"India is building 'green', but do we know what 'green' means?" asks CSE conclave on sustainable habitat and buildings

From left to right: Chitra Vishwanath,Suhasini Ayer,Sanjay Prakash, Avikal Somvanshi, Sunita Narain, Sandeep Virmani, Anumita Roychowdhury and Ashok B Lall,

Building sense, new CSE publication, released at the conclave by a group of eminent architects

Building ‘smart’ cities essentially means building ‘livable’ cities, agree conclave participants

New Delhi, September 23, 2014: India is in a frenzy of construction. We are building at a massive pace, but are still not there yet: a staggering 60 per cent of the buildings that will stand in India in 2030 are yet to be built. And how we choose to design and build these and live in them can have a profound impact on our resource use and environment – this is one of the core messages in a new publication on the ‘green’ building sector which was released here today.

Building sense: beyond the green façade of sustainable habitat has been published by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). It was released at a two-day conclave on the ‘green’ buildings and townships sector, by a panel of eminent architects from all over India including Chitra Vishwanath, principal architect and managing director, Biome Environmental Solutions Pvt Ltd, Bengaluru; Sandeep Virmani, managing director, Hunnarshala, Bhuj; Sanjay Prakash, principal architect, SHiFt Architects, Delhi; Ashok B Lall, principal architect, Ashok B Lall Architects, Delhi; Suhasini Ayer, principal architect, Auroville Design Consultants, Puducherry; and Yatin Pandya, principal architect, Footprints EARTH, Ahmedabad.    

The two-day conclave was opened by CSE director general Sunita Narain, and ended today with a panel including her, Ajay Mathur (director general, Bureau of Energy Efficiency, Delhi) and B K Sinha (head-civil engineering, Bureau of Indian Standards, Delhi).

Building sense covers a range of issues, including environmental impacts of buildings and townships; energy efficiency of buildings; affordable housing for the urban poor; building materials and waste; and green rating of buildings.

Environmental impacts of buildings and townships
CSE researchers say as both residential and commercial buildings will increase several fold, this will have enormous impacts on the quality of urban space, water and energy resources in cities, and waste generation. Unless guided with right principles for selecting locations, architectural design, appropriate choices of building material, operational management, and strong monitoring, the building sector can make cities unliveable.

The book points out that the building boom in India is leading to sprawl, longer travel distances amd encroachment of fertile agricultural land; compromising livability, undermining safety and straining resources – leading to generation of pollution and rampant misuse of resources such as land, energy and water.

While individually buildings have substantial impact on the surrounding environment, cumulatively and together they make significant impact on the urban environment. In India buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of the energy use, 30 per cent of the raw material use, 20 per cent of water use, and 20 per cent of land use. At the same time it causes 40 per cent of the carbon emissions, 30 per cent of solid waste generation, and 20 per cent of the water effluents.

“The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process is the only explicit legal instrument available to assess resource impacts of buildings and townships. But it is ineffective and vulnerable to corrupt practices. This undermines its compliance,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director-research and advocacy.

“Master planning for cities has become a joke,” says Roychowdhury. “Today, only 1,500 of over 5,000 urban centres have master plans, and most of these are outdated.”

CSE researchers recommend that the EIA process be reinvented and integrated with the building approval process and urban planning to get better results and to make cities worth living in.  

“This is especially pertinent in the context of the present NDA government’s stress on ‘smart’ cities -- the question that one may ask at this juncture is what exactly do we mean by this term ‘smart’?” says CSE director general Sunita Narain. The answer to this came from one of the panelists at the conclave: Delhi-based architect Sanjay Prakash pointed out that ‘smart cities’ would actually mean ‘livable cities’.

Green rating of buildings and townships
But how do we make the cities livable and smart – how do we know whether they are sustainable and ‘green’?

A green rating system exists for this sector, but it is opaque and non-transparent. “There is little information in the public domain on the green measures, costs and paybacks. As a result, public understanding of green-rated buildings and their benefits remains poor,” says Roychowdhury. 

“What is needed is transparency, accountability and stringent compliance and monitoring,” she adds.

CSE also recommends policy review to set energy performance and energy saving targets for buildings, and to nudge the sector towards lesser use of energy-intensive electrical appliances and devices. “India has adopted the Energy Conservation Building Code to improve energy performance of buildings, but there are gaps in the code,” says Roychowdhury.

Says Sunita Narain in her Preface to Building sense: “We need building standards that are appropriate and cost-effective. India has rich reserves of traditional knowledge – we need to bring this old knowledge to the table. The task is to keep learning so that every new building takes the knowledge to new heights.”