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Greening India

India’s architectural traditions have always reflected sustainable principles, even if its building codes haven’t. Foreign architects are learning this quickly.

05/2009

By Russell Fortmeyer

After the 2001 earthquake in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat, one of Mumbai architect Brinda Somaya’s clients phoned her. He had funds and wanted to find a village that needed help—he knew the government wouldn’t act fast or in the right way. “After past disasters, the government moved people out of their villages, across the road,” Somaya says. “We recognize that people want to stay on their land, with their crops and animals, and to help.”

HOK provided pro-bono services on a conceptual master plan for the redevelopment of the Mumbai neighborhood of Dharavi. Rohit Saxena, with HOK’s Mumbai office, says the firm wanted to keep the vibrant energy of the slum, while upgrading sanitary conditions for its residents. “It could be the heart of the new city,” he says.
Image © HOK
HOK provided pro-bono services on a conceptual master plan for the redevelopment of the Mumbai neighborhood of Dharavi. Rohit Saxena, with HOK’s Mumbai office, says the firm wanted to keep the vibrant energy of the slum, while upgrading sanitary conditions for its residents. “It could be the heart of the new city,” he says.

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After the 2001 earthquake in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat, one of Mumbai architect Brinda Somaya’s clients phoned her. He had funds and wanted to find a village that needed help—he knew the government wouldn’t act fast or in the right way. “After past disasters, the government moved people out of their villages, across the road,” Somaya says. “We recognize that people want to stay on their land, with their crops and animals, and to help.”

That phone call evolved into the Bhadli Village reconstruction project, to which Somaya freely dedicated the resources of her firm, Somaya and Kalappa Consultants. She and her staff spent countless hours surveying the ruined village, involving residents directly in the process, understanding the local climate and resources available to the project, but also the economic and emotional needs of the villagers. Like any other of her projects, Somaya applied what she coyly downplays as “appropriate” architecture. “It’s a boring word, but I think it’s the right one,” she says. “When I talk about doing something appropriate, it’s right for the site, client, climate, and my country.”

In the end, Somaya’s office directed the reconstruction of homes with locally made bricks, reused doors, and new verandas. They also designed a school and, at Somaya’s insistence, a women’s center. “When I finished the village, the women embroidered a sari for me,” she recalls, “and I wore it to my daughter’s wedding.” When you “involve the user,” as Somaya says, you get more than a building in India.

Architects like Somaya represent a tradition of practice in India that has never been called “sustainable,” but developed out of the country’s history, long-established respect for nature, overpopulation, and scarce resources. To the outsider, the establishment of the India Green Building Council (IGBC) in 2001 and the implementation of an Indian version of LEED for New Construction, Version 1.0, may seem like the country is playing catch up, when in reality the country is introducing another way of viewing green. Of course, there are exceptions.

“The government is not very sympathetic to green buildings,” complains Dr. Prem Jain, an engineer and the director of Spectral Services in Noida, just outside of New Delhi. Jain is a well-known fixture on the international sustainable design front and he works in India with large firms including Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) and HOK. As a former chairman of the IGBC and founder of the Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ISHRAE), Jain has helped in efforts to change mainstream building practices in India through their codes, contributing to a thermal environmental control section in the National Building Code and advising for the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC), released in 2007. “Unfortunately, none of these codes are mandatory,” he says, noting that each state and municipality can choose to ignore or implement codes. Even if the codes are mandated, there is little enforcement.

The results of such laissez-faire regulation can be seen throughout India. On the outskirts of many cities, big glass-box office buildings extend back from the street like abstract, machinic fingers upon otherwise flat urban landscapes. These are the fruits of India’s information technology boom: unrelenting, stacked floor plates of vast, fluorescent-lit interiors, piles of rooftop air conditioning systems, and an aloof, if not absolutely absent connection to the context. When Jain talks about trying to make progress, he’s talking about this. The new codes that Jain promotes don’t mandate or bar air-conditioning. In the case of the ECBC, which was developed with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, it formalizes equipment efficiency, lighting power levels, and envelope requirements similar to ASHRAE’s 90.1-2004 Energy Standard for Buildings.

There are 300 projects currently registered with the IGBC’s LEED program. There are other Indian rating systems—such as BEE Star, administered by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency—that are marketed to lower budgets (BEE also administers the ECBC). The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), an independent New Delhi-based research organization, has developed the Indian-specific, voluntary Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA), which discourages air-conditioning except in the most extreme cases. Many in India consider this program to be a response to the assumption in Western codes and ratings programs that most buildings are air-conditioned. There are eight buildings certified through GRIHA so far.

Of the LEED-registered projects, Jain estimates only 60 represent the work of foreign architects, yet the effects of foreign work in India have never been greater. In addition to demand from foreign corporations seeking high-profile, architects to design their Indian outposts, rising land values in major cities helped increase fees developers could pay for design services.

Sudhir Jambhekar, FAIA, is a senior partner at New York firm FXFowle, but he grew up in the city of Ahmedabad, north of Mumbai. Ahmedabad boasts buildings by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, two Western Modernist architects who built several notable projects in India, although neither architect would necessarily be considered “green.” They brought to their buildings an understanding of local craft and tradition, as well as climate appreciation—all things Jambhekar considers as he develops FXFowle’s portfolio there. “To put it mildly, there is a lot more desired in terms of construction management, quality, and skill level, but with things like bricks or tiles, the quality of the work is astonishing,” he says.

While most of Jambhekar’s Indian clients demand sustainable design, other firms, such as SOM, have invested heavily in client education. Varun Kohli, AIA, with SOM’s New York office, discovered this on the Hill County project in Hyderabad, which began as a client request for an over-scaled glass box and evolved into an energy-efficient building that reduced energy consumption by 18 percent when compared to ASHRAE 90.1-2004.

“We had to paint a bigger picture of the climate, how the massing might respond to it, and develop some overall goals in conjunction with the design goals of the project,” Kohli says, describing the firm’s simple design strategy. Working with Spectral as consulting engineers and a Delhi-based environmental modeling firm, SOM used this as a way to avoid the tick-box exercise that LEED can become on many Indian projects.

Hill County is currently under construction, which presents yet another test for sustainable design in India: site safety. It is not uncommon to find entire families living on small-scale construction sites. Construction fatalities are frequent and seldom reported. Addressing such issues generally falls outside the power of architects, especially when they are handing over a project after the design documentation phase. Spectral’s Jain ensures the next version of India’s LEED will mandate that any construction fatality on a site automatically disqualifies the project from certification. “We don’t have laws in this country to protect workers and often a construction company may pay a family off,” Jain says. Corruption poses its own safety problems. FXFowle’s Jambhekar calls the Indian codes “negotiable,” and deplores the fact many local architects work around problems through pay-offs.

The Indian economy has yet to tank like so many others, but every architect interviewed for this story admitted things were slowing and many large projects have been temporarily shelved. However, medium-sized and urban master-planning projects appear unfazed thus far. HOK opened a permanent office in Mumbai in March in order to bring consistency to projects it had previously either delivered from various global offices or passed off to local architects in later phases.“Energy is an expensive commodity here, so sustainability pays off,” says the managing director of HOK’s Mumbai office, Rohit Saxena.

If the global economy continues to worsen, India may appeal to more foreign firms. Even Somaya recently joined with KPF to deliver a commercial project in Mumbai with a sustainable bent and LEED ambitions. “This project helps us keep up with new technology, which I think is important, but LEED inherently comes out of a high-technology country and India is not that,” Somaya says, speaking to the frustration she’s witnessed when applying LEED to the difficulties of the Indian urban condition. “To work here, you have to love India or hate India, but nobody can be indifferent to India.”

Russell Fortmeyer is a former editor with GreenSource and Architectural Record.

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This article appeared in the May 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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