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Building Green in India – Transition Amid Trouble

On track to become the world’s most populous country in as little as five years, India faces a host of issues – from widespread power shortages to an acute water crisis to a gravely polluted air. Amid its environmental, demographic and economic mires, India is among the top countries with vibrant green architecture sectors. How big and significant is sustainable building in the country?

Amoravida huddles in the Western Ghats, a mountain range in western India that is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biodiversity. It is an apt setting for this resort-style residential complex of 15 treehouse-like bungalows, a prime example of India’s sustainable architecture movement. 

Amoravida villas in India

Sprawling over 1.26 acres along the Chapora River, Amoravida – exclusively represented by North India Sotheby's International Realty – is a luxurious modern interpretation of the ethnic dwellings of the state of Goa. It is intimate, and open and mindful of the abundance of life around. 

“The key feature of treehouses is that they sit lightly on the land, if at all,” says Uttam Dave, managing partner at Atmanya Projects that stands behind Amoravida. “So no or few buildings rest on the ground, and the earth is free to contain endemic species of flora. In our case, rather than wood, we used concrete, as that is more sustainable, and also is long-lasting and seismic-proof.”

Other eco-friendly features include an on-site chemical-free biological water treatment facility and transitional environs that smartly utilize the elements of nature. 

Fresh on the Indian real estate scene, Amoravida is one of many sustainable-building projects that have placed the subcontinent among the countries with the most vibrant green architecture. According to the Indian Green Building Council (IGBC), the country boasts a green-construction footprint of over 760 million sq. feet, the largest behind this of the US. A 2016 survey of architects from 13 counties, conducted by Dodge Data and Analytics and the US Green Building Council, in India, showed that respondents dedicated 40 per cent of their workload on sustainable building. This number is expected to rise to a little under 60 percent by 2018. 

Main triggers for green buildings in IndiaThis trend progresses despite – and to an extent, in response to – a slate of socioeconomic and environmental troubles that have plagued India for years. With a burgeoning population, which is to soon to supersede that of China, India is facing high rates of deforestation, water degradation (on top of poor to no access to sanitation for millions of Indians), and air pollution (more rampant than that of China) among other issues. A possible salve, some contend, resides in the thriving green architecture, which is also boosting the country’s economic objectives. 

“Ecological architecture is a desperate need therefore, maybe that is why there are so many [eco buildings],” says Chitra Vishwanath of Biome architecture firm, which specializes in traditional ecological buildings. “Real estate is a booming business and is also one of the main drivers of the GDP. In it making  "Green Buildings" becomes a marketable item. It is a good thing even though many of it isthem are exploited only for commercial reasons.”

Green-Built Power 
Some 244 million of the world’s 1.2 billion people who have no access to electricity are Indians, according to the 2016 Energy Outlook report of the International Energy Agency. Translating into 20 per cent of the total population of India, most of them live in rural regions. At the same time, the electricity sector – following the world’s trend – spews 71 per cent of India’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the country’s Biennial Update Report to the UN states. 

The statistics begs a question – how to reduce India’s carbon track, while supplying electricity to all its citizens? Green architecture forms part of the answer.  

Energy efficiency charged the very beginning of India’s sustainable architecture, which was heralded by the country’s first prime minister and champion of science and technology, Jawaharlal Nehru, writes Deepika Mathur, a PhD-holding architect and professor practicing in Australia. Since then, natural lighting and ventilation (enhanced by details like louvers) and materials with low embodied energy (think glass and aluminum, whose production requires less energy than, say, concrete and steel; as well as the soil dug out for a building’s foundations) have become staples in power-paring buildings. 

“Using passive architecture techniques to save energy is a lot more prevalent among architects nowadays,” says Mr Turab, referring to designs and amenities that collect and disperse solar energy to keep a space warm in winter and cool in summer. Green power is also making a mark. The Rambagh Palace, a TAJ hotel in Jaipur, for instance, switched from the thermally propelled electricity grid of the state of Rajasthan to a 2.1 megawatt wind turbine, which now accounts for 70 per cent of the Palace’ electricity consumption.  

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur

As the segment grew, so did the need for its regulation. The inaugural attempt at this came in 2007 with the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC), which sets up minimum design postulates for lighting, cooling and heating systems. Calculations have revealed than an ECBC-compliant structure, per year, consumes some 40 per cent less energy than a conventional counterpart. So far, India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency has identified some 184 such buildings – from hospitals and hotels to residential and office properties. The number is puny, but the UN Development Program anticipates that by 2017 the ECBC will see 64 per cent conformation rate, which, nonetheless, largely depends on states’ enforcement of the code. 

Green-Built Water 
The use of energy efficiency as the prime gauge for the sustainability potency of buildings – a practice of Western countries – risks the dismissal of several matters that are more throbbing to India than to the developed world, Mr Turab says. Water is a huge one. This year, 330 million Indians – a quarter of the country’s population – grappled with acute water shortages prompted by severe droughts. With changing monsoon patterns, a sinking underground water table, poor municipal water management and a rising populace, India is at the brink of a country-wide water crisis, which, according to some studies, could unfurl in less than a decade. On top of the grim predictions piles the fact that currently only 40 per cent of Indians have access to sanitation, according to the World Bank.  

The architects at Biome know how important ecological architecture can be in tackling India’s water conundrum. The firm is headquartered in Bangalore, India’s third most populous city. It receives most of its water through pipes that journey some 100 kilometers before reaching consumers. Half of the water supply is wasted, leaving the 8.5 million residents with only 65 liters per day (the amount of water used in a 10-minute shower). 

Vivanta by Taj Bangalore

“Water for us is a scarcer resource than energy,” says Ms Vishwanath of Biome, which, she estimates, has executed some 750 homes and 15 schools, among other projects. Integrated water management has been an integral part of the company’s work that emphasizes natural water reservoirs. Biome is hardly alone, though. Having partnered with WOW Architects and Warner Wong Design of Singapore, Taj Hotels has also designed to surmount Bengaluru’s water hurdles. The chain’s Vivanta Hotel in the city captures rainwater to irrigate its  landscape, including the undulating green-roofed promenade. More than a stylish spot for relaxation, the elevated green alley acts as a heat insulator, pushing electricity demand down. 

Back to Biome’s buildings, rainwater harvesting may often provide two-thirds of the total fresh water requirement. “[W]hile we design [rain water] harvesting features, we also insist on waste water treatment at the source,” she says. “The waste generated is treated and reused within the [building].”

Speaking of the latest conceptions in this regard, Mr Turab points to the decentralized wastewater treatment systems (DEWATS), which rest on natural cycles (like anaerobic decomposition) and local materials (like gravel and plants) to recycle water. “These in my opinion are innovative systems and techniques that are defining the green buildings in India.” 

Green-Built Troubles
Water and energy efficiency account for two of the four major criteria of the revised Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, a rating system for sustainable buildings developed by the US Green Building Council. Since 2014, the US-based Green Building Certification Inc. (GBCI), a third-party credentials reviewer, took over the Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) in awarding LEED status in the country. 

The Park Hyderabad hotel

According to GBCI’s recent LEED in Motion: India report, there are 2,230 LEED projects in India (third largest tally outside the US). A jewel among them – and this is quite literally, given its glistening perforated-metal exterior – is The Park Hyderabad. In 2011, the grand abode received the coveted recognition for its water and energy savings, low carbon emissions and use of recycled materials. The contraption of New York-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architects, the 270-room hotel, which launched in 2010, utilizes its massive metal shell to protect from blustery winds as well as to provide natural lighting and, thus, curb the use of electricity. With immaculate splendor and intimidating dimensions, The Park is “a modern Indian palace, something refreshing and different that speaks to the aspirations of India today,” said Priya Paul, head of Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, which owns The Park brand, upon the hotel’s unveil. 

This same assertion relates to the majority of LEED buildings, which are clustered in the top cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai and peopled by the country’s well-educated rich. The same geographic and demographic paradigms pertain to other sustainable-certificate holders, who have pared with thousands of dollars in certificate registration fees, such as the ones recognized by the dozen IGBC ratings or the 825 projects registered with the Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA). 

While green developers might respond to purely building constraints with a mixture of sustainable and locally sourced materials, high technology and inspiration from nature and time-revered construction practices, the resolution of social and ideological aspects of the industry proves complicated. “Sustainable homes are built in every nook and corner of the country,” says Mr Turab. “A small hut in a village built using stone and thatch is far more sustainable than any of the buildings built in urban areas. But if one were to ask about sustainable homes that meet the rising aspirations of the people, then I am afraid these are just a few in a million, largely concentrated in the metro cities, catering to [a] niche requirement.”

Top 3 sectors for growth in green buildings in IndiaThis demand creates a peculiar friction. Although green homes may cost as much as or even less than an average house, owners recoil at going cheap, as the move, Mr Turab says, does not live up to their ambitions. “No one wants [to go] expensive [either,] because there is something less efficient available at a lower cost. Finding the right balance is the biggest challenge,” he says. 

Construction in India might be cheap, compared to most countries, but the land it transforms is not. For green architecture to grow in numbers – more and better eco edifices should become affordable for more Indians, Mr Turab identifies a puzzle of costs and incentives that must fall in place. Land expenses need to tumble down, possibly through state subsidization for residential lots. The costs of electricity and water and garbage collection ought to substantially spring up – now they are too low to prompt a widespread adoption of green designs. 

And still, the convergence of market prices, riche-nouveau dreams and sustainable architecture is hard to achieve. It tears into such loaded subjects as human rights and the preservation of nature, Ms Vishwanath says. “Land and access to resources to build a healthy shelter should irrefutably be [a] human right – a concept, which is unacceptable to the present economic system where both land and resources are monetized,” she says. “Continuing in the "business as usual" model, the habitat loss will be given as an excuse to ignoring the need towards providing the shelter.”

Further complicating the matter – and calling for a localized approach to green building – is India’s vast territory that is subject to disparate weather. “The challenges are extreme temperatures, in some cases, extreme variation of temperatures as well, and the monsoon. Indian architecture must respond to these conditions,” says Mr Dave of Atmanya Projects.

For Amoravida, which is pursuing an IGBC platinum rating (a laurel for global leadership), he says, “we have adopted the guidelines of “monsoon architecture” to [reap] the benefits of monsoon breezes but to negate any water ingress and water damage.”

Amoravida and the rest of its kin exemplifies the crest of sustainable architecture, where sustainability and luxury – paradoxically, for some – pair together. As India strives to steer clear of looming climatic, demographic and environmental downturns, however, green buildings – new and retrofitted – are poised to sprawl out of urbanity and opulence. 

Benefits of green building in India

The expansion, which will take years, poses a single potent question. How green are sustainable buildings, anyway? “Construction is polluting no matter how sensitive we are while doing it,” says Mr Turab. “One has to accept this. Only way to minimize [this] impact is to build to last. Ensure that buildings are designed and built to last at least a 100 years so that we do not have to do it over and over again.”