Developing a People-Centred Approach to Green Building

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By Martin Wright at Green Futures

As India’s surging new cities compete for potential residents, words like ‘green’ and ‘energy efficient’ are increasingly bandied about in advertising copy – often with little practical meaning.

Ratings schemes like LEED add credibility, and are particularly popular with corporate flagships, such as ITC’s vast new Grand Chola Hotel in Chennai. But valuable as it is, LEED only covers a building’s potential performance – as opposed to what actually happens when people start inhabiting it.

Now TERI has set up a complementary scheme under the rather inelegant acronym GRIHA: Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment. It covers everything from water and energy use to health and safety for workers during construction. The building gets a provisional rating on completion, but the final one depends on an audit carried out a year after its occupants have moved in.

Mili Majumdar, Director of TERI’s Sustainable Habitat Division, is particularly proud of its role in improving building site safety. “We do visits unannounced: check whether the workers have got decent sanitation, whether they’re being provided with drinking water, and so on.”

The scheme tries to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach, which has led to some daft decisions in pursuit of points. “If a building’s only going to be used by office workers who go home by six”, says Majumdar, “then there’s no point putting a solar heating system on the roof, just to win a point towards a good rating.” Or take groundwater recharging: “an excellent idea in many parts of the country, but definitely not desirable where the water table is practically at the surface!”

When it comes to overall costs, she says, “the economic case for energy conscious buildings is pretty persuasive. Installing thorough insulation, heat-reflective glass and so on can add 5-7% to capital costs, but your running expenses will be cut by 30-40%, so there’s a direct trade off. The maximum payback period should be three to four years: after that it’s all net savings”.

Despite such obvious advantages, only around 1% of all new Indian buildings are green-rated – and just 0.25% have a GRIHA mark. So why doesn’t everyone do it? In part, it’s the old story that the people developing the buildings are often not going to be occupying them: the ‘split incentive’ issue. “There’s also an understandable resistance to ‘red tape-ism’, adds Majumdar.

For its part, the Government is taking tentative steps to set minimum compulsory standards for all new state buildings, and redirecting incentives at developers themselves – for example, by allowing a larger footprint for green-rated buildings – is also on the cards.

Overall, though, says Majumdar, as energy costs rise, so credible green ratings will have increasing appeal as a marketing tool. “When it comes to grabbing people’s attention, there’s nothing like telling them they’ll have more money in their pockets.”

This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future.