Established in 1994, Biodiversity Conservation India Pvt. Ltd is involved in providing green solutions for housing and other buildings that focus on sustainable methods of creating zero energy homes which would not burden the environment. Chandrashekar Hariharan takes Renu Rajaram through the length and breadth of sustainable development in the building and housing sector.
What is your view on sustainable building materials?
I am often asked this question: what makes a building project green? The word ‘green’ is being used in recent years more to help communicate a broad category of efficiencies that any normal promoter, builder, engineer or architect brings as inputs at management and technical levels to bring efficiencies in the approaches to project construction, and project construction management. That’s all there is to it.
For example, if a services professional offers an air-conditioning design that shows 1,000 tonnes as requirement for air-conditioning, the promoter or other key resource professionals have to ask: can this be done with 500 tonnes? Now that will lead to questions on the building material that is used, on the amount of heat that infiltrates into the building and increases the heat quotient, on the fine balance that the architect creates between inviting natural sunlight while keeping the heat from ‘entering’ the building.
We could say that of water or the use of energy, too. What makes a project green, in essence, is therefore the competent question all professionals across the board ask on demand-side management, and not just supply-side management, as we have done thoughtlessly in the past half-century. To be fair to those engineers of the 50s through the 1980s, they did not know the negative impact they were making on the planet, and the mantra is maximise the spending so everyone makes more money!
Many of us professionals did not make the connect in the 60s and up until the turn of 2000 AD, on what happens to the air around us if we did not optimise the use of ACs, to the soil around us if we did not vegetate right or if we used groundwater (with bore wells) without a care for the long-term consequences.
Green projects do not suggest that we compromise on our comfort. They do not also suggest that we spend more, financially speaking, to achieve these ends. Green projects clearly suggest far better and professionally conscientious and efficient use of money and other resources.
The question before most business and professional leaders today who drive any project, conventional or otherwise, is not the desire to go ‘green’ or be more efficient; they all see the huge advantages of such effort, in sheer terms of financial savings. What they are not acknowledging in greater numbers is that they don’t know how to ask the right questions, and whom they should go to.
The other roadblock is their natural, as humans, fear of the relatively unknown, new practices for such demand-side management. Professional consultants have the Damocles’ sword of non-performance being taken up by the client; the client is worried about non-performance of such technologies or design approaches failing for his customer; and the customer is inhibited on accepting some new directions for fear of buying something that will fail, or be inefficient, or will cost him more in maintenance or in replacement.
How can this change? With greater knowledge the leaders carry. They need to bone up on these basic directions and be able to steer their companies to achieve these values that improve their companies’ bottom lines. This means a whole lot of relearning for professional designers of buildings and their services. Architects have to realise that their role is not confined to offering drawings—they have to think about the materials they use for walls, floors, roofs; they must bring efficiencies in use of steel and cement; they must work closely with the designers for systems that relate to energy, water and waste. All professionals must remember that in this future before us, there are no precedents from the past that we can employ for devising solutions. We need to invent new approaches, new technologies, and new approaches to thinking.
What is your outlook on green building?
We take practical positions. We don’t believe in the textbook approach to sustainability. We bear in mind that it has to be doable for others, too, eventually in industry. It has to be replicable, and sometimes scalable. We address the low-hanging fruits that are easier to pick both on demand-side and supply-side management of aspects of water, energy, waste: rainwater harvesting (just four of our projects contribute to harnessing over 40 million litres a year), solar water heating (that saves nearly 40 per cent of contracted energy demand for any ZED project), ‘Grow Our Own Water’ plans (that ensure we don’t import municipal water supply, or use deep aquifer water), and natural air-conditioning systems (that use just 30 per cent of energy loads of regular ACs) are a few examples of such strategic approaches we take at the company.
We look for upstream carbon-effectiveness — use of non-river sand-based concrete, triple blend concrete, lighter building blocks, debris used for road subgrades, optimising structural inputs for framed structures, establishing micro-climate right at the stage of design and not as an afterthought.
If you drop your demand for freshwater, you drop your demand in cities for long-distance river water. If you drop your demand for power with localised solutions, you drop the pressure on demand for coal as well as fossil fuels. This saves our forests, our rivers and therefore the tribal subcultures that are so important for the biodiversity of our environment at a global level.
Essentially, cities cannot be parasites on the natural ecosystems of our forests and our rivers. If we can produce and consume locally within our cities, with our dependence on natural ecosystems dropping by 50 per cent, then we have started our road towards making our civilization sustainable. Our cities will work within a loop of resources that don’t demand more from the world outside our cities.
The urban world is no more than 3 per cent of the entire landmass. This 3 per cent consumes 75 per cent of our natural resources today, and hosts in India nearly 35 per cent of our entire population. This 3 per cent of the landmass also consumes 75 per cent of our natural resources, while producing 65 per cent of our GDP or India’s annual income.
It is this connect between green buildings and sustainable environment that needs to be examined with pragmatic solutions that are technology-linked, in ways that we are able to bring energy savings that reduce our demand for energy.
Into the future, the solutions for energy deficits are not energy generation. It is energy efficiency.
Can you discuss the various measures to save energy in building?
The dropping of temperature inside the building, the potential for growing your own food within buildings in a way that you drop your demand for food that is transported from long distance, capture of rainwater in a way that it can drop freshwater demand, treatment of wastewater in a way that you can ease the pressure on the grid for such centralised sanitation requirements of a city, localisation of energy generation and drop in energy demand in a way that the pressure on the external grid for central generation of power can be dropped dramatically by as much as 60 per cent.
The consumer benefit is not merely in terms of the financial savings that come out of energy bills that fall by nearly a third to 40 per cent. The quality of air and the quality of power inside every such green building is far superior, thanks to technologies and solutions that are localised or are federalised within the clusters of buildings that a campus is made up of.
How can existing buildings be made more efficient?
One of the fundamental success factors for ZED (Zero Energy Developed) is that they are replicable and scalable in any building anywhere. The products are available commercially off the shelf; the consumer only buys and installs. There are a few more companies coming up as healthy competition goes. The market will be redefined over the next five years with these products. These solutions will achieve urban sustainability. People will not take to sustainability; people only take to benefits that come out of good, reliable products that companies can offer.
On building architecture and construction, if ZED systems and practices have to become scalable, India needs armies of architects who are trained into passive architecture, as well as technologies for building without cement, building without chemicals, buildings with drastic reduction in construction water use. We also need [a] water professionals who know how to bring demand-side management with sewage treatment systems that ensure 100 per cent up-cycle of water, rainwater harvest systems which ensure 60 days in a year is managed without freshwater from other sources, and who know how to secure water fixtures that drop water flow by 50 per cent; and [b] energy professionals who will help buildings drop consumption by 50-80 per cent.
A simple example would be flush tanks that consume only 1.5-3 litres on a dual flush basis. There are not very many manufacturers today. Consumers are also not aware of such options available in the market. These can be retrofitted in existing homes; they must become mandatory for all new homes. As consumers, you must insist on buying houses which have such installations. You must deter the builder from selling if he has not offered such installations as features and has technical specifications. That is the only way to replicate and scale.
Tell us about your Green rated projects and other green measures in your projects.
The idea of zero energy is a concept. People do not connect the dots between the specific benefit that a product or a service offers them and the contribution they are making to save the ‘only house we have, our planet’. A ZED idea in action relates to how a customer sees the benefit of financial savings or ROI for the investment he makes in the purchase of a product or service. It also at once offers the customer the feel of why he is doing well for himself or herself is also doing good for the planet. How his purchase is lighter on his wallet, while being lighter on the planet too. It is therefore not just the buying, but what she is buying into.
Examples of such ZED ideas in action are:
- A ZED air-conditioner which saves about 70 per cent on energy and therefore offers a payback of less than four years for the investment on the air-conditioner, with the financial saving going to the consumer, year after year after the payback time. The idea in action also demonstrates reliability, economy, efficiency, excellent function, and finishes that are the finest. The customer also understands that a saving of 70 per cent in energy will reduce our dependence on coal for thermal plants and therefore bring down the abuse and degradation of forests for coal extraction.
- A second example of such ZED ideas in action is the purchase of a house that reduces about 3,000 carbon tons for every set of 70-80 apartments of 1,500 sq. ft. The natural resource-efficient structural systems, the avoidance of use of bricks and clay blocks (because of top soil abuse), use of chemical-free waterproofing compounds and non-toxic waterproofing treatment systems or paints, avoidance of use of ceramic tiles which are high on embodied energy in their manufacture. Use of our air-conditioning systems that are pollen-free and are not ozone-depleting in their functioning, treatment of all wastewater in a way that they can be up-cycled and reused for flush tanks or gardens or car wash and such other use at home (which account for over 50 per cent of water use in any house), use of rainwater harvest system to ensure that about 60 days in a year come from such capture of rainwater, use of flush tanks that reduce by 70-80 per cent the drain of water with every flush, use of reused steel where possible for construction, and use of treated water for construction and reduction of construction water with systems and smart protocols for construction management. There are about 58 such ZED practices which make for either reduction in use of manufacture energy or offers post occupancy efficiency in the use of energy and water.
- The central principle is ECO approach to design. ‘E’ standing for embodied energy and efficiency that we can bring; ‘C’ standing for construction energy or manufacturing energy in every single component that is put into the manufacture of homes or home appliances or other products and services; and ‘O’ standing for operating energy which the home dweller or officer dweller uses after the building is occupied or the product is being used.
- ECO as design approach can bring a dramatic drop in the use of energy and water.
If every builder and every consumer approaches the challenge of global warming and climate change in these ways, more than 70 per cent of our demand in the cities for energy and water will disappear. This is the future that will be sustainable for mankind and for civilisation.
What are the major challenges faced by the Indian green building movement?
At the central government level, over the past five years, the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy have been trying their best to see what they can offer as policy and direction. There has been no legislation that has emerged and is implemented. There have been voluntary compliance guidelines that have come from both the ministries.
However, the government is pussyfooting the issue of legislation that can demand mandatory compliance for users of energy and water across urban India and across different segments of industry, commercial, domestic and farm sectors. The reasons, perhaps, are political. The initiative of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency and the 5 Star rating system that was introduced about five years ago has made a little bit of impact. The GRIHA guidelines from the MNRE have also made some bit of difference but this is not even scratching the surface.
At the state government level, no single state has shown any daring initiative that bucks the political apprehensions of governments. Haryana has shown in some pockets a sign of such determination to see how they can attack issues of energy and water as well as of waste. Maharashtra has also done the same but in bits and starts. There has been no comprehensive legislation or policy thinking that has informed any such decisions in any state government.
At the level of urban local bodies and municipal corporations, Pune showed the way with some change. The Rajkot Municipal Corporation has also come up with a few legislations since about 2009.
As an overview, the contribution from government has been next to nothing so far.