Friday, 8 June 2012

India again: developing regionally appropriate comfort standards

Torrent Research R&D Centre, Ahmedabad, India
In my last post, I was unkind about a new building in India that claimed world leadership in sustainability, as measured by the LEED rating system. My beef with LEED is not only that it is unreliable, but that it is virtually meaningless when applied to buildings in a place like India.

The same thoughts are highlighted in an opinion piece by UTS academic Leena Thomas. She is part of a collaborative effort to develop appropriate comfort standards for India, hopefully for incorporation in a regionally sensitive rating scheme. Read the full post here.

My comment on her article highlights that it's a race between two unequally matched phenomena. There is the staggering speed with which buildings are going up, emulating what their developers and occupants think are normal in 'advanced economies'. Slick, air conditioned buildings are therefore highly desirable, not just for their actual utility, but for their symbolic value confirming India's rise as an economic power.

And then, there is the deep seated feeling that not everything is right with this trend, that there may be a better, more 'Indian' way of doing things, tapping into pride in the longevity, ingenuity and resilience of the culture.

You would think that the latter would provide fertile ground for the sort of localised climate sensitive standards and building practices that Thomas' article describes. But in fact, the exemplar projects mentioned are far too few, done by far too few committed professionals, for far too few enlightened clients, over far too many years. The original Torrent Research Centre outside Ahmedabad demonstrated fifteen years ago that passive design could not only overcome the climate extremes of that location, but that you could do so for the stringent requirements of a pharmaceutical laboratory. Yet Torrent's own extensions since then are fully air conditioned buildings.

India will end up in serious trouble if it doesn’t curb the momentum of its energy hungry development. The only way it can do that is by decisive and appropriate government regulations. But government can only act on good advice, and in India, the people will only comply with regulations that make sense. The importance and urgency of the project described in Thomas' article can’t be overstated.

Indian Building Receives Highest LEED Score Ever

This building in India, for Bayer the multinational pharmaceuticals and chemical company, is claiming the highest ever LEED sustainability rating.  According to Tafline Laylin writing for Inhabitat the building only misses out on five of the LEED points available.  That suggests almost perfect performance in energy savings, water savings, and just about every aspect of sustainable building performance as defined by that rating framework.

Forgive my cynicism.  Even a casual reading of the claimed performance reveals interesting contradictions.  Being a remarkably conventional, albeit heavily insulated construction, only a 40% reduction in primary energy is recorded after a year's operation.  A 70% saving in electricity usage, compared to conventional buildings of the region.  On the other hand, the roof is indeed covered with photovoltaics, and apparently that is enough to supply the building's energy needs.  I balk at the polyurethane insulated panels, perhaps because of the toxicity of the smoke they give off should there ever be a building fire. Or because I just can't bring myself to believe that they are regionally appropriate sustainable building material.

But I shouldn't be so prejudiced.  I suspect it merely demonstrates that the current LEED point system is woefully inadequate to capture any reasonable and rigourous representation of building sustainability.  Apparently the US Green Building Council is issuing a new version this year.  I hope the next building that is claimed to be the world's highest rated inspires more confidence.

SA's Integrated Design Commission to be axed

I was literally just checking out the website of the IDC, when the latest Architecture & Design Newsletter arrived in my inbox with this news, in an article exhorting readers to campaign to save it.

South Australia established it's Integrated Design Commission along with the position of Government Architect a bare two years ago, in an apparent enlightened attempt to leverage the added value of design across both government and private enterprise in that state.  With already a reputation for historical best practice initiatives in urban design, sustainability, and a vibrant design culture, the State had nothing to lose and everything to gain by repositioning itself as it loses the last of its conventional manufacturing base.

That said, I am not an uncritical fan.  Looking at the IDC website, one sees a lot of promise, but a fairly limited outcome.  Conspicuously missing are the promised handbooks and other professional resources that were supposed to be the outcomes of the research partnerships the commission is meant to facilitate.  The elaborate, and on first sight thoughtful, framework of design review panels is supported by the IDCSA DESIGN REVIEW PANELIST HANDBOOK, which I read fairly carefully.  Unfortunately I concluded that rather than being a useful guide to inform the professional conduct of panel members, it is more a well written, bureaucratic feelgood instrument.

Perhaps two years is not quite enough.   But apparently, you can't trust politicians to have a long-term vision.  Read the whole article here.