If I am building a new home or office, are there one or two building materials I can cut down on and get a greener building without reducing comfort?
One of the main principles of green design is to cut back on the amount of materials needed or judicious use of materials to achieve maximum benefit. But for the greenest payback with the least effort, focus on the reduction of metals, plastics, glass- and cement-based products. They (represent) the highest carbon output as they are all high-embodied energy products. There are also alternative products made of recycled or low-grade primary materials such as wood particle products for doors, windows and panelling, fly-ash blocks, micro-concrete and compressed earth blocks.
Are there specific ways in which we can improve the use of daylight in our homes and offices?
Natural lighting is best for the biorhythm of the body, but in the tropics one has to be careful...daylight brings heat and glare into homes and office(s) if windows are not designed properly. The best way is to design your window with side and top overhangs to match the range of solar angles and minimize the direct rays entering the space. To get more diffused light (without strong shadows) for better living and working conditions, one could use lighting shelves (as shown above) that allow light to bounce off white (or light-coloured) surfaces before allowing it into the building. This also prevents rooms from heating up.
What are the lifestyle changes I have to think about before designing or constructing a green building?
The first would be reducing the carbon footprint of your life with a review of your transportation mode, energy consumption and diet. With planning, your daily activities could be tailored to minimize distance(s) travelled, besides using a fuel-efficient mode of transport. The energy consumption in lighting, cooling and other daily activities can be reduced with energy-efficient products. Even without living a frugal lifestyle, you could easily cut out 20-25% of your energy and water consumption with appropriate climatic choices such as light cotton clothing in summer, operable windows and insulated roofs and physical activity versus passive entertainment systems.
What are the building materials and techniques you think have the most promise for a green future?
Of course the ideal building material for the future is carbon-based, like wood. Wood is the best material to trap the carbon in the atmosphere and lock it away. Of course, given the rapid depletion of global forest cover for fuel, furniture, food and housing, it would seem oxymoronic to use wood. So we need to come up with ways to capture atmospheric carbon and lock it into building materials that mimic nature. While the world waits for someone (to) invent such a material, the best promise is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel(s), which is nothing but prehistoric carbon locked away in the carboniferous era, making our life possible on this planet (and which we are now releasing back into the atmosphere...)
Suhasini Ayer-Guigan is an architect with Auroville Design Consultants, Puducherry.