Consumers understand ‘green’ differently. Their idea of green translates literally to green cover in and around the property.

Retrofitting a boon, but greenwashing a bane for sustainable urban housing

While retrofitting green technologies is an effective short-term solution to sustainable urban housing, the lack of definition of what ‘green’ is needs to be addressed for long term effectiveness, say experts. This is the concluding part of CarbonCopy’s 2-part series on green urban housing

Many housing societies are increasingly relying on retrofitting green solutions. According to Nilanjan Bhowal, principal architect at Design Consortium, a Delhi-based architectural firm, this includes incorporating sensor-based lights for their common areas, like lobbies, staircases, lounges, entrance, etc. Adding water harvesting and waste composting systems, and stand alone solar lanterns are some easy retrofits, which are also affordable.

Another issue that can be addressed by some retrofitting is swapping single-glazed windows with the double-glazed ones. Single glazed windows allow light as well as heat to pass through, which leads to greater cooling requirements. Double-glazed windows, however,  allow only light to pass through and avoid trapping heat. 

According to IGBC, on choosing to build green, the energy savings could range from 20-30% and water savings around 30-50%.  

The end game

But sustainability of a building is not determined only by how it is designed and built but also by assessing how much of it can be reused and salvaged once the building has to be taken down. 

“We are not thinking enough about the debris issue. In the next 30-40 years, it can be a big problem. Where will this debris go? Do we have any dumpyards for it? Is it going to go to the sea? How are we going to reuse it? Government should start doing some R&D now, so that we have enough time for execution before we reach the breaking point,” warned Noel. 

Reusable materials like metalworks in balconies, on doors and windows, etc. can be used again rather than it all going to the junkyard. 

What’s the hurdle?

Apart from the one-time cost, which anyway is monetised over time, what is the barrier in making more green buildings?

“What we see now is templatising of buildings, designs of which are dictated by big corporations. The developer comes in with a budget and they want to build something that generates revenue. So, a typical standard has been set by the big corporations and that becomes a norm for you to construct,” answered Noel.

Some provisions in the new Unified Development Control and Promotion Regulations (UDCPR) as applicable in the state of Maharashtra provides additional floor space index (FSI) as an incentive to build green. However, Sonigra points out that an additional 5-7% FSI is an unattractive incentive for cities other than the ones where rates are exceptionally high due to space starvation. Moreover, it’s the suburbs that are growing rapidly now, where again, lack of space is not an issue. 

Apart from incentives, UDPCR now requires grey water treatment for any residential development of 100 tenements and more, which at the same time, leaves out a lot of residential projects because of eligibility criteria. Currently, Maharashtra has the highest total built up area of buildings registered under GRIHA at around 1,28,75,473 sqkm. To encourage green building (not limited to residences), several other Indian states also provide various incentives. 

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. In 2021, LEED ranked India third in the world (apart from USA) after China and Canada for green buildings with a total of 146 certified buildings and spaces, representing nearly 2.8 million gross area square metres (GSM) in the US Green Building (USGBC) annual list. The United States is not included in the list, but remains the world’s largest market for LEED with more than 26 million GSM certified during the year.

Greenwashing: Perception vs reality

Cumulatively, India’s overall projects under LEED stand at 1,649 buildings with a total of 46.2 million GSM. But there’s a catch.

“The perception of ‘green’ and ‘smart’ is governed by a larger marketing strategy which is at play. Building a south-facing glass structure, which almost triples your air conditioning requirements, and then setting up a sewage treatment plant is not ‘green’. Can a high-rise building with a central AC system be sustainable?” Joshi asked. 

These ratings are given on paper where the proposed building design, chosen material, etc. are shown and certified. The project is then advertised as green while it is being constructed. However, the general observation is that the promised performance may not go on for all the years that the building is functional, informed Grover. 

Mostly, consumers understand ‘green’ differently. Their idea of green translates literally to green cover in and around the property. Buildings are often sold with graphics of lush trees surrounding the apartments, promising fresh air and natural surroundings. But this is far from the green technical aspects that go in building sustainably.

“For projects beyond a certain built up area, environmental impact assessment (EIA) is done. For example, if you go beyond a certain threshold, EIA norms say that you must have a 100% wastewater recycling plant or organic waste treatment inside your compound. A lot of developers may advertise it for their projects, but it is actually mandatory for them. So, it’s not that you are going for excellence, you are actually doing the bare minimum that is required by the law,” said Grover. 

There’s a need to clearly define what ‘green’ is and to bridge this gap so that consumers can make an informed decision. We know that drastic cuts in emissions are required to stand up to the rising climate crisis. Greater incentives and stricter regulations to build sustainably and clearly defining what it actually means can go a long way. Building green and sustainably can result in significant drop in energy requirement, promote decarbonising energy supply and result in conserving our scarce resources.  

Part I – Green housing in urban India is no walk in the park

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