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How green is my colony?

Building green is not about a little more efficiency. It is about creating buildings that optimise on the local ecology, use local materials and most importantly, are built to cut power, water and material requirements, writes Sunita Narain.

india Updated: Jul 31, 2009 00:07 IST

Green seems to be the colour of the decade. But building green is not about first building structures that use a huge amount of material and energy, and then fixing them so that they become a little more efficient. Instead, it is about creating buildings that optimize on the local ecology, use local materials and most importantly, are built to cut power, water and material requirements.

If we just keep this in mind, we will realize that our traditional architecture was in fact, very 'green'. Traditional Indian buildings have different designs depending on the climate and the region they're located in. So, buildings in the hot and dry regions have long corridors that can direct and cool the wind. In wetter regions, buildings are created so that they make optimal use of the natural breeze and light.

Today, we have forgotten how to build for our environment. Instead our 'modern' buildings are monocultures - massive glass-faced monstrosities lifted from the building books of cold countries. In India, the same buildings are a nightmare. The glass in the building traps heat. And the building cannot be 'naturally' cooled because the windows cannot be opened. Instead, it needs central air-conditioning and heating. In this situation, turning it 'green' would mean using very expensive glass to insulate better, which builders prefer to avoid. So the only band-aid 'green' measures are to include a few token items like efficient lights and some water-saving devices in the toilets.

Clearly the way forward for our buildings has to be different. But this will need policy, so that practice can follow. Even today, we have no mandatory green standards for builders to follow. The National Building Code does not include any water or material efficiency standards. The only standard that exists is for energy and that too, is voluntary.

The first and most urgent step, then, is to incorporate this voluntary energy code into the mandatory National Building Code. The second step is to ensure its implementation. If builders measure and reduce the energy usage of their constructions, they will be forced to start using traditional methods again. Buildings will be built to maximize natural light and wind and will have solar heaters.

Simultaneously, the code also needs to be expanded to include water and waste standards: to reduce water usage in toilets, and to ensure that institutions and large residential complexes all recycle and reuse their waste. Similarly, these complexes must be provided space to compost kitchen waste.

But this is only the beginning. A green building is only as green as our city. So, if we cannot connect our homes with public transport, then our homes may be green but our lives and environment will continue to be brown and grey.

Sunita Narain is Director, Centre for Science and Environment.