Designing green spaces

Last Updated 09 June 2011, 18:27 IST

Sustainable architecture is all about being able to sustain our natural resources and maintain ecological balance, despite ongoing urbanisation. For this to happen, a sound technological understanding of such architecture is necessary in order for one to build it into the fabric of development in the country.  

So, what should the construction of tomorrow be like? Why is sustainable development important? According to David Racz, Associate Director, LAB Architecture Studio, “Sustainable development is an acknowledgement that the world has finite resources and that when we have depleted these resources, they can’t be replaced. We are just starting to understand how complex the ecosystems in our world are, and there is an urgent need to design and commission buildings and cities that don’t further deplete these resources.”

LAB Architecture Studio is an international architecture and urban design firm based in Victoria whose reputation is founded on proposals of progressive urban orderings and spaces, integrating sustainability and livability.

Racz explains that successful development should not just be environmentally sustainable; it is equally important for it to be financially, socially and culturally sustainable. The Studio strongly believes that every building should be economically and socially sustainable, apart from conserving energy and resources.

In a country like India where city centres are saturated with development, how does one introduce sustainable development?

“Buildings are usually considered in isolation. However, in congested urban areas, there are advantages to assessing the opportunities afforded by the context. LAB is developing a method we call ‘Sustainable Whole of Precinct Approach (SWoPA)’ for urban projects. Our proposal uses rainwater and excess low-grade heat from near-by buildings that is presently just being wasted. It proposes recycling and returning water to surrounding buildings as grey water, creating new links between existing buildings that are otherwise unconnected. 

The project is a proposal to introduce a new building into a built-up area so that it utilises existing assets, such as energy and water, from surrounding buildings. The entire zone can be elevated to a sustainably maintained precinct, so not just the new building benefits from being sustainable. There is another side to the question: why would a country not insist upon having sustainable building stock? The buildings we construct today will be with us for at least 25 years, and more likely 50 years. India has a golden opportunity – the country has an enormous number of new buildings now and can make these sustainable, or repeat the mistake of the West,” he explains.

Pricing of sustainable development has always been on the higher side. Convincing the end user to invest is often difficult. How does one change such mindsets?
I don’t accept that sustainable buildings necessarily need to be more expensive than non-sustainable buildings. It’s true that the capital cost of the system was marginally more expensive than installing air conditioning. But this is a key issue; how do you calculate the cost? A realistic calculation and assessment should at least involve the running cost and payback period. The running cost of the fans is generally less than 10 per cent that of a conventional air conditioning system. In a short while, it pays for itself, requires little maintenance and the fans are easy to maintain. 

Another incentive will be the corporate values companies place on their premises. In the UK and Australia, companies are increasingly paying a premium to lease “green” buildings. They are cheaper to run. They are pleasanter spaces to occupy so their employees are happier and more productive. They demonstrate a commitment by the company to the environment. These are all corporate values with which the most enlightened companies want to be associated, surely will be a trend that will be repeated in India.

Where is the need for sustainable development more, in commercial or residential real estate? Are they equal in terms of potential?

Both are important. The residential sector accounted for approximately 47 per cent of India’s energy use in 2005. While the commercial sector was smaller, both consumed a huge proportion of the nation’s energy.  Air conditioning and lighting are the top two uses in both sectors, which can be relatively easily reduced by 20 per cent. Though they are different sizes, each present important potential savings.

However in order to maximise the impact, the issue needs to be addressed at the city planning stage.  For instance, for series of sustainable master plans we are currently implementing in China (area ranges 150 – 1,800 ha), we are creating dense, vibrant mixed use towns.  They utilise the existing land forms and storm water courses to create public green spaces. The towns are designed with multiple local hubs and integrated sustainable transport systems based on five-minute walking distances so that it will be possible to walk or cycle to work.  By encouraging mixed use instead of single-zoned development, commuting distances and hours are reduced. The towns will have longer business hours, more business opportunities, and overall create a more livable and sustainable environment.  The more holistic the sustainability policy the more likely the towns will be successful.

What are some sustainable techniques that would suit the Indian market?
India already has examples of suitable sustainable techniques in her historical buildings and vernacular architecture, and these vary depending upon the specific climates found in different parts of India.  These buildings employ passive measures that are very effective, such as solar shading.

An example is the beautiful Raja Birbal in the harem of Fatehpur Sikri.  The city is located in a hot arid desert climate of Uttar Pradesh.  Its walls are thick stone with a high thermal capacity.  They provide a long time lag, so the walls never permit the heat of the day to reach the inside of the building.  Large overhangs create shaded areas for sitting and keep the sun off the structure.  And the large openings seem to promote a gentle breeze even when the surrounding air is quite still – hence the name “House of the Winds.”  Many aspects of sustainable development are not hi-tech.  They are very simple, but effective

Do LAB’s international successes have the potential of being replicated in India?  
We would have to say emphatically yes.  But we also believe our work is about an attitude and an approach, not the re-application of a solution. 

It is one of our core principles that we approach each and every project differently depending upon its context. 

The design solution naturally needs to reflect the project’s specificity: local climate, topography, cultural and social tendencies in special occupation, client’s brief, available materials and construction methodology; every aspect of which affects the success of the development. 

Only when the building works in its location can it be considered sustainable and thus successful.  Being context-specific is the most natural way to be sustainable.


* Federation Square consists of a 300-ft-long glazed street called ‘The Galleria’. Effectively it’s a greenhouse, but the architecture studio wanted to air-condition the space sustainably. They developed a passive cooling system formed with staggered rippled concrete walls, which they called the labyrinth.  When the temperature falls at night, the cold night air is blown by a fan into the labyrinth and cools down the concrete walls, creating a huge “cool battery.” During the day, air for the Galleria is then fed through the labyrinth and cooled. In Melbourne in the summer, the temperature typically reaches 38C on a hot day, but the temperature in the Galleria can be maintained at 22 C with just a fan. No conventional air conditioning is needed. 

* In Riyadh, for instance, the Studio is developing a project for six commercial towers. These have a conventional curtain walling system, but are covered in a metal mesh. The mesh will be installed at various angles and inclined towards the South, which are carefully calculated to the sun angle of Riyadh so the mesh creates a maximum self-shading façade thus considerably reducing cooling costs. This sustainable solution makes the building appear solid during the day, whereas at night it will glow like a beacon; reflecting the client’s brief in the design of an iconic building among Riyadh’s low-rise surroundings.

* In their award winning project at Federation Square in Melbourne, the Studio specified spray taps that use 40 per cent less water, and used recycled grey water and effective solar shading to reduce heat gain (and therefore cooling costs). The firm used recycled materials wherever possible. For instance, the Studio used reclaimed timber for the gallery floors. Because it was old, the trees had grown more slowly, so it was denser, harder and more durable. The timber was also really well-seasoned and dimensionally stable, so it did not shrink or warp as is the danger with a modern timber floors. There are measures such as photovoltaic panels to generate electricity. These tend to have high capital costs and longer payback periods and are hard to justify in a price sensitive market. But solar panels that use the sun’s energy to directly heat water and so reduce electricity demand are generally a more efficient, less expensive technology, with a much faster payback.

(Published 09 June 2011, 18:27 IST)

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