The tap water approach to designing green buildings: Simple, frugal and sufficient

The concept of green buildings has been around for a couple of decades, but there is increasing pressure on business and industry to be sustainable in their operations. In a conversation with ET Digital, Sanjay Prakash, Principal, Studio for Habitat Futures (SHiFt) talks about how and why the manufacturing sector in the country needs to go green and that this can involve some very simple things. Edited excerpts.

Economic Times Digital (ET): The concept of green buildings has been around for some time now. How has it evolved over the years?
Sanjay Prakash (SP):
“Green” building was traditionally mainstream in pre-industrial times since there was no choice but to build green by respecting daylight, solar ingress, ventilation, compression resistant materials, and natural materials (like timber and bamboo).

“Green Building” was the norm in the absence of running water and electricity, or the ability to super-heat materials to make steel, cement and glass. Industrialization and globalization of building, especially in the twentieth century, started consuming much more energy, water, and materials than were strictly necessary to build. Along with overconsumption came waste.

The middle of that century, the post-war years, was especially known for profligate use of resources and dumping of waste. All this caused the need to even define green in the late 1970s as something sensible to do and push for it through various industry ratings that have come up for third-party certification of so-called green buildings.

Unfortunately, these ratings use a formulaic system of marking such that by investing even more resources, you get a reduction of energy and consumption, but as compared to various high standards of consumption globally. The result is that many certified green buildings in India consume more resources than the plain buildings that served in the past with frugal use of resources, which were nevertheless sufficient. Green buildings thus become like consuming diet soda to reduce calories while bypassing tap water.

At SHiFt, we are oriented towards design for the future, a future which is not extrapolated from the past with high consumption and high wastage, but a future which is sufficient, regenerative and efficient. We work with tap water, not diet soda! We work with a simpler, easier mindset, and ask what is just enough (sufficient) to improve the way we can meet our needs while taking it as an article of faith that any fossil resources used in building impoverishes the planet- fossil energy (such as coal and oil based electricity), fossil water (such as groundwater), and fossil material (such as steel and concrete).

ET: Why does it make sense for businesses to warm up to the concept of green buildings, especially the ones in the manufacturing sector?
Because there is no alternative! If humankind does not use only renewable resources, we would set the world off on a path towards ecological collapse and biodiversity loss, ecosystem service depletion, runaway global warming, ocean acidification, and ultimately not be able to manufacture and produce value from what we have been manufacturing in the last two centuries.

ET: In the manufacturing space, what are the things businesses can do to make factories green?
At SHiFt, we feel that the biggest consumers of fossil resources today are industries, and they primarily need to structure themselves to ensure that they can join the new capitalist systems of the sharing economy. Besides designing their own buildings in a simpler, greener way, or even adaptively reusing their existing building stock, they also need to simplify the supply chain and processes that they employ in their manufacturing–and they may need to do so by ignoring what experts from the developed West (so used to consuming vast resources that it has become their second nature) might advise.


Sanjay Prakash, Principal, Studio for Habitat Futures (SHiFt).

ET: There is a general feeling that green and sustainable buildings are costlier to build and operate. How true is that?
Does it cost more to whitewash an office wall (thereby providing better daylight reflection) or to use expensive “mera wala pink” as an emulsion (which absorbs sunlight and forces the office to use lighting which in turn increases overhead cost)?

Yes, it is true that many certified buildings require more inputs and more cost to make than business-as-usual (which is why capitalist industry associations love certified green buildings–they are good for the bottom line!), but if we design green-ness like tap water, with an attitude of sufficiency, it can actually cost less to make a frugal, sufficient green building.

ET: Businesses are economically stressed because of the pandemic. Would it make economic sense for them to “go green” in such a situation?
Yes, and yes! Questioning sufficiency (how much is enough) should never go out of fashion in any business. At SHiFT, we firmly believe that if businesses have to compete, they will have to go green, but intelligently. They have to squeeze value out of tap water, not diet soda.

ET: How will COVID-19 change the way we design and use buildings?
There are two views to this- the capitalist view is that we will all go back to normal after we get the vaccine. There is the possibility that there may not be much change in our design for spaces after this pandemic, unless similar outbreaks come every 5-10 years and become a “new normal”.

The realistic and cautious view is that pandemics of zoonotic diseases shall strike continually in this century, especially as humans increasingly disrupt raw nature. Just as cholera influenced the modern street grid, and 19th-century epidemics prompted the introduction of sewage systems that required the roads above them to be wider and straighter, along with new zoning laws to prevent overcrowding, we shall design cities and spaces considering the new normal, with a combination of distance, fresh air, sunlight, scrupulous standards of hygiene, and face mask dispensers.

But also, though this doesn’t apply to all professions, some of us have realized that we do not need to go to the office so much to get work done. That will change the complexion of cities.

ET: What do you think is the future of green buildings in India?
SHiFt has designed some of the most well-known buildings in India like the TERI campuses near Gurugram, IIIT Delhi, Scindia School in Gwalior, IIT Jodhpur, Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi, couple of Hotel Taj properties (Panna and Kanha National Park), Open stadium in Ladakh among others. We sometimes think that we keep running after a green formula when we should do simple things like building as our ancestors did! But the future is bright, as long as a younger generation emerges which creates its own identity without being ashamed of their Indian roots.

The tap water approach to designing green buildings: Simple, frugal and sufficient The tap water approach to designing green buildings: Simple, frugal and sufficient Reviewed by TechCO on 12/12/2020 Rating: 5

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