Reports in early May on an Indian Institute of Sciences study on Bengaluru’s urban growth claimed that one of its authors had said the city would be unliveable in five years. This turned out to be vastly exaggerated, but raises the question of whether it is possible at all to have environmentally friendly construction.

For this, turn to the small but growing group of architects and consultants who have over the last few decades been attempting to turn the tide of haphazard, unplanned architecture across cities by bringing in buildings that are more efficient in consuming and dispersing energy.

“There has been a positive trend for environmentally friendly buildings in the last few years, but it is very small,” said Deepa Parekh, a senior consultant at Environment Design Solutions, an architecture firm based in Delhi. “More marketing is now being done by industry bodies for rating companies and builders would like to promote what they do. But this is still a nice area.”

Any preference for energy-efficient buildings is largely limited to commercial sites, she said, not residential ones: for companies that want to project themselves as modern, an environment-friendly building has great marketing value.

It is not enough for builders to claim that their buildings are green. To prove it, there are various rating systems which then go on to be important selling points for builders.

“Rating systems have a lot to do with image,” said Parekh. “Builders now see it as having a marketing advantage when leasing out office space to large banks or multinational companies.”

Looking for a checklist

One popular global standard is LEEDS. India also has its own rating systems. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, along with The Energy and Resources Institute developed the GRIHA rating – Green Rating for Habitat Assessment used as the name implies for residential structures – in 2007.

The self-evaluation checklist includes checking whether the building is compliant with the area’s development plan, provides sanitation and safety facilities to construction workers, minimises hard paving around the site and how close it is to existing public transport. The rating also gives points for steps the building takes to be energy efficient, including using low energy material inside the construction, not having false internal ceilings, increasing the space that gets daylight, whether it gives options for renewable energy and how or whether it treats waste water.

Another rating for energy efficiency comes from the Bureau of Energy Efficiency in the Ministry of Power. Also created in 2007, the Energy Conservation Building Code is a similar checklist for commercial buildings. Public buildings have to comply with the code, but it is otherwise voluntary. The central government framed the guidelines, but has left implementation to individual states.

As of 2014-'15, according to the bureau’s website, only seven states had issued notifications for implementing the code, nine had amended it for local conditions and another seven were in the middle of amending it.

Long term myopia

Then there is the embodied energy of a building. The amount of energy a building consumes is not restricted only to whether it manages water or uses efficient cooling systems, explained Swastik Harish, a senior consultant with the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Bengaluru. Building materials, whether brick or glass or concrete, also require immense energy to be manufactured, processed, transported and finally brought together at the building site. The less durable a material, the more energy the construction will consume over its life cycle.

There is also the question of use. A key problem with most rating systems is that only some count embodied energy, Harish added.

Even fewer systems look at how a building consumes energy through its life cycle. Residential “green” buildings, for instance, tend to be luxurious homes whose residents consume vast amounts of energy in other ways – with fuel-guzzling vehicles, constant air conditioning and overconsumption of water and electricity.

“It is assumed that everyone wants 24 degrees and 50% humidity through the year, which is not untrue, but it is not as if people are working on progressing standards,” Harish said. “Industry does not encourage you to challenge your ideas of comfort.”

Also sparsely researched in India is the impact constructions have on their surroundings. A nascent field of study is on how urban heat islands – pockets of urbanised land with higher than normal temperatures – are formed.

Japan’s green rating system, Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency, is a rare one that takes into account the impact of one building’s energy consumption on its surroundings.

Traditional or modern?

For some architects, the most climate-friendly solutions lie in traditional architecture, honed over centuries.

“Before modern technology, there were no cooling systems,” said Goutam Seetharaman, principal architect at the Centre for Vernacular Architecture Trust, based in Chennai. “People actually thought about the materials they used. A mud wall was two feet wide not nine inches (providing insulation against heat). Roofing used to come down to the level of the floor. It is very hard now to go back to that because lifestyles have changed, but we can still look for solutions there.”

The trust, which operates in Bengaluru and Chennai, builds mostly in major cities. Traditional material is difficult to source in smaller towns, resulting in building costs shooting up. With more builders shifting to cement blocks, good quality bricks are now more difficult to source and more expensive, Seetharaman explained.

“Our kind of architecture used to be called low-cost even eight years back,” he said. “Slowly the prices became even and now it is more expensive.”

It follows then that buildings which are designed to be cool, then expend less energy trying to drive out the heat. Parekh, however, believes that there is no reason modern buildings cannot also be efficient in their use of energy. The design should be appropriate to climate and location and should account for heating, cooling and lighting systems.

“There is a lot of cynicism around green buildings,” Parekh said. “But if a building is designed right, 90% of the battle is done.”