By Jayashree Mendes
Until 2011, Spectral Services Consultants, a 20-year-old mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) and green building consultancy firm, was following its vision of providing engineering solutions and energy efficient designs to any project that required its services. In 2011, Spectral was acquired by US-based engineering firm, Aecom, a Fortune 500 company. By then, the company was in a formidable position designing projects exceeding the services system cost of `150 billion. The acquisition pushed Spectral into the big league and a known name as Aecom India. It also gave Ashish Rakheja, regional managing director (building engineering), Aecom India, an opportunity to move to designing sustainable building solutions be it in landscaping or master planning or traffic engineering.
Rakheja says, “Earlier we were mainly MEP consultants. But as the company transformed to Aecom, the parent company is focused around building solutions. That is how we began understanding buildings better.”
The objectives of sustainable design are to reduce or avoid depletion of critical resources like energy, water, and raw materials; prevent environmental degradation caused by facilities and infrastructure throughout their life cycle; and create built environments that are livable, comfortable, safe, and productive.
“Creation of sustainable buildings begins with a proper site selection. The location and landscaping of a building affect local ecosystems, transportation methods, and energy use. It is important to incorporate smart growth principles into the project development process,” Rakheja adds.
There’s another aspect to sustainability that is little known or ignored in India.
Most developers who seek to construct sustainable buildings choose a location without giving a second thought to ease of access roads, parking, vehicle barriers and perimeter lighting. A successful project can only meet its objectives if site design integrates well with sustain able design. The site of a sustainable building should reduce, control, and/or treat storm water runoff. And whenever possible, it must strive to support native flora and fauna of the region in the landscape design.
Rakheja says, “One cannot make a project green. The project has to be green from day one. It’s the basic fabric of the project. Today, people take up a project and then try to design it around a rating system which means that the rating system is driving the project. What we believe is that the project design should be sustainable and the rating should pursue it. That means the project should automatically veer towards the gold or platinum rating system by virtue of the design itself.”
Globally, Aecom’s maxim is: Create, Enhance and Sustain. Sustainability is the core of the company’s design. So it’s not surprising, says Rakheja, that a growing awareness has realised into the company having executed 35 platinum rated projects. “This is unusual because more clients prefer to stick to gold rated projects as there are fewer criteria to meet. Platinum rated projects translates to more money spend and an extra effort,” he adds.
A platinum rated green building would call for major HVAC improvements, significant building envelope modifications and major interior rehabilitation.
There are five major credit ratings that projects must satisfy to earn points that would push them into Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. The five categories include sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality (IEQ). An additional category, innovation in design, addresses sustainable building expertise as well as design measures not covered under the five environmental categories. The number of points the project earns determines the level of LEED certification the project receives.
As a large consulting organisation, Delhi-based Aecom has access to international developed software and a vast network of engineers. With horizontal knowledge sharing, Aecom executives around the world are privy to projects developed by their counterparts in the rest of the world. “A major innovation for us today is the simulation of the building. The software tool first creates a 3D imaging of a building and then checks it for building energy, carbon, lighting and performance. The 3D elements offer visual feedback of actual element thickness and room areas and volumes with little limitation on geometric forms or surface shape. The template allows loading common building constructions, activities, HVAC and lighting systems into the design.
The tool also allows the user to control the level of detail in each building model and make changes in the design up till the construction stage,” says Rakheja.
It is imperative that for a project to be green, the design consultant cut down energy consumption by 25-30%. This can only be achieved after it has got the passive elements of the building right. This is besides the electro-mechanical works that it also manages. Rakheja says, “The passive element is the arc of the design and one that is controlled by architects.
So as MEP consultants we work with the architects, provide them timely input so that they are able to shape the building in such a way that it is friendly from the perspective of any cost.”
This enables Aecom India to cut down 20-30% of its operating cost besides the consumption right in the architecture design itself. So when the engineers and contractors take over, Aecom then directs its concentration at other aspects such as the technology to be used within.
This implies the high efficiency chillers and pumps and other electro-mechanical components. “By looking at the passive and the active components, we are able to bring down energy consumption significantly.
This is one of the advantages of using and understanding the simulation software,” he adds.
Green building techniques also focus on a few other concepts. Heating and cooling interior spaces account for 50% of a home’s energy use. Poor insulation can let that energy go waste. Stopping drafts with insulation can seal the surfaces in walls and prevent air gaps. Using high efficiency, low-E windows and caulking gaps around windows, doors and duct works, etc. can help save energy. Using high-efficiency mechanical and electrical equipment for heating and cooling systems, water heaters and light fixtures are some of the other techniques advised by consultants to help save energy.
Speaking about his early experience, Rakheja says that a little more than a decade ago, as a young intern he was instructed that when designing buildings every 13m2 of space required one-tonne of air-conditioning. “Today we use one-tonne of air-conditioning for every 37m2 of area, which is three times of the same area being serviced by one tonne of air conditioning.”
So much has the efficiency gone up that in the near future the company is looking at servicing 74m2 of area with the same tonnage of air-conditioning. “We analyse each and every component of the design. When looking at components, I start from the placement of the building to the kind of glass it will use, the reason for the glass, the pressure created in the building, etc. Only when one has examined every aspect of the building can we drive the efficiency factor,” he says.
All these exercises then automatically help the building fall under the super green category. “That’s why I said that when the rating system drives the project then the cost of the project will be high. But when the design drives the rating, then the cost of the building will be low,” he says.
Aecom India is also keen that the building is designed keeping the sun and wind in mind. Besides this, materials that have long life spans (they may be expensive, but help save in the long run as they rarely need replacement for several years) can ensure little breaking or repair in the future. Even more important is designing buildings with small footprints that take up less land. The added green space absorbs excess nutrients in rainwater that can contribute harmful runoff to nearby watersheds. Exterior spaces such as patios and driveways can be designed with permeable materials to let water soak in. Certain products release toxic vapours into the atmosphere and can cause health problems and environmental damage. Paints, plastics and wood products such as plywood and particleboard fall into this category. One way is to look for alternatives labelled ‘low volatile organic compounds’. Usage of particleboard and plywood labelled “formaldehyde-free,” or panels made of compressed agricultural plant material (such as wheat board or strawboard) also push the green factor further.
So does Aecom collaborate with products companies who emphasise on green products? Rakheja says, “We do not make suggestions to developers or clients about deploying a particular product. But when we drive in our requirements, companies react to bring out the best product. Consider the use of glass. One would like a lot of light into the room but simultaneously avoid glare. Especially architects love using glass on a building as it makes their work easier and is also aesthetically appealing,” he says. But glass invites heat, which translates into burning of energy. That is when the Aecom team calls in the manufacturer of glass and requests for samples that is apt in terms of thermal performance.
Rakheja also takes pride in the fact that the company has been responsible for compelling manufacturers to raise the standards of manufacturing. “We have helped a manufacturer introduce the much-talked of chilled beams. They allow one to do away with conventional ducting systems and work through natural convective current that are formed in the building itself where the hot air rises up and gets in touch with the cold surface and falls down. It’s the next form of air-conditioning.”
Since most of Aecom’s clients are worldly-wise, they are familiar with technologies available abroad. The technologies, having proved its mettle abroad, is then brought in to India.
Another technology that Aecom has adopted in India is under-floor air distribution. This means creating a false floor and supplying cooled air from the bottom. “Since hot air rises up, why supply cold air from the top? This technology has helped us bring down the energy consumption by another 10%,” he says. Is not the whole affair a tad expensive? Rakheja reasons, “Indian customers are price sensitive. It’s part of our culture.
Hence there’s a bigger need to justify various requirements to our clients.” The company does that by explaining the benefits of technology and the payback period. Considering that there’s a general mindset that green is an expensive affair, there’s a dire need to explain to the client the requisite for installing certain elements that will create ventilation or zero artificial lighting. “One often hears developers advertising about the Italian marble or imported fixtures. But how many of them speak of the nature in the building or energy savings?” he says. A lower electricity cost, lower operating cost, and the idea that they have been involved in the decision making process helps push the green factor further. However, there’s a difference in the way contractors operate in India and abroad.
For instance, in the US the concept is that of general contractors who take everything under their umbrella, including the designs that will be executed by consultants hired by them. And all this will come with a guaranteed maximum price.
“In India, there is an absence of general contracting. Here it is driven by civil contractors. Then there are the HVAC contractors and the project management companies (PMCs). The approach to the project is totally different,” says Rakheja.
As a consultant, Aecom is then required to hand over the detailed drawing to the contractor who will then get to work.
The consultant will also examine the quantities required for the overall construction and make a list for the client all the while adhering to the specifications of the tender document which in turn is far too elaborate. Construction on the building is carried out only after all this has been given.