Green buildings: it’s common sense

Frenzied growth in real estate and changing lifestyle in Indian cities are inciting resource guzzling. Architects have innovative ideas to build green homes

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Green buildings: itÔÇÖs common sense

India is in a frenetic race to construct buildings. But if anyone thinks cities are built to the brim, be warned. More than 70 per cent of the buildings that will stand in India in 2030 are yet to be built. This raises green concerns. Makers and users of buildings must cut use of energy, water and materials and transform their lifestyle. Else, cities will splurge precious resources and drown in their own waste.

Scale of change

The real estate boom is driven by the scale and speed of urban growth. Although there is no official database on the building construction sector, the collage of data from the real estate industry, consultancy firms and experts reflects the boom. Close to 1.95 billion square metre of the area constructed in 2005 is a mere 20 per cent of the about 9.66 billion square metre to be built by 2030.

Big cities are major destinations for the real estate industry. The hot spots are Bengaluru, National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Pune. Residential units dominate construction work. This is because the Planning Commission estimates a deficit of 26 million residential units. Given the range, from low-cost housing to high-income housing, residences are expected to have a broad bandwidth of energy and resource use.

mega cities

Commercial buildings—hospitality, offices and retail—show high growth rate and are expected to guzzle more resources. McKinsey estimates that from the built-up area of one billion square metre in 2009, commercial space will grow to four billion square metre in 2030—a four-fold increase.

Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) estimates that to keep pace with the demand, construction of offices will have to increase by nearly 1.8 million square metre a year in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru by 2030.

The share of organised retail, valued at US $30 billion in 2010 as per the estimates of Ernst & Young, will also gain prominence. Delhi NCR will hog 20 per cent of the future demand and Mumbai about 16 per cent. In 15 largest cities of India, shopping malls are expected to cover 7.33 million square metre area. Malls can maul cities.

Green worries

This boom can be a bane. Where and how buildings are built and used decide their damaging impacts. People’s lifestyle, their aspired comfort level, the building’s architecture, location and material influence the use of energy, water, land, biodiversity, air, waste and even vehicular traffic. These are responsible for 40 per cent of energy use, 30 per cent of raw material use, 20 per cent of water use and 20 per cent of land use in the country. At the same time, it is responsible for 40 per cent of carbon emissions, 30 per cent of solid waste and 20 per cent of water effluent.

Globally, building construction and occupation have raised energy and climate concerns. The World Energy Outlook 2009 of Paris-based International Energy Agency states that by 2030, cities will be consuming 73 per cent of the world’s energy and CO2 emissions will escalate because of increased floor space in buildings—especially in non-OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) countries due to lifestyle changes.

A house in Bengaluru built by Deepak Godhi with compressed earth blocks instead of bricks; (right) skylights minimise use of electricity

In India, buildings consume one-third of the country’s total electricity. The National Habitat Standard Mission states that building energy consumption has increased from 14 per cent in 1970 to 33 per cent in 2004-05. This is because lifestyle is rapidly changing the electric appliance market. BEE says lighting and air-conditioning use 80 per cent of the energy in commercial buildings, while fans and refrigerators guzzle maximum energy in residential buildings.

A study by Pune-based think-tank Prayas Energy shows that given the income levels in India, the major initial spurt will be in basic appliances like fans and television sets because more households will move up the income ladder. Though smaller in volume compared to fans and television sets, the air-conditioning market is already galloping at 25 per cent per year.

Add to this the water woes. All stages of construction, starting from laying the foundation to laying the roof require intensive use of water. Water demand is generally 10 to 20 per cent of the total volume of brick and concrete used in a building. But with modification in techniques, water use can be minimised. Developers will also come under pressure to capture and reuse grey water from bathroom taps, showers and baths, washing machines and kitchen facilities; black water from toilets; and storm water from the roof run-offs, impervious surfaces and drainage systems.

There is a need to reduce per capita water use in buildings without compromising on essential hygienic standards. As opposed to Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation’s prescription of 135 litres per capita per day (lpcd), other governments, like the UK, target 80 to 100 lpcd in residential buildings.

Policy push

Buildings can be constructed in a way that the threshold level of water and energy requirements are low and waste is minimised, while the comfort level is improved. The Integrated Energy Policy 2006 wants changes in the national building code to facilitate energy-efficient buildings, compulsory energy audits and solar water heaters among other energy-saving approaches.

To set the minimum energy performance standards for new commercial buildings with connected load of 100 kW and above, as well as for retrofitting of existing buildings, Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) has been set in place. This is voluntary but can boost the green building movement once it is mandated. Rajasthan and Odisha have notified ECBC. Kerala and Uttarakhand will do so soon.


Voluntary star labelling programme for day-use office buildings, BPOs and shopping complexes is also in place. So far, 123 buildings have been awarded energy star rating label. ECBC is the minimum standard, equivalent to one star. But with incentives, builders can target higher ranks to maximise energy savings.

According to BEE, energy used by conventional buildings is 180-200 kwh per sq m per year or higher. With ECBC it can be cut down to 140-110 kwh per sq m per year. Today, there are buidlings that consume half the energy permitted by the code. For example, Bayer Eco Commercial Building in Noida consumes around 75 kwh/sq m/ year. The building of the Ministry of Environment and Forests being constructed in Delhi is targeting less than 50 units per sq m per year.

Policies on water efficiency and conservation and waste management need to converge with energy policies to push for green buildings. Besides, proper monitoring is required for the voluntary green rating schemes.

The risks

Green building policies have created enormous opportunities for innovation in energy-efficient technology. Market is abuzz with green building products for lighting, insulation and glazing. Manufacturers claim that wall insulation products or insulated roof tiles go beyond the ECBC requirements.

While technology is an opportunity, its inappropriate selection and application can make things go awry. Climatic conditions—warm and humid, and hot and dry—govern the choice of material and design. But often, the construction industry and the wannabe clientele push for mindless application of material and architecture from the West without considering Indian climate. For instance, craze for glass in hot and dry regions—the Gurgaon syndrome—leads to unnecessary heating up and increased use of energy-intensive air-conditioning.

Unfortunately, policies cannot deliver if performance monitoring remains weak. In many cities government incentives are linked with green rating, but only Noida has mandated performance monitoring of green buildings.

Getting creative

Green building is common sense that blends traditional wisdom with modern science. Listen more carefully to the architect before habitually picking up concrete blocks and vitrified tiles, plastering surfaces with cement and painting them.

Wise architectural design lets in good glare-free daylight and reduces energy requirement for lighting. Overheating can be prevented through exposed glasses and surfaces which can reduce energy requirement for cooling purpose. Changing the orientation of buildings and using a wide variety of shading can cut heat and glare. A range of innovative cooling, insulation and ventilation techniques save energy.

Building gurus try to minimise damage to environment through locally obtained stone and responsibly harvested woods. They select material with low-embedded energy. Stabilised earth blocks, straw-bale, stone, sandstone chips and fly ash have much lower energy intensity (less than 0.5 giga joules per tonne) than glass, aluminium, stainless steel, copper, zinc, cement and readymix concrete (more than 5 giga joules per tonne).

Green building is not a fixed prescription. Architects are constantly experimenting with design and material to find low-cost as well as creative solutions. Yet, the blueprint of green building is not clear to many.

People must understand the spectrum of innovation in architecture, construction and material to customise their own solutions. There is the legendary Auroville near Pondicherry, the hub of ingenious architects inventing creative and locally appropriate solutions. Auroville has put on the global map the tradition of raw earth architecture with the modern technique of stabilised earth that can be used from foundation to roof. And more.

Look at the Agilent Technology campus at Manesar near Delhi made by Sanjay Prakash and Associates in hot and dry climate. It reflects amazing use of daylight, shading and innovative cooling systems. There is also the example of a building without air-conditioning like the Tapasya block of Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi that blends reflective surfaces, courtyards, vegetation for cooling, integrated passive solar hot water system to keep energy use very low, 12.76 kwh/ m2/ year and yet ensure comfort.

Earthen pots are strategically placed on the roof to provide insulation in Pearl Design Institute in Jaipur

Bengaluru-based Deepak Godhi’s residence is based on stabilised rammed earth foundation, compressed stabilised earth block walls, roofs with “hourdi”—hollow block—that reduces use of solid concrete and is a great heat insulator. Also, about 60 per cent of the annual household water need is met by rainwater harvesting.

In the hospitality sector comes Samode Safari Lodge, built by Pradeep Sachdeva and Associates near Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. It uses materials available within a 20-km radius—hand-moulded bricks, wood reclaimed from old houses. The edifice of local timber makes excellent use of sunlight.

Pearl Design Academy, an educational institute in Jaipur, has minimum exposed surface area. The institute has a four-metre underbelly below two stories of classrooms, studios and offices. The underbelly forms a natural thermal sink, which is cooled by waterbodies through evaporative cooling. This is a microclimate generator. A stepwell cools the building from within.

Very creatively it has used earthen pots (matkas), about 35 cm in diameter, and placed them on the flat roof, 2.5 cm apart. Spaces in between are filled with sand and broken bricks and covered with a thin layer of concrete. This provides insulation. Traditional jaali work is also used to provide shade.

Thermal comfort can also be improved in the homes of the poor. In Delhi, Micro Home Solutions offers creative and useful techniques for low-cost houses in slums to make living comfortable. It designs night shelters with easily workable material such as canvas, chicken mesh, bamboo and ropes—all eco-friendly and inexpensive. They have a double layer wall made of canvas cloth stretched over a bamboo frame. The air trapped in the envelope formed by the canvas insulates the interior.

But beware. For, experiments do go wrong at times. Widely reported is the unhealthy indoor air created as a result of mold formation in the tunnels and towers used to channelise cool air into buildings as a cooling method.

The rich collage of evidence is from the information shared by some of the leading architects with the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment. To know more about the creative journey and to find your own solutions, keep track of this section in the coming issues.

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  • Anumita Roychowdhury, Thanks

    Anumita Roychowdhury,

    Thanks for a great article. You have provided both breadth and depth in an important area.

    ÔÇ£Green building is common sense that blends traditional wisdom with modern science.ÔÇØ

    So true.

    It reminds me of what a professor told me at a theological seminary many yrs ago:
    ÔÇ£Wisdom is to Take the Best of the Old and Combine it with the Best of the NewÔÇØ

    Good to see India rising to the challenge of man-made global warming.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent article. It is an

    Excellent article.

    It is an irony that in India in most places we first heat the buildings and begin to cool it by Air cionditioners and Fans. In the traditional house construction the entrances used to be face to face so that there is cross ventilation which helps for natural cooling.

    Indigenous architecture has evolved suitable building styles for severe climates. It may now be added that traditional urban design provided the appropriate environment without which even the best building design could not have been wholly successful.
    JAISALMER (Rajastan ):
    The best example of architecture of the hot and arid zone in India is Jaisalmer, a town built in the
    heart of the Thar desert. The geographical location of Jaisalmer is 26 deg. 55 min. North (lat.) and
    70 deg. 55 min (long.), with a height above mean sea level of 241.66 meters. The day time
    temperatures in June reach up to 50 deg. C while the night temperatures in January are below the
    freezing point. Annual rainfall during the year is 120 to 150 mm, but in some years there is no
    rainfall at all. During the summer months of May, June and July, the town is subjected to severe
    sand storms. The climate demands protection from the scorching summer sun and sand storms on
    the one hand and very cold winter nights on the other. Humidity being low throughout the year,
    comfort could be easily provided by evaporative cooling, but this is not possible because water is
    very scarce in Jaisalmer. The only sources of water are the very deep
    wells and the Gharhisar tank on the outskirts of the town.
    The layout of the town is the first defense against the harsh climate. The streets are
    narrow and shaded from the sun. The general street orientation is south east to north
    west, which is at right angles to the prevailing summer winds. Hot dusty winds are thus kept out of
    the streets. At many places, buildings overhang the streets on both sides, providing a cool shaded
    area almost like a tunnel. In some places the buildings actually bridge across the streets. The
    contiguous construction ensures mutual shading by walls and other elements of the adjoining
    building. The main building material used for walls is light yellow coloured sand stone. Roofs are built of
    mud, supported on wooden beams covered with grass mat. In more recent construction, stone
    beams have been used as roof supports. The thickness of the roof varies from 45cms. to 90 cms.,
    enough to dampen the effect of the diurnal temperature variations. There is no scientific study to
    compare the performance of the two kinds of roofing (i.e. stone slabs and wooden beams), but
    according to popular belief the wooden ceilings with grass mats stay cooler than stone ceilings.
    The wall surfaces are highly articulated with projecting balconies, sun shades and
    brackets, and each of these building elements is in turn intricately carved. Flat portions of stone
    walls are also decorated with deep carvings. The resulting overall building surface is designed to
    stay cool even when it is exposed to the sun. According to the economic and social status of the house owners, there are three types of buildings. The poorest live in very small single storey houses built in mud. There is generally a small room and a verandah opening into a small courtyard enclosed by high walls. Usually a small basement is also built, but it is not ventilated and therefore used only as a store for valuables. The main living area of the house is the courtyard and verandah. The heavy roof and walls along with the courtyard ensure thermal comfort in the house.
    The middle income house is a two or three storied structure with a completely enclosed
    courtyard. The deep and narrow building plot of land is surrounded on three sides by similar construction and on the fourth side by the narrow street. Therefore, solar heat gain through the
    walls is very little. The rooms built next to the street are cross ventilated through the courtyard.
    This may not be possible in the rooms built in the rear of the plot. Since window openings are
    small and the courtyard very deep, most rooms in these houses are poorly illuminated.
    Architecturally the most interesting and the most comfortable thermally, are the "Havelis" (large
    courtyard houses) belonging to the rich. These are three or four storied structures with additional
    wind pavilions on the top floor. Each building is built around one or two courtyards with
    additional ventilation shafts provided at appropriate locations. Almost all the special thermal
    design features of these "Havelis" are incorporated in Nath Malji's Haveli .

    In the olden days most of the houses have white colour both outside and inside. Outside to reflect sunlight and inside to use less lighting(Electricity). But today it has become fashionable to have even darker colours inside the house.

    Another classic example of natural airconditioning is Eastgate Centre,Harare,Zimbabwe.
    The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, typifies the best of green architecture and ecologically sensitive adaptation. The countryÔÇÖs largest office and shopping complex is an architectural marvel in its use of biomimicry principles. The mid-rise building, designed by architect Mick Pearce in conjunction with engineers at Arup Associates, has no conventional air-conditioning or heating, yet stays regulated year round with dramatically less energy consumption using design methods inspired by indigenous Zimbabwean masonry and the self-cooling mounds of African termites!

    Termites in Zimbabwe build gigantic mounds inside of which they farm a fungus that is their primary food source. The fungus must be kept at exactly 87 degrees F, while the temperatures outside range from 35 degrees F at night to 104 degrees F during the day. The termites achieve this remarkable feat by constantly opening and closing a series of heating and cooling vents throughout the mound over the course of the day. With a system of carefully adjusted convection currents, air is sucked in at the lower part of the mound, down into enclosures with muddy walls, and up through a channel to the peak of the termite mound. The industrious termites constantly dig new vents and plug up old ones in order to regulate the temperature.

    The Eastgate Centre, largely made of concrete, has a ventilation system which operates in a similar way. Outside air that is drawn in is either warmed or cooled by the building mass depending on which is hotter, the building concrete or the air. It is then vented into the buildingÔÇÖs floors and offices before exiting via chimneys at the top. The complex also consists of two buildings side by side that are separated by an open space that is covered by glass and open to the local breezes.
    Air is continuously drawn from this open space by fans on the first floor. It is then pushed up vertical supply sections of ducts that are located in the central spine of each of the two buildings. The fresh air replaces stale air that rises and exits through exhaust ports in the ceilings of each floor. Ultimately it enters the exhaust section of the vertical ducts before it is flushed out of the building through chimneys.
    The Eastgate Centre uses less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building its size. These efficiencies translate directly to the bottom line: EastgateÔÇÖs owners have saved $3.5 million alone because of an air-conditioning system that did not have to be implemented. Outside of being eco-efficient and better for the environment, these savings also trickle down to the tenants whose rents are 20 percent lower than those of occupants in the surrounding buildings.
    In Hindu mythology there is a saying: Well Water,Brick House and Banyan Tree Shade are warmer in Winter and cooler in Summer.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Anumita and Eco

    Anumita and Eco Warriors,

    Nature is the best source of ideas and inspiration. Living in its harmony and emulating how it preserves and keeps the earth alive is the way forward for all of us.

    Excellent topic/coverage by Anumita, enjoyed all the posts.

    Look forward to remaining active and focused on the topic.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply