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Built Environment – Moving Towards Sustainability

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There is a heavy price to pay for development, as the world is finding out with climate change rearing its ugly head. Sachin Sandhir suggests way ahead in the context of the built environment

With ever growing concern on the outcome of ecological changes as a consequence of energy consumption patterns, countries across the globe are coming to terms with issues related to forest and land degradation, freshwater shortage, food security and soaring pollution levels.

The Copenhagen Communiqué on climate change is set to become the definitive statement on this pertinent issue. While countries across the globe negotiate to arrive at a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, there is growing and mounting pressure to reduce global carbon footprint and commit to reduced emission targets. In this pledge to save the planet, it is the developing countries that will play a key role.

The world is already seeing a swap in emission trends between developed and developing countries, with the latter set to contribute to 70% of the world’s carbon emissions as compared to its present 30%. This is just indicative of the level of development that these countries are projected to achieve in the race to acquire economic supremacy. From 2000 – 2025, China and India are collectively said to account for the total construction levels that the world has seen till date.

This very fact highlights the importance of the property and real estate sector and the role that it can play in preparing for and mitigating climate change.

Buildings are considered to be the largest end users of energy, accounting for approximately 30% of all energy consumption globally and contributing significantly to green house gas emissions. The need now is greater than ever to have ‘building energy codes’ that can help new buildings use energy efficiently, thereby reducing energy consumption levels by as much as 50% or more, depending on the design techniques and materials used in construction.

With the Indian economy shifting towards services located in urban areas and a growing middle class, it has been cited that approximately 40% of the country’s population will inhabit cities by 2020 as compared to the present 28%. Given in the next 5-10 years, retail and commercial space are expected to grow by 43 million and 150 million square metres respectively, and a shortfall of over 22.4 million dwellings in housing, the anticipated growth in energy demand is projected to be high in the building construction sector.

It is therefore essential to have an integrated and synergistic approach to sustainable construction and green building. Protecting and conserving natural resources while reducing energy consumption levels and achieving particular standards in green ratings, should be the clear objective. To make this a reality it would be imperative to factor for ‘green’ right from the inception of projects by ensuring that members across development teams are part of the planning and design process and work towards the common vision of creating desired green criteria while considering cost efficiency parameters.

In India, while the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) sets the minimum efficiency standards for the design and construction of buildings, green building laws and codes established in the country are voluntary in the absence of an explicit nationalised code. This fact might be indicative of the low penetration of green buildings in the country, which is expected to increase to 5% in the next two years over its present 2%.

Another trend in the Indian green building footprint is the imbalance in initiatives across property segments. While, a flurry of activity has been seen by the commercial property segment, the residential space has hardly anything to boast off. The country has approximately 320 registered green buildings and a green building footprint equivalent to 200 million sq. ft., only 35% of this footprint is attributable to completed projects mainly comprising of commercial spaces, schools and hospital buildings.

However, the residential sector is now picking up in terms of contributing to the green building drive. While only 8% of the total emissions in India are accounted for by the household sector, as cited by a Prayas Energy Group study, these could further reduce with the growing consumer demand for green homes. As per the Zero Carbon Capacity Index an initiative commissioned by the RICS and undertaken by the UCL Environment Institute, to capture the extent to which countries are putting in place frameworks to reduce carbon emissions associated with built environment, indicates that India is one of the lowest carbon emitters in the world in proportion to its GDP per capita.

The now growing awareness and importance of sustainability factors in the building and construction arena have been brought to the fore, by a recently concluded Global Property Sustainability Survey conducted by the RICS. The findings from the study indicate that while energy efficiency continues to be the most important issue internationally, with business bottom lines as the primary drivers of sustainability agendas, in India legal compliance persists as the most common issue. Additionally, the survey suggests that Indian occupiers, investors etc. are willing to pay a 10% premium for green building, while government departments are willing to pay a 12% premium on the same.

Considering that in India, climate change and security concerns have converged in a way that attention is drawn to the energy policy, it is time to look for alternative sources and materials that contribute to sustainability, especially in the built environment. Rating systems such as LEED and GRIHA have provided an impetus for architects and developers to look at traditional, passive and vernacular design techniques to create buildings. With evaluation parameters based on sustainable site planning; energy efficiency and renewable energy; water efficiency; solid waste management; materials and resources; health and well being of occupants; and design and process innovation, there is greater stress on the use of renewable and embodied energy sources.

However, several roadblocks continue to stand in the way of the built environment moving towards the creation of sustainable settlements. The common notion of ‘green buildings’ being costlier than conventional establishments is a myth that needs to be shattered. It is imperative that developers should start focusing on lifetime returns on investments rather than having a myopic view on the short term returns. Additionally, anecdotal evidence based on lifecycle cost analyses of the initial investment and operation costs indicates that the payback period for green buildings varies between three to five years. There is also a need to strengthen the institutional framework to ensure that adequate skills and training are imparted to build capacity and create technical knowhow among the professionals operating within the built environment space.

This is an area in which the RICS can lend its expertise, through its recently unveiled Global Climate Change Strategy. The organization strengthened its commitment to take concrete action globally to stress the value and potential of an emerging low carbon property market. Among the key priorities of the strategy, the RICS’ will help its members across the real estate sector in providing standards, guidance and information to enable qualified professionals to understand climate change and promote best practices. Additionally, the RICS will work towards improving and standardising sustainability measuring and reporting, while continuing a programme of engagement with governments across the globe in line with the priorities set out in the strategy.

Sachin Sandhir is Managing Director & Country Head, RICS India. He can be contacted at ssandhir@rics.org

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