We live in times of many uproars, and, slowly but surely, over the years, ‘sustainability’ has also been the focus of one.
Of course, it is not one of the things which have been with man since the onset of civilization. Why then and how did the great debate start? Was it the sudden and spontaneous concern for the environment? Or, was it the guilt after having exploited the environment almost to exhaustion? How does ‘green building’ provide us a comprehensive or holistic solution to responsible living (dwelling)? And, to start with, does it?
These are some of the questions architects need to start pondering over, if not answer.
Architecture, essentially, is about living and living is not an isolated activity. It includes everything we do and don’t do – eating, sleeping, dancing, nurturing, communicating, and so on. The building, then, is a medium of interaction between human and environment, and between human and human. Therefore, we need to start analyzing how sensible it is to talk in isolation about sustainable architecture without getting into a debate on responsible living.
Say, how sustainable a practice is it to use glass as a building material in a tropical country like India and then use energy-efficient airconditioners, leaving aside the further increase in transportation, security and maintenance costs, not to mention the carbon emissions and depletion of natural resources used for manufacturing such material? In such a scenario, it makes little sense to have green ratings for buildings.
We pave and tile large open areas and limit the seepage of water and make rainwater harvesting a compulsory requirement for every house. The wastewater generation per-capita per day is about 121 litres. And, the projected per-capita per-day requirement by the year 2020 is just a little less than that. Instead of investing in huge water treatment facilities, being prudent in the consumption of water in the first place could be seen as a choice that saves a lot of hassle.
Studies show that the size of Kolkata is now twice of what it used to be in 1990. Cities like Delhi and Mumbai follow suit. All of this is at the cost of vast green cover. At the same time, we have regulations for dedicated allotment of land as green zones/public parks/agricultural land.
It almost seems like the conscious generation of problems that would need desperate measures for fixing. Here comes into picture the law of diminishing marginal utility of sustainable building techniques. So unless we find more ways of not creating the problems rather than solving them, these techniques would first become inefficient and then, with time, redundant.
Every community, and, at a much smaller scale, every person, has a characteristic attitude towards sustainability. For example, one of the best human-land relationships goes back to the flood-plain civilization in ancient Egypt. Japan, in the 17th century, faced similar crisis as we do now, and they came up with ingenious solutions in an island with limited resources.
SUSTAINABILITY, A WAY OF LIFE
The crux of the matter is that sustainability has always been a way of life without us even realizing it, much before we started calling it that and giving everything a tag or a rating; before mud pots became too expensive for the potter himself. What we need to keep in mind is not to introduce our land, or country or town with ways that are not in congruence with the local climate, soil and culture.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?
Sustainability can be loosely defined as the most efficient and productive use of our natural resources, while investing cautiously in their regenerative process, thereby making sure that our future generations do not face the brunt of it all. But, is it something that can be achieved in a day, or even in a year, with one idea, one solution or with just one particular set of them? Certainly not. It has to be a slow and gradual shift in the way of life. It will one day eventually manifest itself in architecture; architecture is but a search to do things the best possible way, a search to live the closest to the ideal life we have in mind.
Today we use materials like plastic for packaging, acid for washing, and varnish for polishing, but what we fail to see, in Ivan Ilich’s words, are the ‘inevitable byproducts and the external costs’ which not only exceed the immediate benefits we derive but also, with every step, cripple the opportunities in future. In a populous and therefore labour-intensive country like India, all this will eventually affect more basic issues like food, water, sanitation and health.
So sustainability has to be looked at from the socio-cultural aspect as well. The mantra of the hour should be to eat what you grow and live in a house that you can build with your own skills. However, to develop sustainability within the restraints of not affecting economic growth, human rights and environmental safety is a challenge. Therefore, we cannot solely depend on technological advancement and practise sustainable architecture unless we at least attempt to look for the right way to live on the land that we do live on and take from it as less as we can. Who knows then, eventually, we might figure out a way to give it back what it rightly deserves!
Text: Ar. Nimmy Joshi