Monthly Archives: July 2014
There are two terminologies that are going hand in hand in the world of urban indoors today – air conditioning (AC) and indoor air quality (IAQ). The first refers to a great technological achievement on our part where we can control the natural indoor air to any temperature, humidity, ventilation or speed of flow that we desire. In total contrast, the second refers to a human failure in understanding what is a healthy indoor and ensuring it.
Construction chemicals are among the top offenders in interiors, mainly in paints, plasticizers, adhesives and varied kinds of plastic-based products, which slowly release toxic vapours into the air. These volatile compound-based pollutants result in adverse effects on the health of the occupants. Problems like headache, respiratory infections, allergies and nausea are routinely reported, though they may not sound like a major disease. Natural materials have been so dominantly replaced by artificial options today, even indoor experts are struggling to find newer ways of ensuring IAQ. Often people believe air conditioning is the solution, but possibly it is among the problems.
Among the senior consultants of air conditioning technology in India, Surendra Shah once comically said that air conditioning ensures 100 per cent cold air and 0 per cent fresh air. Quoting this line here is not to negate the idea of air conditioning which has become part of our lives even in villages now, but to realise what evils have we created in our pursuit of comforts and luxury. We may have to continue to promote it, but need to realise its negative implications and resolve them at the earliest.
The fact is air conditioning collects the heat from the warm stale air, cools it through systems of condensing and compressing to re-cool the air again. Fresh air does not come in like in a room with windows. The refrigeration system does not eliminate harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide. As such, if ventilation is ineffective, air quality also goes down. Majority of conditioned interiors, unfortunately, lack effective air change systems, breeding unhealthy chemical and microbial contaminations.
How does one identify the unhealthy conditions on interiors? We cannot be running lab tests on the air every week, but there could be symptoms like odour, signs of moisture, discolouring, fungus, molds, dirt accumulation or dusty surfaces that would shelter microbes. Carbon dioxide levels can be checked by simple equipment and detailed investigations can be undertaken if IAQ appears to going down.
Unfortunately, we do not have stringent standards for indoor air quality in India and no institutional systems to assess them. Even if we introduce them all, finally it is people who will have to comply with them. May be we can arrive at them and people will comply with Indoor Air Quality, but still better would be to increasingly live with nature, eliminating the root problem.
Let us imagine a hotel lobby or an auditorium built 50 years ago, with the most stylish interior designing possible in those days. Let us also imagine a comparable lobby or hall today, which by default will be a total contrast to the interior of yore, since we would not have repeated the same period style. Now, let us count the range and variety of materials between the two case studies.
Possibly, there will be 50 times more variety and design options today; however that does not mean we are more efficient, happier or successful. On the contrary, we could be 50 times more energy guzzling or unhealthy.
The range of materials for indoors is increasing at such a rapid rate that it is impossible to keep track of them. With globalisation, large numbers of new materials were introduced to Indian markets, mostly related to finishing, interior designing, toilet fixtures and electrical gadgets. Some of them were near-natural or minimally processed ones, but a majority were completely manufactured, often made to look like the natural. Today we can get granite as thin as a board, paint that looks like stainless steel and wood veneers that can put the actual wood to shame.
Before we pat our backs for all this, let us look at the flip side. We moved away from a floor-based lifestyle where we were using the floor for sitting, eating, sleeping and working, to a furniture-based lifestyle where we need woodwork for every task like cooking, storing or studying. This meant we end up filling interior spaces with furniture, items and objects so much, we need to make them all from many components like wood, glass, paints, hardware, adhesives, varied surface finishes and such others.
From industrial set-ups
The majority of interior items are manufactured in an industrial set-up, consuming high energy and discharging toxic wastes to nature. They are transported long distances and by the time reach a site, they would have substantially added to their embodied energy counts! Once in an interior execution site, they are assembled primarily by adhesives, finished by paints and touched upon by polishes. This of course, we can see.
What we cannot see is the emission of VOC (volatile organic compounds) like formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethane. Look at these facts: dust mites make home in carpets; unreachable cracks and corners shelter microorganisms; there could be molds due to excessive humidity; bacterial fungus formation is very common; indoor fabrics contaminate the air; our daily use items may emit toxicity; human activities lead to particulate matters; and equipment generates gases by fuel combustion.
All these except the chemical emissions were there in the past, yet people have survived them all. Indoor pollutants and contaminants in non-air conditioned buildings do not affect us much, thanks to daylight and natural ventilation, however poor they may be. It is the enclosed air conditioned spaces which suffer more, however good the technology is. Anyway, in either case, we need to relook at our unnatural indoors.
The much discussed topic of green and sustainability has somehow focused more on construction and architecture, largely ignoring interior design – both as an ideology and a profession. No wonder eco-friendly and natural approaches are not much sought after in commercial or hospitality sectors, though they are being professed and executed on a small scale by some people concerned about our planet. Also, there are misconceptions about interior designing itself.
Interior designing is not just about designing movable furniture and immovable storage and planning the spaces for them. It virtually decides how the inside of a building gets perceived and how specific tasks get performed inside a built space. The indoor light quality is controlled by the design; air conditioning is suggested to compliment the activities; designs are evolved to suit varied purposes like shop, showroom, office, library, lounge, conference etc., and finishes are decided for all the materials ranging from carpets to false ceilings. In essence, the space inside the four blank walls of a room can be completely transformed through interior design.
Yes, theoretically such a transformation sounds feasible, but at what cost? Do we realise the humongous waste we are leaving behind? What about the harmful chemicals we unleash into the insides and make the indoor air unhealthy, especially in air conditioned contexts? Today sick building syndrome is much discussed, for all the harmful effects it has.
Everyone loves luxurious interiors, but rarely does one calculate its embodied energy and bother to rate it for its green components. We notice in commercial interiors, hotels, restaurants and such others that promoters do not mind spending huge money, for finally all the costs are passed on to the customers through service charges or product pricing. Accordingly, it is pretty common to see today design of the interiors costing more than the construction of the building itself. To facilitate recovering the costs, product manufacturers raise the price, but offer greater profit margins to the traders, thereby creating ripple effects of different kinds. High-end hotels too keep their tariffs high and then offer trade discounts, rent free conference halls or allure people through membership.
On a positive note, the profession of interior design has evolved well and has come to stay in India to everyone’s appreciation, both for pragmatic designs and attractive aesthetics. During recent years, it has combined world-class finish with Indian ideas, exploring a wide range of materials. Indian designers are presenting their projects at national and international conferences with much acclaim. It is now time to explore cost-effective and sustainable approaches as well.
We also see millions simply inhabiting rooms without much attention to interior design as suggested above. It does not mean we can dispense with designing interiors, but raise questions like how much of it we need and how to design green interiors.
For some readers, the title ‘Down to Earth’ may sound very familiar. Congratulations, for you could be among the readers of the fortnightly magazine by that name published by the “Center for Science and Environment”.
The Center was started in 1980 by Anil Agarwal and the journal Down to Earth in 1992, to explore science and environmental issues, hoping to fill a gap in data, information, research and advocacy, which was then minimal. It is a matter of pride for India to have had a visionary like Anil, to launch a platform for ecological issues, much before the world woke up to the realities.
We have been discussing the fact that if individuals are a part of the ecological problems, they also need to be a part of the ecological solutions. However, the environmental problems today being projected at the global scale appear so humongous, most individuals tend to shrug off the possible effectiveness of their roles in reversing the damage and reduce climate change. Hence the need for collective and organisational set-ups, which can support the individual endeavours.
To this end, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) can claim a pioneering position, informing people about traditional ideas, living with natural resources, advocating public interests, suggesting governmental policies and such others.
It not only researches to collate data, but also creates awareness, publishes books, offers reports, provides training, releases the annual State of India’s Environment Report, shares knowledge, proposes sustainable solutions, and has strongly contested debates between development and sustainability or between resources and consumption.
Unfortunately for the construction industry, there is no single resource centre or publication for the sustainable alternative ideas, as such prospective owners and promoters collect the available data from varied sources in the limited time they can spare. Interestingly, this often includes conflicting information finally resulting in the owners playing safe, adopting the conventional methods.
Only in the high energy consuming, large public projects we find some attempt to reduce energy consumption, that too mainly focused at water and electricity. However, the quantum of construction for homes, schools, shops and small offices far outnumber the few buildings that may calculate their energy scores or seek green building ratings.
While the savings due to few well-designed buildings may appear impressive, their figures may slide into oblivion when we consider the fact that millions of buildings are being built in the conventional methods.
This is why we need more and more institutions to promote the alternative ideas in the construction field. And journals that not only focus on architectural design and building construction, but periodically cover ecologically related matters that would be a guide to anyone with green sense.