Monthly Archives: November 2014

Builders need to introspect

We need to reduce the embodied energy in all constructions and also cut construction costs.

picture-91Are we ready for some bad news? The acclaimed guru of spiritualty, Thich Nat Han, recently opined that in the next hundred years, major catastrophe will occur to human civilisation. People who till recently refused to believe in the theory of climate change have changed to become believers. The slogan of three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — has not picked up as much as expected. Just as the preparations are on for the climate change CoP (Conference of Parties) at Lima, parts of U.S. and Russia are reeling under unseasonal cold wave. Even Hollywood is producing movies like Interstellar, based on the hypothesis that some day in future humans would have consumed Earth’s resources, leaving it dry and dusty, researching to migrate to other planets. And here in south India, we have just witnessed the most unpredictable monsoon of recent years.

We all are aware of unabated production of goods, which demand complimentary spaces and services, all of which require advanced infrastructure, besides global communication. Facilitating this trend leads to increased movement of money across sectors, ushering monetary prosperity to those who are part of this cycle. To generate such money, Earth’s resources are increasingly consumed, creating imbalance in the ecological cycle. Simply stated, to restore the balance, we need to reduce production. Speaking from the construction industry, which majorly contributes and also benefits from the growth, the first step could be to reduce the embodied energy in all constructions. Simultaneously, we need to reduce the construction costs, energy consumption and life cycle costs.

However, this would mitigate the problem only nominally, for the hunger for more production would still force the construction industry to toe the line of global economy.

Growth-based economic models get pushed and supported by all those who benefit from it, and incidentally most of them are in decisive positions in society. Those who suffer from the inequity are not in dominant positions to reverse the trends. Given this contradictory situation, the real solution would lie in individual resolutions to reduce personal purchases, stop accumulating goods, avoiding unnecessary activities and try living without what we really need.

In a rapidly urbanising India, some of these ideas may sound impractical. With millions of Indians, especially the younger generation, aspiring to live a global lifestyle, it is expected that production, consumption, waste generation and energy depletion will increase exponentially. At present we just do not have any meaningful strategy to shelter half of Indians in cities by 2030, leave alone face the other ecological crises. Adding to this, the present national mood appears to be in production, for marketing them anywhere in the world, just like China has been doing. While charting this road map, we also need to realise the environmental implications of increased production, the way money market will play a larger role and how higher monetary affordability would fuel the hunger for greater consumption.

No wonder, Thich Nat Han is predicting a bleak future.

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Why continuous growth?

Instead of consuming resources exponentially, we must be judicious in our needs and stretch the available resources forever.

22bgp-greensens_22_2216119eThe idea of quantitative growth appears to be a human invention, where we calculate how much the GDP has increased every year, company profits raise every quarter and shop sales go up every month. Within a few hundred years after the industrial revolution and a few decades following globalisation, growth has become the core of everything, the way it was never perceived by nature for millions of years.

Let us look at this simple example. The barber in any small village will get nearly the same number of customers every month, say about 200 villagers in a month. He may occasionally increase his charges to match the inflation, but in no way his income is going to raise every quarter or year. Yet, with diligent planning, he manages his family needs and lives happily. A dentist may become famous getting increased number of patients every month, but as an individual, the doctor has a limit to how many can be treated every day. A sweet shop in a small town may produce the same quantity of sweets every day to sell them by night, where the owner may stay content about a settled life, apparently without growth the way we are talking today.

We are talking about a system which does not aspire to grow large but maintains the output in service, production or marketing at a stable pace. If this output balances the income with expenses and savings, life can be smooth without any tensions. The problem starts when we aspire to earn more, which demands that we produce more goods or expand our service network, hence directly or indirectly consume more of Earth’s resources. Of course, we justify the need for increased income against the costs of buying a site, going on a holiday, family wedding, medical treatment or buying a new car.

Lack of concern

However we also know that expenditure meets the income, hence no income appears to be adequate as our consumption also increases. The difference between need, greed and comforts fade into a hazy background. Today, we have thousands of individuals with such surplus income they do not even know what to do with. As such, the market comes with ideas to help them spend, without any concern for depleting resources.

Can there be an approach that resists the idea of continuous growth? Steady state economy is one such idea, which suggests a stable source of income, adequate for basic living as per the needs of every family. It does not advocate that a poor person should continue so, instead get an equitable opportunity to earn the basics. What the steady state may hope for is minimising the chances of surplus income in the hands of a few.

This theory of steady state economy gains importance today, as we are consuming earth’s resources exponentially. If we are judicious in our needs, services and productions, the available resources can be stretched for ever, lest the generations ahead of us be counted in numbers.

Economics of consumption

Because of our extravagant lifestyle, natural resources are getting reduced to waste and greenhouse gases, resulting in increased climate change.

1332256798-american-average-food-consumption3There is a greater awareness today than ever before about a possibly doomed future if we do not change our lifestyle. As such, many people today wish to lead an alternative life, but they too often express helplessness, being part of a larger system. This larger system appears to be oriented towards greater consumption and waste, hence the contradiction between individual intentions and collective action.

This micro economy is actually controlled by the macro economics of the whole state. Generally termed as capitalist mode of economy, it gained popularity when the cold war between the USA and USSR died down, and has now become worldwide during our globalising times.

In simpler terms, production and consumption are the key activities of this mode of economics, which generates profits in the process.

While many people within the production, marketing and service sector have become wealthy, equally many who are outside it have become poorer, though experts claim that the trickle down effect would enhance the lives of the deprived sector as well.

The reality has become harsher than any theory has predicted till date, with no proof to say that people have become happier over the decades.

Instead the hunger for more, need for the newer, irritation over the existing and craving for the special have grown exponentially.

Who is behind this collective phenomenon of consumption? What is the idea behind a new product or service from a company? Who is driving this rat race towards an endangered future? We may blame the theory called market economy and may claim helplessness against the collective trends, but let us realise, it is we the individuals who have formed it all and safeguarding it all.

Despite the capitalist economic model dominating us, if we wish, individually we can live a need-based life and achieve low carbon footprint.

There are many luxuries we can avoid, reduce air travel, minimise air conditioning, choose judicious products, use objects till the end of their economic life, avoid buying the new unless the old is not useable at all and live with local products.

LOOKS, LIKES AND THE LIFE CYCLE

We appreciate alternative construction ideas but never implement them in our constructions.

01bgp-greensens_01_2181831eWhat stops the widespread application of eco-friendly designs? Why do we see green technologies far and few? Why do the alternative ideas always stay as the alternative?

It is strange to realise that a major reason for this state of affairs does not lie in architecture or engineering, but in human psychology! We all tend to be impulsively judgmental bypassing a studied reaction and pass shallow comments, without thinking deep enough on the issues facing us. Sustainable architecture with alternative ideas tends to seriously suffer from this tendency. Unless we learn to recognise the true value and significance of designing with nature, our present habit of building structures unmindful of its design implications on ecology will continue. Of course, this note of caution also applies to the way global lifestyle is evolving; climate is changing and threatening the very survival of human beings.

Another equally important trait is our dependence on the looks, even while we write and give public lecture on how looks can be deceiving! So, if one rejects an ecologically meaningful material, it may not be the problem of the material itself, but of the building owner who dislikes it because of the looks. Quite often, we come across people appreciating others’ houses with alternative ideas, but for them, build a conventional structure. Why?

Appreciating the other is a standard human act, the way our society is constructed, but building for ourselves is a projection of an idea – the image of the architecture, social prestige of living in a type of a house, apprehensions in treading different paths, fear of what others would say, the courage to do what the others are not doing and such others. Somewhere in this hybrid context, the eco ideas get lost.

Also, there certainly are people who find it difficult to accept the alternatives solely on the argument of green or sustainable or whatsoever.

There are complex relationships between materials, construction, energy and environment in every kind of design option and expression, so it will be unfair to summarily rule out any approach without studying it.

A house may sport a clean, classy and costly look, but if designing with nature has presided over all other criteria, focusing on principles of natural light, ventilation, space and materials, it can be credited with eco-friendliness. In contrast, an apparently rustic looking building may be disastrous in embodied energy, life cycle costs, wastes generated or recyclability. The challenge is to look beneath the skin, a litmus test that can be applied to many of our air conditioned glass and aluminium buildings claiming to be green.

There are many debates about the ideal sustainable approach, which need to be clarified as we go along. It may not be just one path, but many to choose from. All that we need at this crossroad dilemma is not to be dogmatic about anything unless we verify the facts, and accept the fact that harmony with nature is more important than hurting nature, even if it comes at some discomfort for us.