Green building: a long way from India to Europe

greenbuilding.jpgAbout one third of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions comes from energy used in buildings, and two recent articles portray India and Europe as opposing poles in the struggle to rein in these environmental costs.

The situation in India defies not just environmental sanity but seemingly all economic logic. The nation faces an ongoing electricity crisis, as booming development stresses an already rickety power system. In the suburb of Gurgaon, supply lags demand by 20%.

The result is that electricity generation has gone private, with predictably disastrous consequences. Any sufficiently wealthy enterprise insures itself against frequent power outages with diesel generators, and the skyline is studded with smokestacks belching fumes and greenhouse gases.

The article chooses to focus on the plight of one wealthy housewife who has to throw away some chicken sausage when her freezer thaws, and whose son is so bored when the flat screen TV goes dark that he is forced to play cricket. A better angle might have been the ravages that climate change will wreak on India’s billion citizens, most of whom are too poor to have any access to the electrical grid at all.

Here’s the kicker: despite the seemingly massive built-in rewards to energy efficiency, India’s builders remain mostly oblivious to any form of green building practices, choosing instead to erect glass-fronted skyscrapers — the architectual equivalent of solar ovens — and stockpiling ever more diesel. One housing unit has gone completely off-grid, and now consumes over 6,000 gallons of diesel a week to power only one fifth of its units.

On the other hand, European architects are apparently now so deeply imbued with a green ethos that they look down at the cutting edge in America — the LEED guidelines — as hopelessly parochial.

LEED uses a fairly elaborate point system to grade buildings on their ecological impact. The Europeans find such checkbox environmentalism to be confining.

I find these criticisms to be a bit fluffy — LEED has always struck me as a very useful set of guidelines — but the article nevertheless makes some interesting points about the evolving nature of green building:

A new generation of architects has expanded the definition of sustainable design beyond solar panels and sod roofs. As Matthias Sauerbruch put it to me: “The eco-friendly projects you saw in the 1970s, with solar panels and recycled materials: they were so self-conscious. We call this Birkenstock architecture. Now we don’t need to do this anymore. The basic technology is all pretty accepted.”

Let’s hope so. As the article notes, we’re stilling playing catch-up. The most sustainable buildings ever made are the Egyptian pyramids: carbon-neutral and built to last thousands of years.

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  1. Deb - May 23, 2007

    You have raised a very serious concern about Indian architectural style and it seems that even though the country is making economic progress, people of that country are loosing their common sense every day.
    Which makes me curious, what is the source on the basis of which you portray the accusations? You should mention the sources and the number of houses visited,the income level of the houses, their location, i.e. whether they are rich households or poor and also the name of the construction companies which build such houses.

  2. Adam Stein - May 23, 2007

    The source article is linked to in the second paragraph. Here it is again.

  3. SB - May 31, 2007

    What is happening in India is a struggle for existence, with bare necessities, which pushes concepts such as eco-consciousness to the back of one’s mind, if it is there at all. With real-estate having become so expensive, residential units are snapped up, without regard to their eco-value. I made inquiries into whether safer alternatives were available to diesel generators, to run some machines and there were none that I could find. I have yet to hear Government initiatives on such things.

  4. Adam Stein - May 31, 2007

    I’m obviously pretty far from India, but what you’re describing, SB, doesn’t seem relevant to the situation described in the article. Tata, for example, is a multibillion dollar corporation. Eco-consciousness aside, these building practices don’t seem to make any financial sense.

  5. Shridhar Alurkar - May 31, 2007

    I come from India, and yes, what the article says is right.
    As usual, general population is less concerned about these issues simply because they are so busy with their daily hard life that they have no time to think about their own future.
    But there are some individuals who take these matters quite seriously and are working hard on these issues.
    I hope this organization takes a note of such people and extend them a helping hand.

  6. Vinaay - September 11, 2007

    I agree with you. Most of the companies with a motive to make huge profit and build international level luxurious buildings, doing a greater harm to environment, people and planet! Government is also not doing much. It is time for us to ACT to make the change happen!
    We have started a company NAVAJ GLOBAL Inc to build green buildings and sustainable green townships around the globe. Our current focus is India and developing world. We would appreciate all kind of supports to create a greener and cleaner planet>

  7. Rupika - May 17, 2008

    I am totally in favour of your comment that you have made here, though India is very prominent as fastest developing nation, if we consider the overall environmental aspects it seems that it will left as a verbose statement as I am afraid that there might be any building developer in India or say few who are conveying the environmental sensitiveness issues stringently, else they are reckless, I am myself trying to make a well shaped approach so that the green building concept could get a major adoptive favour from architects and builders as much it is confined till date.

  8. Sangeeta Wij - July 8, 2008

    well, as a Consultant practising in the field of structures and services engineering design in India, I find there is beginning to be a change in attitude in major builders now looking for sustainable development.they have now started enquiring about cleaner energy options and even zero-waste townships.I see this as a welcome change and look forward to upgrading our firm’s skills in the relevant new technologies.As a member of Sustainable Development Committee of FIDIC, I find the members across the globe are sharing thoughts and developing country specific methods of evaluating projects.

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