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, March 28, 2011

Going 'off-the-grid'!

What a wonderful thought. The very idea that we wont rely on those unsustainable networks! Those of us in the sustainability profession, would love to prescribe this to our listeners and clients, but what does it take to go 'off-the-grid'?
On the face of it, relieving your habitation (or, any such built environment) of central electricity and water supplies. As an extension this also means no connections to central sewerage connections.
Extending this to it's penultimate and true definition, it would mean a complete independence from anything supplied from beyond the borders of the 'off-the-grid' destination in question. So, such an establishment would be able to generate it's own power, secure it's own water requirements, manage it's own waste (including other solid waste), grow it's own food and even provide for all the necessary activities for sustainable living. This may also include livelihood skills in the form of a craft, farming, a service, that would give the the rewards to maintain the 'off-the-grid' establishment.
Is it expensive to live off-the-grid? If the we merely were to move location, without changing our lifestyles, then yes. If we consume as much power as we do today, then the size of energy need goes up and so does the capacity of any captive generation. The same applies to our consumption of other resources like water and food, and similarly can be extended to the waste that we generate. Shifting from a want based to need based living is crucial to occupy a minimal footprint, one that can be catered for and sustained. What should be aim for while going off-the-grid?
  • Consume minimal power and water, (which involves consumption changes due to lifestyles).
  • Use technology pragmatically and look for simple solutions- go low tech as against high tech as the cost of replacement may be higher or may make you reach beyond the local region. It is important to tap into look skills as much as it is important to use local resources.
  • Look for appropriate solutions- for example, use biomass for heating if it is abundant and you can do it without polluting, solar thermal for all heating, use,hydro where you have the potential and most importantly, size these technologies appropiately.
  • Harvest maximum water and manage it responsibly,
  • Eat what you can grow, and
  • Generate minimal waste, so that it's management is not harder than what it ought to be.
To some of us these may seem romantic notions, to others impossible to achieve. The truth is that we are so engrained in our urban lifestyles that any such shift results in symptoms from mind strains to serious struggles to adjust to this 'off-the-grid' existence. Ever wonder, why it is so easy for a farmer to live in those conditions, while the very thought of abandoning all things that are processed or packaged seems like a nightmare? The answer is the decades, if not generations of this urban conditioning. just a century ago, most of us would have been considered as leading more or less sustainable lifestyles. In a relatively short time, we have become dependents and slaves to our wants.
Giving up the former lifestyle is akin to a de-addiction process... but the results are just as rewarding... a non-toxic lifestyle. It seems that any 'off-the-grid' sustainable proposition should be much more than mere infrastructural and technological solutions, and should also extend to include other aids like life-transitioning skills, opportunities to identify and improve on independent skill-sets and activities towards enabling individuals to adapt. Such initiatives could include integration with local communities and intra-community involvement. In time, such off-the-grid communities would be able to create their own identities and become true symbiotic entities... far removed from their gluttonous urban counterparts.
What a wonderful thought... again.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Sunshine Makes You Happy

“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry………”

So wrote and sang John Denver on a spring day in Minnesota. These words set to a melodious tune really make you want to feel the warmth of the sun on a lazy Sunday winter morning. Most of us over 40 have grown up, at some point of our lives, in a house rather than in an apartment. The space that a house offered together with its surroundings, with perhaps, a patch of grass or a shady tree, made for a mood that was buoyant and cheerful.
In the bustle of the modern city old houses have given way to high-rise modern condominiums and have robbed us of that languid quality of life we all enjoyed. This has specially affected the children and the elderly who cannot go out much on their own. Children cannot play or lay about on neighbours’ lawns, and the elderly find that poking around in an apartment, disconnected from the earth, is not as much fun as discovering new facets of their own house even after 50 years of living.
The press of city living has not only confined us into living in cramped spaces but has made huge demands on local infrastructure wherever an apartment complex has raised its ugly head. Water shortages, problems with waste disposal, power outages and a lack of privacy have become manifest in our busy lifestyles. Due to neighbouring high-rises the winter rays (which traverse at a greater slant) are blocked, so much so that many rooms rely on artificial lighting even during the day. Natural light has mood elevation qualities which we sorely miss and this translates to a variety of illnesses from irritability to depression. The impact of such apartment living on the collective health of the urban residents will be high, and will result in an even higher health care bill. Living in a home with the sun streaming through the trees should not merely conjure up images of an era gone by, but look to be a solution to society’s many mental and physical inadequacies.
Besides sunshine there are many other elements that get addressed in a home. A sense of space, more privacy, natural surroundings for pets, and quick access to the garage or the main road are some of the advantages. Some citizens are concerned about security of individual homes, which can be addressed by a simple electronic surveillance system. There are some greater joys that can be added to one’s life while living in a home. The pleasures of gardening, tinkering with your car in the garage, and barbeque parties, all gather a life of their own in a home setting. High-rises, while offering you views that are dramatic for one reason or the other, need some serious lateral thinking in terms of design to match those experiences of a low-rise independent home.
Apart from the pleasures that you can enjoy in-house there are many aspects of living that can be developed sustainably. The potential to harvest and save rainwater is of great importance. With sound planning a home can be water sustainable for years to come. A good rain water harvesting system which includes ground-water recharging, collection, storage, filtration and treatment can be set up on a handy budget. The fact that you are not dipping into the city’s already scarce reservoir of water itself can be reason enough. Take at look at waste management. One can manage all forms of waste in a home through systems like grey water recycling, solid waste treatment, wet-waste composting, and controlling waste through proper collection, segregation, and recycling. There is no need to dump any waste generated into the city’s sewers or into the municipal garbage disposal system. High density modern day apartment living adds this extra pressure on an increased demand of water and energy per unit ground area and also contributes to a greater amount of waste being generated. Densities, therefore are critical..... One can also look at this in terms of carrying capacity of the land where one addresses what densities (families/dwellings per unit ground area) can sustainably exist in terms of the basic resources- water, energy, food, building resource, etc.
The scope of incorporating energy conservation and energy efficiency is even greater. Using renewable sources of power like solar and wind, one can not only enjoy partial off-grid reliance, but also save large sums of money over the long term. The capital costs incurred for these systems can all be amortised over a period of three to seven years. By using natural ventilation systems the indoor air quality also can be improved, thereby assuring better health for the children and elderly.
So the next time you remember to enjoy the sunshine think of building yourself a home, especially a green home. Do yourself a small favour, and a larger favour to the planet.