Tanmay Tathagat

FuturArc Interview / Mar - Apr 2018

Tanmay Tathagat

by Bhawna Jaimini

Founder, Environmental Design Solutions

BJ: You have been working in the area of Green buildings for over 20 years. How would you assess the impact of Green buildings, as we have come to define them today, on driving actual sustainable development?

TT: The general awareness about Green buildings has definitely increased, but whether this has led to any ‘sustainable’ development is difficult to assess. I can’t really say that the mainstream construction practices have changed, or their environmental impact has reduced. It is tough to make an assessment, especially in a country like India, where we don’t have any standardized baselines to compare a before and after scenario. Green building rating systems only talk about the number of buildings certified or savings achieved in those buildings, we have yet to see an independent assessment of their real impact on the environment. A definite answer to this can only emerge if some empirical studies are done.

However, the intent and awareness of Green buildings are on the rise. The number of certified Green buildings is increasing exponentially every year, but I feel it has yet to have an impact on developers or the majority of the construction sector, which happens in residential areas and outside the metros. So the owners and developers have been misled into thinking that getting a certification is all that is needed to make a building Green. Actual sustainable development will only happen when building design and construction, transportation, urban design, and infrastructure development are all looked at holistically, and the environmental impact of each decision is considered in the process.

BJ: After working on developing Green building rating models for agencies like LEED and GRIHA, do you think there is a successful model for a developing country like India, where only a small fraction of population has access to architects and designers?

TT: Rating systems are only a part of the solution and we still have a long way to go in developing other models that can cater to the diverse context of a country like India. Right now, the number of buildings rated Green is roughly 2 to 3 per cent of the total construction done, starting from tier three cities to big metropolises. Buildings have a strong aspirational value and the rating systems have somehow tapped into it. We see that individual owners are applying for ratings too. The scope and impact of our rating systems, though, is still quite narrow because the approach is still based largely on international practices. But I am hopeful that it will evolve in the future to be more contextual to how most of the country lives and builds. The rating systems have brought in the aspirational value to Green buildings, and we can see developers who typically do not care about the environmental impact being drawn to it because Green ratings now have a marketable value. The certification systems also now have a very strong social component, which pushes developers to follow better health and safety standards, and provide better living arrangements for construction labor. In our country, where labor is treated so poorly, this has helped to impose some checks and balances at least in that small number of projects.

So overall, the rating is a good idea because it sets a framework for evaluating and reducing the impact of construction, and more importantly, engages with the people who own, develop, live or work in these buildings. The rating systems, however, need to be holistic and contextual, and not end up being checklists for getting a
certification.

BJ: Like you said, the rating system has become aspirational but it is still quite narrow in its approach. For example, while one building may be awarded the highest rating for using very little steel and cement in an urban area, there are many buildings in rural parts of India that do not use any steel or cement but are not rated at all. How do we deal with this gap?

TT: Ratings in India are not contextual in that very sense because we still have traditional construction techniques and materials alongside steel, concrete and glass. A rating system can still be developed that looks at the final environmental impact of each one while recognising the relevance of each typology. There are a few rating systems globally that are looking at resource use in this way. In Japan, for example, the CASBEE system rates a building along two parameters of environmental quality and loading, concurrently. The best buildings provide the highest quality at the lowest environmental loading. For example, if you are looking at thermal comfort, a fully air-conditioned building might score high on comfort but will be low on the energy-use scale. At the same time, a building with passive cooling methods might have a lower score on comfort but will be much higher on energy efficiency. In this way you can even compare with a passive building and often get a better rating. We need to develop a model along similar lines for India, which will enable rating systems to be relevant for more people and the way we design, build and operate our buildings.

BJ: A critique that often comes against the concept of Green buildings from your contemporaries is that Green buildings justify consumption. A five-star rated air-conditioning system does not change the fact that a building relies on air conditioning. Do you agree?

TT: Absolutely. A lot of it comes from the way we present the information about environmental impact of a building. You would find Green-rated buildings that claim to offer 40 per cent energy savings, which is great, but the building still uses a lot of energy in absolute terms, and could even be more energy-intensive than other non-rated buildings. This way of presenting figures comes from the West, where there are standardised homogenous benchmarks against which such figures are easily comparable. In India, we don’t have such references, so when we talk about 40 per cent savings, it is easy to be misled. A better way to evaluate would be to state the actual energy use, for example, and not in terms of savings with respect to a hypothetical reference point.

This has been tried to some extent with the GRIHA rating for large developments, where the baseline is set at net-zero impact. So, instead of presenting information as savings with respect to a notional consumed value, the rating presents the real impact. No construction can have zero impact in reality, thus, by setting that as a reference level, one can strive for minimum possible consumption. So, the Green building in itself does not encourage or justify consumption, but the way environmental impacts are assessed or presented are not ideal, and can often be misleading.

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