Author Archives: rajeshkav

Perils of modern living

Air conditioning and refrigeration have direct link to climate crisis and are considered as enemies.

Polders-Grootschermer-Netherlands.jpg.990x0_q80_crop-smartFor millions of years, humans have survived the extremities of nature without conditioning the air. If so, can’t we survive the present climate change without air conditioners? Theoretically yes, but attitudinally difficult, for it’s no more air conditioning that is the challenge, it is the human conditioning.

Air conditioning and refrigeration have direct link to climate crisis and are considered among the enemies of nature. A few decades ago, AC was installed where it was inevitable, but today it is projected as a necessity, which is a myth driven by the consumerist market.

Human settlements across the globe have shown that we can manage with 4 or 40 degree Celsius temperature with minor adjustments in food and clothing, two major means of adapting ourselves to the changing weather. Different civilisations have discovered many other means, including shifting working hours; summer and winter indoor spaces; orientation-based wall thickness; and varied window detailing.

In many ways, human adaptation to weather was akin to those of slumbering animals or leave shedding plants, learning from the animal and survival instincts we all possess. Given this natural phenomenon, it is more important that we adapt to room temperatures and not install air conditioners to force the room to adapt to us.

If millions of Indians are living without AC, it should be possible for the minority few of us also to live so. If we deny this possibility, we get into a trap where the combination of physiological and mental states will ensure we justify the AC. Even if an ecologically aware mind denies it, the body will demand it. The reverse where the mind demanding it even if body could adjust is also true.

The real challenge of summer is not to cool our body with cold rooms and even colder drinks, which only increase the variation between body and atmospheric temperatures. We need to reduce this variation by consuming warmer drinks and keeping the indoor air humid. After all, we cannot air condition the whole city, but can condition the body to adapt.

In case AC is already a habit, we can try modulating indoor humidity, air velocity and room temperatures to minimise damage to environment. Instead of 22 degree of dry cold, 28 degree with increased humidity may be better. If outside temperature is around 40 degrees, indoors at 28-35 could still be fine. Individually, we cannot switch off hotel or office AC, but can avoid the coldest parts, totally avoiding AC elsewhere.

The perils of modern lifestyle are yet to dawn on us. The few who talk about climate in kitty parties are yet to walk the talk. One simple way of doing the walk is to minimise or live without air conditioners.

Air Conditioning is harming nature

It is used everywhere injudiciously, in the name of comfort, increasing resource consumption and waste production.

10bgp-greensensGIF1SLLLO3jpgjpgHuman society has strange habits. When a great idea comes along, we may resist it until the idea wins us over or the idea itself dies. Strangely, when a disastrous product is introduced, even while knowing the harm it is causing, we blindly fall in love with it and promote it.

Look at the mineral water sold in plastic bottles, condemned by subject experts on all fronts like debatable water purity, challenges of waste disposal, and avoidable resource consumption, besides the use-and-throw culture. Yet, these bottles rule us today.

Another equally questionable part of modern civilisation is air conditioned spaces in homes, cars, offices, shops and virtually everywhere. Hyped as one among the greatest innovations of our times, the harm it has done and continuing to do is buried deep, so hardly anyone speaks against it, so everyone seeks it.

This is not to question the very technology of air conditioning, very beneficial at many places from operation theatres in hospitals to large public halls, which cannot be naturally lit and ventilated.

Technology of refrigeration has enabled newer avenues, be it in preservation or in food for space travel. The problem starts when air conditioning is employed not only where necessity beckons, but everywhere injudiciously, in the name of comfort.

No solution

All that air conditioning does is to throwing the indoor heat out, warming up the outdoors. Long hours of working under A.C. in offices reduces our body capacity to withstand heat, as such when we come out, we seek cool air in the car and home too, cumulatively leading to the proliferation of air conditioned indoors. The more we do it, the more will be urban heat islands which has no solution today.

Global warming is directly blamed on greenhouse gas emissions, which increase with increased use of any refrigeration system because of their dependency on CFC, HFC and such others. Though improved coolants have been introduced, harming of the ozone layer continues. Heating and cooling have been listed among the major consumers of electricity in developed nations and India is catching up. Electricity seldom comes from clean sources like solar or hydropower. As such, A.C. is an indirect cause for the depletion of non-renewable resources burnt to produce power.

Not all air conditioners are maintained well periodically. In case of any leakage, there will be the release of chemicals which harm the ozone layer, besides reducing the cooling power of the unit. Technological advances are creating rapid obsoleteness causing large wastages to the manufactured units with high embodied energy. Thus, air conditioning directly impacts resource consumption and waste production. Listing how air conditioning makes no green sense can go on, but it is time we introspect our habits and change them.

Living in an artificial environment

Air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

People with low economic status tend to think that the wealthy are healthier; and they see that the rich people stay in air conditioned spaces in homes, offices, cars and shops, while they are toiling in uncomfortable ambiences.

As such, the myth spreads hat living in artificial environments is better than living with natural conditions.

Modern construction technology can provide air conditioning to any kind of space.

With the AC costs coming down every season and claims about green buildings adopting more efficient systems like radiant cooling, evaporative cooling and such others besides the conventional HVAC systems, building owners do not feel guilty for installing air conditioning.

However, are all the people living inside such artificial environments happy and healthy? Contrary to what the economically poor may dream, reports suggest otherwise. Living without fresh air, day light and nature is today proven to be very unhealthy.

Many indoor spaces do not have adequate fresh air inlet and air change as required, leading to what is called Sick Building Syndrome. Lack of ventilation can also lead to a feel of suffocation, partly due to increased ambient indoor heat, creating a sense of dryness.

The AC can take away internal humidity at such fast rate, too many people feel dehydrated inside, with dried lips and skin.

In places with short summer spells of a few weeks, like in Bengaluru, it is not worth fixing air conditioners for the short duration, letting it lie idle rest of the year.

When we get out of an AC space, the temperature difference between inside and outside causes what is called thermal shock. It can affect the body immune system.

Despite all these, we continue to live with conditioned air, rather than the natural. However, the indoor cool comes at a cost, further increasing the heat island effect and directly promoting greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

Conditioned by Air Conditioners

It is time we realised that this equipment can harm our health and endanger the Earth.

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How many of us realise that air conditioners are bad for human health? How many of us know that air conditioners harm the environment? A better question to ask – how many of us who know these truths have stopped or at least reduced using air conditioners?

A paradox of our times is the ever increasing popularity of ACs. As the temperatures soar high, one summer thought that comes to everyone’s mind is to get the house or office air conditioned. It is impossible today not to see an advertisement by the manufacturer, a discount offer by the distributor or a sales pitch by the shop outlet during a casual day out in the city. No cars are being made now without AC, and non-air conditioned hotel rooms are already hard to come by. Even small shops in small towns are boasting of AC.

Just in a decade or two, how come this technology has swept across all climatic zones – hill stations like Matheran, dry regions like Ladakh, rain forests of Wayanad, monsoon city of Mangaluru – as if this is a singular solution to human suffering. Ironically, the comfort that’s promoted here is not the real scientific biological comfort defined by dry bulb temperature, wet bulb temperature, humidity, air change, body level breeze and such indoor conditions.

Equally surprising, from an environmental perspective, not many people have spoken against this singular invention of humankind that demands lot of electricity thus causing depletion of fossil fuel; made from manufactured materials with high embodied energy; and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and has been witnessing advancing technology, creating obsoleteness.

Just a habit

One major factor behind this spread is the human impulse for habit forming. For every car driver who claims it is too hot outside, there would be thousands of people walking or working outside in the same high heat. The car owner has simply lost the body capacity to bear heat. Air conditioner conditions us, and it is as habit forming as alcohol is. If we ask anyone habituated to an air conditioner, if they were miserable failures at home or work before they lived with air conditioners, no one would say ‘yes’. It would have been business as usual or possibly the financial success of those days has led them to new affordability now. By air conditioning, we do not sweat in summer, but make the Earth sweat. We do not shiver in winter, but make the Earth shiver. For millions of years, humans sweated and shivered, so the Earth survived.

Now that the Earth has started sweating and shivering in the form of climate change, it threatens the survival of humans. It is time we realise how our present actions can erase our future. It is time we realise how air conditioners can harm our health and endanger the Earth. Let us explore them in the coming essays

Reducing indoor heat

There are simple ways to go about it, and air conditioners are not necessary. 

20bgp-greensensGM81OS5VP3jpgjpgIn hot climatic zones like Rajasthan, people used to sleep on terraces. Even in places like Delhi, one can see many low income and middle class people sleeping outdoors, on pathways or verandahs. In slightly more humid regions like Kerala or Kolkata, traditional homes have perforated windows and doors with louvres which are kept open at night.

The principle behind these and more of such practices is simple – the night temperature is always much lower than the daytime in summer months. If we can ensure that the benefits of lower temperature are exploited, one can ensure a good night’s sleep. Our body works much on a comparative basis, where the reduced night temperature itself provides the relief we need, after exposure to a daylong heat. The emerging practice of sleeping at 22 degrees chilled air and then face the next day’s wrath at 40 degrees is neither healthy nor inevitable.

Crucial factors

The accompanying picture is an apt example to show how we can manage indoor comforts through managing air. We need three kinds of air, first being cross ventilation, achieved through windows in differently oriented windward walls. Secondly, we need body-level breeze made possible by the ceiling fan. The third one, displacement ventilation, is the most important for indoor thermal comfort. It displaces the hot indoor air – air warmed up by solar heat gain on ceilings, heat conducted through the walls, heat dissipated by human bodies inside and any mechanical instruments – through roof-level openings and lets in cooler outside air.

Typically, most indoor spaces today do not have voids at ceiling level, hence the warmer indoor air gets stuck inside the room. In the picture too, the wall just below the roof has no ventilator, the idea cancelled due to provision of air conditioner, though elsewhere in the same building there are displacement ventilators. In the process, this particular room gets heated up during the summer months, so the AC steps in, while the whole year it stays nearly idle.

During the summer months, the real challenge is not to cool the indoor air, an idea which leads to installing an air conditioner, which is an energy guzzling, unsustainable and cost escalating practice. Simply throwing out hot air and letting in the cooler air from outside can make a notable difference in reducing indoor heat, though it may not be as effective as an air conditioner.

Among the temporary arrangements, turning the table fan towards the window is the simplest. After keeping a few windows open, turn on the fan with its face outside. It works like displacement ventilation cooling the indoors in a short time. Unlike the roof-level voids which work at a height, here the warmer air at body level gets thrown out. The ceiling fan can compliment the air circulation.

The case of the fan may be a makeshift solution for few

Living at Whose Cost?

When we create a high carbon footprint and cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions, we are doing a disfavour to the environment.

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It may sound absurd to ask anyone, at whose cost are you living. Of course they will say it’s at their own cost or the children may say they are living on their parent’s earnings. The very thought that one has to live at other’s costs is not taken as an honourable position.

It is not the cost of living we need to observe, which is commonly discussed everywhere from the family dining table to annual city surveys by agencies. What we need to look into deeply is at whose cost are we living, which many of us may assume to be a simple question. The car buyer is doing so at the cost of her bank balance, the alcoholic is drinking at the cost of his health and short-tempered people continue to get angry at the cost of their public relations. Many more examples can follow, all suggesting the personal costs.

Beyond living at the cost of ourselves, we also live at the cost of the society. The sleeper class train ticket recovers only half the expenditure from the traveller. The actual investment on power and water is not charged to users. Subsidies have dominated farming sector, to help the poor farmers who cannot pay actual costs.

Ecological damage

The savings achieved by the salaried and many self-employed people happens at the cost of the informal sector, who are made to take home meagre money for the same number of working hours as everyone else, a social disease we are perpetuating.

Beyond these two, living at the cost of ourselves and cost of society, there is one more happening increasingly nowadays. We are living at the cost of ecology, hence at the cost of human civilisation itself.

A high carbon footprint flight across the continent, stay in an energy guzzling luxury hotel and day-long conference in lavishly furnished air-conditioned banquets directly boosts greenhouse gas emissions, even if the theme could be on sustainability.

One family weekend spent in a hill resort eating in the fine-dine restaurant with cuisine from across the continents happens at the cost of earth resources, even if we have the money to pay the bills. Such cases are aplenty.

Are we not aware of all this, our direct contribution to climate change? Of course we are, yet we find it difficult not to do what we should not be doing. The challenge ahead of us is not living the way we do because we can pay the costs, but living without costing the Earth.

COOLING THE TERRACE

Try to shade the surface with wooden pallets, which is a frame of wood planks with gaps in between.

06bgp-greensensGN01MOLE03jpgjpg.jpegFor reasons more than one, the summer season in India is a popular topic of discussion. It is possibly comparable to the British often talking about their rains.

Imagine the book titled ‘Indian Summer- Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi’ which has little to do with climatic data on India, being the story of how New Delhi was planned and made, written by Robert Grant Irving. Another book by the same title ‘Indian Summer’ is on ‘The Secret History of the End of an Empire’ written by Alex von Tunzelmann, even more remotely connected to the idea of a season. Even the film ‘Heat and Dust’ directed by James Ivory attempts to refer to our summer, even if it is metaphorical. Summer is the talk of town.

Nowadays, Indian summer is in the headlines for the more direct climatic reasons – every year new records are being set for the highest temperature of the decade or so. How we the people and our consumptive patterns are among the creators of this record is rarely discussed, but the soaring temperatures are always debated intensely. As a fall out, sale of air conditioners is also soaring, paradoxically pushing the outdoor temperatures further up.

It appears like temperatures have crossed the limits of passive cooling and we have given up hopes on simple measures. Partly yes, but in many cities like Bengaluru which witness the extremes only for few weeks in an year, there is no real need to switch over to air conditioners. Shading the roof during the high summer can reduce indoor temperature to bearable levels, if not as low as AC can achieve.

Terrace gets direct solar incidence, hence has high solar heat gain, which is transferred to inside surface by conduction. Imagine we try to shade the surface with wooden pallets, which is a frame of wood planks with gaps in between, used in packaging especially across ships and such others. Google search can show up many images. Once unpacked, these are discarded for sale in the seconds market.

No heat transfer

Placed on the terrace, they let in direct light between the gaps for a short time span, which does not let the surface gain much heat. Of course, the air under pellet gets heated up but hot air moves out letting in cooler air from outside the pellet, so very little heat would transfer through convection.

These pellets, often made abroad with pine and such types of timber, can withstand sun and rain for a long period, if treated well. The gaps between them can be maintained fairly narrow; as such anyone can walk over them without any discomfort. In case of any unexpected summer showers, the rain water drains out without any hindrance. Once the scorching summer is over, the pellets can be safely stored for reuse the next season.

The theory behind this idea is rooted in a big sounding term ‘ventilated cavity roof’, but can be achieved in a small budget.

LAURIE BAKER, Buildings and Beyond

The master architect was convinced that designs are for people and had to suit the local climate.A tribute during his birth centenary year.

29bgp-laurie-baGRG1LL3803jpgjpgThis Green Sense weekly column started exactly 7 years ago, acknowledging Laurie Baker as one of the influences on this writer. It is an occasion today to remember this master architect on his birth centenary year, a person who instilled a sense of cost, culture and climate in the local architecture he advocated. Decades after he stopped designing, many architects continue to design the way he did; but many more vouch how he continues to inspire them to explore alternatives to the predictable and questionable mainstream approaches.

What matters today is not his mere biography, but his beliefs which he professed and practised with no compromise. Even for the rich, he advocated cost effectiveness; he was convinced that designs are for people and his designs had to above all suit the local climate.

During the post-independence era, especially the decades of 1970 to 1990, many modern masters of Indian architecture emerged. Most of them either studied abroad or were influenced by the profession of architecture as practised in the west. In total contrast, Baker stepped out of the mainstream to design for India and in India, though his own origins were from the west. With no desire to chase prestigious projects and awards, he designed for people – nearly 3,500 houses in a lifespan of 50 years which appears almost unbelievable.

The ‘Gandhi of Architecture’ was actually influenced by Gandhiji, and looked upon social causes as his professional achievements. Even his public buildings stand as a testimony to his philosophy of minimalism in materials; low on cost; eco-friendly in performance; judicious in structures; and efficient in functional spaces. If we look back in today’s times of sustainability talks, climate crisis and environmental degradation, Baker appears to have been far ahead of his times.

‘Uncommon Sense’

Incidentally, Vineet Radhakrishnan has looked back at Baker, making a biographical full-length film about his life and works titled “Uncommon Sense”. In the making for a few years, it got released for public viewing only some months ago, yet has received critical acclaim, including being listed in Archdaily’s list of must-see films. The fact that Vineet is Baker’s grandson adds a different dimension to the film, besides it being a documentary on Baker’s architecture.

The film looks at many of his projects, but more importantly captures the man in his thoughts and words, which gives it an academic flavour. Architects and many non-architects who knew him well speak about Baker, proving how he did not restrict himself to his buildings, but provoked thoughts in whoever he met.

Still relevant

Why does Laurie Baker continue to be relevant today? Architectural critics know that design elements die, styles change, new materials emerge, and technology evolves. So, the physical does not last long. The philosophies last longer, but they face the danger of dilution once the founder of the philosophy goes.

Laurie Baker continues to be relevant, beyond the physical and the philosophical. Once Shiv Vishwanathan termed U.R. Ananthamurthy as a phenomenon and if one were to borrow that term, Laurie Baker is a phenomenon.

The Flowering Roof

Grow a garden or a lawn on your terrace to beat the heat, but do not neglect maintenance issues.

22bgpgreensenseGJE1KCLVU3jpgjpgWith the summer temperatures soaring high, everyone dreams of cooler homes. Air conditioners could be a solution, but we now know that they are not a solution, but a villain.

For innumerable reasons like the way they transfer indoor heat to outside increasing city temperatures, dilute our biological capacity to live with seasons, health problems due to moving across high and low temperatures, artificiality of air, poor indoor air quality, power consumption, electricity bills and such others, AC has proven to be anti-environment and anti-health.

Given this, there has been increased search for simple and natural solutions. One among them is a green roof, not growing vegetables in trays, but having greenery all over. Imagine a roof where we see no concrete, but only grass! It increases thermal mass, delays surface run-off and works with minimal maintenance.

An intensive green roof needs to be structurally designed for load, or if we plan to grow on the existing roof, a qualified engineer can assess its feasibility. In case roots attempt to penetrate the concrete, a root barrier layer of High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) or any other suited sheet can be laid, though the best is to ensure that shallow rooted plant material are chosen. Additionally, HDPE also ensures water proofing.

Above the root barrier, a drainage layer is needed with half-inch of gravel and a layer of sand above it. To ensure the mud does not slip into this layer but only excess rain water does, we can use the costlier but more long lasting geothermal fabrics or simply save money by using shade nets. They let water down but not the soil. Finally, we need red soil, manure media or mud mixed with perlite, vermiculite or coco peat. While all these are suited for plant growth, the decision may depend upon possible roof load, maintenance issues or available water.

Typically, the soil layer can be 4 to 8 inches thick based on plants’ type. Parapet wall height may have to be adjusted to take the terrace garden and multiple drain holes will be needed compared to what we normally provide. Drip irrigation can be implemented in case of large roof areas.

While lawn would be the choice of most people, it demands much water and maintenance, besides many turf varieties not being suited on the terrace. In case of good sunlight, Bermuda, Doob or Korean grass may work, if not St. Augustine may have to be preferred. If the terrace has occasional use, hardy creepers like Rangoon creeper can enliven the surface with its seasonal flowers. With good drainage, ground hugging shrubbery and small water succulent plants can also be considered, which may be easier for de-weeding.

Tray-based roof garden is more popular considering the variety of vegetables one can grow and manage rain water harvesting as well. However, everyone cannot spare time to that end, but everyone can enjoy a lawn or a creeper bed on the terrace.

Crisis, and awareness

Nations worldwide have been trying to understand and contain environmental problems.

crisis_aheadMany of us have been hearing about environmental issues for over a decade now, yet are much behind the west in realising how bleak our future can be.

It is important to be aware of the deliberations that took place before this millennium, and about the crisis looming large on us, which may impart greater seriousness among us.

There is a curious decadal connection between the book Silent Spring published in 1962, the Stockholm Conference of 1972, forming the Brundtland Committee in 1983 and the pivotal event of the Earth Summit of 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

Pivotal

Though the preceding years had witnessed many initiatives, the Earth Summit with Climate Convention discussing reduction in carbon emissions; Rio Declaration with 27 principles to be implemented worldwide; Agenda 21 as a lengthy report containing framework of actions for 21st century; technology transfer from the affluent northern to poorer southern nations and such others proved to be a pivotal event.

Turning point

UNCED became a turning point with more than hundred heads of government converging at one place, though it was also felt to be ambitious, bureaucratic and had many jargons. Though it was very participatory with large NGO representations, the attitudinal division between North and South got amplified here.

Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, changing political scenarios and lack of commitments to assurances made, not much was achieved on field due to UNCED.

Incidentally, members of the 1972 book ‘Limits to growth’ had published a sequel ‘Beyond the Limits’ just before UNCED, where they realised consumption patterns were happening much earlier than they had predicted.

In the meanwhile the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade) became more powerful to the disillusionment of environmental activists, for both of them encouraged free trade capital, competitive industries, production and consumption based not on locality but on pricing comparison across the world.

Virtually, all this were to increase consumerist attitudes and business would override ecological concerns.