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A school community learns to tread lightly

A school community learns to tread lightly
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First Published: Wed, Apr 29 2009. 09 09 PM IST

 Green lessons: 1. An open courtyard built around the preserved foundation walls of the old high school building; 2. A classroom with automatic daylight and AC controls; 3. Open-air lockers and roofto
Green lessons: 1. An open courtyard built around the preserved foundation walls of the old high school building; 2. A classroom with automatic daylight and AC controls; 3. Open-air lockers and roofto
Updated: Wed, Apr 29 2009. 09 09 PM IST
I came to India almost four years ago as a Fulbrighter to research sustainable design and planning. Delhi is not exactly known as a model of good urban environmental management. But I found important lessons on sustainability in Delhi’s apparent dysfunctionality.
Green lessons: 1. An open courtyard built around the preserved foundation walls of the old high school building; 2. A classroom with automatic daylight and AC controls; 3. Open-air lockers and rooftop solar panels; 4. Salvaged and local Aravalli stone used for cladding; 5. Traditional jaali screens that shade and ventilate stairwells. Photographs by Madhu Kapparath
Delhi forces you, whether you like it or not, to see the full texture of urban life, how the threads are woven together. Slums start out as construction colonies for high-rises; rickshaws are getting a new lease of life as cheap and efficient feeders for the new Metro stations; vegetables grown in the toxic sludge along the banks of the Yamuna end up on the linen-draped dining tables of south Delhi.
‘Both/and’ architecture
Sustainable design is about the “both/and” of cities, buildings and ways of living. It is about context, the interactions of human and natural ecosystems. Yet, too often, we focus our environmental concerns only on the stuff of buildings. We applaud the use of local materials, high-performance glazing and natural daylight. But we miss the bigger picture: distorted and unsustainable land use patterns that encourage endless sprawl, depletion of water resources, destruction of habitat and wasteful energy generation and distribution.
So it’s heartening to come across one of those rare “both/and” projects. The American Embassy School (AES) in New Delhi decided to demolish and rebuild its high school building last year. AES was originally designed by Joseph Stein on what was, in 1952, a rocky outcrop of the Aravallis in Chanakyapuri. He shaped local stone and landscape into architecture of elemental form and beauty.
To conjure the spirit of Stein into a new building, the school hired Oregon-based architect Derek Goad and New Delhi-based design firm Arcop Associates Pvt. Ltd. The design maintains Stein’s aesthetic vocabulary in the use of local Aravalli stone. Window jaalis and overhangs provide shade from the intense sun. The building takes a hybrid approach to sustainability, combining traditional and modernity, low-tech and high-tech.
A green machine
Stein’s organic design philosophy, captured in the title of his biography by Stephen White, Building in the Garden (OUP India, now out of print), is also the starting point for the new building. But it doesn’t end there. In fact, AES has considered big-picture issues too, such as its energy source. Electricity for the campus is produced by natural gas-fuelled generators, so pollution and carbon emissions are far less than the typical diesel generators that bellow 24 hours a day in places such as Gurgaon.
Even more important from an energy-efficiency point of view, the five main campus buildings are cooled through “co-generation”, in which the waste heat from the generators is converted into chilled water through a vapour absorption machine. The air conditioning is thus an almost entirely free by-product of their electricity generation. This super-efficient HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system, combined with other green building features, will result in the new building using half to two-thirds less energy than if it had been conventionally designed.
Having ingeniously created almost free cooling, AES could have squandered the benefits by over-building or over air conditioning. AES resists the trend of so many “modern” buildings that attempt to hermetically seal people inside. Instead, in a tribute to Stein and vernacular Indian architecture, it lets nature in through deep-shaded open corridors and daylight-flooded classrooms. The octagonal central courtyard is symbolically organized around the exposed foundation of the old building, and it’s almost as if the new building had emerged phoenix-like from the very rock of the old.
Measuring impact
The sustainable design strategies do not stop at the doorstep of the high school. The leadership of the school pictured the green measures in the new building in the holistic environmental context of the campus. My firm was hired to help measure the total carbon footprint of the school in terms of not only the construction and operation of the buildings, but the other activities of the community that used them. With the help of the school’s student environmental group, we conducted surveys on the types of activities students and teachers engage in, the clothes they wear, how they travel and the food they eat.
Like a city in microcosm, the sum of the human activities and interactions in a school community have a ripple effect on the environment. The advantage of using the total carbon emissions of the user/resident community—rather than just the building—as a yardstick of sustainability is that it makes the personal political. Your decision to switch on your AC releases greenhouse gases from power plants hundreds of kilometres away. Individual behaviour is therefore inextricably linked to public policy decisions about the environment.
Lifestyle choice
So at AES, the seemingly innocuous decision of every student (or family) to go to school by car or take the bus had the single largest impact on the carbon footprint of the school as a whole. One full quarter of the total carbon footprint of the school is accounted for in the use of private cars that shuttle kids to and from school. A child travelling by car generates about six-and-a-half times more carbon dioxide per year than his classmate riding in the AES school bus.
Similarly, the choice of what to eat at the lunch counter has real environmental implications. Non-vegetarian school lunches make up almost half of the total carbon dioxide related to food consumption, because it is highly energy intensive to raise animals. Moreover, the embodied energy used in packaged or imported goods—especially paper in the case of AES—is also an important factor.
The carbon footprint survey has been an eye-opener for the administration. The school is using this new knowledge to raise awareness about environmental issues and motivate change based on hard data. AES is reviewing its transportation system to assess how it can increase bus usage by two-thirds. It is also looking to expand the use of new energy-saving technologies, such as the one in the new building that automatically adjusts cooling and lighting. The food staff is offering more vegetarian options, procuring more local, non-processed ingredients, and using biodegradable utensils. Students too are campaigning to promote recycling and educate peers on sustainable choices.
From green building to green living, AES is learning to walk the environmental talk. Getting on the sustainability path and staying on it is the most important thing.
Kevin Sullivan is the director of Eco3 Design Consultants, a green building and sustainability consulting firm based in New Delhi and Bangalore.
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Mohammed Dilawar, the Sparrow Man of India, offers tips on bird baths and ways of keeping your winged friends cool through the summer:
• The bath should be in a relatively open space, for instance suspended from a branch with a perching spot nearby so birds can observe the bath before using it and be able to see approaching threats.
• Pedestal bird baths should be stable and high off the ground
• The bath should be in dappled shade so that the water does not become too hot during the day.
• Water must be replaced daily and the bath scrubbed out regularly. However, do not use detergent.
• The bath should be shallow (generally less than 5cm) with a rough base so birds are not at risk of drowning.
— As told to Benita Sen
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First Published: Wed, Apr 29 2009. 09 09 PM IST