Challenges of Practicing Sustainable Architecture

A Summary of Discussions at the Workshop at SPA, New Delhi on August 2, 2012

The table below summarises various points that were raised and discussed at the workshop.

Challenges Strategies
Client Demands, Aspirations, and Pressures
  • Economic forces today are too powerful and the socioeconomic paradigm they have created is oriented towards unsustainable solutions. A developer or funder might be on edge trying to service a Rs. 40,000 crore loan. He is only interested in sales not in sustainability (SM, SP).
  • Spaces exist for sustainable practice in many kinds of projects. Homes, institutional projects and even some businesses and developers allow sustainability as a core value. We need to identify such project types that lie beyond the reach of market pressures and exploit their potential (ABL)
  • We need to educate clients about two things: a) sustainable architecture can actually save cost and b) sustainable design needs to be complemented, not opposed, by actual operational management and user practices. (?)
Socio-economic  order
  • Consumption is a central principle of the current economic paradigm.
  • The right to move in and out of societies to maximize profit, that highly mobile global capital today seeks and gets is an important underlying force in the current global neoliberal economic order. It encourages quick thoughtless building, monetization of every aspect of life and in general, short term thinking.
  • The culture of consumption is promoted by governmental economic policy (whether in the US after WWII or today in India)- it is not simply that people have lost their old golden ethic of austerity. So solutions targeted at individual ethical transformation might be barking up a less productive tree.
Policy and Governance
  • The model of urbanization itself makes it difficult to practice sustainable architecture (SM)
  • The urban model today is not based on sharing. Sustainability is about sharing. (ABansal)
  • Government must change the model to one of sharing (AB)
  • Government must lead the way but it is building glass buildings! (SM)
  • Gubbi must become a pressure group and push alternative ideas in the public realm. (PV, SM)
  • Gubbi should sensitise the Planning Commission as well as IAS officers, the latter through their traininig academies. (KV- he and Preeti Vajpeyi already offer some modules at the academies, and can help the group reach out to them, they said)
  • Building byelaws today encourage unsustainable construction. For instance, the cap on BUA means that builders reduce thickness of external wall. This creates uncomfortable interior spaces because of lack of insulation from heat/ cold and encourages artificial cooling, heating. If we had capped Carpet area, this would not happen, in this specific case. (ARR).
  • Bad byelaws never stopped me from practicing sustainably (SP)
  • [Implication of ARR’s point] We need more work on policies and their instruments (including byelaws) that will promote sustainable architecture and urban development, not its opposite.

One such effort was the project by Prof J K Nayak at IIT-B to develop climate sensitive byelaws for Mumbai. Don’t know what happened to it. SP, any idea?

Mode of Practice
  • Top-down mode of practice keeps the craftsman out. If we adopt bottom up, then craftsman will come into power and will bring sustainable practice along. (SM)
  • Architectural practice is not responding to changes around, the way, say medical or legal practice has done. (AS)
  • Problems are opportunities (AS)
  • A lot depends on how you situate your practice. (KV)
  • In their practice Kabir and Preeti Vajpeyi usually set up ‘frames’ for design at different scales and then invite craftsmen to fill in with their own ideas. “The architect is not the sole thekedar [contract holder, or contractor] of creativity”. “Craftsmanship comes in with ownership”. The craftsman is given a key role in the building of schools for various state governments, for instance. So for a chalkboard prototype, they first set the performance standards and ask different craftsmen to come up with different solutions. When Ramlal’s chalkboard is chosen it is adopted for wider replication and is known by his name (though he doesn’t get paid anything extra – this point was briefly raised and noted. It is worth considering in more detail).
  • We need to discuss how to practice sustainability in large scale projects (for instance, how do you incorporate craftspeople into large scale projects?) A Bansal. This came up as an issue in many things SP also said. I think there is scope for a separate, structured discussion on sustainability challenges in one kind of big project ( like say, a township), where clients are developers tied into the demanding financial market are the clients. There could be a separate discussion on larger projects for other kinds of clients, like say, campuses. Each offers a different mix of challenge and opportunity.
  • We need to recognize that practices, (like project types- see above), come in different types, locations and sizes. Each location, and business model of practice offers its unique opportunities for sustainable practice. This must be recognized and its implications considered more closely.
Risk and reward for consultant
  • Viability of sustainable practice increases with size of project. The simpler and smaller the project, the more difficult it is to incorporate sustainable principles. (ABL)
  • We can contribute our energies for these small projects (perhaps, a small, prototypical low cost, sustainable dwelling) so that they are done. They might never be attempted properly otherwise. (ABL)
  • Market does not pay for the extra work you do to make buildings sustainable. (ABL, SP, VV).
  • This is troubling, because the architect personally, and his firm and its employees too, are paying out of their pocket for doing the right thing. That is neither fair nor economically sustainable. (TT)
  • You have to accept that you will not be compensated for your extra effort even when you are paid a little above the market rate. It’s a personal choice about being happy with what you get (ABL)
  • Perhaps we have to stop being architects and become entrepreneurs to get paid proportionately to effort (ABL, SP )
  • Alternatively, try to link fees to savings in cost to client. There is a model of the ‘performance contract’ but you need to have a benchmark for it to work. (SP, ABL, others?)
  • Council of Architecture is very critical of entrepreneurial initiatives of architects (SP).
Professional/ Technical Attitudes, Knowledge, Competence
  • Lack of training for architects in sustainable architecture or for alternative ideas. No space in academics for this issue. (AB)
  • Also arch education is non-collaborative. (AB)
  • I don’t see a brief around for many projects, and no benchmarks. Also no Post Occupancy Evaluation. Basically, only a concern for materials and processes, not for people (AS)
  • Develop a set of champion buildings for ‘sustainability’ like there are champion buildings for green. (DP) A good suggestion at a practical level. However it could also imply creating a brand image for sustainability. If so, would that be appropriate? Should we not press for sustainability as a generic value, and not one specific to the Gubbi way. We must say, I think, that green is only one way of playing the sustainability game and there are others far better.
  • Currently, we have the wrong standards and benchmarks for evaluating greenness. (?)
  • [If we oppose sustainability to green] we need to quantify sustainability. How else do you convince clients? (NC)
  • We need to convince the outside world that what we are talking about is truly sustainable architecture. We need some kind of documentation, measurement system. (GM)
  • (HB) We don’t even have a framework for describing sustainability that everyone agrees to. This goes far beyond architecture. So we need to develop one at least for sustainable architecture, fix its dimensions and come up with at least a loose, subjectively used (perhaps voluntary) conceptual framework for sustainable architecture. This framework should be tied into the more fundamental theoretical or conceptual frameworks on which the discipline is based, or which connect building to social life at the broadest level. Such a framework can be the basis for a theoretically viable rating system. Otherwise any rating system we produce might have exactly the same kind of problems that dog the existing ones.
  • We also need to develop a framework of challenges, opportunities and responsibilities of sustainable architecture. This can be more prescriptive and can be one take. It would consider typical concerns like scalability, replicability etc and take a position on their importance, relevance in different situation.
  • Neither of these frameworks are necessarily single pieces of work initially. We need wide discussions before these can be formalized. But certainly, specific proposals for each must be made so we can go ahead.
  • Conservation is an important word. But it is only ‘efficiency’ that is talked about today. (Neeraj)
  • In nature we see a cyclic flow of energy, nutrients, water, not linear. When we design, we do so in a linear model. (PV)



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