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.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tenets of Sustainable Living

Perhaps we need a sustainability version !!
If we had to define what would constitute the basic principles when it comes to reducing your ecological footprint what would they be?. Here is one version:
  • Consume less
    • Power
    • Water
    • Building/construction materials- go simple tech as against high-tech
    • Consumer goods
  • Consume local
    • Eat local produce
    • Build using local materials and skills
  • Generate less waste.... Re-use and recycle
    • Build using old or discarded materials... apply clean tech
    • Compost and share with neighbours
    • Choose what you buy.... things that wont contribute to the waste you produce
    • Throw away less
  • Occupy less space
    • Do you really need all that extra built area?
    • Do you really need that big a car?
  • Go independent... as far as possible
    • Build as much with what you have
    • Be self sufficient in your harvesting water and generation of energy (as long as it makes sense in terms of the Life-cycle)
    • Manage what little waste that you generate
  • Travel less and travel green
    • Use your car/two-wheeler less frequently
    • Use a bus instead of your car/bike.
    • Use a cycle for the short distances
    • And if you can walk... go for it.
  • Work as a community
    • Share resources
    • Share travel resources
    • Assist in solving each other's problems
  • Get others to live sustainability, it is your responsibility too
  • Give back
    • Recharge the ground water
    • Share power that you generate
    • Plant as many trees as you possibly can
  • Take only what you need... probably the most important since it is this very appetite that has gotten us into this environmental glut

Sunday, November 22, 2009

We could have been the 'People of the tanks'

I guess most of us will be saying, "what is he talking about?" But, that is just it. Bangalore is set in a landscape of a 100 tanks (for a lovely insight read the book "Deccan Traverses'), has had a history that recorded for over 400 years.
Many of us know of the lakes around Bangalore, but that is part of the change brought in by the limited understanding of our administrators and planners. The system stretches from beyond the Northern boundaries of our city limits and goes beyond the point where Cauvery plummets many levels at Sangam, making all of us in the lands of Ramnagaram, Maddur, Mandya and Srirangapatnam inhabitants of this landscape. Even more significant is the fact that this fabric of tanks is a result of human actions. Yes, all of this is man-made! The will of the people made this landscape and it is the lack of it that is fast erasing it.
So why 'tank people'? Well, it formed the very life fabric that sustained this slice of civilisation. Each village/ hamlet had a tank of its own or shared a large one. These tanks would fill up during the monsoons and drained out water through a system of overflow valleys. The tanks would loose their water through the dry months, some completely and would leave large amounts of silt behind (a result of sedimentation). This silt formed crucial building material, for mud mortar/plaster and even for earthern walls, and was also used for agriculture as a nutrient rich soil. Most importantly, these tanks would help in recharging the ground water table. Potentially, these tanks can help in sustainably recharging rainwater for over twice the current population!! The landscape would change with the cycle of seasons, the tanks filling up during the monsoons and transforming into silted depressions for the drier months. This was the same space that we now occupy.
So where is this land that our city is in today?
The death knell was sounded by some interventions during the colonial rule... the closure of tanks, the conversion of drain valleys into narrow nallahs... stone lined channelways. Then came the babus and state government planners (post independence) who did more damage in the last 60 years than in the 200 plus years that the British occupied this land. Closure of tanks, treating them as lakes (completely misunderstanding their purpose and characteristics), and reducing this system to a pale reminder of the past.
So what is different?
The most significant change is that of identity and association. The link between tank and habitation has been forgotten. We no longer see them as great catchments of precious rainwater runoff. The nallahs, once percolating drain valleys, have been concreted and thinned clogging the system, or, encroached upon... causing great damage to both life and property every time we have even a good shower. The change in attitude is very visible in the health of these nallahs and tanks. They stink, sewage flows illegally into these systems in innumerable points. Many tanks have also been converted into permanent water bodies.. with stone masonry walls and pretty landscaped gardens to 'beautify' them. Probably the greatest change was the import of water to feed this city's population (executed during British times) from over 100 kms away near Mysore and therefore pumped up to over 900 feet! .... something that was never done for centuries before. Arguably, the population has also increased multifold over the last 100 years, but how do we explain that we had a water management system that could cater to twice the current population? This turning of our backs on a constant sustainable rainwater collection and recharge system combined with a callous and greed driven boring of our aquifers has resulted in falling groundwater levels.
This has changed the very way we live... our water comes from an unseen source (almost magical) so we dont see the link between these tanks around us and the water in our taps. The governments constant crowd pleasing statements of increasing supply 'to' the city has always conveyed the message that the solution for our water woes lies outside this system. This complete faith in long piped systems is also reflected in the city's wet waste treatment plants, large systems that are supposed to handle and treat the sewage from large quadrants of the city. This has also had an impact on the water equation of our city. Nearly all the water consumed by the city's inhabitants is drained out (inefficiently) only to be treated and led away from the city. In the original system, all waste water would find its way into the ground, filtered through rear yard broad leafed high-capillary plants and through the various layers of the earth.
Just take a look at that. Water was captured right around where people lived, allowed to filter into the ground, drawn out through open wells... and was recycled after consumption through a biological treatment system, again within the habitation limits. (of course, people did not waste great volumes of water in flushing)
This is what we today call a sustainable water loop. There is still hope, i think. The steps are obvious.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

'Green Building', a solution to problems we create?

Triple glazing, insulation, energy efficient air-conditioning..., these and more form the many green measures and inventions that seem to define the higher plane of environmental sensitivity that today's green building movement.
I am sure that many of us have asked ourselves- "did we need this much glass in the first place?" Take a look; all that glass meant that we needed to tackle the extra heat gain/loss, so this gave rise to a new thermally efficient glass. The change in our wall sections (thinning to gain as much usable space for the money invested) has now resulted in new insulation codes. The extra FAR utilisation meant that we climbed much higher than before, reducing the shading on the more vulnerable areas, more reasons for insulation. We changed our terrace treatment (from the breathing 'surkhi' treatment that doubled up as water proofing) to a thinner 'plain cement concrete', so now we have reflective/emissive high albeido paints. We sealed off our buildings (arguably to protect our new machinery from dust) and therefore created artificial air exchanges to both ventilate and condition the air within these premises. Now we work towards making these energy guzzling air-conditioners consume less power. Since even this is a relatively stale environment, we now focus on internal air quality improvements- approved carpeting, non-toxic paints, and even have new norms for prescribed air-exchanges and a mandatory flushing out process after fresh painting! One may call the flushing out sensible, but our paints started getting more complex in their chemical structure purely due to the change in the way we built and our aesthetic sensibilities. We tar our roads and hard pave/concrete our external surfaces, and then look for ways to increase ground water percolation. We drain out all surface water (most evident at the city level) and reclaim our percolation tanks, only to incentivise individual rainwater harvesting schemes within homes.
While some steps to go green, like using the abundant energy of the sun and rainwater harvesting systems, don’t you think that we need to question the very premise of many of our green decisions?
What if we built with lesser glass, but allowed greater scope for natural daylight to flood the insides of our buildings? What if we ensured that our external surfaces were appropriately shaded from direct solar radiation? What if we built lower (not necessarily hugging the ground) and used landscaping to cover the ground? What if we had naturally ventilated spaces, while demanding our machinary manufacturers to make them dust proof? What if we considered all our roads and drains as percolation surfaces? What if we brought down hard bans on employee driven transportation for offices that were larger than ten people? What if we mandated that all offices had to be at walking distance from mass public transportation systems? What if we decided that our cities were large carbon sinks (for intensive planting) and intensive soaks? What if we grew on our flat terraces and made compulsory lighter roofing where the roofs were inaccessible (or sloping)?
Compared to this, our current green steps seem mere lip service.... don't you think?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pinning down the culprit/s...a work in progress

An implanted idea- began agreeing with it as I went along. It’s this; a while ago, I mean a few decades ago we seem to have known how to build sensibly- almost appropriately, being respectful to what we had, doing sensibly what we did and going about our affairs like we knew tomorrow was going to be another day and then, almost suddenly, we seem to have just lost it, living life itself in this most insane manner.

In these deliberations I'm attempting to try and pin down a culprit (that brought us to being where we are now)- may be one may be a combination of many, I'm not sure- which is why it will be a work-in-progress for some time to come. I want to try and bring it down to being an object or an invention rather than a large concept like 'technology' itself.

Here's my first strike at the first victim in that direction:

The AC we all love, yet some (like me) love to hate
Let’s begin by looking at what an Air Conditioner does, very simplistically speaking.
It does something to a certain quantity of air- by the end of which it is possible for me make the 'interiors' of a space cooler (generally what's required in our latitudes). Have you heard of anyone air conditioning the outdoors??.....Drawing the same line of thought further- its easy to see that an 'enclosure' is normally what's required to use an AC well. Now flipping that thought around the converse seems probably truer, enclosed stuffy spaces are what might have needed some mechanical means of ventilating it. Lo! And behold! Here comes Captain AC to our rescue. Remember how relieved you've felt when you turned on that AC in your car on a sultry sunny afternoon when the outdoors left you no reason to believe that you are very different from the kebabs being grilled at the store nearby?
The funny thing with the AC is that since we love it- we need it to work well- that's when we begin making enclosures these air tight containers- these matchboxes that we've come to call 'offices', 'apartments', ‘malls’ (this last one deserves a verbal bashing of its own, I shall soon)!
Should just one aspect of a whole eco-system (read the building here) hijack the attention we pay to all other facets? Should we in this struggle to make Captain AC work forget a dozen things that we enjoyed as parts of the built environment? Whatever happened to breathable outdoors that brought with it the whiffs of pleasantness, to those little places from where one could watch the rain and be sprinkled with those spluttering droplets- each to his own safe distance from the rain- enjoying it all along, to the other many things that these matchboxes of today lack?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is a green building meant to look any different?

I am tempted to say yes.... mainly due to what today's buildings have begun to look like.
I have a suspicion that buildings would end up taking a different form and have a different appearance if they are built sustainably. The variations would be starker between different regions. Today, we build in pretty much the same fashion anywhere in our country. In fact, we have already started claiming that our buildings speak a global language and rightly so. Most building technologies are floating across geographies and creating what is now the new global expression. Creative ideas are encouraged more than refreshing regional ideas.
Why would these green buildings look different? Let us look at how we built 100 to 200 years ago. Those buildings could be called 'deep green' buildings. They took absolutely no power to make, they were almost entirely built out of materials and skills sourced from within a 100 km radius, they were made thermally comfortable, they did not consume much energy to run (primarily for a few oil lamps and biomass stoves), they had the lowest LPDs, they were dependent on sustainable water sources and managed what little waste they generated in what some would call green systems (read dry toilets, leach pits, etc).
With no global dictat or influencers, these built environments reflected strong regional attributes and it would take no time for a person who would wake up in such environments to figure out where he was. We can’t say the same about today's built spaces.
We have two choices. One, we could adopt core green principles for our built environments and I would suspect that we would end up infusing those characteristic regional attributes of the day. The principal driver here would be to occupy a minimal ecological footprint and ensure broad reaching sustainability by addressing issues of livelihoods, traditions, skill-sets, managed change, etc.
Two, we could be guided by notions of our current global expression, and work incrementally on reducing all resources related to the built environment. Here, the concern is that it would become purely a number crunching exercise... lesser change to soil, lesser waste, lower energy, etc. Today we have cement plants in accessible distance (a relaxed, looser radius thanks to current Green Building Codes), but does all the raw material for making the cement come from the same region? Steel comes from a plant within a similar acceptable distance, but what about the resource that it needs to run? The coal, the power, the iron ore, etc.
Glass can be made to have a greater green quotient, through greater recycled content, and can be made more insulative, but what about the energy that goes into the making of such glass?
This second option makes me wonder if by our current building choices we create resource guzzlers (unsustainable buildings) and then venture out to make those very components efficient? What if we chose not to use that much glass, or that much aluminum panels with insulation? Could there be a rethink of what sustainably built buildings could look like?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Business of Green

Opportunities galore they say! Entrepreneurs are meant to feel excited by the various doomsday scenarios dished out to our target audiences. Yes, it is true... our rivers are running dry, weather patterns seem to be changing, fuel prices are threatening to go up, many of our resources are dearer by the day, national emblems- tigers, lions, gharials can now be counted on ones fingertips.....

But has all this made 'green businesses' any more lucrative than before? Has it really? It is equally true that a perceivable change towards greener development is being seen. Buildings are going green, cars are going green, power and fuel is going green, textiles are going green, food products are greener (read organic), governments are imposing compliance standards and banning polluting practices. Ok, so the going green has caught on. So, green entrepreneurs must be seeing surging growth rates and newer markets adding to their burgeoning TG...... Well, that's where it gets weird. No, not all is green in the sustainability trade.

Why are we not hearing great success stories of green entrepreneurs? At least in the numbers that we expect after we hear all the positive stories. Rainwater harvesting schemes are limited to a few instances, green homes are for the exclusive few, Green paints have not dislodged regular paints, Are the technologies or services Then what is?

Now let us look at consumers and mindsets at large. Have these perceptions changed?
  • Why should I save power… it really does not pinch my purse
  • Why should I harvest water…. My current water is available pretty cheap.
  • No sense of urgency as the impending absence of these natural resources and environmental aspects don’t pinch us at all.
  • I don’t mind participating as long as it doesn’t cost me.
  • What is in it for me?
  • The environment is a cool thing to be associated with…. The truth is that I may not do a thing further.
  • Why should I manage my waste? I don’t get anything from doing so.
We have found these views being echoed all over. We know some of the reasons too.... water and power are relatively cheap, we don't pay much for waste management, in fact we dont get taxed heavily if we dump too much waste, the costs of green alternatives are high, and more importantly, green solutions don't talk the language of the mainstream. No guarantees on water security, no clarity on the clear benefits of the product... to the extent that green is considered pretty vague that necessitates the employment of specialists.

So what should green entrepreneurs be doing? At IGH we have been working on the following:
  1. Better communication based on sound knowledge. Involve your consumer in understanding all sides to a sustainable alternative.
  2. A parallel conversion activity... through viral awareness campaigns which aims at increasing acceptance amongst the masses
  3. Find ways in monetising the customer's financial obstacles
  4. Ensure that a high impact solution is found that can cut across all sections of society
  5. Collaboration- Many entrepreneurs end up re-inventing the wheel, when by working with others who are already involved in their focus area, would have enabled them to start from a higher rung.
  6. Knowledge building- Actually this should be high up on the list. IGH has been working on putting together various information sets on all things green. This forms the backbone of all the work that we do.... the value that we add.
What else would help?
  • Unsustainable alternatives should be heavily taxed.... same logic as polluter pays.
  • Governments need to get bolder... if not have a larger vision of sustainability from a national perspective. The idea is to make sustainable development an imperative not a choice (as it is currently).
  • Increased spending on R&D by individuals, corporates and institutions
Here's to a greener beginning.

Friday, November 6, 2009

All it took was the will to do something....

Here is something to exemplify our mindsets towards easily addressable, everyday issues. The community that I recently shifted into (Aug 2009) was where most of the residents knew each other for over 15 years.
The night I moved in I discovered (to my sheer horror) that if it rained even the least bit the entire area in front of my house gets flooded. I spent the next few days engaging with my landlord, my neighbours and the 'residents association' determining the magnitude of the problem and what their plans were to solve this. Beyond the usual discoveries of a bad layout plan, encroachment on land and blocking off of natural drainage, I also found out that the six families (of the 82 that formed the enclave) that stayed around me had tried in vain to address this but their cries for help fell on deaf ears. Replies ranged from, ".... we have forwarded the complaint to the BBMP", to, ".... how is it my problem?" and "...nobody will pay so much when it does not affect them".
The situation had reached such a stage that my neighbours had started modifying their lifestyles to 'live' with a flooded situation for a few months in the year. While some waded through the water to cross over to dry land, the more inventive ones had placed stepping stones to hop across their watery frontyards. My landlord had even been ill-advised to put up a metal mini gate to hold back the water... a kind of check dam!! My neighbour had increased the height of her sump cover to ensure that water did not enter. The more desperate amongst them (tenants like me) had simply shifted out. This situation had now lasted for over 4.5 years.
I gave my landlord and myself about a month to try the 'reaching out' one final time. When a month and a half passed I called my landlord and requested him to organise a meeting of other landlords and tenants to discuss possible solutions. No one was interested. Some had given up. There was an underlying fear that any solution would cost a lot. This was further influenced by their conviction that resolving such things was the problem of the authorities that be.
So I went ahead with finding a solution myself. I had been taking pictures of the flooding over the month or so that I had been here. I determined the local drainage and slopes, the volume of water that collected on different days and scoped out areas where I could divert the water. I had two choices- one, to drain out the water away from this low-lying portion of the enclave, or, two, to percolate the water into the ground. The latter seemed the more attractive and easier choice (sort of).
The volume of water to be tackled (about a 40,000 litres of water in a moderate shower of rain), the area required and the percolation properties of the soil there were my variables. I found that the land sloped across the road to a common, neglected strip of land (about 3 metres across and about a 100 metres long), and I found through a simple infiltration test which showed me that I could percolate about 3,000-4000 litres of water an hour.
I employed a team of 4 labourers, cleared the common land across the road. This had become a dumping ground for all kinds of muck from the very same homes. It took us 5 days to dig a trench about 1.5 metres in average width, about 0.6 metres in depth and about 15 metres long, another day to make a detail (using some waste drain pipes) to divert the water into the trench, yet another day to line the trench with gunny sacs (reject from a local departmental store), and a final day to clear the road and surrounding area from slush generating silt/earth and fill the potholes with 10 mm stone jelly. In all it took 8 days.
To increase the percolation, two concrete rings (3 feet in diameter) were inserted in the wider section of the trench. A layer of stone jelly was filled around the concrete rings adding a filtering medium of about 10 cm. Care was taken to provide a block at the holes on the ring to keep the jelly from pouring in.Now I intend planting around the entire trench, providing a couple of benches made from waste stone and construction debris (from a house being built nearby).... creating a positive space for the community.
Does it work?? Well, it handles a normal rain of up to 8 mm in a couple of hours with ease. Heavy rain showers do create the ponding effect, but it all this water percolates over the next few hours (I have added the picture in another post). The system has been tested by many days of rain, and the nearly an entire rain cycle in the year.... We dont have the nightmares of water standing around for days (yes, we do have to live with that for a few hours)... and the community now recharges about 40,000 litres of rainwater in a normal rain shower.
What else can we do to better this system? To solve the issue of any ponding (once and for all), we would need to increase the capacity of the initial holding system. Which would mean percolation pits, tanks, wells that would hold a volume of about 40,000 litres of water. I have plan to start on that soon.

All it cost me was Rs 5,600/-... the irony was that this was less than what it cost my landlord with his mini check dam and my neighbour's sump cover remodelling.
A return to normalcy, a reduced mosquito menace.... an end to about 5 years of woes.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Do green initiatives have something to work towards?

Sometimes I find myself asking... what are we working towards? Of course we are involved in creating sustainable built environments, but are we doing enough?
What is enough? Is there some target that we are working towards? Do others have a target? From my opinion, many other green businesses have financial targets... But what about sustainability targets?