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Green architecture is inevitable if we are to fight climate change while urbanising

Nikitha Sattiraju
20th Mar 2017
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Green architecture is gaining momentum around the world as the necessity to integrate development with sustainability is magnified by rapidly deteriorating resources.

In the centre of Italy’s industrial and financial hub, a forest rises upward towards the sky. Trees that are 10–30 feet tall grow at different heights above the ground in the Bosco Verticale. The term, which literally means “vertical forest”, refers to a pair of residential towers in the Porta Nuova district of Milan. Constructed in 2014, the buildings house 900 trees and more than 2,000 plants of different varieties – which is equivalent to 7,000 sqm of horizontal forested land.

The extensive green cover has multiple advantages. Firstly, the plants absorb carbon dioxide and dust particles, thereby cleaning the surrounding city air. Secondly, they act as natural insulation, protecting the apartment homes from radiation in summer and preventing heat from escaping during winters. Thirdly, they enhance the biodiversity in the region by attracting birds and insects. To complete the setup, a waste water recycling system ensures irrigation to the verdure, eliminating the need for extra water. The perpendicular towers, besides controlling air and acoustic pollution, and strengthening ecology, are ideal to space conservation and minimising urban sprawl.

Green architecture is gaining momentum as the necessity to integrate development with sustainability is magnified by rapidly deteriorating ecological resources. The Bosco Verticale is just one of the many emerging climate-friendly buildings around the world. In fact, the company behind its design, Stefano Boeri Architetti will soon begin construction of similar towers in the city of Nanjing in China and is looking to start projects in other parts of the country as well.

Image : Pexels

The Bullitt Centre in Seattle, Washington, the most sustainable building in the world, took pro-climate construction one step further. With the objective of proving its commitment to the environment, the Bullitt Foundation included 17 unique and innovative features such as the greywater system – which collects wastewater and purifies it by pumping the water through an artificial wetland before sending it back into the groundwater table, a 14,000 square foot canopy of solar panels to help achieve net zero energy and composting toilets, all of which acquired it a “living building” certification. It even hosts a building management system that automatically opens windows for cooling or kickstarts the intricate underground heating/cooling apparatus that runs on minimal electricity. Furthermore, to promote a healthy lifestyle for their employees, the centre encourages them to cycle to work, made easier by its location which is conveniently accessible by public transport, walk, and bicycles. The Bullitt Centre, with its meticulously planned futuristic design minimises environmental damage in every way possible.

Green architecture in India

India isn’t far behind in this respect and in fact, can be considered ahead of most nations in more ways than one. The country’s “green building footprint” has risen to 3.86 billion sqft making it the second largest in the world. The ITC Green Centre in Gurgaon, certified platinum (the highest rating) by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), is the first corporate complex in the country to be awarded so and holds the title as one of the greenest buildings in the world.

Despite a severe water shortage in the city, the 1,70,000-sqft IT park maintains self-sufficiency in water through rainwater harvesting and water recycling. Besides utilising clean energy sources such as solar and wind power, the centre is fitted with double glazed windows that protect the offices from the harsh glare and heat from the sun yet provide sufficient lighting. Combined with its walls, which are made out of bricks of fly ash (a by-product of burning coal in power plants that is stronger than regular cement and reduces carbon emissions as well as resists cold and hot weather), the buildings’ energy requirements for air-conditioning, heating, etc., is remarkably low, putting it high on the efficiency scale. However, the centre’s green ventures don’t end with its physical boundaries. It is also involved in several social outreach programmes in rural areas like watershed development, afforestation, women empowerment, and the famous e-Choupal system that brings digitised market information to farmers.

Considering the proactive approach being taken by several states today, a sense of urgency for environment-friendly development has taken hold in the country. The government of Nagpur, for example, recently made it mandatory for all new public buildings as well as renovations to comply with green concepts. In a notice circulated by the Public Works Department (PWD), the significance of green building to “environmental conservation and power efficiency” was emphasised upon, while instructing chief construction engineers to have the buildings audited and certified by the Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) or LEED. According to this report by the Times of India, the government is even considering providing incentives to any organisation or independent party that follows green building designs.

Limitations

But the path to large scale construction of Bosco Verticales and ITC Green Centres in the country will be tough to say the least. Despite its position on the list of top 10 nations with the highest green building area, only five percent of the Indian real estate market is actually occupied by such projects. A majority of the existing green buildings are those built by organisations or individuals who are prepared to expend substantial sums of money. While the construction cost is only marginally higher (two to three percent) than conventional buildings, convincing people involved in both supply as well as the demand side of real estate to invest the extra capital for long-term ecological and economic benefits is a challenge.

The Indian realty sector has witnessed a slowdown in recent years, with seven lakh units remaining unsold in 2015. State and central governments were trying to reduce real estate prices prior to demonetisation to attract more customers. Post demonetisation, there has been a further decline in home buyers as well as customer enquiries and walk-ins, as they are either strapped for cash or await an additional drop in prices. At a time like this, pushing people to consider a building concept that they are not fully aware of and especially one that comes at a higher price, is not as simple. If anything, buyers would much rather purchase a regular home and retrofit it with green designs at a later stage.

So, thinking from the supply side of the equation, it wouldn’t be a surprise if builders hesitate at entering a market without a guaranteed customer base. Moreover, understanding and designing a green building as well as training labourers in associated technologies is time-consuming and of course, expensive. One can only imagine how much planning and finance went into a building like the Bullitt Centre and every one of its sustainable features.

The way forward

Hence, green architecture has to gradually break into real estate through awareness, government incentives, and perhaps extending compulsory rules such as those in Nagpur to the private sector as well. IGBC is aiming to increase the area under green construction by 2020 to make it the world’s largest. Its game plan includes inducements such as additional floor area ratio, property tax breaks, faster construction clearances, and lower interest rates for those who purchase green homes. Tying up with applications such as Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies (EDGE) designed by the International Finance Corporation will help the government ease the process of designing and construction for builders and customers. EDGE provides free custom solutions to users who can design their homes and other spaces based on their budget and location. They can even have their building registered for certification if it meets EDGE’s standards, that is, 20 percent increase in energy and water efficiency as well as refinement of construction material.

India has multiple examples, both at home and internationally, to base its future green projects on while modifying them to adapt to regional climate and resource needs. The road that we have taken so far has resulted in development at the cost of the environment. But with greater consciousness and the availability of eco-sensitive options, continuing down the same path would spell disaster. Ergo, responsible urbanisation, one that is socially, economically, and ecologically inclusive, is the only way forward.

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