If sustainability is to be given a shape, it will be a circle. Any aspect of living that can keep moving in a circle without interfering with objects outside this circle can be termed as sustainable. In his enormously successful book Design with Nature, published in 1969, Ian McHarg argues that:
“If one accepts the simple proposition that Nature is the arena of life and that a modicum of knowledge of her process is indispensable for survival and rather more for existence, health and delight, it is amazing that how many apparently difficult problems present a ready solution.”
The key to architectural sustainability is to work with, rather than against Nature; to be sensitive so that we do not damage the natural systems. Architectural sustainability mirrors the view that it is necessary to position human activities as a non-damaging part of the ongoing ecological landscape, with a belief that ‘nature knows best’.
Any green building architect should identify places with intrinsic suitability for agriculture, forestry, recreation and urbanisation. Designing with nature at a building level is about recognising sun paths, breezes, shade trees and rock formations that can be used to create something that people can inhabit comfortably, while recognizing that natural features such as trees, animal tracks, habitats and natural drainage systems must be protected. For example, if one is to choose a device with high shading coefficient in the summer and a low shading coefficient in the winter, a vine may be used in place of a mechanical system. The vine shades the building when it is needed, and the building provides a home for the vine. Thus, both are sustainable.
By adding rainwater collection, reed beds for sewage and perhaps wind or solar power for electrical energy, the building can be independent of imported service and exported waste, keeping its environmental footprint within the footprint of the site. The final archetypal visual image is one of an isolated, self-sufficient building dominated by its surrounding landscape.
It goes without saying that the version of architecture that I described above is seldom practiced in India, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.
The latest market-driven surge in green building has had some success at bridging the gap between current building practices and true sustainability. India is now the second largest market for green buildings. The trend is completely market-driven and has been achieved with very little government support.
While this sounds fantastic, there is an urgent need in India to extend the technological understanding of sustainable architecture and to incorporate socio-cultural aspects in its production.
One challenge to India’s acceptance of sustainable architecture is the gap between technology and economic status. On one end, sophisticated technology-based solutions have been developed to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, but they require a high initial investment that only a few can afford.
On the other end, affordable, low-cost technologies, such as mud architecture, are already available; however, these do not fit in with the aspirations of the urban population. Affordable technology-based solutions are thus seen as the only means of addressing environmental degradation.
In India, environmental agendas and green buildings are often based on the precedents of developed countries. The 2004 draft for the National Environmental Policy of India received heavy criticism for this reason.
The issue of energy efficiency is more relevant for developed countries. When energy efficiency is used as the main criterion for green buildings in India, several critical issues tend to be ignored.
Studies indicate that at the current rate of population growth and consumption of water per capita, there will be a shortage of drinking water in Indian urban centres within the next decade.
That being said, the western model of sustainability works very well and has measurable benefits. However, economically speaking, I am not entirely convinced it is the best solution for India.
It is essential that relationship between social, economic and environmental sustainability should become a critical consideration for the design of India’s built environment.
Deepika Mathur of the University of Melbourne has rightly pointed out that: “By limiting itself to sustainability that is dependent on technology for solutions, sustainable architecture in India fails to incorporate the critical dimension of social and cultural sustainability without which it may not work in the Indian context. To be environmentally sustainable, architecture would need to also register the social, political, economical and cultural context of India and offer solutions that are sensitive to its particularities.”