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, April 25, 2011

The two sides of water

Drought and flood are two sides of one coin, Water. The people of Rajasthan and MP are those who experience the drought while Bihar experience worst o floods in India. But interestingly most other states have both extremes in different parts of the state. In Karnataka the north districts are water scarce while the coastal south districts have flood related hassles. In all cases it is the populated cities that face the worst of all. Certain level of balancing of such a situation is possible if large scale Rain water harvesting and recharging activities are taken up. The cities face water scarcity or flood only due to manmade disruptions. Just look at Bangalore. The networks of beautifully connected lakes have vanished. The city’s eco system has gone for a toss. I fear many of such disruptions are irrevocable and we have to face the fury of weather. We wait for the worst to happen to take the first step.
One unexpected summer rain boosted my confidence about the Rain Water Harvesting and water security. With one day’s rain on 23rd April 2011, the entire 10K litres sump was filled. A straight monetary saving of Rs.400/- that I would have otherwise spent on tanker water. The sight of the filled sump with clean rainwater is an overwhelming experience. While I was checking my sump I saw my neighbour getting his water tanker to fill his sump. I felt one should be ashamed of not harvesting the safest and purest water and depending on subsurface water which would have all kind of toxins in it. In most situations, rain water requires purification for visible impurities and biological impurities by means of a normal UV filter. But the subsurface (borewell) water requires a RO filter in addition to remove the toxins.
The RWH filter that I have installed did its duty of removing all dirt particles and the water appeared just like well water or even cleaner. With such a rain, the water collected in a day could be enough for close to a month! I wish if I had some more extra storage facility to secure all this water.
The very next day I read in the newspaper that in some area there will not be BWSSB water supply for 3 days. And the other news in the same page is about the havoc caused by the heavy rain in many areas including flood. What a contrast!
While the city face severe water shortage and most people worry and blame the BWSSB for failed supply. Very few would have done something to harvest and use the rainwater. In the outskirts of the city I am a happy man without any worries when I read there is no water supply.
On the one hand we let the fresh rain water go down the drain while on the other we face serious water shortage. Individually all of us are responsible for this. Every individual, irrespective of where they live- independent bungalow or apartment, can prevent callous rainwater runoff. A small recharge pit within the compound would be able to percolate a lot of rain water. One could also use the existing sump for collecting the rainwater by using an efficient filter unit. Imagine what the impact of several lakh houses doing this would be! The drainage system will not be overloaded with rainwater and filth that it carries. If government organs like the BBMP could take the initiative in having several protected ground recharge pits along the drainage system that will stop the water from flowing down to the main stormwater drains. Beyond recharging the surface water source such simple design internvetions would also help to avoid flooding in many areas.
If we are serious about solving the water related worries, we must give some focussed attention to Rainwater harvesting. The few thousand rupees that one spends will surely pay its dividends. One need not worry too much about system maintenance as it is not going to be a major hassle. It just requires a nominal care that any such precious resource would demand. Take this from me as somebody who has experienced the joy of being independent (to a great extent) starting with water.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Colour and building traditions

Sometimes you look at a building and you have no idea why a particular colour or colour scheme was used.
What is the significance of colour choices for your building? Does colour define you? Does it slot you as belonging to a certain community? When you look at traditional architecture, specifically when you go back in time, colour seemed to occupy a very important place in both breathing life into the architecture and in assisting in one identifying the building that belonged to a particular region, or, a particular people... sometime pin-pointing the particular sub-group or family.
Colours also seemed to have a deeper significance... for example door frames and thresholds were painted a specific colour.... maybe with an intention to sanctify the entry. A quasi religious significance was given to the colours used and as a result, other colours that were reflective of a community found place on the built. At the least, the built became an extension of the people, or, a mark of the people inhabiting them.
Like many other aspects of building traditions, we seem to have lost our bearings a bit on the role and irrelevance of colour in our buildings. Like the forms imported (sorry, influencing) our architecture seem to have shed any connects with the traditions of colour and built form. Today's buildings seem to follow a borrowed identity and design philosophy, not one that has come about as a process of gradual change due to factors influencing culture, politics and people. We seem to have been shocked into this new identity, resulting in an amnesia of sorts when it comes to referencing our traditions and built heritage.
Maybe how history has been written has contributed to this. Our appreciation of our architectural remnants and ruins are primarily done in their present form, and not from a knowledge of what was. It is almost as if we are referencing only the skeletal remains, without understanding the flesh, skin and personality. When one designs a courtyard, the starting point is an empty court, which remains empty during the design process. How does that court change due to people? When we populate these spaces, and breathe life into its occupants, then it is but natural for that to reflect on the personality of the place itself.
Today, modern architectural principles still influence us (in this part of the world), to limit the colour to be an honest extension of the colour of the material used. So wood looks like wood, and brick has to look like brick and so on. While one can relate that, what happens to colour as colour itself?
This is not as much a case for the use of colour, but us to develop an understanding of its relevance as a part of the built.

The value of embodied energy in this world of energy efficiency

The world of today seems to be caught in this frenzy of energy efficiency... ok maybe only that part of the world that is focussing on reducing our impacts on the environment. Rightly so. The dots have been connected from the spending of units of electricity or fuel from petroleum products and coal to the emission of Carbon Dioxide into the environment. Various figures are thrown around ranging from around 1 kwh of electricity leading to between 0.8 to 1.2 kg of CO2. Similarly, 1 litre of diesel or 1 kg of coal burnt leads to about 3.2 and 2.3 kg of CO2 emissions.
The significance of energy efficiency by reducing energy consumption in any form is significant. A residential building for example stands to reduce about 1 ton of CO2 emissions every year, by adopting specific energy efficiency measures. This example however, is for a home in Bangalore that uses air-conditioning moderately. The emission reduction by taking such steps can vary hugely in different categories of residences and is more significant in higher energy consuming built environments- commercial buildings, 24x7 office buildings, air conditioned complexes, hospitals and industry. But any savings is significant, specially if you extrapolate it across an entire city, or, nation.
But what about the making of the building itself? Any building activity today is supported by huge energy guzzling building materials and services industry, not to mention the transportation of materials. More products are today industrialised than ever before... Demand for more buildings fuels more such industry and therefore a greater consumption of natural resources with expenditure of huge amounts of energy in doing so. It is only fair to take into consideration all this energy, or, the proportionate share of that per square metre of building built as the energy of making that building. The embodied energy of a building therefore, is the sum of the total embodied energy of all parts of the building. This embodied energy calculated in Mega or Giga Joules or in kwh is converted to achieve the sum CO2 emissions in kg or tonnes.
There are a slew of embodied energy figures for various materials, and the list is not exhaustive... from an Indian perspective, but Institutes like IISc and IIT Roorkee are taking their shot at providing some baseline figures.
The savings calculations however are an entirely different deal. The current method is to compare the sum embodied energy of your building to that of a baseline.... which, in simple terms means a building that can be considered similar in size, scale, purpose and group that it caters to, but built using conventional, current and commonly used building materials and systems. However, the more efficient way, is to compare your savings (in terms of your design and layout) to the alternative materials and systems that you could have used in the very same building that is being assessed.
So how much can we save by reducing the embodied energy of a building? A substantial sum depending on the choice of building material, system and the management of construction. In one building that we built, we estimated about 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions saving for about 25,000 sq metres of construction....while in an another building the figure same figure fell to about 5,000 tonnes for a building of about 8000 square metres. Why the difference? Simple. One building adopted achieved greater reductions due to the kind of technologies adopted....building blocks, avoiding a basement, flooring choices, etc. The savings could have been more in the first building.... if we had adopted a more energy efficient alternative to the RCC slab... or, by finding better alternatives to the internal roads built.
A building takes anywhere from 8 months to about 36 months to build, depending mainly on size and scale, and therefore the time frame for these substantial emissions for the building process is also limited to that. Energy savings in operations on the other hand adds up over the lifetime of the usage of the building. Savings in embodied energy could range from about 0.5 to 1.0 tonne per square metre. In a residential building, the energy spent ranges from about 5 to upwards of 20 kwh per square metre per year depending on the income group and the level of air-conditioning. In 20 years, this translates to about 100 kg to 400 kg of CO2 emissions. In a commercial building, a savings of about 50kwh per annum per square metre would mean a CO2 emissions savings of about 80-100 kg. In about 20 years, that would mean about 2 tonnes of CO2 emissions saved.
Just by these above cases, it is clear that the impact of how we build is significant and that one cannot neglect the CO2 emissions savings due to choices made in the building process.