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Eco-friendly buildings

By Aparna Datta

In our grandfather’s time, a house was built to last one hundred years. In our parent’s time, a 50-yesr life span for a building was assured. But for the current generation in their thirties and forties buying apartments in condominiums, the life of properties after even 25 years is not so certain.

Visualize this scenario: the swimming pool lies empty, water drained out, because it is too expensive to maintain. The groundwater from the bore well has become contaminated, which means ever-increasing costs on filtration systems. Worse still, the bore well may have run dry and water on a daily basis has to be bought.

This isn’t scare-mongering. It’s for real, and in certain pockets in Bangalore this situation already exists. Reason enough, you would think, for property developers to review the features considered almost standards in upmarket complexes – sauna, Jacuzzi, swimming-pool et al. Rarely do developers consider long-term sustainability and costs of maintenance which residents will have to bear. And water, life-giving water, is a recurring theme for a sustainable future. With the push of developers into the greater metropolitan region of Bangalore, it is important to pause and perhaps re-think the current paradigm of property development.

Bangalore has a unique geography which sets it apart from most other cities in India. It sits on a plateau, with streams and rivers flowing ‘away’ from the city. Water supply ‘into’ the city naturally becomes a critical issue. Kempegowda and the original founders created a network of tanks that formed catchment areas and canals maintained a hydrological balance. But from some 260 tanks we are now down to 81 and dying fast, much to the delight of land sharks.

According to Mr Prem Chandavarkar, Joint Managing Director of Chandavarkar & Thacker Architects Pvt. Ltd., watershed management is the most challenging aspect of Bangalore’s development, and future town-planning must stem from this.

Urban development directly transforms large areas of the earth’s surface. Witness the changes in the areas around Bangalore – undulation flattened out, valleys and swamps filled with rocks and waste materials, soil and groundwater regimes modified in various ways. Says Mr G K Bhat of Taru Leading Edge, a firm engaged in developing eco-friendly systems for management of water and solid-waste, “The crucial issue is to balance bio-mass, energy and water.” This conceptual framework in fact points to the three distinct and practicable areas for sustainable property development: waste management, energy use, water harvesting/recycling.

Some developers are taking steps in the right direction. L&T ECC Construction Group has got its blueprint for ‘South City’ in Bannerghatta approved, incorporating supprt infrastructure for solid-waste management. Ms Lakshmi Venkatachalam, Commissioner, Bangalore Development Authority, feels there is great scope for NGOs like Waste Wise and Acts Trust to provide support services to developers – the key task is to standardize, package and market the service in a manner that developers can readily access the systems.

Legislation, and a modified form of Environmental Impact Assessment which is used in industrial projects, can establish new norms of environmental responsibility, even for large housing projects. Civic bodies need to raise these issues and create awareness such that legislation, when introduced, will have popular support and compliance.

Ecologically sound systems such as solar water heaters seem to work best in single unit houses. City Mansion on Langford Road, a complex of 26 apartments was one of the first to incorporate solar panels on its rooftop for water heating. Ms Veen Rao, a resident of City Mansion explains that their experience with such alternative energy sources was somewhat mixed. The solar panels are effective for about 6-7 months of the year, but apartments on lower floors tend to use up more water as the water in the pipes remains cold and hot water takes a longer time to reach. Here again, ‘green’ technologists need to adapt methods for wider applicability. Solar waster heating is currently not an option for high-rise apartments. However, solar panels for common area outdoor lighting would be a possibility.

Rainwater harvesting is another new concept which is receiving attention. Mr G Govardhan of Bangalore Environment Trust says, “Rooftop rainwater harvesting offers a possibility as a supplement to domestic water supply requirements, and in conjunction with other systems such as low volume flush, efficient taps and showers, etc., can considerably reduce the burden on city supply networks.” Independent houses can incorporate rainwater harvesting systems at minimal cost; even retrofitting involves relatively little additional expense.

Some progressive developers such as the Embassy group have looked at sustainability as a community issue. Since most of their projects are downtown properties, they have introduced features like water-recycling in some buildings. Mr Jitu Virwani, Managing Director, advocates a “stakeholder” approach to community development. Check out “Beautify Lavelle Road”, a civic awareness campaign sponsored by Embassy, for which residents, establishments located on Lavelle Road, civic organizations and the Embassy Group have come together to make the neighbourhood a better environment.

Clearly, the challenge is for developments upwards of ten acres/ 100+ units to consciously evolve a ‘greener’ approach. Currently, the green theme is largely cosmetic – features such as parks and landscaped gardens. Notice how ‘Park’, ‘Garden’ and ‘Woods’ are favourite names for buildings! However, far more substantive features need to be incorporated if these large complexes – which are literally islands of consumption and waste generation – are to be sustainable over the long-term.

In the final analysis, the key to sustainable development is a simple dictum: “If you take it out, put it back.” Town-planners, architects and property developers have an enormous responsibility in designing and creating a new landscape. One that future generations can live with.

© Aparna Datta, 1997

Published in Assets – Property pages of The Times of India, Bangalore, October 3, 1997



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