Building green starts with citizenry and cultural shifts

Green architect Ashok Lall speaks to Eco-Business on why he accounts for the under-privileged in urban planning and why living simply is key

Long before the global green building movement became fashionable, Ashok Lall was already practicing the tenets of sustainability in architecture.

He started his own practice, Ashok B Lall Architects, in New Delhi, India in 1981, after studying architecture and fine arts at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and also at the Architectural Association in London. Since then, he has specialised in low-energy green architecture. Lall believes ethics should be the guiding force in architecture, so much so that his current company website states that architectural practice must address environmental impact, social inequity and cultural subversion – problems that are all too commonplace in India.

Lall, a visiting professor at the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, helped to develop the curricula for would-be architects and urban planners in India, and devotes much of his time to speaking engagements in various local and international conferences, promoting his nature- and people-centric building approach. 

This September 11 to 13, Lall will be one of the guest speakers at the Sustainable Building Conference 2013 (SB13), as well as one of the opening plenary speakers at the International Green Building Conference 2013 (IGBC) in Singapore. He will be sharing his extensive expertise to members of the industry, along with other distinguished architects and sustainability leaders like Thomas Heatherwick and Christoph Ingenhoven, and World Green Building Council’s Jane Henley

Here, Lall shares with Eco-Business his perspectives on the current state of the building industry and the best practices that can drive a cultural shift in Asia towards building and living sustainably. 

You have been an architect for a long time, even advocating sustainability in architecture long before there the term ‘sustainability’ was invented. What inspired you to take this approach?

I was fortunate to have attended the post-graduate course at the Tropical Studies Department of the Architectural Association in the late 1960s. There, we learned about the climate-conscious design of buildings. We also learned that the architect and the practice of architecture are contributors to social and economic development, to the improvement of quality of life using available resources judiciously and economically.

Later, in the 80s in India, we were at the receiving end of the global oil crisis and faced severe resource constraints. Design had to be about resource conservation, efficiency, economy and affordability. There were quite a few architects, inspired by the example of Laurie Baker, who pursued these principles and continue to do so today.

Since starting your practice, what are some of the changes you’ve seen in the industry with respect to green buildings? What are the challenges for the industry?  

Urban systems are to be seen as much as engines for distribution of wealth as they are thought of as being engines for the production of wealth. The task of planning urban systems, therefore, is to take affirmative and supportive action in favour of the poorer sections of the citizenry

Unfortunately, the building industry has tended to be traders in imported and bought technologies – high-performance glazing, high-performance HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning], building automation… These apply to expensive, energy-profligate lifestyles of the rich who ask for buildings with highly controlled environments that are of “international standards”.

But, what we really need are entrepreneurs who develop products that are required for the tropics and are widely affordable, that improve quality of life at low cost, such as mechanically assisted ventilation and air movement with indirect evaporative cooling and desiccant de-humidification, or sandwich insulation cladding systems with stone or timber veneers, or external movable shades… While there is no doubt that the awareness of sustainability has grown in leaps and bounds, because of the bias of the building industry, a misconception has grown that sustainable buildings are for the wealthy folks and not for ordinary folks.

What do you think is the biggest problem confronting urban planning in developing Asian countries? How should national governments address this?

Urban planning, in its classical mode of a cartographic exercise in the allocation of land for anticipated requirements of a growing population, has fallen between two schools of thought. Its standards and norms for city life render large slum populations “illegitimate”. And, its surrender of land to the free market has propelled gross disparities of wealth and opportunity. 

It is time to re-state the purpose of urban development and urban planning in terms of the political economy of the city. Urban systems are to be seen as much as engines for distribution of wealth as they are thought of as being engines for the production of wealth. The task of planning urban systems, therefore, is to take affirmative and supportive action in favour of the poorer sections of the citizenry – to enhance their integration into the urban economy on the one hand, and on the other hand, to minimise their cost of shelter and travel in the city. This requires a land and housing policy that provides affordable homes for the lower income and middle-income groups distributed across the fabric of the city, near places of employment. 

Next, urban planning should not be divorced from the imperatives of environmental sustainability. Density of population and FSI [or floor space index] are to be disciplined by long-term environmental health and environmental economics. They cannot to be determined by speculative inflation of land values. Cities have to be recovered from the tyrannical occupation of the motorcar. Governments are waking up to fact that in order to steer the juggernaut of urbanisation toward a sustainable future, there is plenty of serious work to be done: to develop principles of urban development that harmonise the objectives of growth with the imperatives of equity and environmental sustainability.   

That said, in a previous interview you mentioned that building upwards, such as Singapore’s vertical city, is not necessarily an example of sustainable urban planning. Can you tell us why? 

Cities that are compact will have a lesser environmental footprint per unit of population than those that are extensive, all other things being equal. This is because, comparatively, they occupy less land and their services and transport systems have to deal with shorter horizontal distances.

But compactness does not necessarily spell high-rise. Our research indicates that high-rise buildings (or those more than five storeys tall) end up consuming 10 to 20 per cent more embodied energy and operational energy than low-rise buildings (or up to five stories tall) for each unit of effective built area delivered. High-rise structures will require more steel per unit of floor area compared to low-rise structures, as they carry more concentrated vertical loads and have to resist higher earthquake and wind-induced stresses. This increases their embodied energy. And the energy consumption for transporting people, goods and water vertically against gravity is much greater than rolling or flowing along the ground.

So we need to investigate the energy consumption of urban centres comprehensively, where energy requirements of buildings is added to that for city transport and utilities. This needs research.

People in the tropics should also practice living simply: minimise need for water and energy, produce less waste and recycle, and put buildings to multiple uses.

More importantly, high-rise buildings are not affordable for a majority of our urban populations on account of their high initial cost and their high operational costs. And life is much more liveable and secure close to the garden and the street. This does require the State to protect land from market speculation. Quite likely, high-rise buildings are more a response to the fuelling of land prices in “free” markets than a response to environmental or social sustainability.

What are some of your proudest green building projects, and why?

I think we achieved something worthwhile at the Indian Institute of Health Management Research at Jaipur, of which its first phase was built in 1992. We were able to evolve a piece of architecture for a contemporary institution with modern needs using local materials and construction skills, using load-bearing stone masonry for flexible space subdivision and integrating evaporative cooling for summer comfort. The other project worth a mention is the Development Alternatives World Headquarters at New Delhi. This office building is replete with innovations – in structure, materials, and integration of cooling systems – and won the NDTV Toyota Greenies Award for Design.

You are one of the guest speakers for the upcoming Sustainable Building conference in Singapore, part of a series leading up to next year’s conference in Barcelona. Knowing that the theme is about sustainability in the tropics, are there best practices from Europe that can be applied here in Southeast Asia?

“Best practices” in Europe that are worth emulating in South Asia and Southeast Asia concern important cultural shifts. 

Europeans have understood that they must reduce dependence on personal cars for transport, and give priority to public transport for travelling far while walking and cycling for short distances. Indeed, in a growing number of European cities and towns, urban planning for new developments and urban restructuring of existing cities is being guided by these considerations. In South and Southeast Asia, we can leapfrog over the motorcar phase to take the low-carbon mobility route straight away. 

In cooling technologies, the best European practice proposes three principles: one, the use of the adaptive comfort model, meaning you can be comfortable at 27 degrees Celsius in the summer; two, using ventilation to remove moisture and increase air movement to enhance the sensation of comfort, such as opening the window if it is cooler outside; and three, using passive strategies as the first strategy for comfort like going under a shade, cutting out unwanted sun, using the building mass as a thermal store and bringing down radiant temperatures surrounding the occupant. This is the simple route to low-energy comfort, which we need to adopt for the tropical regions.

People in the tropics should also practice living simply: minimise the need for water and energy, produce less waste and recycle, and put buildings to multiple uses. This is based on community motivation and cooperation. There are suburban communities who have a closed loop on water and organic waste. There are urban communities where they do not have personal cars. And they enjoy a high standard of comfort, safety and health. These can be emulated.

The theme for this year’s IGBC is “Build Green, Live Green.” How can ordinary citizens or homeowners achieve this in their own capacity?

This is a really good question for a conference of experts. Professionals for the physical design of the built environment, I believe, are the most critical agents of change. In the stream of production of the built environment, theirs is the most critical position.

As designers of complex assemblies to serve living activities of people, they have an upstream influence as well as a downstream influence. In the process of designing and through the demonstration of thoughtful, practical and enjoyable design they create a deeper understanding of sustainability and promote a wider acceptance downstream amongst users.

They are the right people to raise demands upstream from the manufacturing industries for the development of sustainable building materials and building components. For example, our clients become enthusiasts for sustainability after experiencing and using our buildings. On the flipside, we are also working with Lafarge to develop more sustainable building components.

To hear more from Ashok Lall and other experts, register for the upcoming International Green Building Conference here

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