Studies suggest emissions from the construction sector could be reduced in India by 270 million tonnes between 2016 and 2060. This is a wake-up call for architects and designers. An urgent reassessment is needed to ascertain how the design, construction, and operation of buildings can be improved to limit environmental impact while enhancing performance.
Designing for Climate
Sustainable buildings fundamentally consume less energy during their construction and operation and have a longer lifespan than conventional buildings. These buildings usually employ simple design principles that respond to their climate and context. Primary among these is the building’s layout and configuration, which can help reduce electrical consumption by limiting heat penetration (known as solar heat gain) and improving air circulation through natural ventilation. For example, the size and orientation of windows can determine the amount of daylight and the supply of fresh air into the building. Large windows to the north, light wells (such as open-to-sky courtyards or aangans that let in daylight), and skylights maximise daylight entry thereby reducing dependence on artificial lighting. Similarly, strategically designed windows that capture the wind can also improve cross-ventilation, thereby reducing dependence on air conditioning.
We can also draw from frugal, age-old building practices to control internal temperatures and minimise building costs. Thick walls work better in hot and dry areas since they prevent heat from entering the building as opposed to thin walls. Recessed windows with jaalis (screens) and chajjas (eaves), commonly used in traditional architecture, can offer shade and promote cooling. In humid regions, buildings can be designed to be ‘porous’, using light materials, perforations and large openings to let in cool breezes that improve comfort levels indoors. Adopting these simple, cost-effective design strategies can go a long way in bringing down energy bills as well as harmful emissions.
A New Lease of Life: Creative Reuse of Buildings and Materials
Environmental and economic constraints are making new construction increasingly unsustainable in the world we inhabit today. Bengaluru, for instance, alone produces nearly 3000 tonnes of construction and demolition waste every day, with much of it ending up in undesignated landfills, resuling in unprecedented levels of wastage and pollution.
It is generally cheaper and time-efficient to repurpose an existing building to serve new functions as opposed to erecting new infrastructure from scratch. Across India, innumerable factories and power plants lie vacant or disused – with much of their original infrastructure still intact. These dilapidated buildings hold the potential to be creatively adapted to welcome contemporary use. Meticulous planning and concerted efforts towards their revival and restoration can offer substantial returns on investment and contribute to cost and energy savings. These existing facilities can be retrofitted to accommodate modern machinery, maximise production efficiency, as well as meet employee needs.
Even with new constructions, there are ways to reduce environmental impact and improve building performance. Facilities could be designed using modular structural components that can be easily disassembled and reassembled to serve evolving functions. This approach is geared towards the idea of circular economics–a model of production and consumption that aims to limit wastage to a minimum through the reuse and recycling of materials. Since demolishing existing infrastructure and building anew can no longer continue unabated without factoring in the buildings’ energy and environmental impact, the opportunities provided by the principles of circular economics merit thorough and urgent application.
Exploring Flexibility, Adaptability, and Modularity
Industrial facilities today also need to accommodate rapidly changing requirements in the information age, with disruptive technologies continually impacting production systems, manufacturing processes, and supply chains. The building plan and layout should support the seamless production, processing, and administrative functions of a facility to create a highly efficient system. For instance, an open-plan layout with reconfigurable flexible partition walls allows for multiple functions to be performed, either simultaneously, or across the course of a day or month or year. This capacity to adapt to changing use extends the building’s service life, reduces wastage, and results in economic and environmental savings.
Socially Inclusive Design
Conventional factories conjure up images of abysmal working conditions with workers toiling in dimly-lit environments lacking basic safety regulations. Design can significantly improve the nature of comfort, safety, and the health and wellbeing of factory workers.
In addition to the economic and environmental aspects of sustainability, the design of a facility that caters to the physical and psychological wellbeing of its occupants is paramount for the times we live in. A hierarchy-free approach to planning that allows for all levels of management and the factory workers to come together by creating congregational spaces promotes a healthy and inclusive working environment. Ancillary provisions for rest, relaxation, dining, etc., become prerequisite requirements that engender this idea of social sustainability uncharacteristic of such building types.
Globally, numerous sectors and organisations are adopting the tools necessary to keep our economic engines running while setting emissions targets that will restrict warming to 1.5°C. The pivotal role of architecture and urban planning in this endeavour cannot be overstated–and the time for action is now.
(The writer is Principal at Studio Lotus)