The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Messy Messrs.

A testament to our care for our environs or the law.
We are neck deep in s#@t! Well nearly and we seem to be getting there fast.
Some months ago we in the city of Bangalore saw an announcement for city scale waste management, the setting up of segregation units, composting facilities, waste to energy programmes, and a deadline to segregate waste at source to all residents of this city. This deadline was preceded by some softer cajoling by the city's municipal body.

One might think of this as an enlightened move, but the truth was far more grotesque. The city has been struggling with its burgeoning waste problem and has been resorting to some haphazard dumping of the city's garbage in a few locations around the city. No, no scientifically constructed landfill. Just great piles of insensitively piled garbage. In a relatively short period this has caused immense health problems to the residents of villages around these dumping sites. The rest as they say is history- the villagers protested, garbage piled up around the city, the municipality resorted to some strong arm tactics (yes, police support to dump garbage!!), the villagers remained firm in their agitation against the dumping. The situation remains unresolved.
Enough and more has been written about this, but I do remember one instance about 8 years ago, in the October of 2005. Back then this city had no denoted landfill site. The municipality, through its garbage contractors, used to lease land out from farmers and dump our waste on these lands. Bangalore had seen some record and incessant rains that year, and sure enough much of this garbage started rotting and created quite a stink. Many people wouldn't remember this, but the farmers had protested then too. All of the municipality's garbage truck fleet, some 400 of them, had nowhere to go and were parked in various parts of the city. This incident was one of the reasons that we even have landfills today.

Missing Aim, or, Aimless Mess?
As it stands the population of some 8.4 plus million dish out something to the tune of 250 to 500 gms of domestic waste per person per day (not counting for the large waste generation on account of commercial establishments and industry). A large amount of waste can also be attributed to individuals outside their homes.... at work, on the way to somewhere, on a day (or night out) with family and/or friends. The domestic waste alone amounts to some 840,000 kilos, or, 840 tonnes of waste per day..... if we consider a low number of 100 gms of domestic waste per capita. The actual figure is more likely twice that (we don't have monitored figures to corroborate this at any level)! The figure is much higher when you add that generated beyond our homes. A figure doing the rounds puts this between 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes!!

One can imagine what a nightmare it would be to collect this mammoth volume of waste on a daily basis to ensure that the city remains clean and disease free. At about 6 cubic metres of waste collected per garbage truck, that would work out to some 500 trucks on our roads. The waste would have to be collected by each polluter (individual, family, or, establishment) and the trucks would have to work like clockwork to manage this efficiently. Sadly, that is not the case.

At an elementary level WE are responsible for the failure of this system. We litter like we care a hoot! Even when we dispose off the waste from our homes, we aim for the community bin, instead of ensuring that it is placed responsibly for the collection agencies to handle it from that point on. Our roads, drains, footpaths, open grounds, and empty sites therefore face the brunt of our apathy.

The fact is that it is really easy to do our bit to reduce this burden on our municipality. The majority of our waste we dump at homes, is kitchen waste, mostly uncooked! This constitutes over 80% of the weight of all our waste we produce at home. The remaining is mainly paper, plastics, aluminium foils, and tetra-paks. There are the occasional batteries, sanitary napkins, etc.that form the more difficult waste products to handle.
Kambha 3 Tiered Large
A simple kitchen waste composter

The kitchen waste is the easiest to tackle, and there are simple solutions available now from organisations like 'Daily Dump', both for the independent home and multi-dwelling communities. By adopting one of these systems, we immediately reduce the burden of our municipalities greatly. They would not have to handle waste that is rotting, smelly and attracts pests. What's more all this organic waste produces harmful (and inflammable) gases like methane as they decompose in the landfills, apart from contributing to the acidic leachates that seep into the sub-soil. When waste remains unsegregated as it leaves our homes, it makes the lives of the safai karamcharis (or cleaning staff) far more difficult. A whole lot of this waste is recyclable, re-usable and easy to break down, and segregation at the point of waste generation helps this immensely.

There is a positive side to this. Several initiatives have been undertaken across the country, and specifically in Bangalore. Individual apartment complexes have started following the municipal guidelines for waste segregation and yet others have also tied up with recyclers to take away their paper and plastic waste. It makes sense to do this as a group as volume trade is important for recyclers. Vermi-composting initiatives, for those with space, are being given a hard look and followed successfully. 
What can help a lot is being conscious of what and how you make your purchases. This involves ensuring that you carry shopping bags with you to ensure that shop keepers and super markets don't dish out plastic bags to you. It involves making responsible choices when it comes to buying goods that are packed in layers of aluminium and plastic wrapping. It involves adopting alternatives to packaged products itself.... opting for fresh juices as against tetra-pak containers; finding decent bakeries to source fresh baked products that aren't sealed in waste generating packaging; encouraging your home delivery agencies to take back their containers and carry bags, the possibilities are endless. Remember, our decisions can ensure that we curb the waste generated right at source.

When we embark to clean up this mess and our respective acts, we ought to keep in mind the adage- what goes around, comes around.  You wouldn't want to leave behind a big stinking mess as your greatest legacy!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dr. Okra

Image reference:
I was trying to find out how Okra (American) or Bhendi (Hindi) came to be called Lady’s Finger. I still have not found a plausible answer despite checking various online dictionaries and thesauri along with the usual Google searches. Nonetheless, it was not an exercise in vain as I soon was reading articles, blogs, and research documents on this great vegetable; the fact that its mucilage is a turn-off for many people notwithstanding! Interestingly, Bhendi is of the Hibiscus Family (Scientific Name: Abelmoschus Esculentus) and is flowering plant which grows rather rapidly. It’s a perennial, and therefore, available round the year.

It has a controversial history and the story of how it spread around the world is quite fascinating. It seems to have originated in Africa and spread to Asia and the Middle East, and later to the Americas on-board slave ships. The Europeans don’t seem to have taken to it but most other peoples around the world welcomed the vegetable, with all its slickness, aboard their palate! I could not find the exact date of its arrival on the sub-continent shores but it seems to have made its way through the middle-east. Indians, of course, have adopted it in their diet and there is hardly a community which does not dish out a tasty Bhendi fare. For a quick glance at its anecdotal history check out this excellent piece by Vikram Doctor: (

The medical benefits range from stabilizing blood-sugar levels to helping prevent constipation and from binding excess cholesterol and toxins to being an excellent agent for feeding probiotic bacteria in the intestinal tract. It seems to even work on people who are feeling weak and exhausted or are suffering from depression. The specific medical ailments that it addresses are the following: Acid Reflux, Constipation, Asthma, Atherosclerosis (Heart Disease), Colo-rectal Cancer, Capillary fragility, Cataract, Cholesterol, High Homocysteine and Multiple Sclerosis. If such a wide range of afflictions can be taken on by the slender Okra, either in prevention or in cure, we have no choice but to salute it! For a more detailed discussion on the health benefits that are attributed to Bhendi, and the list is pretty exhaustive, please read this very informative blog by S. V. Saibaba ( who in turn, has based his facts primarily on the research of Ms. Sylvia Zook, Ph.D (Nutrition), University of Illinois, USA.

The injection of Okra in your diet can only do good for you, though the best benefits can be derived if eaten raw or in a slight cooked form. Okra has been glorified by many: American Food Writer, Robb Walsh, entitled an essay on Okra entitled “Pods of the Gods”. In praise of soul food Roy Blount Jr. wrote a famous song on Okra; the last two lines are at their bluesy best:

"You can have strip pokra
Give me a nice girl and a dish of okra"

So, the next time you are in the market and turn up your nose at the Lady’s Finger be very discreet. And, yes, I still have not discovered how the term Lady’s Finger was actually invented. If anyone out there does, please send me the information.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Towards a zero footprint architecture

Our decisions hold the key to this 21st century environmental enigma.
Is it really possible to go 'zero'?

Consider this. Every act and process putting together a building nowadays involves huge amounts of energy and impacts the environment. Let us assess a few areas:
  1. Utilisation of materials to build- virgin, reused, recycled or otherwise
  2. Extraction of the raw materials
  3. The transportation of these materials
  4. The manufacture of building materials..
  5. The generation of direct and indirect wastes, and pollution.
  6. The consumption of materials in operations- water, energy, fuel, etc.

When we look back, not too long ago, say just over a 100 years, we find that there were hardly any emissions of any kind involved in the usage of materials for building. Energy for extraction, or the synthesis of materials involved the usage of higher degrees of human labour to compensate for any other form of energy. This was so stark that the construction of large institutional buildings like forts, palaces or temples resembled the efforts put in to build the dams of today. Having said that, in India we are still a labour intensive construction industry... which is not altogether a bad thing considering the great amounts of employment that it generates. What is required though is a drastic improvement in working environments and skill levels.
Surely some CO2 emissions and environmental fall outs did result from some construction activities (the institutional causing greater damage than the vernacular). For example, the burning of bricks used as building blocks has remained much the same as today, with vast amounts of wood/coal being used to fire the brick kilns. Sun dried bricks, or Compressed Soil Stabilised Blocks, or, rammed earth walls, using lime as a mortar, need no firing and use solar energy. If we are able to tap into renewable energy sources for construction or material production, we could make material production and usage emission free. 

An iron ore mine in South Goa that has eaten into the biodiversity rich Western Ghats!
Extraction is altogether a different matter. The energy of extraction today involves the spending of large amounts of energy for mining, excavating, etc. In earlier times, the low demand (non-institutional) dictated the rate of extraction, but a market driven new world economy exerts too much pressure here. To keep up the indices of performance, more material is extracted. I have written about this in another blog post. The methods of extraction have also changed significantly. Granite is now blasted out of the ground, while one method from the past used in some places even today , involved the insertion of wooden dowels into the ground and soaking them with water, which would expand during overnight cooling and crack the granite in the desired size. The extraction of stratified rocks like marble and sandstone has seen a similar change, with the inclusion of heavy machinery  against the use of skilled manual labour who would split the marble along its grain, by driving wooden/metal  wedges into the rock. Today, more often than not, vast areas of forests are cleared to reach these raw materials. This leads to the destruction of CO2 banks and the release of these green house gases due to the rotting of this cut-down biomass. Also, forests are sponges of the earth and ensure a healthy water balance, by keeping the ground well hydrated and holding together the top-soil. Once removed, the land gets parched and erodes the soil of essential minerals for sustaining plant life. Dependent fauna are the immediate victims. The massive scale of raw material extraction today has impacts that affect the region beyond the immediate context. I am not too sure if there can be a zero impact extraction method as an alternative, but perhaps we should look at the kind of raw materials that we consume as a start. A larger use of waste as a raw material, easily re-fashionable building components, a more spread out usage of material according to geographic regions might help.

With a booming modern day construction scenario, such sights aren't
that uncommon, but what is not visible to all is the energy consumed!
Today's building materials have often travelled many a mile to get to our construction sites. We do not bat an eyelid about this specially since all aspects of our lives have ceased to be limited by matters of distance. Being a relatively large nation, geographically speaking, industry has spread its tentacles close to their source of raw materials. Vast transportation networks and corridors constantly feed stocks close to our sites relentlessly. The effort to pick up these materials for construction is usually from the local outlets, obscuring completely the energies that go into getting those materials there from the points of manufacture. There are other forces that define the distances our building components travel...  Global aspirations of the project initiator may attract faucets all the way from Europe, or, kitchen equipment from Italy, or, Paints from Korea and so on. This very global economy sometimes also creates a seemingly  improbable yet financially lucrative incentive to by overseas.... a whole lot of building materials today (as many other goods) originate in China.
Over a 150 ears ago, such sourcing would have been the exclusive habit of the kings!! The masses would invariably build what was available locally, therefore more affordable. While it is easy to talk of the use of locally available material, we ought to compliment that with supporting market incentives, upgradation of skill-sets & technologies, and most importantly a sustained education and advocacy effort to sensitise people to the ills of stretching these geographic limits. A few disincentives like a transportation emission tax could provide an encouraging nudge. 

Manufacturing today is a complex science, involving complex systems, resulting in complex products.... and ever so often a set of complex (read harmful) residues/wastes. In the yearning for 'long-lasting' solutions we have taken complex engineering to higher and higher levels, and devised materials that are made of  unbreakable bonds. Be it the plastics that cater from protective sheeting to transparent screens, the laminates for flooring or cladding, the chemical veneers for roof and wall covering/protection, the non abrasive tiles that span our floors (and walls),.... the resulting side-effects are equally strong in their environmental impacts. High energies needed for manufacture of these complex bonds result in high CO2 emissions, Chemical by-products take a toll on our air, soil and water as emitted pollutants, and the products themselves end up leaching poisonous chemicals into their built environs over their lifetimes. For example, Volatile Organic Compounds like lead, Mercury and Arsenic are spewed by most chemically coated surfaces from paints to laminates to carpets. Bituminous compounds used in waterproofing (and in road tops) break up relatively quickly and leach into the ground, contaminating the local aquifers. Perhaps the trick is to stick to near natural states of materials, like earth for construction, bamboo/wood for building structures, lime/mud for wall plaster, stone as cladding and building block, etc. Physically fashioning a natural material to suit an application involves no further chemical contamination, whereas chemically altering compounds is saddled with these toxic extras.
The sun sets behind the smoke stacks of one of our many industrial backyards.
There are scores of materials today that claim to be energy efficient. But we have to put that in context. Energy efficiency in usage (while good) need not be energy efficient in manufacturing. Also, energy efficiency only implies a betterment from the current benchmarks, and does not mean that they are energy positive. Furthermore, when one refers to a zero energy building, a common term today, one normally means the net energy consumption during its lifetime, which does not include the energies that went into the making of the building and its building components. Depending on building use, the energy in building (or embodied energy of building) could be equal to the total energy consumption of the building in its operations. Thus the often used term for zero energy building refers mainly to the operational energy equation, and is not therefore truly zero energy.

I have covered the topic of consumption in an earlier post, and it takes very little to understand that consuming less would have a proportionately lesser footprint. So far, we have seen that we have big decisions to take in the choice of materials to reduce the upstream environmental impacts during extraction, transportation, manufacturing and utilisation. Is it possible to occupy a truly zero ecological footprint architecture? Many examples exist, in our past, in our rural hinterland and in some truly commendable contemporary projects, that hint at the fact we can get there. The necessary ingredient for that though is a complete overhaul of our thinking and gaining insights into our every decision in the building process, from design to occupancy. I remember a Star Trek episode which spoke of a race that chose a passive and low tech living against the high-tech unbridled alternative, for very much the same reasons... to preserve a way of life!