Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Shades of Green and Architecture

Dr. B S Bhooshan,
Talk delivered at IIT, Kharagpur on 23 December 2009

I write this in first person as I think it is too difficult to be objective about this issue.

We, the mankind or woman kind if you want to put that way, as a species had developed from the animal stage to an intellectual group, making great strides of progress, expanding his abilities to tap the nature for greater creature comforts and making tools and technologies. He has moved from the forests to subsistence farming to manufacture to genetic tampering, faster movements, reaching the spaces unthinkable a two centuries ago. He dwelt in caves and emerged to build huts, create stronger dwellings, and sanctify them with myths and meanings, created sacred spaces and created cities and metropolises and in the last century nightmares of a curious mixture of fantasy and ecological nemesis – couchemar de la catastrophe ecologique- in the form of great and terrible cities.

Suddenly, we also find that we have entered an era of mass consumption and faster depletion of resources, and climatic changes, explosion of information on impending disaster, global warming, unavailability of potable water, creation and dumping of all kinds of wastes including e wastes and nuclear wastes and fights for resource control, crisis of energy etc. The last two decades saw these things multiplied their space in the media. There is greater awareness today. For 1972 UN meet on environment, the coverage was that of a scientific congress. But today, Al Gore’s visit to India is on the front page, there is Nobel price given to Al Gore and the intergovernmental organisation for climate change. Climate change and ecological perspectives cannot be just dismissed easily as anti development slogans. The so called green architecture, whatever that term conjures up, moved from the concerns of a few to a large number of aspiring professionals. From Passion it has moved to fashion. It has become for many a moral stance, moving towards a cult and religiosity. May be for the good of mankind! May be not.

As the momentum gains various shades of green are visible leading to a confusion of a kind especially to the young professionals. It is important that we know at least what we are doing. I talk more from the point of view of architecture and built environment, though the idea cannot be viewed in isolation to other feilds.

Firstly, we as professionals in built environment and architecture, should understand what green means to us. Secondly, we also should know that ours is not a politically neutral technical solution making activity devoid of ideological positions. Every idea has a political structure behind that to emerge as a solution.

Green buildings as I am made to understand

Green buildings usually refers to a construction development of what currently been promoted as sustainable development. Notion of sustainability has more than a hundred and odd interpretations: But what has often been used is the one that concerned with the idea of leaving the world for future generations, one which Brundland Report adopted and by the UN.

It says:

The ideal of environmental sustainability is to leave the Earth in as good or better shape for future generations than we found it for ourselves. By a definition, human activity is only environmentally sustainable when it can be performed or maintained indefinitely without depleting natural resources or degrading the natural environment.

Resource consumption would be minimal

Materials consumed would be made ENTIRELY of 100% post-construction hazards. Recycling of waste streams would be 100%.

Energy would be conserved and energy supplies would be ENTIRELY renewable and non-polluting (solar thermal and electric, wind power, biomass, etc.) Now we hear of nuclear energy as well.

Consumer recycled materials or from renewable resources (which were harvested without harm to the environment and without depletion of the resource base) only will be used.

This certainly is a utopian position at least in the present scenario. The whole question is how we approach to achieve this and what technical and managerial and societal requirements are evolved.

Ecological footprints of buildings and eco costs

One of the problems we face as professionals is how to assess the damage we do to the environment and ecology of our small planet. Perhaps, this is a problem of every living being.

A single concept, which makes an overall assessment of the environmental impact of a person, a building, a nation or any development, is known as the ecological footprint. The ecological footprint is an accounting tool for ecological resources. Categories of human consumption are translated into areas of productive land required to provide resources and assimilate waste products. The ecological footprint is a measure of how sustainable our life-styles are. The ecological footprint of a building refers to the area of land required to for continued production of wood products, embodied energy and attendant CO2 emissions. This measure is however fraught with problems of calculation. Similarly other methods are also been attempted to calculate the impacts to a single index such as BEPI (Building Energy Performance Index) expressed in terms of GJ/m2/year, the environmental cost calculated by reducing all impacts it terms of monitory value and other multiple criteria indices.

The concepts also have to be practical and have to lead to parameters, measurable criteria and norms. Do we really have?

When we are talking of green built environment or architecture, we should distinguish between Initial Capital Damage and Continued Damage or Positive Contribution within the concept of Life Cycle of buildings. Design involves both. There are many ways one can deal with minimizing continued Damage

Design with climate, Passive solar heating and cooling, improved gadgets and materials and technology ,

waste recycling, water recycling, rain water harvesting, etc.

Life style is the key for reducing continued damage; living with nature. India has been living with nature; but often in sub optimal subsistence level. Can we do it better? We can.

Initial Capital Damage will continue to be a major challenge. Because, it is more difficult address and not enough stress is given to this aspect. None of the green assessment methods and programmes and rating systems do not adequately stress on this aspect either. Methodology of evaluation and practicality of assessment continue to be a major hurdle.

Baseline for all the assessments today is a typical average and recognizing better than normal performance. This base line is difficult to define and scrutiny. The baseline and performance is expected to rise over time. Priorities and prioritisation will change the assessment norms and rating points. Experts point out that, for many criteria baseline requires a judgment call. (Tracy Mumma, Centre for Resourceful Building Technology, Montana)

It may also be noted that most of these evolved in the developed countries look at requirements from their cultural points of view. They make an anthropocentric view and give equal importance to occupants’ indoor quality as to the larger impact the building makes. They also give more stress on the impact on environment of the continued usage of the building over a life cycle of usually 40 years rather than the impact during construction. With the result highly rated buildings may also have largely negative impacts on environment compared to even normal and traditional buildings in the rural areas or small towns of India. As we generally are conscious of costs, embedded energy in most of our buildings are comparatively low, though this is not a rule.

These programmes also do not attach any negative points to any criteria. McDonald has suggested a more comprehensive matrix of sustainability. But this is far from being a practical to use.

Indian Green Buildings Council also adapted a LEED Rating System and there are already many buildings which are platinum and gold and silver ratings. A look at the rating system parameters and norms do not adequately look at the priorities of India and its developmental predicament. It does not even take note of the variety of environmental contexts, not to speak of the cultural contexts. For example, It does not consider a building which does not have air conditioning.

These rating systems seem to promote more business in the organised sectors of construction than informal ones. After all the slogan is: green makes good business sense. May be it makes sense in an environment where construction sector is capital intensive and largely formal. Is it the objective in our development paradigm?

There are many environmentalists who oppose this kind of green and tiy to promote an opposite view. And there could be many shades and positions in between.

Variety of approaches

There is no mathematical magic formula, as there is no full agreement on the approach to the idea of sustainability. This is not a technological situation, where it is problem to be just solved somehow. The approaches depend on the very idea of human development.

Global positioning:

We take the world or a country as a whole. The environment and ecology of all countries are so interrelated today that there should be a global level of policies and technological options, it is argued. Within the country also, we tend to take a larger view that all development or otherwise affect all and therefore the idea of green cuts across all sections of the society equally. “Conflict of interest and intense competition for domination” is discounted in the argument. The “reality however shows that such an understanding is naïve and illusionary”. The sustainable development mantra, if at all, in reality is meant for ‘others’ so that high development and high consumption level of ‘privileged class remains sustainable as long as possible”.(Redclift)

The fall out of this positioning is that we tend to believe that what is good for one place is good for all places, in principle. The idea of greatest common good as a basic parameter comes to fore. The quantifiers come to the picture and show that we do not have enough for greater common good. So then, we have to reduce the total consumption; either collectively by everyone or keeping some at very low consumption levels so that average remains low. Does it mean keeping a lot of people in poverty? Poverty seems to be more ecological and green solution, if at all. This will see that some can continue to remain where they are. That leads us to things like the energy priority as a leading criteria of green, where as in some places something else would be more appropriate. Say for example water.

An argument against this is, the neomarxist approach, As M. R. Redclift says development can never be sustainable if poor people are not involved in meeting their aspirations.(redclift, 1987) "Overriding priority should be given...[to] the concept of `need,' in particular the essential needs of the world's poor." (Brundtland Report)

This also means that the priority of built environment in third world countries should be on increasing consumption levels of environment al goods of the poor by appropriate policies and simultaneously cutting down on the consumption of the upper class. This is the link between the needs of the poor and sustainability.

“Industrial growth needs to be redirected towards meeting the needs of the world's majority; renewable energy resources need to receive a greater share of attention; natural resources and policies need to be shifted from the arms race to the protection of agronomic and biological resource system” ( Redclift, 1987, p35)

Sustainable development, means more than seeking a compromise between the natural environment and the pursuit of economic growth. It means a definition of development which recognizes that the limits of sustainability have structural as well as natural origins.

The environment alone is not the key factor in making development sustainable; it is political power, and in particular giving power to the workers, local people, empowering deprived groups etc. in developing countries to set their own goals--presumably ones that will not damage their environments as development has heretofore, the argument goes.

This also means, in green building terms, major changes in built environmental design, organisation of infrastructure planning and their implementation in a more democratic way. This approach also denotes the need for local level actions and perspectives to be given higher priority. Some tall order, some simplification here. This also is utopian and unachievable, especially politically.

Culture critics and deep environmentalists:

This approach is characteristically anti developmental and anti-growth theories in the sense that the notion of sustainability is considered to be utopian. The term only considered to serve to revitalize development, to give it another lease on its life, by tying it to concerns for the environment. To their stance, "eco-developers" are in some sense distinguishable from traditional advocates of development--most obviously in their admission that there are environmental limits on production. However, "What ties them nevertheless to the economic worldview is the failure to appreciate cultural limits to the predominance of production, cultural limits that render production less important and consequently relieve also environmental pressure.

According to Sachs, the biological metaphor of the evolution of nature has been turned into an economic metaphor--development--and then into an imperative for all of humankind. The result is to treat people, whole societies, and nature itself as resources for economic development. But, Sachs says, "Labeling things as `resources' takes off whatever protective identity they may have and opens them for intervention from the outside. Looking at water, soils, animals, and people in terms of resources reconstitutes them as objects for management by planners and for pricing by economists."

The idea of growth (with basic idea of promotion of consumerism and consumption and market economics in place) and that of a green development seems mutually exclusive. We therefore need a development which is not economics based at all, the argument goes. But the environmentalist contributors to the sustainability debate especiallythe deep ecologists, focus primarily on nature, not culture. Stanley Carpenter, as just one example, argues that the scientific evidence, in particular the growing ecological evidence suggests that autopoiesis--the ability of life on earth to regenerate itself after injury--is seriously threatened by mindless and heedless human development. Perhaps Native American habits were more mindful of nature, but the point is to change the thinking, now, of consumption-oriented people in the United States, North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim, and of the corporate managers who feed and foment consumption elsewhere.

The answer as suggested by radical environmentalists is a return to appropriate technologies, to craft level productions and eulogise tribal culture. To some environmental architects, this means reducing architecture to materials of natural origin or mud based and almost a negation of contemporary technologies. So we have agro-waste products and bio-waaste products, stabilised mud, water recycling at small scales, etc. All hinging on an idea of return to nature. This is an activists view, more a moralising stand than offering any market or other management mechanism and depends wholly on upholding the activist path. This approach as a variant that most of the environment –friendly- built environmentalists follow has great limitation that it offers no scalable solution. Some demonstrations there and some here. Some experimental communities here and there.

This line of thinking, applied to architecture, produces a few heroes and heroines and champions of environment with the hope that these demonstrations will spread the awareness and slowly it will take over as the only development or anti-development paradigm in the world. Will it? This reduces architecture to a single point agenda as low cost architecture did earlier. It becomes a ‘religion’ at times and has same pitfalls of religion. But architecture is beyond that as it is a multivalent verb.

Corporate Green:

On the other hand, some of the advocates of market economics suggests that green to be achieved in the present day economic theories and policies, but with more controls and investment in green practices. So the idea of “green makes good business sense”. Environmental policy literature is dominated today by the notion of free market economics. Real estate development and profit based private initiative becomes manthra in built environment. Consume more, not less. This is largely due to the advocacy made swiftly and surreptitiously through media and other means by corporate think tanks. Many incidents and accidents have created public awareness and there are more controls on the corporate bodies today. They have now counteracted by adopting and promoting an environmentalism which suited their paradigm. Arguments against corporate approach are subverted absorbed by clothing them the environmental ‘lingua’. Are they totally wrong?


What I have outlined is the diverse discourses that are happening around the notion of green and sustainability. When almost all agrees and concerned about the realities of environmental degradation, there is no agreement on the prescriptions. And what is strongly said today is challenged with new evidences tomorrow.

Green approach to built environment has to take these views and be aware of the alternatives and the perspectives. As building professionals we cannot be naive about what we do and be part of a moralising cult alone. Passion is important and not be part of a fashion show.

It also shows that there is no single universally acceptable right way of doing, even when everyone agrees with the impending disaster. It may sound cynical. But that is the reality.

Personally, I feel that good architecture takes a mediating view and be sensitive to the environment. After all architecture is also a media, pun indented.

Architecture is just not a tool, it also excites and delights and it does so in variety of ways. It communicates and is responding to the social and cultural demands as well. Some in sensible ways and some insensitive ways. Both ways, it is our value judgement which determines good or bad. How do we say that our value judgements are final? And always right? The debate will go on. Debate itself is also entertaining! As modern architecture did go beyond functionalism to create great architecture which are evaluated and understood beyond functional meanings, the ‘green architecture’ can also produce significant architecture beyond being just eco-friendly. Good architecture is multivalent and will go beyond a single point agenda. Just being green in whatever shade may not produce satisfying good architecture. Vice-versa too.


1. Brundtland Report : 1987, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future New York: Oxford University Press. Most commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report.

2. César Cuello Nieto, Fundacion Neotropica, and Paul T. Durbin, University of Delaware, 1996, Sustainable Development and Philosophies of of Technology, Society for Philosophy and Technology

3. Stanley R. Carpenter, "Inventing Sustainable Technologies," in J. Pitt and E. Lugo, eds., The Technology of Discovery and the Discovery of Technology: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology (Blacksburg, Va.: Society for Philosophy and Technology, 1991), pp. 481-492.

4. M. R. Redclift, 1987, Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions,London: Methuen.

5. Wolfgang Sachs, "The Gospel of Global Efficiency: On Worldwatch and Other Reports on the State of the World," IFDA [International Foundation for Development Alternatives] Dossier 68 (November-December, 1988):4.