Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Friday, Sep 02, 2005

Industry & Economy - Environment

Green is the word

Vineeta Badawe

Let's take a leaf out of energy-efficient building designs that are the norm in Europe.

The Grundfos office in Chennai.

While studying in Denmark and travelling around Europe, first as student and then as a professional, none of us talked about `green' buildings. There were no courses offered on this subject. It's only now I realise that it was because Europeans take it for granted.

In those countries, to say a building should have a good waste disposal and recycling system, and energy efficiency is like saying the building should have walls and windows. It's an essential, and if the building does not have these features, people will refuse to occupy it. As simple as that!

When I returned to India and started a branch of V.V. Architects in Chennai in 1998, again no one talked about it here... but for a different reason. Barring a few exceptions, like the Auroville and architect Laurrie Baker from Kerala, nobody thought about how alternative energy resources, water efficiency, and indigenous materials and technology should be used in planning buildings.

A challenging project

In this scenario I was asked to take part in a Limited Architectural Competition to design Vestas Wind Energy's premises in Chennai. The brief was simple... the company makes windmills ? an alternative source of energy ? and its office and campus should reflect its philosophy.

The land chosen was a coconut grove in Chennai, and as it is a very hot city, the assignment provided both challenges and inspiration. The three-axial plan inspired by the geometry of the windmill was an idea that came to me easily on a long train journey from Chennai to Pune. Incidentally, this form also helped save the maximum number of trees in the grove. The rest was an uphill task. Since energy-efficient buildings were a rarity, I read every book available on environment, sustainable development and good building practices.

All these ideas were put on paper and presented to the company for review. While reviewing our proposal, Ramesh Kymal, Managing Director of Vestas Wind Energy, commented that it looked like a resort. We were unsure what to make of this comment. I convinced myself that it was a positive remark.

We were eventually awarded the project and then came the toughest part. At that time no one was aware of the rating system by USGBC (United States Green Buildings Council), and few contractors had the knowledge and technology for insulated walls; energy-efficient sandwich glass was expensive, the building shape with three wings added a lot of wall area. All this had a predictable effect ? the costs were difficult to control, and we had to think up innovative solutions.

The skylight, use of granite as plinth insulation, rolling landscape, earth filling, transplantation of uprooted trees, satisfying the norms of Vaastu ? all these made it an exciting experience. Vestas Wind Energy's 60,000 sq ft built space on 5.5 acres was completed in a record seven months. To be honest, none of us was then aware that our building would qualify for a Gold Rating by the USGBC. That came as a bonus.

I began to be more systematic and started to rely less on `intuition' and more on `reality'. Due to the building's energy-efficient design, the company saves about 30 per cent on energy. But what matters for those who work there is the quality of space; and what matters to visitors is the element of surprise.

Conservation is the key

Grundfos, again a Danish company, happened next. By now we were familiar with the `energy efficiency' aspect of buildings. We submitted our proposal. The concept was that of a very long building... organic in form with circles and ellipses as staircases and roof punctures. There were blue and green courtyards, water walls and vaulted roofs. In the initial proposal, energy-efficient, high-end air-conditioning and electrical equipment were included.

We waited impatiently for N.K. Ranganath, the Grundfos CEO, to return from Denmark. On his return he called and said: `Your building was a hit!' We were all very happy and our design team had a celebration. We looked forward to the water walls and curved lines.

The Danes, however, believe that a `white box' means efficiency. We Indians like the exotic ? at least in small measures.

We did manage to come to an understanding and the result is an elegant yet exciting building. A few curves and ellipses remained; a few circles and water walls were deleted.

The building revolves around light. How sunlight affects people, how light travels from windows, from vertical and inclined glass walls, linear and pyramidal skylights, and so on.

The building's interior is very light... there are no heavy concrete staircases. Courtyards are integrated ? they invite nature, people and the ducks.

NEG depends on wind energy, Grundfos on solar energy.

The Grundfos building recycles every drop of water. Under the landscape a layer of eco-gel reduces water-consumption by half. Common areas and toilets are fitted with occupancy and movement sensors that control the artificial lighting. Nobody is without daylight or a view.

The building management systems are integrated in the design. Task lights are provided at each workstation so that a person working late into the night does not have to switch on the general lighting. Carbon dioxide levels are controlled. Grundfos has invested in a thermal storage tank for its air-conditioning requirements, the urinals are waterless, and waste is segregated into dry and wet at the source. The building has a good fire protection system with fire alarms, fire rated doors and fire zones.

There is another dimension to the Grundfos building. The design is friendly towards physically challenged people. Though only a two-storeyed building, there is a Braille enabled lift. Every staircase has an option of a ramp or a lift, the switches and handles are at low level, so that a person on a wheelchair can access them. Handrails are designed for easy grip.

Ranganath lent me a documentary film called Access, which showed perfectly capable and intelligent people not being able to function due to sheer indifference and callousness on the part of civil society. All that these people need is access... to their workplace, shopping centres, public utilities, etc. And for an architect it does not take much to provide this access at the design stage. It just means planning the buildings, streets and townships in a manner that gives a wheelchair-bound person access... through a substitute for a staircase and wider passageways and doors... and also provide important information in Braille. One is well aware that designing high-end corporate offices with `Gold' rating is not the end of the road. Much more needs to be done individually and collectively to save the environment. Architects can play a major role in this endeavour.

Some of us need to start a movement against the highly energy-inefficient steel and glass structures that keep coming up in our cities, under the guise of `modernism'. While we need clients who are sensitive to the environment and willing to go the extra mile, as architects we, too, should include `green' in our design lexicon. Actually we don't really have a choice.