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The greening of vertical construction

In the 21st century, in many parts of the world, mankind has managed to hold the Malthusian disposition, which suggests that population increases faster than its means of subsistence resulting in disaster, unless population is checked by natural calamities or by people exercising control and having fewer children. What happens in another five decades will be too much of a foresight, but in another decade, humanity will survive, keeping reserves for sustenance.

While cities across the world are growing vertically, mankind will have to ‘unwillingly’ force itself to find ways to move away from conventional norms of infrastructure development, and come up with unconventional ways, which is ‘healthier, safer, economical and robust’. The thought towards this end has been evolving over more than a decade or so – Going Green. But for some reason, its evolution has been dwarfed.

Many proponents strongly vouch that ‘green cities’ are the only way forward. They would be cities where renewable energy will drive everyday life and all the design elements that make for normal livelihood would have been given a stern warning to not emit anything harmful. The examples, though minuscule, is already thriving, with pockets of the idea being implemented to quickly innovate with small but impactful results.

For example, LEED is a beginning. Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design is a ‘green building certification programme that recognises best-in-class building strategies and practices. LEED certified buildings save money and resources and have a positive impact on the health of occupants, while promoting renewable, clean energy. To receive LEED certification, building projects must satisfy prerequisites and earn points to achieve different levels of certification’.

Then there is BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology), ‘the world’s longest established method of assessing, rating, and certifying the sustainability of buildings’. Green Building Initiative (GBI) is ‘a nonprofit organisation that administers green building assessment and certification services in the United States’.

In the Middle East, there is Estidama. ‘Abu Dhabi’s Plan 2030 establishes a clear vision for sustainability as the foundation of any new development occurring in the Emirate and Abu Dhabi. Estidama promotes a new mindset for building a forward thinking global capital. To establish a distinctive overarching framework for measuring sustainability performance beyond the usual planning and construction phases, Estidama assures that sustainability is continually addressed through four pre-defined angles: environmental, economic, social and cultural’.

Qatar has one too. The Qatar Sustainability Assessment System (QSAS) is ‘a green building certification system developed for the State of Qatar’.

So, while world over, there is a certain level of interest to go green, the effort still is in its dormant stage, even though its benefits seems to be attractive.

The Green Economics

By taking the example of LEED building, one may not be quite impressed with the kind of value that is derived from an investment point of view. The certification focuses entirely on designs that ensures minimal damage to the environment, ignoring the humongous damage to the owner’s bank account. Often, when a LEED rating is pursued, the cost of initial design and construction rises. Also, there may be a lack of abundant availability of manufactured building components that meet LEED specifications.

But then that is what comes out in the short-term. Those looking in the long-term perspective would be more than proud with the initial spend. According to a McKinsey survey covering 15 well-developed green-district technologies, covering buildings, waste, water, transport, and utilities, ‘green districts are economically viable. The difference is not so much a matter of cost as of timing. For example, installing a combined-heat-and-power system costs about twice as much as a conventional natural-gas system. But the operating costs are less than half, and the payback on the higher incurred costs is about five years. And that does not even take into account the associated environmental benefits, such as 30 to 50 percent lower emissions’.

Research shows that investing in technology that conserves an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources, can substantially escalate the resale price by reducing annual costs and ensuring that the building is less expensive to maintain for a new occupier.

The Green Environment

No doubt that green cities are bound to abide by its very core principle – be environment friendly. It is widely accepted that most buildings today have a huge impact on our environment. According to an official District of Columbia (DC) report on green buildings, it is estimated that about 40 percent of raw materials consumed globally are used by the building construction industry. ‘In the United States, buildings are responsible for approximately 68 percent of total electricity consumption, 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 12 percent of potable water usage, and 272 million tons of construction and demolition waste annually,’ the report indicates.

Given these unpleasant but true statistics, proponents of green buildings have a reason to rejoice – their solution guarantees lower operational costs, enhances asset value, improves risk and liability management, and build brand equity and reputation.

The DC report suggests that many of the principles of sustainable design lead to longer building lifetimes and better adaptability of the building for future uses that cannot always be foreseen. ‘Maximising water efficiency in buildings and surrounding landscapes saves money and reduces their environmental impact. More effective and efficient water use can provide additional benefits by recharging groundwater and growing healthy landscapes. Increased energy efficiency saves money, improves air quality, conserves natural resources, and creates a healthier ecosystem for everyone. Innovations in energy technology make incorporating high-efficiency mechanical and lighting systems easier and greatly reduces a building’s energy consumption. Developments in renewable energy makes on-site use of solar, wind, geothermal, and other technologies feasible and several incentive programs are in place to help projects take advantage of renewable options’.

McKinsey report concurs. It emphasises that ‘green districts have the greatest potential to produce economic savings in areas with high resource demands and costs. For example, technologies for reducing water use have a much faster payback period in the desert nations of the Middle East than in regions with more water’.

The Green Life

If we were to venture in to South Pole, we would clearly make out the difference in the air – it is clean, probably the cleanest we can ever get to breathe air in the whole globe. But there too, pollution around the world has caused a hole in the ozone layer. So, in a decade, you may just stay where you are, Antartica will be as polluted.

The Blacksmith Institute in collaboration with Green Cross Switzerland recently evaluated the most dangerous pollution problems we face today. As a result, they put together a top ten list of the most deadliest factors – Groundwater Contamination, industrial mining activities, metals smelters and processing, radioactive waste and uranium mines, untreated sewage, urban air quality, used lead acid battery recycling, contaminated surface water, indoor air pollution and artisanal gold mining.

All of them are the result of the evil created by mankind. But for some reason, they are necessary evil. According to an estimate by World Health Organisation (WHO), ‘air pollution kills about 7 million people worldwide every year, with more than half of the fatalities due to fumes from indoor stoves. The agency said air pollution caused about one in eight deaths and had now become the single biggest environmental health risk. One of the main risks of pollution is that tiny particles can get deep into the lungs, causing irritation. Scientists also suspect air pollution may be to blame for inflammation in the heart, leading to chronic problems or a heart attack’.

But if the green concepts were to applied in tandem across the world and with as much impetus as is required, then it could all change.

Take Calgary, Canada for instance. It is ‘considered’ to be the world’s cleanest city. ‘Even though there is a large oil and gas industry in the area, the city features a well-planned out, grid-like structure that reduces traffic congestion. It also features light rail transportation, and transfer stations that sort through garbage and take out biodegradable and recyclable materials’. Then there is Honolulu, Hawaii. It has ‘a light manufacturing industry. The American Public Transportation Associationhas highlighted Honolulu for its transit system, which includes dedicated bus lanes. By promoting bus travel, Honolulu has been able to reduce traffic and exhausts fumes’. And although Helsinki is ‘a fairly large city with more than 500,000 inhabitants, it has the feel of a much smaller city thanks to the fact that the light rail commuter system is so well used. Helsinki residents take pride in their city and do a lot on their own to make sure the city stays clean. The streets are wide, which makes them less prone to congestion and reduces fumes from cars’.

The Green Future

It is difficult to go green. No wonder, the idea, however moral and healthier, is not taking up as it should have been in an ideal world. We are not living in an ideal world because our life is accustomed to certain norms, however unhealthy or illogical it may be.

The biggest brands of eateries and cold drinks have been widely shunned by nutritionists of promoting junk food. But we have more than welcomed it. Smoke and alcohol have proven itself to harm, but we have increasingly had pleasure with the hazy stupor.

Similarly, builders and developers have been used to a particular model all through their life. They have relied on conventional materials and always lived with the model of build and sell, as quickly as possible. The will to change for a better model and thus a better world is non-existent.

The initial cost is what is a let down, but if there is some dramatic shift in thinking, probably, it will go a long green way to the future, a much secured one for many more millenniums, till the time when even Green comes up with some form of evil.