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Being stingy with energy for sustainable habitats

Being stingy with energy for sustainable habitats
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First Published: Wed, May 05 2010. 09 05 PM IST

Balancing growth: Griha chief executive Siva Kishan wants to make the green rating agency self-sufficient by 2012. The Griha rating system has been developed exclusively for India. Ramesh Pathania/Min
Balancing growth: Griha chief executive Siva Kishan wants to make the green rating agency self-sufficient by 2012. The Griha rating system has been developed exclusively for India. Ramesh Pathania/Min
Updated: Wed, May 05 2010. 09 05 PM IST
New Delhi: Very often, during Siva Kishan’s meetings with his clients, perplexing little riddles of philosophy arise, sounding like koans from Zen Buddhism. Here’s one: When is an indoor light really an outdoor light?
Balancing growth: Griha chief executive Siva Kishan wants to make the green rating agency self-sufficient by 2012. The Griha rating system has been developed exclusively for India. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
The lights belong to the upcoming new terminals of the Chennai airport, and the question is prompted by the project’s architect, Charanjit S. Shah, and its consulting engineer, Vikram Kukreja. Hanging as they do from the building’s eaves, the lights engender some doubt: Should they meet the energy requirements for indoor or outdoor lights? On the one hand, they are a part of the building’s superstructure; on the other, they are designed to illuminate the walkways just outside the terminal.
As per habit, Kishan, the chief executive of Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (Griha), allows his research associate Apoorv Vij to field the question. At these meetings, Vij makes the presentations, and he is a forceful and articulate presence. “They light the outdoors, so they’re outdoor lights,” he says finally and firmly—and as he must do so often in these conferences, he ends the debate there.
Other hairs also present themselves to be split. When is a tree not a tree? (Vij: “If it’s sustained without human intervention and watering, then it’s a tree.” Shah: “So a shrub is a tree, correct?”) When is a green lawn also a paved area? (Vij: “When there’s a car on it. If there’s even one car, we count it as a paved area.”)
These seemingly trivial details matter. Their resolution will add to or subtract from Griha’s 100-point scoring system, which will determine how high a green rating the Chennai airport can receive. This is merely the pre-feasibility meeting, a chance for Shah and Kukreja to get acquainted with Griha’s scale, and to see what they’d have to do to score a high rating. The lengthy process of actually obtaining and retaining that rating, lasting more than a year, still lies ahead.
The Chennai airport is an uncommon case for Griha, being a project where construction has already begun. Largely, Griha begins to work with builders even as blueprints are drawn up, determining how energy-efficient their buildings are.
In January, the decree went out that new government buildings must be rated at least three Griha stars out of five—a benediction that has made Griha’s scale an informally “official” one, a small new front in the war against climate change.
Unlike the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) green rating agency, Kishan observes, Griha is wholly independent, unallied with either government or industry. At first, this sounds disingenuous—Griha was spun out of The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), after all, with funds from the ministry of new and renewable energy—but it is certainly registered as a non-governmental organization. “My mandate is to make Griha self-sufficient by 2012,” Kishan says.
After its founding within Teri in 2005, Griha progressed slowly. The first project it registered, the Hitkarni College of Engineering project in Jabalpur, ran into a crunch of time and resources, so it met deadlines by sacrificing its green ambitions. The recession slowed other projects or scuppered them altogether. The first Griha rating was awarded only in January 2009, to (aptly enough) a new environmental sciences building at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur; the building received a full five-star rating.
By contrast, CII has certified 75 green buildings since 2001, using the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating developed by the US Green Building Council. But Kishan, who worked at CII before joining Griha last year, argues that LEED ratings can’t simply be imported and applied to Indian buildings, even with the small tweaks that CII has made.
“The LEED system judges only active systems like air conditioning, and not every Indian building is air-conditioned,” Kishan says. “So a rating has to take passive systems into account also—things like tree cover, the orientation of the building, etc. LEED ignores all this.” The Griha system, on the other hand, has been developed exclusively for India, incorporating within it the government’s Energy Conservation Building Code. Kishan likes to see, in this system, a connection to an older tradition of building design.
The mid-2000s were difficult times for green builders. “We’d go to a manufacturer and ask about recycled content, and he’d tell us: ‘Don’t worry, sir. It’s completely virgin material’,” Kishan recalls. “They didn’t get that we actually wanted recycled content. But that has started to change over the last couple of years.”
Still, the number of buildings applying to go green is a “trickle”, says Ajay Mathur, the director general of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency. He performs the following rough calculation to illustrate: “We add about 20 million sq. m of commercial space every year in India, which is roughly 200 million sq. ft. In the last three years, we must have added at least 500 million sq. ft. But of this, only 10 million sq. ft must be LEED- or Griha-rated.”
The ratio works out to a stunted 2%, but even in the US, Mathur says, it cannot be much higher: “Maybe 5%?” He’d really like to see that figure inch closer to 20%, but he doubts that the motivation to go green is strong enough. “Builders should want high ratings because that will increase the market value of their constructions,” he says. “We need a market for these attributes, and that doesn’t really exist yet.”
That is the reason, though, that Shah applied to Griha to rate the Chennai airport—the first green rating that his firm has sought. “If you have a rating, it’ll give you some mileage for the project,” Shah says. “I still have to completely understand it, and sometimes the irony of designing an air-conditioned building and then making it green does hit me.”
The Chennai airport project illustrates the fundamental conflict that Shah notes, with sadness, in the green rating process: Just as Indian architects attempt to produce world-class designs, the pressure to go green constrains those ambitions. The Chennai airport, for instance, is to be an edifice with soaring glass walls, in the manner of airports the world over; the glass will, in fact, be manufactured specially by Saint-Gobain SA, just down the road from the airport. But while the heat trapped by the glass may well be welcome in wintry London or Berlin, it will only hike up air-conditioning expenses in Chennai. Shah knows this well —and yet he’s reluctant to accept any criticism about his beloved glass walls.
The other niggle in the process is what Kishan calls the “documentation”—materials such as technical reports or photographs that clients must upload onto the Griha website to support their quest for a rating. Third-party experts then examine these documents to judge how well the project meets specifications.
“Most of the time, we find ourselves handholding people through that,” Kishan says. He cites an upcoming Police Training School building in Tasgaon, Maharashtra. “With them, for example, the documents weren’t up to the mark. So my colleague had to guide them, saying: ‘Here you need a report. Here you need a photograph’, and so on.”
It also takes some convincing for project owners to believe that spending on a green building—preserving landscape or using the right cement or recycling water or optimizing design—will save money in the longer run. In 2008, a study estimated that LEED’s green regimen costs an average of $2.43 (Rs109.10) per sq. ft, “demonstrating that implementation is not expensive, especially in comparison to cost savings”. There are no equivalent figures yet for Griha, but savings exist, nonetheless.
As the pre-feasibility meeting with Shah and Kukreja winds down, Vij crunches the numbers for an approximation of what the Chennai airport would score if realistic green measures were implemented: 74 out of 100, enough for a three-star rating.
“That’s not bad at all,” Vij says, because airports are traditionally guzzlers of power and models of environmental incorrectness. “You could even work very comfortably towards a two-star rating.”
“Oh no, we should aim high,” Shah says. “It’s like we should target going to an IIT. Even if we end up going to a small-town engineering college, we should start by targeting the IIT. We need to target a three- or four-star rating.”
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First Published: Wed, May 05 2010. 09 05 PM IST