‘Affordable housing can be green too’

Published by firstgreen on

Linking sustainability with quality rather than pricing can create opportunities for upcoming housing projects, especially since India’s socio-economic milieu warrants different perceptions of affordability. The underlying idea is that people should be able to maintain comfortable living standards within affordable sustainable housing.

At the Paris Climate Conference, India pledged to reduce the greenhouse emission (GHE) intensity of its gross domestic product by 33-35% over 2005 levels by 2030. One of the key sectors that need to be factored in to meet this target is the real estate. India’s building stock is expected to double in the next 15 years and buildings are expected to emerge as the largest electricity consuming sector in the country. It is crucial that new buildings in the country are designed to be energy efficient and thermally comfortable.

In an interview with Hindustan Times, Sanjay Seth,CEO of GRIHA Council, speaks on why buyers and developers are still shying away from building and buying green homes, how to make affordable housing green; and what makes the GRIHA rating tool different from others.

KD: What is current status of the green building sector in India?

SS: A minuscule part of India’s built infrastructure is green buildings. However, one must understand that bulk of our infrastructure is yet to be built. So there is huge opportunity to make sure that we move on the correct green path. The Indian Green Building Council started with a modest 20,000 sq. ft. green built-up area in India in 2003. By 2019-end, there were more than 5,723 green building projects registered under it, accounting for over 7.09 billion sq. ft. But most of these projects that seek the green tag are commercial spaces. Only 5-7% of the green building stock is of housing projects.

KD: Why is there a slow uptake on green buildings?

SS: This is because green buildings are perceived to be more expensive. This is unfortunate. I agree that some elements of a green building (for example, UPVC windows) are expensive. But when a building is planned, architects and civil engineers discuss the energy requirement, for example the number of air conditioners required. But once you plan for a natural lighting, better insulated walls, UPVC windows and solar panels, the energy requirement will come down. Once the requirement for connected load comes down, the back-up electricity costs will also come down. Then, if you have water harvesting, the water costs will also come down, and also recharging will help improve groundwater levels also.

The life of a building, as per law, is 66 years. But the reduced payback period will be extended throughout the building’s life. People don’t want to appreciate that the building will pay back for the rest of its life. In addition, also remember the electricity tariff keeps going up every year on the basis of two parts: fixed cost and fuel cost. But such fluctuation will not affect the owner of a green building.

Second, the energy efficiency building code is new. When it was introduced in 2007, the code was used for the commercial sector first because MPs thought that there would be a cost in going green and they would not want to burden the common man with additional costs. And they said that as and when there is a greater uptake for all this, they will release the regulation for the residential sector.

Although there is a regulatory framework in place, constructions are a state subject. So because of the urban local body by-laws, the implementation has to be at the state level. That becomes a problem and dilutes the effort.

KD: Can older buildings be made green by retrofitting?

SS: Retrofitting has a very limited option. You can buy gadgets which are more energy efficient but you can’t break down the house to make it green. If you want to go that extra mile, you can probably change your windows to double glazed. But options are limited. It’s always best to weave in green options when your build the house.

KD: Who should be the drivers?

SS: The consumers, you and me, should be the drivers. Developers will never give you [green options]. The energy efficiency labelling programme showed us that once a few manufacturers agree, others will follow because nobody wanted to be left out. With the label, you are empowering the consumer to take an informed decision. Then consumers started demanding energy efficient appliances. Once the manufacturers realise the demand then they will act. Once that happens, then the regulator can further strengthen the benchmarks. Our focus should be to sensitise the consumers and expand the market. If we as consumers start demanding green options there is no way that any developer will not give them.

KD: The government is pushing for affordable housing. How can the developers ensure that these buildings are also green?

SS: In India, access to affordable housing is vital for achieving various social objectives, including poverty reduction. In 2012, urban housing shortage stood at 18.8 million units and is expected to grow at 6.6% to 34.1 million units by 2022. Unfortunately, popular perception associates sustainability with expensive technological advances. Affordability, however, lies at the very core of sustainability. Common sense entails that if something cannot be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished or recycled, it should be restricted or removed from production.

The “GRIHA for Affordable Housing” rating variant was designed specifically for this purpose, and outlines at length how factors such as climate responsive design help reduce energy demand (and by extension, the electricity bills incurred by residents) at no additional capital cost. GRIHA AH strives to break the myth of expensive green buildings and lays emphasis on cost-effective sustainability measures. India is a tropical country with a requirement for space cooling for much of the year in order to maintain bearable indoor temperatures, yet affordable housing is often conceived as being required to merely provide the very basics in terms of shelter and security for the economically-challenged sections of society. Unlike their counterparts in commercial or high-end residential projects, the occupants of affordable housing do not have access to expensive air conditioning equipment. GRIHA has always emphasised the importance of no-cost design interventions for enhancing performance and meeting thermal comfort through the manipulation of architecture and building material. Through the AH rating system, GRIHA envisions sustainable affordable housing as habitable spaces where the occupants have both the opportunity and the desire to reside beyond the short-term, which is conducive to their socio-economic development and respectful of the natural environment.

Linking sustainability with quality rather than pricing can create opportunities for upcoming housing projects, especially since India’s socio-economic milieu warrants different perceptions of affordability. The underlying idea is that people should be able to maintain comfortable living standards within affordable sustainable housing.