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, 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! 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Toilet Talk

Fill it, flush it, forget it. How the lowly toilet has become a serious
issue to address.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been working on an initiative to reinvent to the western toilet as we know it, and bring forth innovative toilet systems that will address sanitation issues in many developing economies around the world. This is a truly laudable quest since more than 2.6 billion people worldwide are said to be using unsafe toilets, or are simply, defecating in the open. Poor sanitation is the root cause for many diseases, including diarrhoea, which kills about 1.5 million children a year. Contamination of groundwater surely leads to many other diseases, including cholera, which kill even larger numbers in the developing world. They believe that “smart investments in sanitation can reduce disease, increase family incomes, keep girls in school, help preserve the environment, and enhance human dignity.”

The endeavour to come up with a toilet, or toilets, that are waterless, not connected to a sewer, hygienic, and affordable is no easy task. The Foundation has set-up a ‘challenge’ in about 22 universities worldwide and is funding programmes that are potentially promising. The goals of the programme are quite comprehensive and aim to address complex multiple issues that stand in the way of innovation:

The history of the western toilet is quite interesting. While there are many variants and types evolved over time, the western toilet that we now use is attributed to Thomas Crapper (yes, yes, now you know) who popularized the model in the late nineteenth century. So, what are the other toilet types beside the western flush toilet and the Indian latrine, so to speak? Here are a myriad names for you to glean from: UDT (Urine Diversion), UDDT (Urine Diversion Dry), Chemical, Portable, High-Tech, Floating, Chamber-pot, Gauderobe, Squat, Urinal, and a host of others.

The problem is that the western toilets are too water intensive for third world ‘conditions’ and the handling of this sewage waste poses major challenges of contamination of ground water, space availability, odour and handling. New and more adaptable versions are required on the pronto. Over the past couple of decades we have seen the 12 litre overhead cisterns (a relic from colonial times) reduce to a slim-line 7.5 litre flushes, down to dual flush systems with a 6 litre flush for the big job and a 4 litre flush for the small job. There is also a product in the market that claims a further reduction to a 4.5 / 1.5 litre dual flush. Some serious challenges remain, for example the bowl design to efficiently flush all matter out using minimal amounts of water.

Here are some of the concepts are scientists and environmentalists are grappling with – if you have new one please write to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While it is not possible to describe any of them in great detail in this blog, a basic one-line description of each programme itself is quite revealing, if not fascinating.
  1. Professor M. Sohail of Loughborough University and his team are endeavouring to Harald Gr√ľndl of develop a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water.
  2. Professor Georgios Stefanidis and his team at Delft University of Technology, using microwave technology, are attempting to turn the toilet into an electricity generator for local use.
  3. Dr. Tove Larsen of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and Dr. EOOS are attempting a functional model of a urine-diverting toilet that recovers water that is good enough for cleansing purposes.
  4. Professor Christopher Buckley and his team at the University of Kwazulu-Natal are proposing to design a toilet system that mineralizes human waste and recovers clean water, nutrients, and energy from community bathroom blocks.
  5. Brian Von Herzen of the Climate Foundation and Professor Reginald Mitchell of Stanford University are pursuing a community scale ‘biochar’ (biological charcoal) production plant fed by human waste.
  6. Professor Yu-Ling Cheng and her team from the University of Toronto are using a system of mechanical dehydration and smouldering of faeces to recover resources and energy. They are also trying to sanitize urine through membrane filtration and ultra-violet disinfection.
  7. Professor Michael Hoffman of the California Institute of Technology has envisioned a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen (gas stored in hydrogen fuel cells) and electricity for local use. 
  8. Professor How Yong Ng and his team at the National University of Singapore are experimenting with a decentralized modified pneumatic flushing urine-diversion dehydration community toilet block for five to six households at a time.
There have been several examples of toilet reinventions or adaptations in the Indian context. While some have addressed the design of the toilet itself, there have been those who have focused on the waste handling end of it. Sulabh, DEWATS, the segregated defecation system (where you have a separated bowls/exits for faecal matter and urine) are some of the examples. 

We encourage one and all to put on thinking caps and redefine the 'crapper'.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Seeking an alternate world- Making sense of going green with respect to the modern day development paradigm

Times they are a changing. Boy, can you feel it or what? Never before in modern, post industrial times has the common man been so aware of changes in rainfall, temperature, freak weather... the list is endless. Every other day, we read about new records being toppled in the these very categories. Climate and weather occupy more and more space in our newspapers alongside burgeoning development, pollution, and infrastructure woes. The mood is sombre and sometimes on edge, predicting various doomsday scenarios. There are calls for action, change, and even questioning the very way of life that we have grown so used to.

Within this environment of climate change and demands to reduce emissions of green house gases our nations are preoccupied with pushing up growth indices in order to convince themselves, and others who they hope to attract investments from, that we are doing fine. If anything at all, the 2007-09 recession years have shown us that current models of development and modern day economics have serious flaws. This model implies that nations have to keep ticking to stay above. In other words, this means that we have to keep selling, keep consuming, keep producing, keep extracting, keep mining,.. to project a healthy rate of growth. Sales have to be better than before to ensure that a business is afloat, no matter if the consumer needs it or not. This has lead to a world of misinformation, exaggeration and titillation.We buy because we dread the fall-outs of not doing so, we buy because we feel that we are being benefited, we buy because we feel we are doing well and we also buy because we don't want to feel left out. Along the way we have grown to believe in these globally disseminated messages of size, gloss and finesse. Modern day economics have meant that we have lost, or are rapidly losing, any connects with the way we lived earlier. With that is the disappearance of traditional knowledge systems of carrying capacity- how much to take, when to take, how to give back and so on. What all this means is the struggle to resurrect ourselves from the graves of climate change is arduous. The important question is 'how can we maintain both modern day growth economies, and do less harm to the environment simultaneously?'

20th Century Economics necessitates increased consumption. Today's green initiatives are overwhelmingly about clean energy. While this is essential, you cannot forget other aspects of sustainability. The old adage, 'too much of anything isn't good...' is perfect to describe the situation. For the building industry to do well, it necessitates more building (whether we need it or not); the building materials sector too needs to keep doing better that they did last year to retain value in the market; this only means more raw materials needed and so on. The same applies to the Automobile, Fishing, FMCG, Textiles, and essentially every fathomable industry. We have already out-consumed natures bounty in many ways. Entire oceans of fish are vanishing, various ores and minerals have been 'mined' dry, forests have been gets clear where this is headed. The growth based valuation of modern day economics is sending us over the precipice.

So how do we see any credible green initiative in today's context? Essentially, it is about painting a picture of an alternate world. To borrow the slogan of the World Social Forum- "Another World is Possible".Are the answers all there? Gosh no! Each initiative is about exploring possibilities and building on promising ones. We need to stop looking for overarching solutions for current day problems, and rather find what is most appropriate to us in our respective regions. Some solutions may cross borders, yet many more would be specific and limited. As professionals, serious about seeking out alternate models of development, we need to  recognise what our roles are in the prevailing economy. We are either catalysts of change, slowing down the processes of decline, or, are charting new courses development wise. There are always the nay-sayers who would label such thinking as regressive, but they act as if there exists no other possibility.

What is important are the choices that we make. We need to constantly ask ourselves questions like, 'is this good for me in the long run?', or better yet 'Is this sustainable?' before we act on our choices. It is a tough one no doubt. This 'recent past' in the context of human history is also 'the memory of our times'. The challenge is unlearning the trappings of our lifetimes and seeking connects with the past and possible futures that would ensure long term sustainability. We have begun to get connected like never before... it is important we stay the course.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Two windows, two doors, toilet, kitchen... deconstructing housing schemes for the poor

The  final product of the Slum Resettlement project at Lazar Road in East Bangalore
Whenever you hear of the inauguration (or the building) of a housing set-up for the underprivileged and marginalised, it seems like the implementation of an 'inclusive' policy on the ground. Is it?
In most cases not. The sight of these reconstruction efforts only makes you wonder- were these people better off before such an intervention? Also, you cant but think that one could have done better (much, much better) in terms of design, construction.... and most importantly as an urban intervention.
Let us take the example of a resettlement project for a small scale slum colony in East (now more North) Bangalore. Consisting mainly of squatters, settled earlier as construction workers working on nearby projects, this colony of sorts had grown over the years to a strip that leaked on two sides of the nearby road. Soon enough, functions like a small church, and a few shops that catered to the local community and to passers-by sprung up.
The hutments were predominantly temporary structures, not very dissimilar from scores of such self erected structures that house nearly 30% of this city's population (or any other big city in this country for that matter). These structures were modest, just about an adults length in both length and breadth. Roofs covered with blue plastic sheets, or, canvas; ram-shackle masonry walls, just high enough to keep rain splash and pests at bay; cloth flaps for doors in some cases; you get the picture. There were the more fortunate ones who had built themselves slightly more 'pucca' (hardier structures) with Tin/GI corrugated roofing sheets, and full masonry walls, windows, doors et al. All the structures served mainly as shelter from the weather and as shelter to retire in after an exhausting work day. Most of the activities were carried out in the open; from washing clothes to preparatory activities for food, washing utensils, and other daily household chores. Bathing was out in the open, children defecated out in the open, the nearby railway edge (and embankment) served as an outdoor toilet for this community and passers-by. Women, conducted themselves in the privacy of the early hours of the day. There was no proper drainage or sewerage system in place and during the rains, conditions of living would get worse.
This slum is commonly known as the Desyeshanagar slum and has been a recipient of a JNNURM fund for rehabilitation... read housing for the slum dwellers. Some dailies in Bangalore had written, a while ago, of an 'unenviable'; existence of these Lazar Road slum dwellers and the delayed resettlement as promised to them by the Karnataka Slum Clearance Board (KSCB). Now, after a few years of waiting, four storey apartments have come up, painted white. These RCC framed structures with concrete block masonry walls come with living quarters and toilets for each family. The walls are plastered and there are windows and doors to all units. While there are issues of the allotments versus the original 112 odd families who called this slum home, I would like to focus on the homes that have been made.

The activities are still on the outside...
I am not sure that the beneficiaries are much better off than when they were living in their temporary tenements. Yes, these slum dwellers now have a 'pucca' home, but has the quality of their lives improved? One could remain satisfied by justifying the very fact that they now have shelter, toilets and sewerage, but is that all? Let's take a look at the built.
  • Being four storey structures, there are three blocks, crowding on this not so wide a plot. That being the case, the gaps between these blocks are too narrow, with barely any light in the access stairs/corridors and the rooms that face this, even during the brightest of days. Each unit has two 3' x 4' windows provided for light, but effectively only one provides any amount of light due to the stacking of blocks. One gets a feeling of being boxed in as a result. This prompts the inhabitants to remain outdoors during the day, and through the evenings... similar to their earlier lifestyle. Perhaps it also has to do with their way of life.. They surely are a more social group.
The railway embankment continues to be a drying yard
for the rehoused residents
  • As there has been no provision for these activities indoors, and also due to the dingy conditions, many activities like washing & drying of clothes, cleaning utensils, etc are still conducted outside. Once again there could be social reasons to the same and the new buildings have not catered to this.
  • The buildings are merely products of a mathematical approach to design. In fact they are replicas of similar slum resettlement housing that is being carried out elsewhere in the city. These structures are just that, buildings without an iota of sensitivity.
Without a doubt one thing that has improved is the fact that they now have been provided some element of basic facilities like toilets with piping for water, and electricity. But, how have these buildings contributed in a general betterment of their lives? Could it have been any better with an in-situ upgradation initiative (as against such rehousing), with improved structures in place of their previous hutments, better drainage, proper paving where needed, service yards for washing clothes, access to clean drinking water, better power infrastructure, etc? The new buildings that have been provided are mere shells that do not seem to consider the dwellers or their social requirements as important and it shows in the design.
The primary objective of housing for slum inhabitants and the poor is about inclusion, about giving them a good respectable place as citizens of the city. If it was only an aspect of sanitation and providing facilities, then why couldn't one have considered what I have suggested in the above paragraph. Dignity of life does not seem to be a part of any rehousing scheme for the poor. They don't seem to have any right to aesthetics! Matchbox type tenements reflect a general apathy of the so called powers that be.
The stacking of blocks... too close for comfort, and light!
Of course, sustainability does not seem to figure in any of these developments. How do we act on a degree of far term thinking in what their access to utilities would be? The building systems and materials leave a lot to be desired. Even the current mandatory inclusion of Rainwater harvesting infrastructure has not been provided.

As we sign off from this case study, let us reflect on our attitudes towards these citizens of our cities and ask ourselves do the poor only need houses, not homes?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kicking up Dust - Linking construction activity to health

A walk in the (dusty) clouds.... Where? Our fast growing cities!
It is high time that we give importance to health issues due to construction activities. The responsibility of professionals associated with the construction industry goes beyond the merits of the end product. The general well being of those who live and work within and beyond 'the site' HAS to be our responsibility. Look around you and all you see is apathy. Work being carried out with no concern for the fall outs.
Dust pollution has gone up visibly in our rapidly developing cities, and this is taking its toll on it's inhabitants. While it puts construction personnel at the highest risk, it is an increasing factor for the rise of respiratory diseases in our cities. A statistic by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board puts construction generated dust pollution at about 14% of the contributing factors for Suspended Particulate Matter in the air. In the construction industry the most prevalent of these diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma and silicosis. However, chronic fungal infections (carried on dust), interstitial lung disease, silicosis which increases the risk of Tuberculosis, and even carcinoma have been stated as possible fall-outs of dust related health issues. This can be verified by a simple Internet search.  It is appalling that it has not yet become a topic of public debate.
The major contributors of dust are bad practices at construction sites, callousness of workers, unprotected storage of construction material & debris, shoddy maintenance and incomplete works. Movement of vehicles to and from  construction sites, and those carrying construction material and debris, without adequate checks like watering down at points of egress, cause further dust pollution. Transporting materials without proper covering  spreads dust way beyond the peripheries of the construction sites. If we identify these points of origin, we should be able to put in place checks to curb dust pollution.
A quick perusal of the Karnataka Pollution Control Board's website (could apply to other cities as well) shows a stark picture. For a city this large, only 6 points have any recurring statistics at all! This is hardly enough to draw a clear picture of the the extent of air pollution across the city, let alone construction related dust pollution. There seems to be no monitoring being carried out near major arteries where large scale construction projects are underway (metro, underpasses, flyovers, road widening/laying, etc). What we need is a more wide-spread and dynamic data gathering and sharing process of air pollution levels which can be monitored closely. This would also also enable the linking of pollution levels with specific activities, which can then be a support for taking action. While there are clear benchmarks for acceptable levels of emissions from DG sets for example, there don't seem to be any clear norms for what ambient dust levels should be for construction sites in specific. Broader SPM (Suspended Particulate Matter) and RSPM (Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter) figures are available, but none for points of origin (like construction sites) where concentration levels are much higher.
From roads to building sites, we see construction debris strewn about and a haze of dust. This haze does not restrict itself to the site and is spread by air movements to cover a wider area. This is evident in the browning of plants, and parked vehicles around the site, often beyond visible distance. While it is shocking to see construction workers working without protective gear, what is greater concern is the scale to which this problem has grown. 
Construction dust affects all of us in more than one way:
  • Most importantly, it affects general health, leading to a slew of respiratory disorders, eye/throat irritation, etc.
  • It causes damage to property
  • It leads to environmental deterioration... air and water pollution
  • It creates a poor quality of life and workplace... both basic needs of citizens
It is very surprising to see that precious little has been done to reduce this growing problem.The 'Polluter Pays' model has been discussed ad-nauseum in various fora, but dust pollution due to construction is limited to only a single point stipulation to exercise control in the bye-laws and earns one credits in one of two green certification for buildings in the country. Nearly all construction sites are devoid of even signage warning against the generation of dust, or, the wearing of adequate masks. A simple search on the 'AIR (PREVENTION AND CONTROL OF POLLUTION) ACT, 1981', (or its amendment) does not have the word construction or the word dust in it! SurprisingHere are a couple of definitions that caught my eye:
  • "air pollutant" means any solid, liquid or gaseous substance 1(including noise) present in the atmosphere in such concentration as may be or tend to be injurious to human beings or other living  creatures or plants  or property or environment;  
  • "air pollution" means the presence in the atmosphere of any air pollutant;  
Doesn't dust qualify as an air pollutant? And wouldn't construction be seen as a major contributor of dust pollution? On a single page document on the KSPCB website, termed as 'Measures to combat Air Pollution in Bangalore city' there is no mention of construction dust. Their entire pre-occupation is with types of combustion fuels. I think Pollution Control Board/s have to wake up and take notice of construction dust as a major contributor to respiratory diseases.

Here is what we think ought to be done:
  1. Draw out a policy on construction related dust pollution. 
  2. Make dust pollution a statutory offence. It does amount to serious negligence on the part of the executing agencies.
  3. Clearly spell out the guidelines to be followed strictly at EVERY construction site and in ALL construction activities.(This is not that difficult. There are very clear processes, and measures that can be followed to ensure compliance. Of course this involves extra effort and a wee bit more money, but the gains are more than significant.)
  4. Educate the public of their rights and their right to complain. Make grievance addressal a fast-track forum.
  5. Have a working monitoring mechanism with greater powers with local bodies and not merely some centralised body.
It would be important to note here that our cities reflect us. To a great degree, our cities are in the state they are because of how little importance we place on excesses like dust. The lesser we complain, the less we take steps to demand basic health standards, the more dust is going to get kicked up.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The city be damned! Passing the law by!

The great building bulge!
The city of Bangalore like many, many other cities and towns seem to be developing in spite of our bye-laws, shaping themselves arbitrarily, and in no reflection of any vision document or master plan. Land use zonation is violated as if it were our birthright, and mutation corridors seem to mean almost every other main, arterial or internal road. Setback, height and FAR stipulations seem to exist only as a guide, not as a stringent rule. Our cities be damned!

Just what exactly are Bye-laws for? If they don't translate to regulating urban form, usage, zonal differentiation, etc, then are they effective? It is pitiable that when you go down any street of Bangalore (I am guessing this applies to most other Indian cities and towns) something seems awfully wrong. A scant disregard for the written law is evident, but there seems to be no regard for the impacts of development on the neighbourhood, let alone the city.
All seem to participate in this desecration of the law (or Master Plan vision). While private forces reek mayhem by plonking far more built on land than envisaged, the law men (both administrators and keepers) reap the financial spillage that froths from this greed to grab. Govt institutions themselves seem to care less for the master planning vision document, by covering valley areas, occupying dry (or made to dry) tank beds  and providing transportation infrastructure at whatever cost (inefficient flyovers which still need traffic signals, vanishing pedestrian zones, flyovers that peek into your bedrooms, mowing down trees everywhere to justify easing traffic burdens),... the list is endless.They even are devising ways to absolve themselves of their fundamental responsibility by formulating government orders to regularise illegal construction. The measly fines instead of deterring anyone, might just seem like encouragement from the state!

The law is ambiguous when it comes to small plots. When it is impossible
to exercise the full FAR, why offer it? 
The bye-laws by themselves are a force to be reckoned with. They don't state things clearly, let alone make it easy to follow. For example, there is a 11.5 metre height vs setback relation. Below 11.5 metres, the setbacks are a percentage of your site depth and width, above 11.5 metres, it suddenly jumps to a minimum of 5 metres, increasing proportionately with the height of the building. When read along with FAR permissible for the same site, it is impossible to make a healthy building which utilises full FAR and confirms to these height and setback rules. The belief that real estate is wealth spurs people to maximise the built vs land ratio (not to be confused with FAR) even if it means a total violation of the laws and basic design health.  For example, floor to ceiling heights seem to be getting lower and lower.
There are many more such hard to understand elements of the building bye-laws. For example, the FAR permissible for smaller sites is ridiculous in high development zones by simply being unachievable.... unless you break (or bend) the law. Each stipulation of the set of bye-laws that apply to a particular site don't seem to work in tandem. Clearly, one would have at least expected a more precise set of limits, instead of vague guidelines that one cant relate to.A city's Master Plan should have also spelt out the vision for built form and how neighbourhoods are meant to cope with change into the future, but falls incredibly short limiting itself to a numbers game.with no context. What element of these bye-laws is specific to the city they were designed for? Building bye laws be damned!

This has been this way for a few decades now, and has lead to both a general apathy to the law, and some far reaching impacts on the ground... eventually borne by you and I. There are various fall-outs of these building bloats.
  1. Parking requirements are never met and therefore leak onto the roads. 
  2. Lower floors and interiors of building almost never get adequate light. 
  3. There is a greater energy demand for the same planned area.
  4. Can water be far behind? Great stress on water demand.
  5. Greater wastes from one site.... wet and dry.
  6. More building materials per site... meaning greater CO2 emissions per planned area.
  7. Wide spread building activity (illegal) leading to greater dust pollution.
I am sure you can think of a few more, specially if you consider cultural, and economic criteria, but you get the gist. But does anyone seem to care? What amazes me is that in the last couple of years alone we seem to have added far more visible building mass within our city limits, most of it far in excess of any element of the building bye-laws that apply, but the govt officials don't seem to notice. I would imagine that entire teams of demolition crews with dozers, trucks would be working round the clock to keep all this in check, and in time the economics of violation would start self-regulating. But alas, nothing! There doesn't seem to be an easily accessible report or set of statistics available on violations in Bangalore. If you search you will only come up with uninterested statements like 'half of Bangalore' and '90% of buildings in Bangalore' as having violations. Governance be damned!

I am sure that many of these violators get professional help. An ever-ready club of architects, engineers and contractors at their service. Espousing every devious mean to extract that extra square foot, listing examples of how they and others have gotten away with more, and incentivising the entrepreneur with rock-bottom fees and quotations. Professional ethics be damned!

It is said  that one can tell a lot about people and their culture by looking at their cities. I would say that the first to be deciphered would be its architecture and therefore the city's architects. What is evident that the  architecture is random and perhaps driven by poor quality architects or perhaps not architects at all. But how else do you get your plans sanctioned? Architects. The bunch of them seem to have lost (or given away) their souls. A reading of the current scenario shows aspirations no doubt, but in what direction, with what vision? As a profession, it seems like we don't believe in the bye-laws, let alone such design ideals. Architecture and Architects be damned!
Yes, it is true that our clients make most of the law-breaking decisions in the search for that extra golden square foot of built space, but what has been the role of us architects to check this. We have been meek by-standers, equally culpable in these gross violations, by our participation. Of course we have heard those lines from the fraternity stating 'what else can one do', and 'if you don't go play along then you can never play', and so on. Really? Is that how much faith we put in ourselves, and the profession?

I am sure that the 'powers that be' can see all this, anyone can. They MUST have a plan. They must! Some understanding that the future will be brighter, that we will somehow climb out of this cesspool of professional debauchery and unscrupulous meddling with urban form... (all for professional gain). Our prayers and wishes (apologies somehow don't seem adequate) go out to the grandchildren of our cities!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ecotourism: A Tale of Two Bandipurs

A familiar sight at Bandipur, Karnataka.
Talk to anyone in Bangalore about Bandipur (or Nagarhole) and they immediately think of a quick weekend getaway close to home. These biospheres which are home to wild elephants, tigers, and a host of other animals have been a major tourist draw over the years. There are organizations who offer accommodation, jungle safaris, and packaged tours to vacationers under the banner of Ecotourism. However, as explained in my previous blog on this subject, Ecotourism is not merely ‘a walk-in-the-park’ and a plain old-fashioned holiday in a nature preserve does not qualify as one. The term has been manipulated to such an extent that even the media refers to this category as Ecotourism, and government bodies that have been mandated to study and put in place meaningful Ecotourism programmes are merely developing resorts and pandering to the interests of businesses that are in the fray only for the moolah. As a refresher, here is how Ecotourism is defined: ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people’ (The International Ecotourism Society, 1990).
Though there is much talk in Karnataka about serious Ecotourism initiatives the track record is too thin to ascribe any measure of success to them. The local community needs to be an equal partner in the venture so that there is economic growth and social upliftment: but locals are normally handed out paltry sums as sustenance monies instead of structured programs that will benefit them in the long run. The tourists too need to be educated on ‘responsible tourism’ and their role is to aid and abet the program. However, tourists frequently and unknowingly do the obverse- take the case Tiger-centric Tourism: While looking for tiger sightings from elephant mounts or jeeps, visitors often tip the mahouts or jeep drivers if an actual sighting is made. This encourages ‘tiger-chases’ which is exactly the opposite of what is warranted! It is rare to find tourists who absorb what nature has to offer in ‘passive’ ways: enjoying peaceful forests walks, listening to the forest sounds, and taking in the sightings as and when they come.

Now let’s talk about another Bandipur- a tiny Nepali (Magar) village. While this is not exactly a similar comparison of likes, this town is a better example of how a proper Ecotourism initiative should evolve; wherein while driving an ecologically sensitive programme it also promotes responsible tourism and integrates livelihoods of the local community.
Bandipur village in Nepal faced a situation when the highway linking these Kathmandu and Pokhra was built it lost its importance and many of the village-folk moved away to the towns in search of better opportunities. This highway was built in the Marsyangdi Valley, leaving Bandipur isolated on the higher reaches of the mountain. The tradesmen were also forced to move to a town called Dumre; some even to the Terai region, leaving Bandipur a semi ‘ghost-town’. There was public unrest in the area during Nepal’s date with Democracy and many of the buildings (Newari style of Architecture) were damaged. The remaining residents were concerned that something needed to be done fast to save the village from veritable oblivion.

Check Bandipur, Tanahun, Nepal on fecebook.
There were two things going for the village: its elevated location with spectacular views of the Himalayas (Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, Ganesh, Langtang Himal), and the multi-ethnicity of the village-folk - Bahuns, Chettris, Newars, Damais, Kamis, Sarkis, Kasais, Magars and Gurungs were all part of the village’s long history. These people were skilled in handicrafts, art, pottery etc. which were unique and could be used to attract tourists. The Himalayan vistas were surely alluring but the dusty village did not have any infrastructure that would welcome the world traveller. An Ecotourism programme was set up – as a first step vehicles were banned entry into the village so that pollution would be controlled and the mountain-air would remain crisp and refreshing, and therefore, more attractive to visitors. Initially, this idea seemed ludicrous, but a few years hence the idea is an unmitigated success. Now Bandipur is a tourists ‘insider tip’ and no one, neither the inhabitants nor the tourists, want the vehicles back in town! Sale of handicrafts and other products is ensuring lucrative commerce; and the houses that were damaged are being restored to their original glory- which in turn is serving to protect the Nepali heritage. Success leads to betterment: Oranges are being grown in the countryside by a plucky few, and a silk farm has come up on the outskirts of Bandipur!
I could not but help observing the contrasts in the initiatives taken up in two towns that share the same name. Juliet said: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." I beg to differ with Juliet, and Shakespeare, on this one! Here places (Bandipur) and programmes (Ecotourism) with the same name do not smell as sweet.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Preach and Practise- A case for a more comprehensive addressal of a city's water needs through rainwater harvesting

Residential roofs account a maximum of 15% of a city's footprint. Private residential plots about 30%. While this a must tap in terms of rainwater harvesting, why neglect the remaining 70%?
Yes, all rain that falls on our roofs and sites in residential areas should be harvested by us. Similarly, shouldn't the govt agencies (and others) do the same with what falls on everything else? Privately owned residential land adds up to a maximum of about 30% at best, if you remove roads, parks, common amenities, waste lands, nallahs, lakes & tanks, industry and government owned land. (You will find govt. figures putting residential areas at about 43%, but this is the area that the zone occupies, which also includes internal roads, other functions, etc). For resource strained cities, the remainder beyond residential footprints is a great catchment that we simply cant neglect. It is commendable that the city's infrastructure agencies are encouraging it's citizens to participate (and share the burden) in harvesting rainwater. The idea is right.... that if we, en masse, harvest the rain we will greatly reduce our days without water and effectively the water man's burden. Having said that, it only makes sense that the govt agencies, that occupy (or are in charge of) the majority of these lands should lead by example. Not only does is set the right tone for others to follow, but also adds substantially in recharging the natural coffers.
Currently, our civic agencies treat rainwater like the plague, encouraged more to draining it away as quickly as possible. What little benefit we get currently is perhaps a result of their (and our) sloppiness.... clogged drains, illegally created structures, etc, creating check dams allowing some of this rain to percolate into the soil. But why cant we address both these issues of recharge and drainage simultaneously? Consider creating holding ponds (opposite to closing lake, tanks and valleys), and percolating channels (instead of concrete lined drains and canals) for a start.
Bangalore city's rainfall distribution. The current demand is close to the
rainfall potential on private residential  plots, but what about tomorrow?
Take a city like Bangalore, with about 1279 square km city spread (green belt and all included) and a healthy rainfall of about 1000 mm, that amounts to about 1 trillion litres of water that falls every year! The current need of water in this city is about 440 billion litres year. The city water infra authority supplies us about 328 billion litres per year and claim a shortage. Glaring isn't it? What is shocking though is that our city agencies do not tap for a single drop of all the rain that falls in their current supply. All of the water is brought to us from three external sources. Most of it from the cauvery, over a 100 km away, and nearly a 100 stories below at tremendous energy costs!! The calculation of water need according to the govt water infra agency is based on a figure of 140 litres per capita per day (the supply is stated to be about 120 lpcd).... but isn't that only a figure of domestic need? Even according to the agency's own admission, only about half this water supplied is used by residences. The rest is used by industry, commerce and so on. What this means is that the water per capita supplied per home is actually at about 60 litres per day!! So where do these homes get their remaining water? From the ground!
The truth is that in most of our cities and towns, a large percentage of the water need is met by drawing it from the ground. When this is not countered by adequate replenishment of these reservoirs through appropriate harvesting it leads to depletion of the ground water table. What compounds this is that water is used by industry, institutions and commerce too.... a lot of this not met by the civic agency's supply!

A city like Bangalore has the potential to host nearly twice its
current population if only it harvests the annual rains well
As a reaction to these alarming rates of ground water depletion in addition to the pressure to supply a burgeoning population, the civic agencies have resorted to directing its users to take up the cudgels on their behalf. As stated earlier, commendable move. But the stats dont stack up.... Roofs account for about 10 to 15% of a city's total land area, and from where I see it it is more beneficial to use this directly (after appropriate filtration), instead of recharging it, and then withdrawing it with greater energies spent, and needing much greater filtration. The average coverage of built to plots (in total across the city) is anywhere between 30 to 50%, and what rain falls on the un-built portion of these plots HAS to be put into the ground (again after responsibly filtering it). But what about the remaining 70% of land that is beyond private residential plots? Just this portion can mean about 700 billion litres of water per year.... more than twice our current demand. I am not even considering the areas beyond the metropolitan limits, which still are part of the catchments that can influence the city's ground water. Zone wise commercial and industrial areas occupy about 10%, and in Bangalore city, they have been directed to harvest water too. What is worth reckoning for a city like Bangalore is that the amount of rainfall that can potentially be harvested in the city limits can potentially help serve its burgeoning population.

We are back to what a city's administrative bodies can do. We need to look at a city as a very large community on a very large parcel of land. Where rain falls should become the responsibility of the group that   is in charge of that area. So, like when rain falls on private residences they have to harvest, similarly, if it falls on roads or parks it should become the responsibility of the municipality, or, when it falls on a govt institution's land they should be. Get the remaining land holders like the defence establishments, religious institutions and industry to do their bit. They are a part of a city's dynamic aren't they? The city water supply authority (in Bangalore) has taken some steps, like the  proposal for the rejuvenation of lakes to serve as alternative reservoirs, or the proposal to treat sewage and loop it back for consumption, to address the city's growing water need. However, we need a clear and comprehensive water plan, that can cover a wide spread harvesting / recharge plan, that lists out separate maintenance, appropriate treatment, public accounting and specific responsibilities of all groups concerned. We are all players in this community that we call a city, and we all need to do our bit to share the responsibility.