metres from the building, will actually filter out sunlight and UV radiation, as Western Railways claims.

Double-glazed windows reduce the need for air-conditioning (and cut noise) and there are standards being issued on this front. Window materials will be clearly labelled, with the essential coefficients. Consumers will thus have an informed choice regarding which options to go in for. Such choices are easier to provide than transforming the market: a parallel is how compact fluorescent bulbs have, to an extent, replaced incandescent bulbs and they, in turn, now have a greater energy efficient alternative in LED (light-emitting diode) lamps.

According to MNRE, the use of renewable energy in buildings depends on how conventional energy is priced. Renewables are expensive initially and require a level playing field, considering the subsidies given to fossil fuels. They deserve financial and fiscal incentives. Take solar water heaters which, in the contemporary Indian context, appear to be the most efficient use of this energy while electricity from solar photo-voltaics is too expensive. There are subsidies for individual buyers. However, public utilities have responded favourably to this technology. The Rajasthan State Electricity Board, following the example of its counterparts in Karnataka, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, offer a tariff rebate for big consumers who install such heaters: they can then sell the electricity saved at a higher tariff to industries.

One reason why these heaters haven’t taken off in Delhi is that there is seldom round-the-clock supply of water, which is why once a tank is exhausted, it takes hours to refill and heat up while there is sunlight left in the day. Besides, unlike other states, Delhi residents need hot water to bathe for only around four months in the year. Indeed, according to MNRE, Delhi consumers are better off and don’t mind spending those extra rupees on their electricity bills. However, institutions like hotels and hospitals have installed solar panels for this purpose.

IGBC persists in asking for extra FAR for GRIHA-rated buildings, which appears far too self-serving for the construction industry. The NOIDA Authority has conceded a 5% increase in FAR, provided this status is maintained for three years. Several large builders have taken advantage of this provision. IGBC makes out a case for similar bye-laws in other cities or, at the very least, lower energy tariffs for such buildings. By Diwali, the council will issue a revised building code, a 90-page document. MNRE, instead, waives the registration charges for the first 100 buildings to get three- or four-star rating. 

Infochange News & Features, February 2011

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